Ashland has long been Oregon’s beacon of theatrical excellence, thanks to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s decades-long status as one of America’s great regional theaters. (Today it’s one of the three best funded in the country.) But lately, the ever-charming Southern Oregon town has been in the news for complaints from a few longtime attendees about OSF’s turn toward contemporary creations, and reports of death threats against artistic director Nataki Garrett — presumably for daring to address, in the finest tradition of theater and the arts, tough issues that trouble us today.
OREGON CULTURAL HUBS: An Occasional Series
That controversy erupted in the wake of other recent crises: fires, smoke, pandemic and consequent cutbacks in programming and budget, police violence against an OSF actor.
So on my first visit to Ashland in years, I wasn’t sure how much theatrical energy I’d find, either in the one play I was able to catch at OSF or in the two I saw at Ashland New Plays Festival. What I found amid this admittedly slight sample size was surprisingly encouraging news: considerable audience enthusiasm for new and relevant drama, and a model for diversity and community connection that other Oregon theaters might learn from.
Ashland New Plays Festival: From Local to National
Now an increasingly prominent component in the nation’s play development ecosystem, ANPF began as a much less ambitious community initiative 30 years ago, when a coalition of local theaters (including OSF) created the festival to showcase work by students and other community playwrights. Over the years, operations grew more professional, with the festival incorporating an educational component, achieving nonprofit status, and committing to becoming a major West Coast play development resource. It also added a rotating host playwright, including Oregon eminence E.M. Lewis from 2010-16, succeeded by Beth Kander, who continues in the role today.
More than most arts institutions, ANPF connects with its community. Actors and other theater artists, as well as donated rehearsal space and some actor housing, often comes from the city’s big theatrical kahuna, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Southern Oregon University, where ANPF artistic director Jackie Apodaca is a professor, provides the performance space (the lovely theater at the campus’s Center for the Arts) and student performers and backstage technicians, who receive not only compensation for their work but also valuable experience working alongside some of the country’s and region’s top theater artists.
ANPF’S most essential partnership is with the Ashland community. “We couldn’t do what we do without our local volunteers who donate the bulk of our artist housing and provide and organize free transportation for out-of-town artists,” Apodaca notes. “Volunteers manage the organization through our working board and many in the Ashland community are members and underwrite plays, which accounts for 55 percent of our income.”
Most notably, the plays submitted for consideration in each fall festival are initially winnowed not by experts like Apodaca or other ANPF staff — but instead by Ashland residents, along with some out-of-towners with ties to the city’s theater community. A The number includes some current and retired theater professionals, but most are simply theater and story lovers. For this edition of the festival, 70 volunteers read about 500 scripts (around 5o each), meeting in book group-like sessions every couple of weeks to assign scores to all the plays. Through several stages of evaluation and discussion, the candidates are reduced to 35, and finally a top 12 that are then read by Apodaca and associate artists, who choose four or five winning plays for staged readings each fall.
“The plays that come to me are reflected through the prism of who’s in those reading groups,” she explains. “I’m receiving stories that this specific group of people find valuable, stories they love, and that are important to them. There’s no other new plays festival that does this.”
The readers — some of whom have been participating for a decade or more — are generally pretty familiar with contemporary theater. Not only do they attend ANPF readings, Apodaca sees many familiar volunteer faces at Ashland’s other theaters, including the Shakespeare Festival.
“I am here because of the way this company operates,” she declares. Even though it’s not a “community theatre,” but a small professional theater company, whose performers are now almost all members of Actors Equity Association, ANPF has remained steadfast in its community connection.
“It’s got a community heart focus that other companies can’t have because of their structure,” Apodaca explains. “Because we do these readings and workshops, we’re able to involve the community in a different way. Because so many people can participate in the process, the community has ownership of what happens. They feel like this is their company — Ashland’s company.”
Through its competition, workshops and festival, ANPF has become an important voice in Pacific Northwest and, increasingly, national play development, joining other regional new play festivals as a sometime springboard to full productions at major theaters.
“It’s always been a mix of beginning and professional playwrights,” Apodaca explains, but with our reputation expanding, more and more people will submit who are farther along in their careers. This year all the plays come from produced playwrights who are working in theater.”
One, Jonathan Spector, had to fly over from London where his Eureka Day starring Helen Hunt is playing at the Old Vic theater in England’s theatrical mecca, the West End. In 2016 ANPF’s Women’s Invitational featured winning playwrights Lauren Yee, Jiehae Park, and Martyna Majok. Yee has since been produced extensively and Majok’s ANPF-winning play Cost of Living went on to Broadway this year and also won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Past fall festival winners include Karen Zacarías (ANPF 1999), now one of the most produced playwrights in the country, and Tony Award winning playwright Steven Levenson (ANPF 2007) of Dear Evan Hansen fame.
