Are Utopias Dead?

Randy Thompson (Winston) Taylor Jackson Ross (Parsons) Bill Salyers, Derek Manson (guards)  Photo by Darrett Sanders

Randy Thompson (Winston) Taylor Jackson Ross (Parsons) Bill Salyers, Derek Manson (guards)  Photo by Darrett Sanders

When I was offered to direct 1984, I was very excited. I love sci-fi. I love taking a fragment of our society and plucking it out for examination.  Then, during the first week of rehearsal, I had insomnia. I couldn’t get my brain to shut down. Rehearsals were actually fun. It is a very light-hearted cast. But something under the play disturbed me. Yes, Orwell’s world where hate is proscribed like exercise and truth is a plaything of those in power is too close for comfort. However, there was something else… the feeling that the hate and doublethink were just symptoms of a deeper societal ill. The fear that maybe humans cannot live together. The fear that our cultures may change, the wrapping, but does what’s inside change? Do humans change?

Fundamental to Western philosophy is the idea that humanity progresses. We get closer to our potential as a species as history moves forward getting exponentially closer to perfection, to Utopia. But do we as a culture still hold this to be true? Inundated day by day, moment by moment with alerts of all the awful things people are doing, have we just accepted that the world is shit and humans are inherently cruel? If we have, then why try to overcome problems like racism and sexism? Why not succumb to short term pleasures and personal gain? Or are we driven any to make peace with each other because we want to save our own skins, not to bring ourselves ever-closer to an ideal vision of mankind? Perhaps fear drives us more than hope?

Many people call the World Wars the birth of dystopias. With the incomparable loss of life and morals sacrificed in the fires of Aushwitz and Hiroshima.  We brought our species to the brink of extinction. What hope, what progress can one find in that?

While my generation was not raised hiding under desks, we have grown up under a new terror. Random violence. I was eight for Oklahoma City, twelve for Columbine, fourteen for 9/11. My first month in high school was marked by the towers falling again and again and again on screens in every classroom. The plane crashing again and again. Cameras zooming into bodies falling. Then I watched the horror get branded into a neat catchphrase and bite-sized sentences, cementing a youthful distrust of what I was told.

Boyfriends and cousins went to war. I learned Arabic and studied in the Middle East.   

I didn’t realize it then, but I was searching for my utopia: a world where a shared humanity can be found in any situation. I found my utopia and I didn’t find it. I learned that everything is more complex than the tidy packaged stories of heroes and villains I devoured as a child.

In the US, more than in the Middle East, I learned that misunderstanding breeds fear and fear breeds hate. I try not to judge that, I understand that. It is easier for us to guard against the darker aspects of humanity than trust our noble impulses. After all, I find dystopias believable and utopias sentimental or dangerously idealistic.

Even though now, materialistically, our society is far better off than when Thomas Moore penned “Utopia” in 1516. We live longer; the infant mortality rate is lower; I can get food delivered with the click of a button; I never worry about famine; I can access entertainment anytime of the day or night; I can travel almost anywhere in the world in a day; I have seen images of the surface of the moon and Mars. I have witnessed beautiful, inspiring things that are a direct result of human-kind’s “progress.”

And yet I find A Brave New World and 1984 more plausible than Utopia.

Because I wonder…our physical bodies are better off, but is our humanity?

I have seen bodies dragged into my old university in Cairo, a dictator fall, another rise. I have seen some of the most beautiful artifacts from the cradle of civilization smashed, wiped from history. I have had a friend injured in a mass shooting. I have seen children mowed down in a school. I have seen a young man kill himself because of a webcam and a tweet.  I have seen unarmed black men shot and suffocated and mistreated without end and officers shot in retaliation and white terrorists set free.

So I ask, have we progressed?

Utopias are not about living better, they are about being better.

There is no hiding from society. People have tried. I grew up in a rural town of 700 people, many of them seeking to get away from one aspect of bullshit or another in our world. But tragedy and pain is everywhere, the only difference there is know the person behind the headline. Maybe that is a fundamental difference. The difference.

In my hometown I knew a rapist, a murderer, and a molester. They are easy fodder for hate. After all, they have done things that are hateful. But I knew them. They went to school with me since preschool, they took my friend to prom, they were my teachers. I cannot hate them. I am forced to separate evil actions and evil people. I do believe there are evil people in the world. But evil actions are not always done by evil people. I can hate the act and not the person. Nor because those people were from my hometown should we conclude that everyone in my hometown is a rapist, a murderer or a molester. Or go further and assume that all rural people are rapists, murderers and molesters.

