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Set and audience for Hairspray, at the Oregon Shakespeare Theatre.

I enjoyed my time at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival so much last year that when I received an email this Spring offering discount early bird tickets, I pounced and bought five. It took me all summer to arrange a visit south, but I finally devised a quick trip with the assistance of a fellow blogger. I only had to drop a couple hints and Curtis extended the invitation as though I had not manipulated him at all! The end of August I made the 5 1/2 hour drive south to see some plays and to finally meet Curtis and Peggy Mekemson from Wandering Through Time and Place.

I met them at a Medford cafe for breakfast and they immediately put me at ease and made me feel welcomed. Curt is the third blogger I have met, and I must admit I have great luck and good taste. My blogger friends turn out to be truly wonderful people in real life. (Take note if you’re reading this, and pat yourself on the back for being so awesome.) We got through introductions and current events in no time, and then I followed them from the cafe to their rural home in some of the most beautiful country in Oregon. They live even farther out in the boonies than I do, so I wanted their help getting out there in case my GPS didn’t work. I got a tour of their beautiful home on their gorgeous property, which I will highlight in my next post.

Then I changed into play clothes, and zoomed back to Ashland.

The set rotated, so the audience was able to see multiple sides of the building.

Prior to my trip Curt and Peggy had raved about Hairspray, which they had already seen, so I saw that one first. They said to keep an eye out for something and that I might realize the truth about a character sooner than they did. I saw right away that the character of Tracy’s mom is played as a transgender woman (though I believe in real life the actor is not transgender), and I love that the relationship of Tracy’s parents was healthy and loving and supportive, and no one ever mentioned it was non-traditional, which helped me to invest more in it as a real relationship and not a gimmick. And then I realized it is the most inclusive cast I’ve ever seen. Jenna Bainbridge, for example, who was partially paralyzed as an infant, has an impressive acting career and plays Tracy’s best friend Penny. There are multiple characters with different abilities, such as Luke Hogan Laurenson who lives with cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair, and Zahra Detweiler who lives with Down Syndrome. These actors played parts in direct support of the story and their inclusion helped enforce Hairspray’s main message of tolerance. It’s not enough to say we welcome everyone, but we also have to act on it. There is a confrontation of body-shaming, of racism, of classism. And somehow, despite all those painful topics, the show is a riot of laughs from beginning to end (in between tears), with dancing to knock your socks off (Katy Geraghty as Tracy dances like nobody’s business), songs that rip your heart out, genuine characters, real love, and so much joy.

After the show I had hours to kill and decided to spend it in town. While inside the theatre it had begun to rain and although warm, the world was soaked. I wandered around gaining my bearings and found a sign on the Thomas Theatre that warmed my heart, and continued the message I had just heard at Hairspray.

Sign says: “We Welcome all races and ethnicities, all religions and creeds, all gender identities, all countries of origin, all sexual orientations, all immigrants and refugees, all abilities and disabilities, all spoken and signed languages, everyone.”

I wandered into town without an umbrella, while others were better prepared.

I found this mural along the main street.

I had a fabulous lunch with live music.

The rain stopped and I marveled at the landscapes outside of town.

I spent some time in the park with my feet in the water beneath the Atkinson Memorial Bridge 1912.

In that soggy grey day, I was startled to see this notice on the Elizabethan Theatre as I prepared to go to that evening’s play: change of venue due to wildfire.

Though I had noticed no evidence of wildfire and though it was raining, the venue for the play was not at the magnificent Elizabethan Theatre that I am dying to attend. I have not yet seen a play in that outdoor theatre. For air quality safety, during fire season they moved the play to the high school – that part I understand. But when there were no fires and no detectable smoke, why was it still at the high school? My guess is that the fire situation was unstable, and it’s probably a lot of work to move a whole production between venues. Until they know for sure the air is clear, I’ll bet it’s smarter not to move it back. I should have guessed that the high school in Ashland would have a phenomenal theatre.

The set was appealing but not comfortable. Kind of like the story.

