The 2022 Opera House Shakespeare Festival has come and gone. The first, hopefully, of many. I had never been to a place like Elgin, Oregon: population 1,500, give or take, and I’m the only Black guy within 20 miles in any direction, as far as I could tell. The nearest “big” town is La Grande, population 13,000 …give or take. For me, the journey to Elgin was not so much about what it didn’t have and more about what it did. The land in and around Elgin and La Grande is adorned with farms and mountains and rivers and lakes, and when the sun sets behind the Blue Mountains on the road between the two, it’s enough to make you pull over to the side and take a few minutes.
Grant Turner, who many from Portland theater will remember from his award-winning days as founder and artistic director of Northwest Classical Theatre Company, is now forging a similar, perhaps even more difficult path in La Grande and Elgin in northeastern Oregon. Turner was always and continues to be unerringly dedicated to the pursuit of one north star, William Shakespeare. At this point in the game, he’s been directly involved in either acting in or directing 35 of the 38 plays of the Shakespearean canon, a breathtaking achievement, and his fire does not seem to be subsiding.
That fire led him to creating the La Grande Shakespeare Company when he moved to La Grande several years ago, and putting on plays wherever he could, including the back of his own bookstore that he owned for a while. That fire drew in Liberty O’Dell and Cassie Johnson and Cody Wyld Flower and Caiti Burke and Kevin Cahill and a host of other people and I’m going to forget someone so I’m just going to stop naming folks there. The point is that Turner found a group of artists as dedicated and curious and passionate as he is about the work of the Bard, and who were willing to put the work in.
Because that is also necessary: As anyone who has ever produced small theater knows, you have to be willing and able to wear more than one hat, and you have to find other people who can do the same. They have to be willing to move the bookshelves or the art exhibit or whatever it is, before the show, and then put them back where they belong after the show – that night. And do the whole process over again the next night. Someone has to be able to use the software to create and write the programs and then print them. Someone has to market the show. Someone has to build a set, run lights, sound, etc. And when you’re drawing from a pool of 15,000, finding those folks can be even harder.
Or perhaps, easier. The most moving sentiment I heard, repeatedly, in La Grande was how much Grant Turner meant to his fellow Shakespeareans. More than one person said that their participation in his Shakespeare company was necessary to their sanity and well-being in La Grande. The flip side, of course, was that Turner would often express the same sentiment about his merry band of thespians. He needed them – for his sanity and well-being – as much as or more than they needed him.
In those shows that Turner was putting on in whatever space he could find with whoever was willing to lend a hand, he came across the attention of Terry Hale, whose own passion project, the Elgin Opera House, he had revitalized in the past fourteen years, to the tune of a whopping 50 productions, most of them musical theater. There was something Hale saw in Turner. Hale maintained a pretty steadfast grip on the artistic life of the Opera House, and with Turner, he felt comfortable just bringing him on and letting him do his own thing, in a way he hadn’t been willing to do with other artists. Kathy Bonney, a former banker, was the third leg of the stool, and she brought to the table that thing that every theater company needs: She knew how to raise money, and handles much of the nuts-and-bolts operations.
This first incarnation of the Opera House’s Shakespeare Festival presented The Merchant of Venice, Two Gentlemen of Verona, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the show I was a part of, Othello. Midsummer was both directed by and starred Turner’s daughter, Anne, who some Portland actors will remember from when she was a toddler. Now, she’s an assured and exacting Shakespearean actor. (The world, man, it just keeps on turning.)
It was both an ambitious and auspicious beginning, and bodes well for the festival moving forward. Victories were won, challenges were met and overcome (or sidestepped), and lessons were learned. Putting on even one play in 2022 America is a tremendous undertaking. Putting on a theatrical festival in a place that doesn’t necessarily have a history with that sort of thing is a Herculean act of will. Perhaps the most important accomplishment was that they got butts in seats. People came. And many people who came to see one show were disappointed they hadn’t gotten passes for the whole festival. When you consider that the Opera House was often pulling comparable houses to what you see at some of Portland’s mid-sized theater companies but drawing from a population of a little more than 2 percent of Portland’s population, you begin to appreciate the accomplishment.
Also making an appearance were Royal Shakespeare Company stars Imogen Stubbs and Jonathan Guy Lewis, who brought with them a film of Lewis’s script, Soldier On, a by turns hilarious and heartbreaking piece about war veterans coming to grips with their various demons by putting on a play. Over the course of the week, Lewis and members of the Shakespeare Company did some work on “Americanizing” the language in Soldier On for a life as a theatrical production here in the States, and perhaps even a movie.
Anyone who knows Turner knows he has a knack for bringing in genuine Shakespearean big shots from across the pond and getting them to work at his little Shakespearean outposts in the upper left-hand corner of the country. Besides Stubbs and Lewis, Turner has also brought in Barry Kyle and Bill Alexander and worked with a host of others. Like his folks in La Grande and Elgin, these artists are attracted to Turner’s passion for the work.
For me, not doing Shakespeare for nearly twenty years and then starting off again with Othello was definitely jumping in the deep end. And I felt it. Shakespeare’s hard, and he’s different from everything else. I’m lucky in that I immediately go back into more Shakespeare with Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet at Salt and Sage this summer, and apply some of what I’ve learned in the past month.
But I also had the unique and one of the most rewarding moments in my recent theatrical memory. On opening night, we had young people who didn’t know that Othello was a tragedy. They had no idea Othello was actually going to murder Desdemona, and that was it, that was what happened, and there were actual gasps.
That is not something an actor is necessarily going to experience in Portland, Oregon, or other, larger cities. That moment, much like the inaugural Opera House Shakespeare Festival in Elgin, Oregon, was a thrilling reminder that Shakespeare, 400 years and nearly 5,000 miles away as the crow flies, still has the power to excite and enthrall.
- Also see Bobby Bermea: Welcome to Elgin, Bermea’s account of his trip to Oregon’s northeast corner and settling in to Elgin to begin rehearsals for the Opera House Shakespeare Festival.