Maybe my hope for humanity is not a Utopia—a place where no evil occurs and harmony reigns (I would hope it is possible, but I don’t believe it)—but a place where people try to see the individual before the stereotype. Is that possible? Will we perpetually seek scape goats?

Hope is a worn word now, a faded banner from my youth. But without it what do we have? Fear. And if I had learned one things from my travels, life, and George Orwell—fear destroys humanity.

 

Second Skin

I first read Kristin's draft of Second Skin almost...2 years ago now...I remember getting the same feeling in the pit of my stomach as I did when I was a kid swimming out to the deep where I could no longer see the sand. The thrill and fear of drifting above the abyss.  I also felt so close to the characters, their flaws, their frustrations. Quinn's frustration for not being able to control her temper, the freedom Sigrid felt underwater, Aislinn's desire to be given respect from her sister. They felt very personal to me and while I knew the characters weren't entirely autobiographical for Kristin either, I felt the fragments of her in them.  But something deep, like from the level of the soul.  I've always admired Kristin's intelligence and desire to wrestle with large topics in her work. Yet in this intimate piece, I found an emotional depth that I rarely find in the work of any playwright, never mind an intellectual powerhouse like Kristin.  

Kristin Idaszak

Kristin Idaszak

 

Directors often have to employ tricks to keep themselves seeing the material of a play with fresh eyes throughout a rehearsal process. I've known directors to read newspapers in tech, pretend the play is in a foreign language, and leave the theatre during previews to smoke or drink wine to keep their mind looking at the play anew.  Working on Second Skin, I constantly find new layers without trying. There is always more to explore, more to dig into. Rehearsals are the best part of my day.  Even parts where I was thinking... "why the hell did Kristin do it like that?"... a week later we figure it out and it becomes one of my favorite sections. 

Initially, the cast was nervous,  "We are going to be up there, just talking, for like... 20 minutes each?!" They worried that they couldn't keep the audience entertained. Then, early on, I had them get up and read the piece for each other. They realized that it's exciting and compelling. The characters and the story draw you in. They also enjoy that it goes back to the primal part of theatre: a storyteller, a group of people, and their imaginations.  

She has to stay with you. She has to love you. But she doesn’t belong to your world. She doesn’t belong to any world.
— Second Skin by Kristin Idaszak

 

To really dig into the primal theatricality of Kristin's play  I decided to put it back to where I have the fondest memories of telling and hearing stories: around a campfire. The beach and the ocean were also essential to my experience of the play, the darkness, the sound of crashing waves, the mist, the stars, the sand, the cold even.  So...why try to fake all that? Why not do it on the beach? And why not use the natural shifts of light? Start it at sunset so as the play sinks further into the ghost-story, the world gets darker and darker.

This play is delicate, it must be handled with precision. But most of all it needs life. It demands that actors and space and audience live with it, not fall into predictable patterns.  When it lives, when it fulfills the role of theatre as art that is living in front of you,  it is like a spell, it engrosses you.  Like the Selkie out of Irish Mythology,  "it stays with you, it loves you, but it doesn't belong to you, it doesn't belong to any world." 

 

 

Cherry Orchard Media

Jefferson Public Radio interviewed me about The Cherry Orchard Project, my career and growing up in a small town.  Click here to listen.

The Siskiyou Daily News also wrote a front page article about the project! Click here to read the article on their site. Or read it below. 

 

Theater producer native wants to preserve Etna's history

By Amanda Hinds Doyle
@SDNHindsDoyle

March 11. 2015 11:47AM

ETNA – Theater director Kate Jopson is making a name not only for herself in the big city, but for her hometown of Etna, California, with The Cherry Orchard Project.

The ultimate goal of the project is to use a live performance to create a bridge between rural and urban communities in California.

Producer Camille Schenkkan and playwright Octavio Solis also have rural roots.

Jopson said the idea came about in 2013 after reading “The Cherry Orchard,” by Anton Chekhov, which tells the story of a family in rural Russia that defaulted on the mortgage of their ancestral cherry orchard.

When they fail to see the world is changing, they lose the thing they love the most – their cherry orchard.

The orchard is then sold, demolished and the land is used for vacation rental homes.

Jopson realized that the play was highly symbolic of what could happen to her hometown.

“I realized how deeply terrifying that would be,” said Jopson. “As time passes it’s growing more difficult to make a living in rural areas and most people leave, including me.