As the festival’s scope expanded beyond the local community and even Oregon, Apodaca created a new initiative designed to maintain its creative connection to the state by nurturing emerging Oregon playwrights. Commenced as the first lockdown descended, this summer’s second New Voices program invited a handful of early-career Oregon playwrights to participate in a four-day June retreat, where they meet with each other, theater artist mentors, and community members while sharing works in progress.
Responding to Crises
Like most American arts institutions, ANPF has recently addressed the dual crises of pandemic and rethinking its social responsibilities. For example, even with all the value of the readership program’s community representation, that community — in Ashland as in Oregon in general — is overwhelmingly white, in part because of the state’s long history of overtly racist policies, and “most of the festival’s past winners were written by white men,” Apodaca says. She realized readers needed to at least try to see beyond their own limited perspective when determining which plays would advance through the selection process.
After intensive discussion during the shutdown, the festival acknowledged its “complicity in racist structures and pledge[d] to move forward with concrete actions,” including:
• its new Pass the Pen initiative reserved 50 spaces for invited BIPOC playwrights to submit plays for consideration in the fall festival, free of charge. Participants are nominated by a network of ANPF playwrights, in addition to a wider group of collaborators, including artistic leadership from regional theaters like OSF.
• a new Reader Recruitment Committee recruits and welcomes BIPOC readers from the community.
• unconscious bias training for all staff, board and readers.
• an annual check-in review to assess progress.
• Most boldly, the festival announced that at least half the plays presented each year will be the work of BIPOC playwrights. The commitment was “a leap of faith,” Apodaca acknowledges. “We had to commit without knowing who was going to submit plays for consideration. I had actually planned standalone workshops to balance out what could have been another year of primarily white male finalists. Happily, that wasn’t the case. Readers embraced their antiracism training and sent me a group of the most diverse finalists we have ever had.”
When the festival returned this fall to live performance after the two-year pandemic interregnum, four of the five works chosen were written by playwrights of color. Apodaca credits the board and readers’ hard work and intentions to “confront our own biases and be more inclusive. We have done a lot with readers to help them understand how can you see through a lens that isn’t your own? How can you understand these plays that aren’t about you? Pass the Pen coupled with the anti racism training helps to open up readers to new stories.”
The reconsideration continues. Along with grappling with theater’s racial shortcomings, Apodaca says she and other theater leaders are figuring out how to deal with other long-simmering inequities — such as the economic model that overworks and impoverishes actors and other theater artists — that American theaters are confronting as they rethought a business model that wasn’t working fairly even before the pandemic and racial reckoning forced a reboot.
“Theater in this country is such a pool of confusion and change,” Apodaca muses. “We’re all trying to figure out our identity as theater makers, based not only on what we learned in the pandemic, but also how we push ourselves to such extreme measures just to get a product on stage. We were confronting those patterns at the exact same time when theaters were unable to go onstage because of the pandemic. Now, we have to look closely at what we are doing. And who is it for?”
As part of “a comprehensive look at the organization,” ANPF is rethinking an economic model in which Actors’ Equity rates for small professional theatre companies pay even professional actors a relative pittance to participate. That means reconsidering everything from the number of understudies to encouraging actors to actually take time off when they’re sick. (Two actors in this year’s festival had to be replaced because of illness.) And of course ANPF’s theater artists have been affected by recent smoke and fires like so many others in Southern Oregon. One recent longtime stage manager lost her home to fire and moved away.
“The whole ‘show must go on mentality’ — theater companies are having to ask, ‘What does that mean?’” Apodaca says. “At ANP, we’re having that conversation too. More work, more stress — we’re exhausting ourselves. If inspiration is your mission but you’re also causing harm, that’s not the best way forward.”
From Reality to Stage
Not surprisingly, the issues that theater leaders, at ANPF and beyond, have been grappling with found their way on to the festival stage at Southern Oregon University’s Main Stage Theater. Back live for the first time in two years, this year’s edition was its biggest ever: 10 performances of five plays. Both shows I caught proved entertaining, provocative, funny, moving, and performed to surprisingly high professional standards. Even presented as staged readings, with actors standing in place or seated in chairs on stage, scripts in hand, they were well worth the reasonable ticket price, and the drive from the Portland metro area. (Actually, Ashland is always worth visiting, even without theater, especially when Lithia Park begins to don its autumn finery.)
