All Classical Radio James Depreist

Newberg’s Gather Repertory Theatre offers an artistic response to political strife, this month with ‘A Feminine Ending’

Born following a ruckus about “political” symbols in local schools, the professional company -- part of Yamhill County's thriving theater scene -- aims to create a safe space for minority communities.

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JeanneAnn Comisky is a George Fox University graduate and founder and artistic director of Gather Repertory Theatre. She is the director of "A Feminine Ending," playing at the theater through Sept. 17. Photo by: Rachel Hadiashar, courtesy of: Gather Repertory Theatre
JeanneAnn Comiskey is a George Fox University graduate and founder and artistic director of Gather Repertory Theatre. The company staged its first show, playing with traditional gender roles, in the wake of a Newberg schools controversy. “It was so clear that there was a need for that production,” Comiskey says, “and a need for a company here in town speaking to what’s going on and bringing people together in the midst of that.” Photo by: Rachel Hadiashar, courtesy of: Gather Repertory Theatre

Last week, Sarah Treem’s 2008 one-act play A Feminine Ending opened a three-week run in the Chehalem Cultural Center’s tiny black box theater, which seems as good an occasion as any to note an astonishing fact.

Newberg, a community of around 26,000 and the smaller of Yamhill County’s two “big” cities, has not one but two artistically ambitious theater companies. McMinnville’s nonprofit Gallery Theater may be the county’s oldest theater with the largest, permanent venue, but the companies in Newberg — one launched in 2018 and the other barely 2 years old — are professional; the actors are paid.

A Feminine Ending played to nearly sold-out audiences last weekend and runs through Sept. 17. It is directed by JeanneAnn Comiskey, the founder and driving force behind Newberg’s new company, Gather Repertory Theatre, which came together quickly in the first half of 2022 and launched with an outdoor staging of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town.

Penguin Productions, meanwhile, burst forth in an outdoor venue in 2017 with productions of Shakespeare’s As You Like It and Macbeth and has since mounted Hamlet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo and Juliet, and, this summer, Twelfth Night. All that, along with two plays by Oscar Wilde and a few others. The company has essentially filled the void left by the 2021 closure of Willamette Shakespeare.

Before we get to A Feminine Ending, however, one more note on the big picture: Penguin is actually one of two Newberg-based nonprofits raising funds to build new facilities for live theater. The other is the Chehalem Cultural Center, which is on track to renovate the building’s old schoolhouse-style auditorium into the 250-seat LaJoie Theatre.

Taking into account Gallery’s recent streak of selling out shows and occasionally even adding performances to accommodate audience demand, the writing is on the wall: Yamhill County’s live theater scene is flourishing.

Gather Repertory Theatre's second production,
Gather Repertory Theatre’s second production, “Men on Boats,” was a comedy in which a cast of women, non-binary, and trans actors portrayed 10 men going down the Colorado River in the 1800s. Photo courtesy: Gather Repertory Theatre

Gather Repertory was conceived as a response to the political conflagration that engulfed the Newberg School District a couple of years ago when the school board freaked out after some teachers displayed “political” flags and signs supporting Black Lives Matter and LGBTQIA+ pride. Theater organizers saw their efforts not so much as a confrontational tool as simply a proactive way to create a safe space for minority communities where creatives could tell stories that resonated with them.

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In the summer of 2022 on the sprawling courtyard between the cultural center and the local library, Gather Repertory mounted a production of Thornton Wilder’s classic piece of theatrical Americana, Our Town. The play’s romantic leads, George and Emily, were played, respectively, by a non-binary actor and a gay man.

“It went incredibly well,” Comiskey said. Four of the six shows sold out, she said, “as much as we could define that in an outdoor space, which was about 120 seats or so” noting also that temperatures were 105 degrees.

“We got to watch exactly what we hoped for,” she said, “which was a diverse audience of allies and people in those communities coming together and feeling safe in the middle of Newberg. Our goal was, let’s center and celebrate these people. It’s hard to quantify that, but I do think that happened, in the little snippets and stories I heard.”

Comiskey said she ran with the idea of an artistic response to political strife after talking with her mentor, George Fox University Professor Cristi Miles. A native of California’s Orange County, Comiskey attended George Fox and after graduation taught theater for a year at her own high school before Oregon and Newberg, a community with strong Quaker roots, called her back.

The idea for playing with gender in Our Town was suggested by a George Fox theater friend, Reid Arthur, who played Emily in the production and is a company member. He had been inspired by the gender-fluid production of Oklahoma! mounted by Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2018.

“And then it was like, ‘Well, If we’re doing a production, we’re making a company,’ you know?” Comiskey said. “I learned in college that it was my dream to be an artistic director. I didn’t necessarily expect it to be right away, but it was so clear that there was a need for that production and a need for a company here in town speaking to what’s going on and bringing people together in the midst of that.”

