Wednesday, October 5, 2016

PREVIEW—Bag & Baggage Theatre—Hillsboro, OR

PREVIEW - Evolution of a Dream

This is a Preview of this theatre company’s visions as they are readied to move into their own space, only a couple of blocks away from their current place in the Venetian Theatre, 253 E. Main St., in downtown Hillsboro, in the late Spring, 2017.  The source for this information comes from interviews with Scott Palmer, Artistic Director and Founder; Beth Lewis, Managing Director; Cassie Greer, Director of Advancement and Resident Artist; and two frequent actors, Clara Hillier and Jessica Geffen.

What artist hasn’t had the dream of having their own space someday to create and make a living at seeing your creations come to light and be appreciated.  I know I did but it was not to be.  But one similar story that could, in some ways, be parallel to B&B’s is Dr. Angus (Gus) Bowmer and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, OR.  I had the good fortune to study Shakespeare and be directed by him for two years and was an acting member of OSF for two Seasons, when it was simply the outdoor theatre and operated only during the summers.  This is a view of the personal side of, perhaps, a like Vision.

Palmer and Bowmer both had to deal with uphill battles in a small town community that espoused that classical theatre would never work in such a place.  But they were both fighters and wouldn’t take “No” for an answer.  Thank God!  Look at where OSF is now, an internationally known, resident, professional, Tony Award-winning theatre.  After ten years, Bag & Baggage seems headed for that same Fate.

Palmer’s vision is focused “…on adaptations and innovative retellings of classical drama…classic stories are NOT museum pieces. Rather, they are classics because of their universal and timeless themes. Our mission is to crack open those stories and connect them to a modern audience…we try to reinvigorate classic work to make it more immediate, more personal, more relevant to our diverse audiences.”  Lewis concurs, “…Scott consistently adapts, directs, and produces a variety of works that always engage our audiences in new and unique ways.   Scott likes to say that he doesn’t care if someone loves or hates our work, just so long as they have an opinion about it.”

I have reviewed some of these productions over the last few years and am mightily impressed when I saw a musical production of Shakespeare with all women, an adaptation of the classics, “Moby Dick” and “the Great Gatsby,” done in storytelling theatre style, a delve into Jane Austin, and a reimaging of the classic film, “The Graduate.”  All extremely stimulating.  And how does the small town deal with being thrust into a literary atmosphere.

Palmer says, “Hillsboro is a sort of incredibly well kept secret: the state’s fast growing, most diverse community…we have worked passionately to connect to our local community--producing work here in Hillsboro that is of relevance to our audiences. As the only professional theatre company in Hillsboro, we are in a uniquely strong position: no competition, a decade-old reputation for excellence, and a decade-long commitment to the people who live, work, and play right here in our hometown.”  Lewis responds, in kind,The City of Hillsboro has been very forward-thinking…very aware of what makes a city ‘livable’ and therefore has been very supportive of arts and culture…has been integral to Bag & Baggage’s success and we’re incredibly grateful to them for their constant support.”

From an actor’s point of view, Greer had this to say about B & B’s approach, “vision-driven…intellectual approach to the text and improvisatory spirit of physical play and exploration…almost painfully committed to specificity…style…storytelling…we tackle work…relevant to us and our audiences…aren’t afraid to be irreverent or shocking…know that hard work and hard play are two sides of the same coin.”  Also, she adds, “…it seemed like style was extremely well thought-out, and arose from an element of the text--a text refined to include pieces of its original source material, and streamlined with a sensitivity to the clarity of the story…”  Whew, quite concise, I’d say.  Geffen’s take on it is, “…continues to push boundaries and positively challenge the audience’s way of thinking…unique spin on the storytelling to heighten your interpretation….wide range of stories–from Shakespeare to adaptations of classic literature…minimal scenic design and simplistic staging to focus on the story itself….”  Hillier adds this, “…tremendous at focusing on ensemble work, new opportunities for female actors and the challenge of multi roles and learning how to diversify your vocal/physical/emotional presence on stage.”  By the way, all three of these young ladies have been featured in roles in many of their plays, as well as others in Portland, and are, in my opinion, some of the best actors in the Portland area and add enormously to the success of these productions!

But the new venue does add other challenges, such as moving from about a 400 seat capacity to about a 140+.  As Palmer sees it, though, “…The most important part for me is that our audiences will have a much greater connection and intimacy with our shows in the new space. The best way to think about it is this: In The Venetian, the closest you can get to a performer is 30 feet away. In our new space, you will never be more than 30 feet away from an actor. That is what I am most excited about: intimacy.” Another thought, from Lewis, “We want the space to be active 24/7, so not only do we want to expand our own programming, but we want to serve as a destination for other arts organizations to present their work in addition to being a space available for rentals.”

I can see a bright future for this group, as well as the talent involved.  So, that begs the question, what are the visions for the future (and, boy, did I open up a can of worms with them on that question)?  Palmer would like to see, “…increase the number of shows we perform from 6 to 7 in the next year or so, and add new programming like improvisational comedy nights, rehearsed readings, new play readings, and also present other organization’s work. Eventually we hope to produce children’s theatre; adult actors doing classic children and family shows for our local audiences.”  Lewis is equally vocal, “…I want our impact to be stronger and more far-reaching…the artistic product to get stronger…actors to get paid better….increase our level of professionalism, organization-wide…hire more staff to help us expand our programs…unlike any other arts organization…that doesn’t turn over every six months, because they get burnt out and frustrated by their leadership…help turn Hillsboro into a tourist destination…I want us to continue pushing the envelope and driving the conversation and making our work relevant and important.”  Wow!  Tall orders, but from what I’ve seen in the past, they have the “right stuff” to succeed.

And the “beat goes on,” with Geffen piping in, “…it would be neat for those not involved in the current production to be able to host workshops/classes, do in-school workshops and educational work with the local high schools we partner with through the Passport program, to tour the area bringing productions into the schools….  Hillier’s take on it, “…Flexible seating, intimacy between the actors and audience, huge chances for risk taking both for actors and designers and how a season is selected. Many more productions and a different style I believe will be perfect for the space.  Greer’s unique observations are, “…engage our audiences…moved by work where I’m clearly breathing the same air as the performers, sharing their personal space, and being even more clearly physically invited into their world. The proximity at which I’m able to experience another human being’s vulnerability is electric.

I have witnessed the theatre scene in the greater Portland area grow and expand immensely over the last 35 years that I’ve been involved with it and the magic continues to spread.  Nothing is impossible if the Dreamer stays steadfast to their course.  The only thing to stop you is if you let the dream die.  I would bet money that Bag & Baggage’s dreams will come true!  I, like Cassie, am “…looking forward to being on this crazy ride and seeing where it takes us as we grow!


If you want the practical information on their progress, check out this site www.bnbevolution.org or their company site at www.bagnbaggage.org  If interested in tours or if you have any questions as to how you can contribute contact cassie@bagnbaggage.org or call her at 503-345-9590.  May they Live Long and Prosper!