A Stage for All

June 27, 2024, Feature, by Lindsay Collins

0724 feature a stage for all 410

For an enhanced digital experience, read this story in the ezine.

“O, wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in’t.”
Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” Miranda, Act 5, Scene 1

In Shakespeare’s play, “The Tempest,” a man named Prospero lives on a remote island with his daughter, Miranda. When Prospero uses his magical powers to conjure a storm that shipwrecks a passing boat and its crew onto the island, a story of humanity ensues. As Miranda delivers her final lines, she remarks about her excitement of being surrounded by new people and expresses joy for the myriad characters who have come into her life.

Much like Miranda, who is delighted to have found community within her small corner of the world, park and recreation professionals create oases where people come together. In Corvallis, Oregon, staff and volunteers at the city’s Majestic Theater are fostering an environment where people are free to express themselves and learn from people of many ages and identities, creating a unique community based in belonging. Their production of “The Tempest” is just one example of how these individuals are centering inclusion and connection in Corvallis.

Setting the Scene

Before beginning production of the play, park and recreation staff — along with the play’s director, Arlee Olson — knew they wanted to engage a diverse group of actors and crew members. “We started doing a bunch of diversity work to help bolster the cross-section of our community because our community was a lot more diverse than who we were seeing on stage, and so we wanted to make our environment of the theater much more welcoming to people of all backgrounds,” says Rachel Kohler, cultural arts and community engagement recreation coordinator for City of Corvallis. “It’s community theater. Every part of the community should be involved.”

Laurie Mason, a long-time volunteer actor who played the character Gonzalo in “The Tempest,” says that hasn’t always been a reality in theater. “In a relatively short time — 16 years that I’ve watched theater change and adjust — we’ve gone from just the opposite,” she says. “If you wanted to be in a play, you had to fit the part. There’s just no question about it.... It has not been the norm to be able to say, ‘I can be this person. I can be this character. Don’t tell me I have to do it like this. Or, work with me at least.’ So, directors are having to expand their views.”

According to Olson, the reason she was drawn to directing “The Tempest” is because what many people saw as a story glorifying colonization, she saw differently. “It can be not about colonizer as hero, but about colonizer as bad guy, and the spirits and Caliban as really being able to stand up and get their own rights in the end as they deserve,” she says. “That was my take on this show. And thinking, ‘Well, if it’s about equal rights, it’s got to be about inclusion and many different kinds of people need to be included so that it is what I’m claiming it’s about.’”

In Corvallis, reimagining who is invited to participate in the theater began with putting together an audition announcement that encouraged people of all ages, identities and abilities to get involved. “A lot of work has been put into the audition announcement,” says Christel Birdwell, City of Corvallis cultural arts and community engagement supervisor. “Rachel has been a big part of this, to make it much more inclusive so it doesn’t seem like it’s just trying to get one slice of who we serve here in Corvallis, but to really be open. Like, ‘This character can be played really by anyone.’”

Kohler explains, “A couple of years ago, we did a show that I directed that I was super intentional about making the cast as diverse as possible. We got a ton of gender-diverse people because my audition announcement was like, ‘Hey, I would like to cast people of all genders and I will change the pronouns to match whatever pronouns you would like.’” She also points out that this play’s central character, Richard III, is often played by an able-bodied actor pretending to have a disability. “So, we put out there, ‘We would prefer to cast an actor who uses a mobility device of any kind. We will figure out the blocking.’ We had a ton of mobility-diverse actors come out because of that audition announcement. And then these people have stayed…. It’s a snowball effect with making our casts more diverse,” Kohler notes.

The Playbill

Thanks to the intentional outreach, the staff and director were able to recruit a cast and crew of approximately 60 people, each with their own unique story and experience to share with the group. About a third of the cast members identified as transgender — primarily the younger actors, who volunteered alongside many older adults. “The older actors who have been here for a long time — who do tend to be white, cisgendered people — get to hang out with all of these young, dynamic trans people, and they learn a lot about pronouns, and they learn a lot about gender diversity and what it looks like being welcoming to people of all genders,” says Kohler.

Mason says this provides an unparalleled experience for fostering understanding among generational divides. “My friends of my age, who are not in theater, are still talking about [how] ‘they’ is a plural pronoun. [They say], ‘I can’t do that.’” But for Mason, thanks to her involvement in the theater, “Years ago, I was talking to people who were so excited to tell me that they were ‘they’ and to say a little bit about what it made them feel like. I could learn in increments, person by person…. I have had the kind of education that most people my age have not had the opportunity to have. Anybody who wants to get a leg up on what is going on in the world — [such as] how people are breaking their shackles — should spend time at the theater. Probably other places in parks and rec [too], but this is where I spend my time.”