“If we don’t share our stories we won’t survive,” said Jopson’s high school English teacher and longtime Scott Valley resident Melanie Fowle.

The trio plans to adapt Chekhov’s play to reflect life in Etna.

Jopson said doing this play is her way of trying to educate and hopefully preserve rural towns such as her own.

Jopson said she is really looking to the community to tell her their stories, such as when and why their family came to the area, what they feel is unique, what fears they have and what they hope for in the future..

Some residents have already come forward.

Alex Kwasnikow said, “While I did not spend my entire childhood in the valley ,I did experience a cultural shock moving from the city to Scott Valley. One of the many positive things we experienced was the waving of complete strangers on Highway 3. At first we couldn’t understand why and who was waving at us as we drove our cars. Eventually, we figured out people were just being friendly and probably mistook our vehicle for someone else they knew. As even more time went on, we made lots of friends and recognized their vehicles and would always wave at correct/incorrect vehicles too. This however has changed over the years. I notice less and less waving. People these days seem much more in a hurry than before.”

Jopson said the play is in its first stages.

Currently the project is in need of nearly $10,000 to cover costs.

From there, Jopson plans to apply for many grants to fund the whole $200,000, two-year production.

The first showing is set for the summer of 2016 in a farmhouse in Etna, according to Jopson.

From there, the production will travel to other rural areas to raise awareness about the struggles facing rural communities.

“My dream is that we will be able to preserve California’s amazing diversity of natural resources, people, places and lifestyles, including my cherry orchard – my hometown,” said Jopson.

As Etna’s Mayor Marilyn Steward told Jopson, “Life without history is just existence.”

To find out more or donate to The Cherry Orchard Project, visit http://www.rockethub.com/projects/54216-the-cherry-orchard-project

 

http://www.siskiyoudaily.com/article/20150311/NEWS/150319902


 

Donate to the Cherry Orchard

Camille Schenkkan (Managing Director, Circle X Theatre) playwright, Octavio Solis (Se Llama Christina, Theatre @ Boston Court and Lydia, Mark Taper Forum) and I  are raising money to adapt Chekhov’s classic play, The Cherry Orchard, to reflect my and Camille’s rural hometown of Etna, CA. Beginning with interviews of the town’s 700 inhabitants, Octavio, Camille and I will delve into the complex forces that threaten Etna’s survival. In the summer of 2016, professional actors from around California will rehearse and perform the play at a farmhouse in Etna and then tour the production down to Circle X Theatre in Los Angeles.  Our goal is to make a play that is unique to Siskiyou County and then spread the story to people who live in California’s cities. We hope this will generate a deeper curiosity and understanding about rural life throughout the state.

But we need $10,000 to finish our research, write the play and do workshops in our community! Click here to donate and see the great gifts you will receive from Siskiyou County artists. 

In order to adapt the play, we've started interviewing people from around my hometown and asking them about their dreams and fears for their community.   (From left to right, top to bottom: Mike and Lynne Bryan--5th generation farmers, Rosario Aragon--tree grower at Cal Forest Nurseries, Melinda Whipple-Smith Plank--artist and rancher, Prairie Spaulding--cosmetologist,  Hayley Hayden Moyles (and daughter)--Kate's classmate and a school administrator, Larry Kelly--Lawyer, Mary Carpelan--Shasta Indian Artist, Melanie Fowle--former teacher and head of the National Cattlewoman's Association, Marilyn Seward--Mayor of Etna, Ric Costales--Natural Resource Policy Specialist, J.J Lewis-Nichols--Artistic Director of Siskiyou Performing Arts Center,  Keith Whipple--Rancher)  




   .

First Community Adviser for The Cherry Orchard Project

I have been spending the last few weeks getting a list together for my community advisory board. I felt it was important since I no longer live year-round in my hometown and haven't for almost nine years that I have a group of people from various sections of the community who can advise me as the project develops and who know things about the community that I do not. The first community adviser I approached was Gail Jenner--who has known me since I was little-- and she agreed to help!

 

" History is more than the past…it connects us to who we are today."

 

Gail Jenner, of Etna, CA, is a writer, teacher, and wife of fourth-generation cattle rancher Doug Jenner. She graduated from California State University at Chico with a degree in Anthropology and minors in English and Social Science. It was at CSUC that she also met her cowboy husband.