All’s Well That Ends Well was well-acted, as I have come to expect at Ashland. It’s a tough story and grapples with the human conditions we all recognize: unrequited love, children that aren’t what we expect, missteps of youth, aging, missteps of mentoring – that kind of fun stuff. But with the Bard telling the story and the massive talent drawn to Ashland every year, it’s a story I was intrigued with. I was consistently irritated with Helen for clearly being better than Bertram and yet not having the self-assurance to rid him from her heart. (Reminds me a little of my own failed attempts at finding a man. I hope I have all Helen’s wit, strategy, and ability, but I hope I spend it on a man who deserves me.)

I drove back through the dark night to my very comfortable bed at the Mekemson’s home.

The next morning I enjoyed much great conversation and coffee and scones until it was time for us all to get ready to go. Curt and Peggy had agreed to attend the next show with me. We had decided on seeing Alice in Wonderland.

Pure melee ensued in the first half of Alice In Wonderland, and this is what the stage looked like at intermission. The debris is made up of feathers, broken pieces of teacup, balloons, and playing cards. Do you recognize the set? Yes, Alice was also held in the High School.

Alice In Wonderland took me back in time, actually, to what this show must have felt like many decades ago when it first astounded audiences in the 1930s. Turns out, that’s exactly what director Sara Bruner had in mind. I noticed how well the story followed the books: Alice in the first half, and Through the Looking Glass in the second. The program noted that every single line was in Lewis Carroll’s own words. My brain somersaulted through scenes, trying to make sense of it all, trying to use the white rabbit as a common theme, trying to find some greater message. But I was bewildered.

At intermission, Curt and Peggy and I gazed back and forth at each other in dumb astonishment for a few moments, finally saying something like, “Well, that was something!” Curt suggested that maybe it would be best viewed on LSD – none of us knowing anyone on LSD we could ask about that. We chatted until the second half began, all telling ourselves good advice on how best to approach the second half. I was unable to follow the advice (just like the story’s heroine), and found myself mouth-open in dumbfounded perplexity. It is a dazzling show! The adventure is undeniable, and I truly wish I could try again to watch it properly. I think one should watch this performance with the mind of a 8 year old child: open, curious, willing and wanting to believe – without cynicism or criticism or vetting. Nothing at all seemed to match, or tell a story, or relate to any other events. Sometimes characters showed up again, and it was not relevant. There was no message, no lesson, no caution, no celebration – just pure entertainment for entertainment’s sake, and it is wonderful. It is really the stuff of fantastical dreams from the mind of a child. The creativity, artistry, performance, and spectacle are worth every moment of sitting there. Just don’t waste your time trying to figure it out; you’ll only get a headache and probably miss something.

After the show we found a great Mexican restaurant and joked around with the proprietor when we weren’t rehashing Alice some more – reminding each other of all the incredible things we had just seen. Peggy and Curt went home and I stayed in town because I had one more show to see.

I walked around Ashland some more. Spent an hour in a bookstore, browsed shops, then tried a yummy sake (Tentaka Kuni Junmai) before running back up the theatre hill to catch my last show at the Thomas Theatre.

The set of Between Two Knees points you right away to an outdated idea of Indians. It’s in your face, and so is the show. Suck it up, buttercup.

This is the one I drove to Ashland for. Between Two Knees is a production by Indian playwrights and about Indian topics, and also I had been waiting all year for a chance to see a new favourite actor, Rachel Crowl (who I talked about in my blog about Henry V last year). This production comes from The 1491s, a group of storytellers who challenge the history we’ve been taught, and provide an additional perspective: that of the indigenous, who have been actively erased from the story of our country. Oh, and it’s a comedy, as you may have guessed from the title that is easily a double entendre. One of my favourite things to discover in fellow human beings is when they poke irreverent fun and laugh. Bringing up the absolute worst and making a joke that is irresistible is such a great way to talk about trauma and pain. Laugh laugh laugh, people! Why not laugh? Crying won’t change what happened; laughing won’t change it either, but it’s so much more fun and laughing is transformative and releases pressure when stress has built up.

