Imagine for a moment — as most of us have at one time or another — that you could go back in time and talk to yourself at a younger age, imparting hard-won wisdom and warnings. Then there are those moments when you wish you could see things the way you did early on, when you were full of energy and passionate hope, when life seemed simpler.
Just as useful might be the foresight and perspective – at any age – to recognize life’s lessons as they come along. And make a note to self.
All three of those notions course through a fascinating play premiering Friday night at CoHo Theater. Note to Self, devised by producer/director Adrienne Flagg in collaboration with the show’s performers, revolves around the stories of a half-dozen characters, each a composite played by two actors, one younger, one older. Together, these stories form what the show’s website calls “a personal examination of how individuals change and grow over time.”
The cast members range in age from 23 to 80. Some, such as Jane Fellows and Chris Porter, are highly regarded veterans of the city’s theater scene; others have never been in a play before. Male, female, black, white, straight, gay, transgender, etc. – the perspectives are diverse, but ultimately speak less to divides than to commonalities. All have shared stories of their own lives, and together they’ve created a kind of theatrical mosaic that sparkles with reflections on ideals and identity, family and society, love and loss, dreams and disappointments.
“Note to Self… take the chance.”
Artistic inspiration often travels mysterious paths, but even so it might come as a surprise that Note to Self has its origins in Shakespeare. Specifically, bad Shakespeare.
As Flagg recalls, in late 2014 she went to see a local production of a Shakespeare play, and found nothing about it very engaging. Nothing, except that a young black actor in the cast reminded her of the percussionist and folkloric performer Caton Lyles, a hard-working stalwart of the Portland cultural scene.
“I started imagining what it would be like to cast him in some show as Caton’s son,” Flagg says. “Then suddenly I thought, ‘No! What if they’re the same person?!’”
And as she didn’t much care for the show she was watching, she instead began envisioning the show she wanted to make. By the time she left the theater, all the basic elements of what would become Note to Self had fallen into place: the cross-generational pairing of performers, the workshops and exercises she’d use to generate composite characters and narratives, several of the actors she’d enlist, and so on.
Flagg has had an impressively varied career in Portland theater, acting at companies such as Artists Rep, Bag & Baggage and Post Five, directing for the likes of Stark Raving Theatre, improvising with the Brody Theater, and founding her own Toad City Productions and Portland Theatre Brigade. But she hadn’t launched a production of her own since the closing of the Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center in 2010. Flagg worked as creative director there for several years until the nonprofit arts venue’s recession-wracked finances gave way, and she took the closure hard. Not only had she cut her theatrical teeth at IFCC when she was a teenager (taking part in youth programs there alongside the likes of future Pink Martini maestro Thomas Lauderdale), but she’d relished a job that brought together so many of her creative skills and community connections.
Diving into this ambitious new project represents something like a last, or at least a late, step in the process of getting over that loss. If old and young versions of Adrienne Flagg had been included in Note to Self, her scenes might well have taken place at IFCC.
“I always know who I am. But my context will change. Note to Self: Always be aware of your context.”
Flagg started by meeting with her chosen actors to lay out the project’s concept. The young actor who first sparked her imagination already had left Portland, but she fleshed out the cast at first through intuition, then through effort. For instance, she knew she wanted to include Tim Stapleton, whose play about growing up gay in the South in the late 1950s, Leaning on the Everlasting Arms, she’d presented at IFCC. She also wanted to match him with someone going through what might be viewed as a contemporary equivalent in the struggle for recognition and justice. Her search for a transgender performer eventually turned up Rabbit, a singer and self-described “recovering vagabond” who happened upon an online posting about the project.
Beginning with a first group meeting at Multnomah Arts Center in March of 2015 and some early writing exercises, fruitful commonalities and contrasts quickly emerged. Questions about identity were a natural starting point for Stapleton and Rabbit. Liz Hayden, of Hand2Mouth Theatre, and her older counterpart Jane Lancaster, who used to oversee a citywide theater program for Portland Parks and Recreation, zeroed in on children – the longing for them as well as the challenges of having them. The ongoing search for deep love became the theme for Clayton Pearce, who Flagg had mentored at Portland Theatre Brigade, and playwright Alexander Lumiere (who later dropped out of the show, to be replaced by Chris Porter).
Already some basic structure had begun to take shape. “I think there’ll be times the older performers speak as a group,” Flagg said near the beginning of the year-long development process. “There’ll be conversations between the groups. But there’ll also be conventional, linear scenes.”
The devising work drew from a process Flagg says she learned from Peter Brosius, formerly the artistic director of the Improvisational Theatre Project of the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, which called for the actors to write anonymously in response to various prompts.
One afternoon last summer, Lumiere sat with Flagg at her dining table, reading through sheafs of paper from the exercises: “When I was a kid, I had two distinct personalities that had strong arguments with each other: my nickname self vs. my full name.” “When I was a kid, time was slower then, or so it seemed.”
They compare notes on what they read, discuss how different experiences and ideas might be connected. They search for through-lines, desires that might serve as engines to drive dramatic scenes.
With a green pen, they underline intriguing or resonant passages: In response to the simple prompt, “I hope I never…” someone has written, “I never want to hide the truth from my children. Like when my parents hid my cat’s death from me for over a month. Like they hid the failing of their marriage. Like they hid it from themselves.”
“Note to self: Don’t wait. Open your damn heart.”
Sometimes a more active, group-oriented approach is in order. In October everyone gathers at cast member Mikki Lipsey’s home in Troutdale, with the green-hued Sandy River running languidly just a few yards outside. They start by standing in a circle and sharing bits of news from their lives – a recent vacation, a newfound addiction to Twin Peaks, etc. They report on the progress each pair has made on their composites: Pearce and Lumiere, for instance, have determined that their character is named Malcolm, that he was born in 1987, and that “he’s romantic.”
Then Flagg leads them through some games that, though often silly on the surface, are meant to fine-tune memory and responsiveness, timing and teamwork. They don’t appear to have anything to do with the fabric of anyone’s life. But then the actors start to break into smiles and giggles; you can see little bursts of connective energy sparking between them. Flagg flashes a gratified smile and whispers, “You do all that for this moment.”
Flagg now admits she also had hoped the improv exercises would help the troupe create dialogue for the characters, but that didn’t turn out to be the case. Instead, the writing exercises, which became more targeted as the characters and their stories and the overall shape of the show became clearer, proved the more productive route. Though the stories in the final script are fictionalized to a degree, Flagg says about 80 percent of what’s in them is drawn directly from the experiences of the performers. “And I’d say each one of them has about 5 percent of me, because I was editing.”
At the workshop along the Sandy, Flagg sends the pairs to different parts of the house to work on what she calls a “contrapuntal quality” she wants, to sketch out a moment in which the generational perspectives of each character move, intersect, and cross over each other. “This isn’t a just a show where the older are imparting wisdom on the younger,” she tells them. “It’s reciprocal.”
As everyone gets ready to leave, Flagg mentions offhandedly that they’ll have just one more workshop before they move on to full-fledged rehearsals. Stapleton blanches and cries, “What?!”
Fellows puts a reassuring hand on his shoulder and says, simply, “Note to self: We’re OK.”
“Note to self: Your biggest surprises come later than you think.”
By early this spring, when the troupe meets for a rehearsal at Sunnyside Centenary United Methodist Church in Southeast Portland, all the team-building work has done its trick. Flagg introduces Porter, who has just recently stepped in for Lumiere, and Lyles tells him, “The amount of fun you’re about to step into is kinda off the chart.”
While the show includes material that’s serious and sometimes dark – from recollections of heartbreak to hostage situations, stories of slut-shaming and assaults – on balance it’s funny and surprisingly light-hearted. The challenge of marriage and the pain of divorce are turned into zippy game-show satire. Occasional songs add both levity and poignancy.
And as the actors settle into their roles – which, after all, are them, yet not them – we can see and feel the qualities that may have attracted Flagg to them in the first place: Rabbit’s pugnacious vulnerability, Jane Fellows’ ageless sparkle and grace, Olivia Weiss’s innocence and energy, Chris Porter’s wise/weary groundedness …
Much of the show deals with the space between desire and disappointment, the costs of compromise, the view of our lives when dreams give way to cloudy new mornings. For her part, Flagg says there’s no such gap between what she hoped this project could be and what she’ll bring to the stage at CoHo.
“I would say it exceeds what my expectations were,” she says. “You should see what I’ve had to throw away – all the stories!”
It may not be Shakespeare … but maybe in this case that’s a good thing.