This series focuses on different aspects of Oregon’s contemporary Tribal culture and explores how traditional ways of life have continued forward throughout colonization and settlement of Oregon. This collection of writings and interviews showcases the history and resiliency of Oregon’s First Peoples. In this piece Steph Littlebird, an enrolled member of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, focuses on Oregon Symphony Stage Manager Lori Trephibio.
Have you ever wondered how much orchestration and planning goes into a live event like a concert by the Oregon Symphony? Keeping track of every musician, coordinating with the conductor, choreographing every moment behind the curtain, and planning for the unknown is just a fraction of what Lori Trephibio is responsible for.
Lori is Diné, and a member of the Navajo Nation. She was born in Arizona, but raised in New Mexico, in this little town called Gallup. “That’s my hometown and my family’s all still around the area there. I grew up in between the four sacred mountains,” also known as the Four Corners. It is an area in the Southwest consisting of the southwest corner of Colorado, southeast corner of Utah, northeast corner of Arizona, and northwest corner of New Mexico. She has lived in Portland for three years now, after living in Chicago and London as well.
Growing up as an Indigenous person in a rural area, there were limited opportunities for Lori locally. “I didn’t grow up rich. I didn’t grow up middle class. I grew up on a reservation. It’s not a lavish lifestyle, but you understand what’s important, what one needs to survive.”
Even with those modest beginnings, Lori had big aspirations. She knew she wanted to do something different with her life, and that eventually led her to an education and career in the arts.
Trephibio, who trained in technical theater and stage management at Columbia college in Chicago, is in her third year working as the Oregon Symphony’s Stage Manager. As she explains “I have so many different weird analogies for my job as stage manager. The biggest thing I think is, you’re solving problems and troubleshooting. I help execute the on-site logistics of a production. I liaise with many different departments, whether it’s audio, lighting, or the musicians.”
INDIGENOUS RESILIENCE IN OREGON: An ArtsWatch Series
At the time that we spoke, Lori was preparing for the Symphony’s first show since 2019, before the pandemic hit: last month’s season-opening performance of Mahler’s Second Symphony in the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, the symphony’s home performance space. In preparation for an event, she coordinates with vendors, and creates stage plots for the musicians; “I work a lot with the conductor, the concert manager and with different section principals to make sure everyone has what they need. I make sure the conductor has what he needs in order for the program to be what he wants it to be.”
But her job doesn’t stop when the music starts, Lori continues to play a key role throughout the live event: “The best part about this whole career is the concert. When the show starts I’m sending people on to talk to the audience, sending on the concert master to go tune. And then when everyone’s ready, I send the maestro on. During stage changes, I’ll be on stage with the crew delegating and directing how each piece has to move … I’m paying attention to 70-80 musicians on stage. I’m paying attention to the crew, I’m paying attention to everyone in that building, making sure everyone is as comfortable as they can be in order to do their job…It’s very fluid and smooth, as smooth as we can.”
The experience of coordinating with so many different people and departments has helped Lori to develop excellent communication skills. “The beauty of learning to talk to different types of people, including very difficult people, very introverted people, and extroverted people has taught me to be an alpha type person, and it’s crucial and essential as stage manager because I’m the person leading point.”
But that’s what makes the job interesting, as Lori explains: “When things go wrong, you’re the person that everyone’s going to come to. And I actually like troubleshooting. I don’t really like it when something goes wrong during the middle of the show, but it does, and it keeps me on my toes and that’s really cool … Sometimes, behind the scenes is messy, but if we do our job right, people don’t see that messy side … It’s chaos, but it’s a beautiful chaos in some weird way.”
Lori’s capacity to adapt quickly likely comes from her heritage and upbringing. She is descended from people who were violently relocated during European colonization of the Southwest, and still managed to survive. The Navajo Nation continues to confront high rates of poverty, and many who live on their remote lands lack access to running water. So, while Lori had limited resources as a child, she didn’t let that stop her from achieving remarkable things. She demonstrates resilience and adaptability, just as her ancestors who survived did.
Lori describes her life-long motivation to succeed as “aggressive ambition”: ”I think a lot of my drive came from growing up and seeing my mom, seeing how we lived. And it feels really weird saying this, but I didn’t want that life when I grew up. I wanted to be able to take care of my mom like how she took care of my brothers and I, when we were younger. I wanted to work really hard, get a good career, and support my mom because there were a lot of things that were out of her control at the time, but she did it, and she is an amazing person.”
In her youth Lori became keenly aware of Native American stereotypes, and aspired to become something more. “Gallup was nicknamed Drunk Town, USA. Alcoholism was prevalent and it’s a reservation, unfortunately there’s a sadness there … then hearing kids I grew up with talking about people from my culture in such negative ways … I just thought this is not who we are; don’t stereotype us.”
So Lori used her experiences as motivation. “That really fueled a lot of my ambition as well. I was tired of people making fun of Indigenous people … When I look back, I find my whole story pretty fascinating. I’m amazed by myself; my younger self was very ambitious. So after I went to high school in Gallup, I decided to move to Chicago, Illinois, where I attended Columbia College to study technical theater in the specific concentration of stage management.” Making the decision to leave the place where she grew up wasn’t easy: “I know what it’s like growing up and feeling like going off is leaving your family. It’s hard.”
While she was in college, Lori got a job with a production company that produces music and food festivals for the city of Chicago. During that time, she worked her way up. When she graduated in 2015, the company’s owner asked her how she felt about managing an orchestra. “I had no idea what that meant,” she said, “but I said, sure.” It turned out to be a great first job for her orchestra career. That year, Lori started working for the Grant Park Music Festival in Chicago, and has worked with them “every summer since.”
Three years ago she got a tip from a friend about a job opening in Portland with the Oregon Symphony. After several rounds of interviews, Lori was hired, and she moved her entire life from Illinois to Oregon.
While working for the symphony Lori has had the opportunity to speak with students about her unusual career path. Recently, she spoke to high school students on a panel and they asked her what her proudest moment was working for the symphony. She told them a story about visiting with young Native students from the Warm Springs reservation just north of Madras and talking with them about what she does for the Symphony.
“I thought it would be really great to show them that there’s a whole different side of an orchestra than just playing music. … I’ve always had to go back to where I’m from, to the Native kids, and just let them know that, like, even though I have a very different career, it’s a very creative career that’s not always talked about as an option. I feel like for a lot of Indigenous people, everyone there goes for jobs in nursing and stuff that seems more beneficial to the community.”
And while Lori chose a different path than the one prescribed to her in Gallup, New Mexico, she remains deeply proud of her Indigenous heritage, no matter where in the world she is: “Every day I wear turquoise. Whether it’s the necklace my grandma gave me or rings that are turquoise, that’s just a part of my identity, that’s what my people wear. And especially when we’re far away from our homeland, it is a protection stone.”
There are many more Indigenous transplants in Portland, just like Lori, quietly contributing to the community and supporting the arts. Most of them have overcome many obstacles and are aggressively aspiring to make a positive impact on this world.