The opening scene is a game show, with actors tackily dressed as Indians, and obviously playing the parts that white people have had Natives play for a century. One Indian spins the colorful, blinking wheel of NAME THAT MASSACRE! And when the wheel lands on a massacre, the Emcee calls out to the audience: “We all know of the — massacre, of course!” The Emcee provides a brief summary of the deaths and destruction of Indians by white people. “Clap all of you who know this one!” No one claps. “No problem!” we are assured, “There are plenty more!” The wheel is spun, Wheel of Fortune style, and it lands on a new name. “The — massacre! Surely you’ve heard of this one!” Again, he describes a slaughter. No one claps, no one has heard of it. Again. Again. Sometimes a person somewhere in the audience claps.

And yes, this is how the story goes all the way through.

We are asked to laugh and cheer and clap as the play details horrendous abuse, murder, removals, rape, kidnap of Indian children and forcing them into religious schools to “Beat the Indian out of them!” Everything is ridiculed, no holds barred, no taboo left untouched, no shock left unexposed. I was dying with laughter. I could barely contain myself. It was ugly and raw and uncomfortable and hilarious. There was an evil priest who abused children. There was a hippie who pretended to know how to conduct an authentic Indian marriage ceremony, while sitting beneath Buddhist prayer flags. They talked about using Indians as sports mascots. They made fun of using white people to play Indians on TV when there were plenty of Indians to fill those roles, and an actor on stage pointed out that he is actually Chinese-Korean. The message being the 1491s were willing to  poke fun at themselves too. There was an Indian in white face. HAAAAAA!!! Come on, that’s funny.

The audience fascinated me, in that some gave themselves up to the artists and let themselves be involved…but some remained stone-faced and never even cracked a smile. The audience was not attacked, but these topics are just topics that we are told we should take seriously. I could tell people were afraid to laugh. There was a couple next to me that were silent and still the whole time. I noticed them especially because I was cackling loudly with glee, sometimes the only person in our part of the theatre who was rolling around on the floor in laughter, so there was quite a disparity. I started up a conversation with them at intermission and found out they both really liked the show – so that was good. Maybe among the silent people there were admirers of what was going on. It must have been easier for me to laugh because I am Indian, or maybe because I love this form of activism so much.

They passed around a donation can, asking people to give to support their group. The host made a call out to different demographic groups in the audience, asking each to give differently based on what they might be able to afford. But at the end he called to white people, “Give as much as you can spare! And don’t feel bad about it, you’ll still own everything.” The final scene was a musical where the whole cast sang about a future when they got rid of the settlers and oppressors forever, and the chorus repeated over and over: “Goodbye White People!”

It was great. I think my description here makes it seem troubling, or maybe confrontational for some people in the audience, and it is not. The creators did a brilliant job and I did not think any portion of this production was inappropriate. I would love to see it again and again. But instead I left the theatre and made my way home through the dark to a little piece of paradise in the Applegate River Valley.

Our backstage guide, Sal, talking about the Elizabethan Theatre.

I made my debut on the Elizabethan Theatre stage!! Then they asked me to get off – for safety reasons. Ha ha ha ha!!

Margaret and I met up for a vacation a little closer to home than our two most recent trips to Chile and to Myanmar. This time, we went to southern Oregon! She drove north 5 1/2 hours from Santa Rosa and I drove south 5 1/2 hours from Rainier. We met at a hotel in Ashland.

The town of Ashland, in Southern Oregon, is famous for its Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF), founded in 1935. These days it’s a pretty big deal. Wikipedia says “Each year, the Festival offers 750 to 800 performances from February through late October or early November, to a total audience of about 400,000. The company consists of about 675 paid staff and 700 volunteers.” The website also notes that by 2015, 20 million people had attended.

Even though my mother went to high school in Ashland, and my grandmother lived here when I was a kid, and I have family that lived in the area for decades, and even while I traveled through constantly on my way to northern California to pick up and deliver Tara while their dad and I were sharing custody, and even though I have lived in Oregon for the last 11 years, this was my very first visit to Ashland for the purpose of seeing Shakespeare. It’s about damned time.

We had tickets to two matinees (they’re expensive – I couldn’t afford more), one Tuesday and one Wednesday. We arrived Saturday night and entertained ourselves with other things Sunday and Monday. We did a couple of hikes, one of them the morning before our Tuesday show. I’ll get to all that stuff later. Stay tuned.

