Vision 2020: Rachael Carnes

The Eugene playwright fears that as the community grows, it becomes harder to enter the performing arts: "Access is the foundation for a vibrant arts scene"

Rachael Carnes has so many irons in the fire that introducing the sheer scope of her work is a bit daunting. She’s a former dancer and journalist who, just three short years ago, enrolled in a play-writing class through Oregon Contemporary Theatre with the award-winning playwright and instructor Paul Calandrino. Today, she lays claim to having had her plays workshopped, published, and produced in Oregon and beyond, from Seattle and Los Angeles to New York and London — and even one in South Korea.

A lifelong Eugenian, Carnes earned a bachelor’s degree from Reed College in 1993 and spent a quarter-century in arts education, journalism, and nonprofit work. Since 2016, her artistic output has exploded, both in terms of the number of plays and partnerships.


VISION 2020: TWENTY VIEWS ON OREGON ARTS


At the New Play Exchange, Carnes has more than 80 plays available, ranging from one-actor shows to full-length pieces and tackling a remarkable range of topics: gun violence, feminism, #MeToo, romance, history, reproductive rights, and the Supreme Court, to name a few. Currently, her artistic home is Oregon Contemporary Theatre, where she recently collaborated with Calandrino in Bunfight, a collection of eight short plays by the two playwrights. Her new play, At Winter’s Edge, was commissioned by Minority Voices Theatre in cooperation with the Very Little Theatre, and performed in December. 

Rachael Carnes says Eugene has a robust theater scene, including long-running Oregon Contemporary Theatre, which is “curating a season that is as bold and as innovative as one you might see in Portland or Ashland.”
Rachael Carnes says Eugene has a robust theater scene, including long-running Oregon Contemporary Theatre, which is “curating a season that is as bold and as innovative as one you might see in Portland or Ashland.”

How would you characterize the state of artistic and cultural life in Eugene and Lane County?

Eugene’s theater scene is robust for a community its size. The University of Oregon and Lane Community College offer a range of student productions each season, along with a variety of community theater offerings. The UO takes on some terrific work, from classics to new work about climate change. And LCC impresses with its student-run organization. I’ve had the opportunity to collaborate with them a few times, and they’re impressive.

The “home” for Eugene theater is Oregon Contemporary Theatre (OCT). Formerly Lord Leebrick, this organization has been around for decades and has put Eugene on a national map, nurturing new works through initiatives like the National New Play Network, and curating a season that is as bold and as innovative as one you might see in Portland or Ashland. OCT offers a variety of educational programs, from acting classes to improv to playwriting. It was in one of these programs (“Writing the 10-minute play” with Paul) that I was first exposed to the basics of playwriting. I’d been writing for more than 20 years, but never creatively. A light bulb went on, and I just never quit. That was three years ago. Since then, I’ve been produced all over the world, published in literary journals, I’ve won awards for my plays. It’s bonkers! Wouldn’t have achieved any of that without OCT.

I’m also a part of a local artists collective, called Operation Shadowbox, born of independent productions built from ensembles. We’ve done lots of projects together, from a 36-hour full-length play and staged readings of new work to scripted pieces. We’ve presented two evenings of plays in response to gun violence, for example, in collaboration with Moms Demand Action.

Recently, I was invited to develop a new play with Minority Voices Theatre, in residence at the Very Little Theatre, one of the state’s oldest theaters. Mine is the first commission that they’ve made with a living playwright. It’s very exciting to work on developing a new piece of theater and to create community through the process.

Clearly there’s a lot going on, and obviously being in a college town is an advantage.  As far as theater goes, is there a lot of collaboration, cross-pollination between the campuses and other theaters? Or is everyone focused on their own thing?

I do think that there’s some interesting collaboration. Local groups like Harmonic Laboratory — creating some cool alchemy at the UO that positively impacts the community — is an exciting example. LCC creates performance opportunities for adults, not only its own students.

I’m excited, too, by the cross-pollination between and among some of the heavy-hitting Hult Center residency companies. For example, the Eugene Ballet often works with the Eugene Concert Choir, or Orchestra Next. The Eugene Symphony, Eugene Opera, and Oregon Bach Festival frequently program unique and interesting moments that find and develop new audiences for the arts.

Rachael Carnes recently collaborated with her teacher, Paul Calandrino, on “Bunfight,” a collection of eight short plays.

What, good or bad, has had the biggest impact on arts and culture in your area in the past few years?

As the community grows, how do the arts grow with it? I see fewer entry points to low-stakes performance opportunities in dance, theater, and music than when I arrived in 2004. That’s worrisome, I think, because access is the foundation for a vibrant arts scene.

Evolving technology has meant a sea change in so many aspects of life, both personal and professional. How has it changed what you do, and what’s your vision of using it to your advantage in the future?

As a playwright, I rely on the speed and dexterity of current technologies to connect all over the world. In a typical week, I might Skype with a director in Seoul, or FaceTime with an actor in London, or hop on a Zoom webinar to take a workshop three time zones away. Technology allows me to be in my home in Eugene and be everywhere at the same time.

What would you tell a young person going off to college to prepare for a career in the theater arts?

Read. Read plays. Read new plays. And go see as much dance, theater, music, and art as you can. Be open minded, be willing to not know anything. Be humble. In the face of relentless rejection: Be strong.

What are your goals and expectations for the coming year in the arts, professionally and personally?

I continue to foster collaborations, near and far. The relationships I’ve built through theater are the best reason to engage in it. I’m grateful for friends and colleagues all over the world.

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This is the ninth in a series of twenty interviews in twenty days with arts and cultural figures around Oregon, creating a group portrait of the state of the arts in the state. It looks at where we’ve been, where we are, and what might or should happen culturally in the 2020s.

Previously:

  • Rachel Barreras-Kleemann. The “small” goals of the Newport dance teacher, who learned African-Brazilian dance forms in Brazil and performed with the marching samba band Lions of Batucuda: keep kids motivated to dance, give low-income kids a place to go.
  • Niel DePonte. The Portland percussionist, composer, and conductor for more than 40 years thinks about thorny issues ahead, and how to tackle them.
  • Darcy Dolge, Sarah West, and Nancy Knowles. Three leaders of Eastern Oregon’s Art Center East in La Grande say funding cuts could have been dire in their rural area, but the community stepped up to keep arts thriving.
  • Maya Vivas and Leila Haile. The founders of North Mississippi Avenue’s Ori Gallery “often joke about how we would love to not be the only Queer, Black-run art space in town.”
  • Christopher Acebo. The longtime key figure at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and recent chair of the Oregon Arts Commission talks about diversity, funding, and who controls the gate to the castle.
  • Yulia Arakelyan and Erik Ferguson. Beyond the arts bubble, the Wobbly duo see a dangerous world: “Hate based crime directed against people with disabilities has gone up.”
  • John Olbrantz. The director of the Hallie Ford Museum of Art talks about the museum, Salem’s lively arts community, and its “blessing and curse” of being near Portland.
  • Joamette Gil. The lowdown on the Power & Magic of creating an indie comics universe that tells tales of life, love, and adventure in a nonbinary culture of color.

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