As I write this, in Ashland Oregon, the summer sky is dark, full of smoke from wildfires, an apocalyptic sky reminiscent of bad, scary B movies—a sky which has driven tourists, die-hard theatregoers all…away. It’s made me think about where I live. I live in a town that is dependent on theatre. Theatre is our big industry. Theatre is our Google, our Apple, our Wall Street. Shakespeare is The Man here. If Shakespeare goes down, we’re all broke. The B and Bs, the restaurants, the cute shops…kaput. They could axe the Fourth of July parade, even the football team at my son’s school. He wouldn’t mind—he comes from people who play theatre games, but the town would be big-time sad. We need the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. And we need rain. Fast.
Me, I come from another theatre town. New York. I’ve crossed police lines after a terrorist bombing in Times Square to get to the theatre. I’ve lived in Los Angeles. I went to the theatre right after the big Northridge earthquake and right after the Uprising in ’92. Because the theatre is where I feel “safe.” Where the world makes some sense. (I do realize it’s kinda sad that the world makes sense to me in the theatre, but there it is.) And the theatre is what drew me to Ashland. It’s the largest repertory theatre in the country. Actors actually make a living here. Year after year! They buy houses from the money they’ve made in the theatre. They raise kids. Some of those kids go on to…make theatre. A life in the theatre is almost normal here, for God’s sake.
Of course, when I first came to Ashland to do my play Distracted, I thought the whole repertory company thing was a terrible idea. How would I get the best actors for the roles in my play? They’d stick me with actors from the company, whether they were perfect for the roles or not! Turned out, I found some very strange things going on here. For one thing, there almost none of the “theatre talk” around the rehearsal table that you commonly hear. I don’t think I heard the word “agent” for weeks. Since the actors already knew each other, there was no one to impress. They just…worked. Really hard and really fast. Possibly because most of them were also doing another play and/or understudying. And understudies here actually go on! In Shakespeare, no less! The actors also had the benefit of building on other experiences. The actors who played Mom and Dad had played sister and brother, or servant and master, and maybe their kids were in the same pre-school, and maybe they’d even been married for a while. In other words, there was a shorthand in relating to each other. And, big surprise to me, there was a depth.
You might wonder, in terms of that repertory thing, if, as an audience member, I get tired of seeing the same actors year after year. Surely the tourists don’t. It’s one of the draws of coming here. They feel a kind of ownership. And they feel perfectly free to criticize the plays to the actors in the supermarket, because, after all, these actors are old friends. I have to admit that, theatre snob that I am, I have been struck by the ever increasing versatility of the company, by their ability to stretch to the demands of new directors and new forms, by their obvious joy in doing so. Contrary to the opinion of some, feeding actors does not make them lazy, they’re not lions. Treating actors well, giving them health insurance for instance, is a damn good thing.
Which brings me back to the sky…Those wildfires better chill the fuck out, because people are trying to do theatre here. The town needs it. The actors, who are part of the town, need it. The tourists need it. They come here, after all, for theatre! You can’t even say that about New York. Sure, they may do a little river rafting on the side, a little shopping, but they come here, year after year, to see six or seven shows, to live and breathe…theatre.
And I don’t know another place in this country where that’s happening.
LISA LOOMER, who told American Theatre which productions she’s most looking forward for its upcoming October season preview, is the author of Living Out, The Waiting Room, Distracted, Café Vida, Expecting Isabel, Two Things You Don’t Talk About at Dinner, Birds, Bocón!, and Accelerando, which have been produced at such theatres as The Mark Taper Forum, Arena Stage, South Coast Repertory, The Kennedy Center, Seattle Rep, Denver Theater Center, La Jolla Playhouse, OSF, Trinity Repertory, The Williamstown Theatre Festival, and, in New York, at The Roundabout, The Vineyard, Second Stage, Intar, and the Public. She’s a two-time winner of the American Theatre Critics Award, and has also received awards from the Kennedy Center, the Jane Chambers Award, and the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize.