Listening to Our Neighbors

by Scott Palmer

in MetLife/TCG A-ha! Think It Do It

Post image for Listening to Our Neighbors

(Photo of Venetian Theatre in Hillsboro, Oregon. The following post features work by a MetLife/TCG A-ha! grantee–to learn more about the program, click here.)

Bag&Baggage Productions was founded in 2005 as a touring theatrical production company, producing work in small communities throughout Oregon without a resident professional theatre. In 2007, the company was invited to become the resident theatre at the recently refurbished Venetian Theatre in downtown Hillsboro (an historic building originally designed as a vaudeville theatre) and we made Hillsboro our base of operations. Since that time B&B has experienced steady growth and increased recognition for the artistic quality of our work which has a focus on the classics of American and English drama, often performed in unique and unexpected ways, including major world premiere literary adaptations. Among the many dramatic works we have produced are plays written by William Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, and Charles Dickens. Although we are currently “home bound” in The Venetian Theatre, our roots are in travelling and touring to smaller communities throughout Oregon…a heritage we honor and communities we miss!

Bag&Baggage is Hillsboro’s only professional theatre company, and one of only two such professional theatres in the whole of Washington County, Oregon (the third most populous county in the state). We produce 6 full-scale, professional theatrical productions each year and, on average, our work attracts approximately 2,000 – 2,500 audience members per production. In addition to our indoor work, we produce Washington County’s only professional outdoor summer Shakespeare performance each July/August at the Tom Hughes Civic Center Plaza. Bag&Baggage also manages a unique educational outreach and audience development program, TEN4ONE, which seeks donations from individuals and businesses to provide free tickets to any high school student from any high school in Washington County to attend our regular season of performances along with educational workshops and “meet the cast” experiences. We are deeply committed to our community and to the people who live here and are eager to find ways to connect our work to a larger audience, but there are some challenges to expanding that base, including our geography.

B&B sits, literally, on the line between urban/suburban Portland and the rural/agricultural west of Washington County.

When we look east from the front door of our theatre towards Portland, we see the largest and most densely populated community in Oregon and the largest concentration of professional performing arts groups in the state…a fertile ground for theatre but also a highly competitive one.

When we look west from our theatre, however, we see a series of small, agricultural communities with no access to professional performing arts of any kind. As the only professional theatre in Hillsboro, and the closest professional performing arts organization for these rural communities, we are eager to connect our work to these communities in a more meaningful way.

And let’s be honest about this; many large arts organizations based in urban areas have preconceived notions about rural communities (e.g., they are wastelands of culture, have access only to poor quality community theatre troupes, or are disinterested in high quality or provocative approaches to the arts). Trying to determine HOW to connect our work to our neighbors is fraught with dangers; how do we do so in a way that isn’t condescending or preachy? What if there isn’t any interest on the part of these communities? What if they are interested but not willing to travel?

This is the question for us, and for our Think It! Grant: How can we connect our work to nearby rural communities in a meaningful and more intentional way?

To avoid the pitfalls of these (and other) preconceptions, we have opted instead to research our questions in a listening mode. We have developed an open-ended interview technique that requires that both the interviewer and the interviewee engage in a dialogue that helps to establish a relationship alongside gathering data.

Rather than use an online survey or a telephone poll with multiple choice options, we intend to go where the residents of rural communities direct us and, in so doing, discover what they want. There are no preconceived outcomes in this process; there are no desired or best answers to our questions. In fact, we may determine that the kind of theatre we produce is not of interest to our rural neighbors. Alternatively, we may discover that our work is of great interest to them, but we are just not inviting them to participate in the right way. We may discover that residents of rural communities are eager for access to professional theater, but due to their unwillingness to travel great distances, we may be compelled to explore touring options. We may find that these communities are hungry for professional performing arts, but not theatre or, alternatively, not our kind of theatre.

Whatever the outcome, the format of open-ended interview questions and small group post-performance forums are an ideal way for us to listen to what our rural neighbors are saying. By doing so, we hope to learn from them how best to help meet their arts access needs and, hopefully, learn important lessons for other theatre across the country who have similar challenges and opportunities.

One of the most exciting aspects of this grant project for us is the fact that it takes us back to our roots, back to a time when our focus was on providing access to high quality, provocative professional theatre to communities in our state without a resident professional theatre. It is how we came to be as a company and it is gratifying, and exciting, that we have the opportunity to, perhaps, return to those roots in a more meaningful and significant way.

Scott Palmer HeadshotScott Palmer, Bag&Baggage’s founding Artistic Director, has directed and produced critically acclaimed theatrical productions across the globe. As the Artistic Director of Glasgow Repertory Company (Scotland’s Shakespeare company), Scott directed world premiere adaptations of King Lear, Titus Andronicus, Richard III, Henry V, Antony and Cleopatra, As You Like It and The Tempest. His radical reinterpretation of Lear was called “a 21st century Lear to cherish” by The Scotsman and his anti-war adaptation of Henry V was called “a thoughtful effort to relate to the modern world” by the Scotland on Sunday. In the United States, Scott has adapted and directed versions of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Much Ado About Nothing, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and The Comedy of Errors. His world premiere adaptations of Twelfth Night (featuring added text by F. Scott Fitzgerald) and The Taming of the Shrew alongside Fletcher’s rarely performed sequel The Woman’s Prize have helped to develop an international reputation for Bag&Baggage. In addition to Shakespeare, Scott has directed critically acclaimed productions of Arthur Miller’s Death of A Salesman, Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, Simon Levy’s adaptation of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and his own zany, comedic adaptation of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol that puts Dickens himself center-stage. Scott is a passionate advocate for the arts, having served on the Hillsboro Arts and Culture Council, the Westside Cultural Alliance and regularly reviewing grants for the Oregon Arts Commission and the Oregon Cultural Trust. In 2010, Scott was awarded the City of Beaverton’s Arts Leadership Award and the Hillsboro Chamber of Commerce recognized him as Business Leader of the Year. Scott’s continuing work on major literary adaptations have brought him to the attention of Shakespearean scholars across the world, and his work is regularly reviewed and featured in textbooks and journals. Scott received his BA at the University of Oregon, his Masters at Oregon State University and studied for a PhD in Contemporary Theatre Practice at the University of Glasgow.

The intent of the MetLife/TCG A-HA! Program is to enable theatres to dare to try new approaches to problem-solving artistic, managerial, production and/or technological challenges–to try things the organization doesn’t and couldn’t normally do. To learn more about the program, click here.