Since these are staged readings of works in progress, I’m not going to review them in detail. Oakland, California playwright Spector’s tart comedy Best Available revolves around the Faustian bargain struck by so many arts institutions: trading artistic control for funding needed to realize artistic ambition. Here, it’s the (inherent?) conflict between the conservative-taste old guard money moguls who fund big theaters and serve on their boards of directors, and the new generation of theater artists who want to program contemporary works that challenge the status quo. (This setup may confuse Portlanders who may not realize that other cities aren’t as lucky as we to have a major donor to the theater and contemporary music scenes who actually encourages vanguard art.) The dominant class position is enunciated in a chillingly reasonable-sounding monologue, delivered with low-key, matter-of-fact believability by venerated Northwest actor Dee Maaske. (I can’t resist quoting one big laugh line, in which she defends herself as no reactionary: “I’m not a Republican!”)
Heavy as those issues sound, they were dramatized here in sharp performances by an engaging nine-member cast. If you’ve ever wondered (as I admittedly once did) why a staged reading (no props, blocking or costumes) needs a director, Best Available, expertly helmed by Portland Center Stage artistic director Marissa Wolf, who displayed an astute understanding of comic timing and persuasive characterization, is all the evidence you need.
Of course, Best Available is theater about theater, and occasionally falls prey to insiderism, and needs some trimming (Spector tends to repeat some funny moves several times) but even in its present form, Best Available is a funny, trenchant treat for the audience most likely to catch it. And as one audience member ruefully noted in the post-show talkback, even non-insiders who’ve ever served on or dealt with a board of directors of any operation will appreciate its justified jabs at the ruling class. The play dramatizes many of the issues theater faces today— including those ANPF, OSF and others are addressing now.
Cleveland playwright Lisa Langford’s Breakfast at the Bookstore sprang from actual events in her hometown’s history: a 1968 racial uprising sparked by a police shootout with a Black nationalist bookstore owner who believed he’d seen UFOs. Langford expands that framework into wildly unexpected Afro-futurist dimensions (including a fun, period-appropriate soundtrack), with powerfully realized protagonists enacting a poignant pas de deux pitting cynicism against hope. (By coincidence, both stars, Steven Anthony Jones and Cyndii Johnson, also happen to hail from Cleveland.) The supporting characters could use more development, but Breakfast at the Bookstore is already a winner, fueled by Langford’s vivid imagination, wry humor and poetic language, which somehow never sounds forced. As with Best Available, I’d love to see a full production of this show in Portland — after a deserved Cleveland premiere, of course — and ideally with OSF veteran Jones, who contributed a superbly restrained yet deeply moving performance.
What surprised me most about both ANPF shows I saw was the stellar acting quality. The performers totally inhabited their (often multiple) roles, including when they weren’t speaking. That’s expected from the Equity actors with long resumes from performances around the country — but even the Southern Oregon University students pulled off utterly convincing, confident performances. Don’t let the words “staged reading” make you imagine that ANPF shows aren’t worth your ticket price. You’re getting a real show, and a great bargain.
Past Meets Present at OSF
Like ANPF, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival has made strong commitments to addressing issues of representation. OSF’s striking West Coast premiere production of another historically inspired drama involving racial tensions and institutions, Dominique Morisseau’s Confederates at the Thomas Theatre, which closed along with the rest of the festival Oct. 29, spotlights some of the consequences of institutional racism.
Commissioned by OSF, Confederates juxtaposes two alternating narratives, occurring a century and a half apart. The first recounts an enslaved woman’s struggles during the American Civil War, the second a contemporary university professor’s career crisis. The play aims to show how both peculiar institutions, the modern university and chattel slavery, sustain inequities by pitting victims against each other.
In the historical timeline, embedded in a thriller plot involving potential slave insurrection, it’s a “house slave” (Sara, movingly played by Erika Rose) vs. a “field slave” (LuAnne, feistily played by Cyndii Johnson), who struggle to trust each other to cooperate in escaping enslavement despite their conflicts. Sara resents LuAnne’s unfairly privileged status, gained by becoming their enslaver’s concubine, while LuAnne resents being judged and looked down on by her fellow victim.
The modern storyline pits Sandra (Bianca Jones), a tenured faculty member, respected pundit and scholar, against Jade (also played by Cyndii Johnson — the third role I saw her in), the only other African American prof in her department, who seeks Sandra’s support for her own pursuit of tenured status. Here too, resentments seethe: Sandra disdains what she considers her younger colleague’s coddling of students of color, while Jade accuses Sandra of looking down on her because she comes from a community college background. Their conflict plays out against the backdrop of an ugly, mysterious racist incident directed at Sandra, who also deals with issues involving one of her students and her teaching assistant.
