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Postcard from Eugene
William M Hulings, Erica Towe, Storm Kennedy, and Shawn Bookey in Successful Strategies by Andrea Stolowitz. Photo courtesy OCT.
William M Hulings, Erica Towe, Storm Kennedy, and Shawn Bookey in Successful Strategies by Andrea Stolowitz. Photo courtesy OCT.

About two hours south of Portland and three hours north of Ashland sits Eugene, OR, a city of 160K with a vibrant theatre community. An anchor is our only professional theatre, Oregon Contemporary Theatre (OCT), with Producing Artistic Director Craig Willis at its helm.  

“I feel very fortunate to produce theatre for Eugene audiences,” Willis says. “We have a strong contingent of theatre goers here who embrace new and/or recent work. The base of support for new work is strong enough that if combined with the occasional Tony Award-winning proven title or a revisionary approach to a classic that we can afford to take risks with programming works by playwrights our audience isn’t familiar with.”

OCT is an active member with the National New Play Network (NNPN), and has been an associate member for six years, almost as long as the program has been in operation.

“The rolling world premiere program is only a part of why we belong,” Willis says. “Being a small theatre, we don’t have the luxury of a literary staff to help us discover emerging writers. Our membership in NNPN helps by giving us an ongoing relationship with other theatres, some of whom do have literary staff. So, we can piggy back on what those full-time literary managers are learning in their pursuit of new work.”

WiIlis also serves as a reader for NNPN’s annual showcase, reading ten to twelve new plays that have been submitted for the showcase, and attending the showcase to hear the six selected finalists.

“And as important as listening to the finalists, the showcase is also a great opportunity to meet other theatre leaders (both artistic directors and literary managers) face to face to glean what they’ve come across recently and to champion the things I’ve come across,” Willis says.

This season, OCT will participate in a rolling world premiere for Audrey Cefaly’s Alabaster.

“There are plays from past showcases that have already had rolls that I’m still interested in that didn’t quite land right for the seasons we were putting together in past years,” Willis says. “It’s the same with attending other new play festivals. There have been several plays we produced two or three years after first seeing/hearing the play at the Denver New Play Summit, Humana, or at the Pacific Playwright’s Festival.”  

OCT has done three rolling world premieres thus far, Nathan Alan DavisDontrell Who Kissed the Sea, Robert Caisley’s Lucky Me, and Steve Yockey’s Blackberry Winter. “And through NW10, OCT has produced nearly 100 original ten-minute plays by writers from across the Northwest,” Willis says.

Staged readings are another resource OCT provides when it can.

“I was very excited earlier this year to get to do a workshop of Clarence Coo’s On That Day in Amsterdam, and I hope we get to produce that as well as other plays by Clarence in the future,” Willis says. “There are many new plays that I want to produce, but there are roadblocks. Sometimes agents are looking to get the play first into the hands of major LORT theatres or a NY production before giving a small company in rural Oregon access. And I get that; though it can be really frustrating to know that there’s a great script out there that I think we could knock out of the park, but that it’s going to go another year or two waiting for attention from a more prestigious producer. And then, sometimes, when it does become available it no longer feels right for us. I worry about plays that have particularly timely messages that get lost because of a writer’s agent’s good intentions for how to build their career.”

In Fall of 2016, I stumbled into an OCT educational program, hoping to learn how to write a ten-minute play. I’d never written a play before and thought it might be fun. Little did I know how that class would set me on a life-changing path.

Willis points to OCT’s relationship with local colleges, especially the University of Oregon (UO), Lane Community College (LCC) and Oregon State University (OSU), as a tremendous local assets, providing access to resources in terms of talent, such as faculty members who direct and design and students who also design and/or act, stage manage, etc.

 “That makes it possible for us to produce the high caliber theatre that our audience enjoys,” Willis says. “Our high-quality production would be impossible without the support of the local educational programs, because Eugene is too far away from a major urban center to otherwise have access to as strong a pool of talent.”

The UO Department of Theatre Arts is both an academic unit offering a variety of undergraduate and graduate degrees (including the BA, BS, MA, MFA, and PhD), and it is the home of UO’s University Theater, a full-scale production “company” that mounts five major shows each academic year. Notes UO professor of Theatre and English Harry Wonham:

“The Department enjoys a world-class performance facility, the Miller Theatre Complex, which includes the renovated 300-seat Robinson Theater and the more flexible and intimate Hope, a black-box theater accommodating up to 150 seats. A third performance space is the student-run Pocket Theater, which is organized, staffed, and administered entirely by UO students,” Wonham says.

“On these three stages the Department of Theatre Arts mounts a diverse production season, drawing on faculty expertise, student talent, and the shared passion of an extended theatre community to produce dramatic works that are important, challenging, and entertaining.”

The UO hosted the 2019 KCACTF regional conference in February 2019.

“Something like 12,000-14,000 students and faculty from colleges, universities, and community colleges throughout the western US spent five days on our campus and in our theaters (and at OCT and LCC, as well), showcasing their talents and learning from each other in workshops, demonstrations, and other activities,” Wonham says.

In our area, collaboration between and among theatres and educational centers is common, and at Lane Community College (LCC), all are welcome.

Brian Haimbach, program faculty lead, notes that LCC is a two-year program. “Our curriculum focuses on Acting, but our production component focuses on new works giving students and community members the opportunity to work on new works for the stage in full production,” he says.

LCC finds lots of ways to support creative people in our community:

“All of our auditions are open to the public. We hire guest directors for two of our four shows each year (the other is me and a student director). One of our guest directors provides artistic oversight for our evening of ten-minute plays and devised work,” Haimbach says. “We produce at least one community playwright in the evening of ten-minute plays, usually its more than one.

We frequently produce new works in our “full length production” slots. Although we don't have a formal submission process for playwrights, I am more than happy to consider works written especially by local playwrights for full productions.”

About 45 minutes north of Eugene, the theatre program at Oregon State University in Corvallis, provides students with a variety of performing arts experiences, from acting and directing to writing and design. Albany’s Linn-Benton Community College’s unique outreach program Sanctuary Stage, focuses on creating original plays through Devised, Applied and Community-Engaged play-making platforms. A little further up the freeway, Willamette University in Salem plays home to Theatre 33, a new play development company that helps Oregon and Northwest playwrights develop their scripts from a workshop performance to a world premiere.

Any conversation about Eugene Theatre, though, has to focus on the opportunities and resources available through locally-grown community theatre. And the oldest among them, actually, the oldest operating theatre in Oregon, is the Very Little Theatre (VLT).

“The Very Little Theatre prides itself on being a true community theater where anyone at any level of experience or expertise can participate in VLT productions,” says board member Kari Welch. “Community theater should be a place of learning and growing. Our artists range from well-heeled to complete novice. We strive to be a steppingstone into the theater world and a landing place for the experienced who want to pass on their craft to others.”

In 2019, through its relationship with Minority Voices Theatre, VLT commissioned me to write a new holiday play, derived from conversations with a diverse pool of local performers. It was the first time in nearly a century of continuous operation, that the theatre had developed a new play.

Happily, our grand experiment worked, and At Winter’s Edge earned great reviews and played to sold-out houses.

“VLT is a cornerstone of the theatre world in the small city of Eugene,” Welch says. “It’s also part of a greater tradition of community theater across the nation that provide access to theater both as a participant and a patron.”

Whether you’re submitting work or considering graduate programs or thinking of a move to the PacNW, Eugene and its surrounding communities have quite a bit to offer.

Come visit me! We’ll go hiking.

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