280.6 miles from the front door of my house, four and a half hours away from Portland, is Elgin, Oregon, population 1,542 as of 2020. Elgin has an area of not quite one square mile. It has a couple of bars, restaurants, a post office, a school, a library, a community center, a lumber mill. It even has the Elgin Museum and Historical Society. Elgin, whose nickname is the Jewel of the Blue Mountains, even has the Elgin Opera House, which has been around since 1912. 110 years? In a town of 1,500? That’s damned impressive, right? It’s a reminder that humans want stories.
The Opera House also has another building that it’s converting into three very intimate, smaller performance spaces. Think the Shoebox in Portland. Different shapes. The one in the middle, for instance, is shaped like a gemstone, and so is called “the Jewel.”
And now it has its own Opera House Shakespeare Company, led by Grant Turner, which is producing its first Opera House Shakespeare Festival June 17-26.
All of Grant’s non-visiting troupe of actors, and Grant himself, actually live in La Grande, which is about 20 miles (a half hour) away. Now, La Grande is right around ten times as big as Elgin. If you’re going to start a new festival, which is exactly what they’re trying to do, why not start in the bigger town?
It makes me think of a story I once read about Willie Davis, the Hall of Fame defensive end for the Green Bay Packers. When he got traded from the Browns, Davis was upset. Vince Lombardi, legendary coach of the Packers, mollified Davis. “I know you’re mad, I know you’re upset,” said Lombardi. “You think the Browns didn’t want you. Well, we wanted you more.”
In this long, drawn-out metaphor, Grant Turner is the all-star defensive end. In the role of Vince Lombardi is the Opera House’s Kathy Bonnie, and the Elgin Opera House itself is the Green Bay Packers. Terry Hale, the Opera House’s executive artistic director, would be general manager Ted Thompson. And that makes La Grande the Cleveland Browns, who couldn’t really find a spot for Turner’s little band of Shakespeareans. But Elgin could. And did.
Hale, Bonnie, and Turner, make no mistake, have a vision. It is very much intended that this first Opera House Shakespeare Festival will not be the last. If that sounds wildly ambitious, hey, even the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which goes back to 1935, had to take a first step. It didn’t just come out of the gate as one of the biggest, most prestigious Shakespeare companies in the nation. It had to start somewhere.
Coming out here was an adventure. I came all the way on a single tank of gas. That wasn’t exactly the plan; just the way it worked out, mainly because I kept hoping the next gas station would be cheaper. “It’s just gotta be, right?” Wrong. And then, heck, I have a quarter-tank left and I’m practically in La Grande, I’m golden, right? Wrong again. GPS wants me to go this other way, the shorter way, and like an idiot, I listen. You know those times when your gut instinct is telling you to do one thing but you listen to the GPS instead? Yeah, don’t do that.
So, instead of driving through the thriving metropolis of La Grande (population 13,000 or so), where there are – ahem – gas stations, I find myself taking GPS’s “shortcut.” I see a sign that says follow this road to Elgin 41 miles. Little detail it left out was a bunch of that road was going up and up and up, past a ski resort. So, I’ve passed the 41 miles sign a little bit ago and that’s when the gas light comes on. Greeeaaattt. … When you’re driving in this situation it feels like you can actually see the gas gauge move down as each white stripe on the street passes by. But hey, maybe, maybe there will be one little teensy, weensy gas station; heck, just even one pump. I’ll wait. I have rehearsal at 6:30. I’ll just make it.
And I find one! One spot with a single gas tank outside. Salvation! Except the gas pump is shut down and taped over and the store is closed. Real closed. Now, I’m realizing I may have to swallow my pride and call Grant or Kathy and tell them that their idiot actor they’re bringing in from out of town ran his ass out of gas trying to get a cheaper deal the whole time and is lost on top of a mountain where there is snow on the ground. In June. The one lucky thing that happened that whole time is that I had just enough service to get off that call before I fell off the grid.
Now, if I hadn’t made that call at all, I can almost guarantee you this story would have had a dismal ending. “Portlander Bobby Bermea, found frozen to death in a snow drift. News at 11.” But since I made the call, it had a happy ending. Because that ghost fuel pump was pretty much at the top of the road, and from there on it was downhill. Coming down the side of that mountain, I put that car in neutral and just rolled every chance I got.
By this time, the gas gauge was just hanging out on the opposite side of the red line, the wrong side. And GPS is telling me I’m 15 minutes away. I can make it 15 minutes, right? That’s nothing. And I do. I literally coast into the Elgin Chevron on fumes. And I happily pay my $5.15 per gallon. Which I would have been overjoyed to pay if I could have seen into the future that gas was going up to $5.45 the rest of the week. Good thing I brought my bicycle.
The Elgin Opera House put me up in an RV. I admit, my first thought was something along the lines of, “You’ve got to be kidding me.” But I almost immediately got over it. It feels more free. I’m by myself. The surroundings are gorgeous. It’s fun. It’s a palate cleanser. My trailer is in an RV park. Yup. People who live on the road because they don’t want to be tied down to anyone or any place.
For the most part, people are friendly and talkative. One of the things that drives them out to places like Elgin is that people “are friendly out here. They talk to you. Say hi.” And it’s funny: There are so few cars on the road, for instance, that when someone drives by, I do, in fact, say hi. There is almost a city ordinance in Elgin to wear a baseball cap and drive a pickup truck. I’ve never seen anything like it.
There’s a river flowing by, about a football field away from the RV park. I go there and warm up vocally and shout out my lines to the river. If I’m out there long enough, inevitably someone will come along and ask me with genuine curiosity what I’m doing. And we’ll talk.
Oh yeah, did I mention what I’m doing? I came out here to perform for Grant Turner’s newest Shakespeare company, which has recently merged with the Elgin Opera House. I’m going to play Othello, one of the great parts of the English language. This feels like a strange place to be following in the footsteps of Ira Aldridge, Paul Robeson, James Earl Jones, Laurence Fishburne, Willard White, William Marshall (Blacula!), John Kani, Lester Purry, and the like. But I am a storyteller. And I go where they ask me to tell stories. Today, that’s Elgin, Oregon, population 1,500, with the Opera House Shakespeare Company.