The positive response to Our Town helped organizers understand that Newberg audiences were interested in conversations about gender. Inspired in part by that and also the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade that summer, Gather Repertory moved into 2023 with a plan to put women front and center in a rollicking way. In the sanctuary of a local church that is LGBTQIA+ friendly, they performed Jaclyn Backhaus’s Men on Boats, a comedy that has 10 explorers (who are pointedly not played by cisgender males) making their way down the Colorado River in the 1800s, led by a hilariously deranged one-armed captain. The play, based on a historically “truish” story, is a delightfully raucous ride, and I was lucky enough to catch it. It was one of those “lightning in a bottle” productions, sentiments that have been expressed by others I’ve spoken with who saw it.

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“I was at the box office booth, so I got to see audience reactions every night,” said Brendan Comiskey, JeanneAnn’s husband and fellow company member. “It was very encouraging to see folks walk out of the sanctuary where the play was held. It was such a fun piece of theater, and I saw tons of people walking away with smiles on their faces.”

Charlotte Zenzano plays Amanda, a young musician whose story is told in "A Feminine Ending." Photo by: Emma Schmitt, courtesy of: Gather Repertory Theatre
Charlotte Zenzano plays Amanda, a young musician whose story is told in “A Feminine Ending.” Photo by: Emma Schmitt, courtesy of: Gather Repertory Theatre

A Feminine Ending, a one-act drama that runs about 90 minutes, is perhaps the most conventional piece, in terms of narrative style and casting, that Gather Repertory has done. Nevertheless, it does wrestle with the experience of being female — and an artistically inclined one, at that — in America on a multi-generational level.

The production features Charlotte Zenzano as Amanda, a young composer whose professional, romantic, and familial lives are in a tight orbit around men. They include her fiancé Jack, a pop rock singer who seems poised to launch a crazy successful career (played by Emmanuel Davis, whose own experience as lead man and vocalist for the band Napp Jones serves him well), an indifferent father (Phil Amaya), and Billy, the super-smart boy-who-got-away (Robert McFarlane). Lori Van Dreal plays Amanda’s mother, whose marriage is in a cul-de-sac of tedium and frustration. The production team of eight includes Kendeyln Thomas, an intimacy director, the second instance of this type of theater work in Yamhill County that I’m aware of, though there may be others.

In the past couple of years or so, All Classical Radio out of Portland has made an effort to highlight work by female composers, which itself has highlighted the fact that contemporary symphonic composition is an artistic sphere traditionally dominated by men. Comiskey said she was drawn to the play in part by how it deals with Amanda’s fear of, among other things, entering that world.

“Fear comes with being human,” she says in the production notes. “For women, fear can easily be ingrained in everyday situations and circumstances. And this fear only heightens when in pursuit of what is traditionally considered less female. Amanda wrestles with this fear in a system designed to work against her, where she sees no precedent for her presence.”

A Feminine Ending and the rest of Gather Repertory’s work has been made possible by a play-focused (rather than season-focused) approach that has benefited from a marathon of aggressive fundraising. Sponsors and partners who answered the call in the winter of 2022 when the group was starting out have stayed with them, including locally owned First Federal Savings & Loan, the Chehalem Cultural Center, the Marie Lamfrom Charitable Foundation, the Yamhill County Cultural Coalition, the nonprofit Seeding Justice, and local arts advocate and benefactor Ronni Lacroute.

The play continues its run Sept. 7-10 and 15-17, with shows at 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday.

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Emmanuel Davis makes his Gather Repertory debut as the musician Jack in "A Feminine Ending." He is, in real life, also a musician: lead man and vocalist for the band Napp Jones. Photo by: Emma Schmitt, courtesy of: Gather Repertory Theatre
Emmanuel Davis makes his Gather Repertory debut as the musician Jack in “A Feminine Ending.” He is, in real life, also a musician: lead man and vocalist for the band Napp Jones. Photo by: Emma Schmitt, courtesy of: Gather Repertory Theatre

THEATER HERE, THERE AND EVERYWHERE: Those who didn’t get enough of Kate Hamill’s theatrical interpretation of Jane Austen at Gallery Theater’s recent production of Pride and Prejudice can take heart. You can still catch George Fox University’s production of Hamill’s Sense and Sensibility in Newberg at the campus amphitheater, Sept. 8-9, with performances at 7:30 p.m. and a 10 a.m. show Saturday.

In McMinnville, Gallery Theater is about to kick off 12 performances of Roald Dahl’s Matilda: The Musical, which opens at 7:30 p.m. Friday and runs through Oct. 1.

Finally, also in McMinnville, Linfield University Theatre’s “A Season to Thrive” begins Saturday with The 24-Hour Plays. According to the notes, the production “challenges an intrepid group of Linfield students to devise 3 to 5 short new plays by producing, writing, directing, rehearsing, and designing them within a 24-hour period. Students start racing against the clock on Friday, Sept. 8, when playwrights receive their instructions and are assigned a director and actors.” You can see the results at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 9, in a single, free, and open-to-the-public performance.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

David Bates is an Oregon journalist with more than 20 years as a
newspaper editor and reporter in the Willamette Valley, covering
virtually every topic imaginable and with a strong background in
arts/culture journalism. He has lived in Yamhill County since 1996 and
is working as a freelance writer. He has a long history of involvement in
the theater arts, acting and on occasion directing for Gallery Players
of Oregon and other area theaters. You can also find him on
Substack, where he writes about art and culture at Artlandia.

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