Birdwell shares that this learning goes beyond intellectual understanding and touches on a deeper emotional connection between generations, which impacts their views and actions both inside and outside the theater. She recalls about 10 years ago, some actors in their 50s and 60s were beginning to hear “some other pronouns than ‘he’ and ‘she,’ and a lot of the comments were like, ‘Oh, kids these days. What’s next?’” Today, these older adults are “fierce defenders” of these kids, says Birdwell. “If someone is misgendering… they’ll be happy to take that person aside and say, ‘Hey, I had a hard time with this too, but you really should try harder to do these pronouns for this person.’ I love seeing how welcoming that is, and how it helps the young people. And it really helps the older actors in their everyday life outside of the theater. They are so much more tolerant now.”

Getting Creative for Inclusion

One challenge the cast and crew faced together was having one of their actors, Kohler, in a wheelchair within a 113-year-old theater that was not designed with accessibility in mind. “The costume room and the makeup room are not accessible to a wheelchair, and the dressing rooms are kind of accessible to a wheelchair, but it would’ve been too difficult with the number of people in [the] cast for me to get in and out of the dressing room and then come all the way around to the elevator and get down,” she explains. “So, we built a little dressing room for me backstage, because that was just easier. Figuring out little workarounds for that was challenging but rewarding.”

The trickiest adjustment was the set, Kohler says, including “figuring out how to make sure there was enough space to get my wheelchair through in a way that wouldn’t cause a traffic jam. The set designer and the builders kept having to trim a little bit more away from this staircase, and they did that three or four times until we got to a point where the wheelchair could definitely get through.”

By taking the time to assess the barriers and employ creative solutions, the team exemplified how a little bit of effort can make a big difference in a person’s experience — and potentially the difference in whether they are able to take part at all.

Even after making the adjustments required to make the space wheelchair accessible, when Kohler’s injuries had nearly healed, questions arose about the authenticity of her continuing to act in the wheelchair.

Mason says, “By the time we opened, [Kohler] was getting close to being able to walk around. And I remember her saying she was very opposed to the idea that you would put somebody in a wheelchair who does not need a wheelchair just to have a wheelchair on stage. And here she was, now potentially with a cane she could have made it around. And we all talked about it and thought, ‘No, it’s fair. All this rehearsal you had to have the wheelchair. It’s what you’re used to. It’s what we’re used to. It is not unreasonable to stay in that wheelchair for the run of the show.’”

One important aspect of this decision was that it was made as a community, ensuring the sentiment was supported amongst the group. “When something comes up, anybody who has an ear and is nearby is taking part, whether they’re just listening or they’re offering ideas,” says Mason.

Ultimately, the decision to include the wheelchair had a lasting impact that extended beyond just the cast and crew. “By being in the play in her wheelchair, she showed audiences that a wheelchair does not limit you, and showed our theater things about the structure that needed to be adjusted so that we could be more welcoming in the future to people who might otherwise not bother to imagine that they could be part of something,” says Mason.

Weathering the Storm Together

Just as Prospero used his powers to conjure a storm that sent the ship off its course, an ice storm offset the charted path of this crew’s rehearsals, causing the final week of run-throughs to be canceled. “I have acted for most of my life and I have never been in a production where we just didn’t have dress rehearsals. And it was pretty intimidating!” says Kohler. “But because the cast had really gelled and was really happy to support one another, everyone backstage was very encouraging.”

Birdwell recalls, “I remember running into one of the actors on [the] Friday before they had to go on with not having had a single dress rehearsal and I’m like, ‘How are you? Are you guys going to be okay?’ And she [says], ‘This show was ready two weeks ago. It’s like a family. We trust each other, and it’s going to go fine.’”

Curtain Call

The efforts that staff at the Majestic Theater have made to integrate inclusion into their policies and practices have been a catalyst for inclusive practices in other facets of the park and recreation department and beyond.

For example, Birdwell explains that the theater was previously managed by a nonprofit, but when it moved under the park and recreation department’s purview, “the first thing we did was switch over to a registration system that the rest of parks and rec was using here in this area. And as you were signing yourself or your child up for classes or whatnot, there were just two options for gender. There had been a little bit of pushback but nothing big,” she says. “But once the theater got involved... [additional gender options were] something that we were able to push through pretty quickly… and that really made people all around parks and rec feel included. We heard from people who go to the pool all the time, [saying] ‘I’m so thankful that that changed,’ even though they hadn’t made a complaint about it or anything like that.” Birdwell shares that in a similar fashion, all park and recreation departments can be proactive about assessing their systems and making adjustments that will make more members of the community feel welcomed and supported.

Mason sees the theater as a safe space where people are free to explore their identity with the support of others — especially for those who may not have many other safe spaces to express themselves fully. “If theater can exist traditionally as a place to challenge society, to present awkward ideas, to present difficult things, in an environment that allows people to safely absorb them and maybe change their own perspectives, we are certainly that now for the people who are very bravely exploring who they are. What does gender mean? What is a nonbinary world — what does it look like?” she says. “So, I feel that we are very important, particularly right now. Parks and recreation becomes the place where you can safely discuss the most difficult topics.”

Editor’s Note: Photos included in the online, ezine and print versions are by Sabrina Dedek and provided courtesy of City Corvallis Parks and Recreation.

Lindsay Collins is Managing Editor of Parks & Recreation magazine.