The first play we saw was Manahatta, by Mary Kathryn Nagle at the Thomas Theatre. It was my choice that we see this one, because the playwright is Cherokee, and I continue my quest to learn about my Native history and support other Indians when I can. Two stories are told at once, overlapping. One is set in the 17th Century when Dutch colonists were recently arrived on the island called Manahatta by the occupants and while trading with the local Lenape Indians, decided they wanted control of their land. The other is set on precisely the same piece of land, 380 years later called Manhattan, as a modern Lenape woman fights her way into employent at the white male dominated Lehman Brothers bank and begins to make a name for herself on Wall Street.

The young woman in both stories is at first filled with hope of youth and all the possibilities of life ahead of her, and both are eventually devastated through wrenching tragedy. The Dutch trick the Lenape into allowing them to settle on the island, and then the kick all the Indians off the island and build a wall to keep them out, then shoot and kill her husband and father of her unborn child. The wall is later immortalized in the name of a street in Manhattan, synonymous with a financial center. Lehman Brothers is embroiled in sub-prime mortgage lending and fails and the young woman knows she was a part of the bad practices, while simultaneously the woman’s childhood home is foreclosed upon, making her own mother homeless.

The author said one of her goals in Manahatta was to show the audience how our history is always part of our present, whether or not we realize it. The final line of the play was when the modern Lenape woman speaks introspectively about the interaction of the Lenape with colonists saying, “Ever since they arrived they have been trying to get rid of us, and we are still here.”

That line wrecked me. I am no Indian activist, but I guess with the years that I have spent learning over and over and over how to recognize subtle and sometimes unintentional but always consequential attempts to erase indigenous Americans, I too have begun to feel a resonant idignation at how hard it is to convince people that we are here. Right in front of you all: we are here! Living in 2018, using smart phones, running companies, getting graduate degrees, flying cross country to visit grandma, standing in line at Starbucks, watching Netflix, marrying and having families and shopping at Target.

Ahoy, ye mateys!

The lights came up immediately and I was bawling so hard I couldn’t speak. Margaret practically had to lead me by my arm to get me out of there. She insisted that I needed to go next to the fabulous gift shop and try on masks and hats on display for Halloween. I acquiesced, and it definitely helped. (Thank you Margaret)

That night my friend decided that we should do a backstage tour the next morning, only $20 each. We both went on line to try and book one, but we couldn’t make it work. She called the box office to buy tickets and was informed that first of all the backstage tours are only available to OSF members (minimum membership $35), and second of all the tours were sold out for Wednesday. The man on the phone said that sometimes there are tickets available just before the tour, when someone returns tickets they can’t use…but they are still only available to members. Margaret did not recognise any particular obstacle.

At 9:30 am we showed up at the box office and asked if any tour spots had opened up. None had. Margaret walked out the door and began questioning people sitting on rock walls and benches waiting for the tour to begin, “Hi! Do you have any extra tickets?” Can you believe it: after asking her third group of people, a woman nearby overheard and came over to tell us that her daughter could not come and would soon be returning two tickets and she would not accept payment for them. Viola! Margaret waited and sure enough, soon she had the other woman’s tickets. She took those into the box office and asked to get them converted to our names. Margaret was told she couldn’t use them because 1) we are not members and 2) these are special tickets for handicapped people anyway.

My ballsy friend met me outside with all the other waiting people who were now queuing up at the doors of the Thomas Theatre, where the tour would begin. “Just get in line,” she says to me, conspiratorially. As we arrived at the door, the man taking tickets burst out laughing at something someone behind him had said. Still chuckling, he took our tickets and added them to his growing stack of tickets, and joked to us about the funny thing that happened. He then turned to the people in line behind us. He never even LOOKED at our tickets!

Boom. Backstage Tour. For free. Not members.

In the Thomas Theatre, we were told about the history of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and about the amazing versatility of Ashland’s newest theatre: the Thomas Theatre, in which every single seat can be moved and the audience and stage rearranged in any configuration you like. We were handed off to a second tour guide, actor Christopher Salazar, who asked us to call him Sal. We crossed the street to the Elizabethan Theatre and went underground to the tunnel connecting it to the adjacent Bowman Theatre. We sat in the Green Room and learned about the incredible choreography of making this festival happen. Think about it: typically when there is a play, it continues on the same stage daytime and evening, for months until the run is over. However! In Ashland, festival directors want visitors to be able to see every single play in 10 days, or to be able to choose from multiple options each day, no matter how short your visit. This season there are 10 separate productions using three stages. That means a complete breakdown and set up of the stage twice a day for two theatres and once a day for the other theatre. Wow. We then walked over to the Angus Bowman Theatre, named for the founder of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and Sal told us about his favourite part of OSF: the outreach productions into communities not able to participate in the festival itself.

Our final stop was backstage at the Elizabethan, an open air theatre, where Sal (currently an actor in multiple productions at the festival) described how many of the people are employed behind the scenes, stories about inspiration for costumes, economies for typical actors at OSF, and what it’s like to have to change from one character to another in less than a minute, while running from exit to entrance behind the scene, dropping pieces of costume onto the floor and pushing arms into clothing extended by waiting assistants.

The tour was fabulous! And highly recommended, even if you need to go the route of obtaining membership, followed by purchasing an available ticket.

Henry V, a good man

We lunched, then explored lovely Lithia Park that borders the theatres, before returning to the Thomas once more for our matinee show of Henry V. In the intimate Thomas Theatre, we recognised Sal right away in one of the five roles he plays in Henry V. He all but winked at us when he spotted us, only 15 feet away.

This was my first exposure to Henry V. I hadn’t even read it before. I learned long ago that it’s helpful to research prior to seeing a Shakespeare play for the first time, so I had crammed a little in the hotel room the night before. Basically the story tells the tale of King Henry V as he has just ascended the throne and no one is quite sure what kind of king he’ll be, especially considering his history as a carouser. He turns out to be a good king: strong, fair, and in multiple ways still a confused young man. His leadership is outstanding and he conquers France by sheer force of will, and finds his match in a woman.

Daniel Jose Molina is phenomenal as Henry. I understand now why the Henry V performances sold out so fast. Molina lets himself go so freely that I think for the first time I recognise, in hindsight, that every other actor I’ve seen has been holding back the tiniest bit. I was all in from the first scene. What really strikes me with this actor is his body language and facial expressions that go beyond flattering hyperbole I’ve heard before. This stuff is for real. Just watch his FACE, and somehow you know what’s in the character’s mind, and then…watch it change as the character has a new thought…and realize even before the next line is spoken, that the character has told you what he’s going to do and you’re right there in on it with him. What an extraordinary, personal way to be introduced to this typically massive play, in a small theatre with only 12 actors other than those in the ensemble. I was so close I could see the notch in his eyebrow: not sure if it’s from a scar, or is a bit of fashion.

I found Molina’s Instagram page and I’m following him now, because he (like my actor friend, Sheldon Best) is going to blow my mind periodically with his artistry, and I want to be there to see it.

My other favourite actor in Henry V is Rachel Crowl who was an understudy that stepped in for the original actor. Crowl acts in multiple roles but is most memorable and excellent as Pistol. I noticed her instantly, as she took the stage in the chorus as the play begins. I saw a person presenting as a woman but also reminding me of a man. Rachel plays multiple men’s roles, and as Pistol has a deep, gorgeous voice that cannot be mistaken for anything feminine. I am delighted and fascinated, and now have so many questions for some future transgender actor I meet: Are there additional layers of conflict compared to a gender normative person who plays a different gender? And also, is your transformation to play both male and female roles a more familiar task than many actors with the same challenge?Do you have more insight? Does this give you an advantage? Is everyone else jealous? haha

As soon as the lights came up, we slipped out of the theatre ahead of everyone else and got totally soaked in the rain as we hurried to the Jeep (glad I wasn’t in the Elizabethan just then). I gave M a ride back to the hotel to get her car. Then we hugged goodbye and hit I-5 going opposite directions.

{I’ll post soon to tell you all the other stuff we did.}

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