Both narratives draw on ideas conceived and illuminated by former longtime Portland State university prof Dr. Joy DeGruy, whose landmark, eye-opening book, Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome (commendably shouted out by the playwright in the program book) describes, among many other things, how institutionalized racism can spark rivalry and resentment among Black people it victimized, then and now. “Historically, during slavery, the promotion of one black person over another usually meant that they would soon use their newly acquired position to further tyrannize those blacks occupying lesser positions,” DeGruy writes. “Today this is commonly referenced as overseer mentality, where a black person in a position of power, often a manager, acts as a gatekeeper, charged with making sure those of his or her race are kept in their places. This individual also deters the people in charge from hiring or promoting anyone else who is black, thus removing any discomfort or perceived obligation on the part of the employer to hire more African Americans.” It’s a treat to see a major playwright successfully dramatizing such urgent, trailblazing ideas.
Though the two stories share their major theme of racism-spawned internecine resentments, the plot lines make an imperfect match, and for me, the conjoined whole added up to less than the sum of its considerable separate parts. The university’s institutional culpability is never really dramatized on stage. (Neither is the slaveholder’s, but that story is more familiar.) So when (spoiler) the two protagonists join forces on stage across the centuries to denounce and implicitly equate the two racist institutions in what feels like a tacked-on inspirational peroration, the equation feels unconvincing.
Confederates is nevertheless a must-see for its penetrating depiction of the concealed complexities, consequences and costs of past and present white supremacy. It successfully dramatizes a too-little told story about how strong women must navigate the complexities of resistance in a repressive, racist society that persistently undermines their power and even threatens their lives. It gives each of its characters their own understandable, believable motivations and voices, and, abetted by Garrett’s astute direction, sustains dramatic momentum through its intermissionless two hours. And Erika Rose’s beautifully calibrated and arced performance as Sara, the field slave who’s finally reached her breaking point, shows how a superb actor can portray underlying strength and the stages of growth without resorting to histrionics or false heroics. Too many ‘inspirational’ turns that aim to get the audience cheering for the noble suffering victim wind up flattening their protagonists into two dimensional icons. Rose’s moving portrayal of inner strength amid vulnerability, wisdom despite self doubt, is one of the finest I’ve seen at OSF.
(Morisseau also won a Tony nomination for her book for the Temptations musical, Ain’t Too Proud, coming to Portland in February.)
After the backlash against OSF’s turn toward greater contemporary relevance, I came away from Ashland heartened at the artistic resurgence on display at both OSF and ANPF. All three plays dealt thoughtfully with complex contemporary concerns without oversimplifying or stooping to propaganda, giving their major characters, even those who make fraught choices, emotionally understandable motivations and depth.
All the performances I saw were near-sellouts, and audiences seemed especially engaged. Over and over, in talkbacks, conversations and some old fashioned eavesdropping, I heard audience members — most from what’s become the traditional theater demographic of older white people like me — praising the relevance and entertainment value of the work onstage, even expressing gratitude for the opportunity to gain new perspectives on the Black experience and other contemporary concerns — theatrical, social, political.
At ANPF, some of that engagement no doubt flows from the presence of so many readers from the community selection process, and their evident long-time connection to the festival. It really did feel as though they owned the festival. That popular acceptance as well as the plays’ artistic excellence makes me wish that Portland and other Oregon cities might consider adopting, or at least adapting, the community selection process.
As I left the SOU theater after the festival’s final performance, I asked Apodaca if the model could work anywhere else. “Probably not,” she said. Theater has, after all, long permeated the Ashland atmosphere long before the summer smoke attacks, and it’s rare to find so concentrated a degree of interest anywhere else. But surely the much larger Portland and maybe Eugene-Springfield metro areas contain a similar number of theater enthusiasts, though diluted throughout their greater population. Portland does have the immensely valuable Fertile Ground Festival, but it’s uncurated (and all the more necessary because of that), includes non-theater works, and relies on local theater artists rather than, like ANPF, the support and involvement of the broader community and major theaters.
What if one or more of Oregon’s theaters (especially those receiving taxpayer support) created a similar festival (maybe in conjunction with Fertile Ground) aimed at nurturing Oregon playwrights? Commit at least half the selections to Oregonians; Portland’s recent excellent dance film festival devoted one of its three screenings to Oregon entries. Adopt ANPF’s community reader and diversity models, keep ticket prices low, stage them in appropriately sized local theaters, maybe the theater at Portland State or another local university. Ashland New Plays Festival has shown how community support and strong artistic leadership can invigorate today’s theater. Can Portland follow its lead? ArtsWatch readers, what do you think?