She taught English and history for 20 years while also writing.  She has authored two historical novels and co-authored four local histories, three of which celebrate the "mythical, magical State of Jefferson," in which Etna and Scott Valley are located. A fifth travel guide, Historic Inns & Eateries in the State of Jefferson, features 30 locations in Northern California and Southern Oregon and a chapter of recipes from those locations. She has written for a number of Christian publishers and writes for Jefferson Backroads as well as for NPR/JPR's historical "As It Was" series. Her most recent release is a collection of memoirs about women in the rural west called Ankle High and Knee Deep.  Her first novel, Across Sweet Grass Hills, won the 2002 Willa Literary Award for Best Original Fiction by Women Writing the West.  

Gail and her husband Doug have three married children and seven grandchildren and live on the original Jenner homestead. A gardener and cook, she has sold recipes to Better Homes & Gardens, Everyday with Rachel Ray, Country Woman Magazine, and A Taste of Home. In addition to writing, she enjoys time on the ranch, working cows on horseback, or being with family and friends. She is a past president of Siskiyou County CattleWomen and 2011 Siskiyou County CattleWoman of the Year; she works as a volunteer librarian and museum curator and believes history is “more than the past…it connects us to who we are today.”  She and her family operates Jenner Family Beef which sell healthy select-cut beef to people all over the region.

You can check out her website here: http://www.gailjenner.com/

My Old Mentor, Now Community Adviser: J.J Lewis Nichols

I am more than pleased to announce that J.J Lewis-Nichols will be joining my Community Advisory Board for The Cherry Orchard Project.

Below is J.J's official resume...

"Born and raised in NYC, JJ’s passion for the theatre started by seeing the original Mary Martin “South Pacific” at age 2 ½. Her theatre education included attending all the major Broadway shows from the 50’s through 2010. After attending Denison University, she graduated the first year of the Tisch School of the Arts in “acting”. Her Broadway credits include the French maid in “Private Lives” in 1969 and as Frances Hunter in “No Sex Please, We’re British” in 1973. Based in NYC, her 17-year professional career included national tours, the Cleveland Playhouse, and the Mark Taper Lab. Television credits include appearances in many soap operas, the sit-com “The Madhouse Brigade”, numerous TV commercials, and over 400 radio ads. Her film work includes “Dead Ringer” with Meatloaf and “Dreamchaser” with Harold Gould and Jeff Tambor.
In 1981, she moved to Northern California where she is Artistic Director of the Siskiyou Performing Arts Center and currently working on her 112th show there. She has taught “acting/directing/playwrighting” for College of the Siskiyous as adjunct faculty for 25 years. In addition to “Little Women – A Merry Christmas” (the musical), she has written and produced other musical adaptations including “The Littlest Angel” and “Christmas Carol”."

What J.J doesn't mention in her resume is that she has mentored hundreds of students in Siskiyou County, many of whom are now working professionally in the arts. That is no small feat for a rural, low-income area, with very little opportunity for arts education. As a teacher she was invaluable to me. She gave me a place to go that I felt safe, appreciated and understood. She gave me discipline, self-confidence and helped me develop as a leader.  I owe a great deal of who I am today to this woman.

(She also has the terribly romantic story of falling in love with a cowboy and changing her life from a New York City-born-and-bred girl to living on top of a mountain in rural NorCal where she'd often have to hike through snow to get home.)

 

How has Scott Valley Changed?

After a great conversation with my mentor, she encouraged me to use the resources I already have. So I started a facebook group and invited everyone I was connected with from my home area to give me examples of how our area has changed, big or small. Here are some of the first responses:

""Callahan Days"...a big part of my childhood that was canceled due to alcohol abuse/related issues"-- Abigail Zufelt

"While I did not spend my entire childhood in the valley I did experience a cultural shock moving from the city to Scott valley. One of the many positive things we experienced was the waving of complete strangers on Hwy 3. At first we couldn't understand why and who was waving at us as we drove our cars. We became concerned that we might have moved into a scene from the stepford wives. Eventually, we figured out people were just being friendly and probably mistook our vehicle for someone else they knew. As even more time went on we made lots of friends and recognized their vehicles and would always wave at correct/incorrect vehicles too! This however has changed over the years. I notice less and less waving. People these days seem much more in a hurry than before" Alex Kwasnikow

---And Lydia McElroy replied to Alex's comment saying---

" I was just having the same thought on the waving as I was driving down Eastside the other day. Another thing I have noticed is that while I grew up in Etna, there are more and more faces I do not recognize. Seems like there are more newbies than before... Of course by valley standards my family is still probably newbies, we've only been there 18 years."

The Soda Fountain in Scott Valley Drug Store

The Soda Fountain in Scott Valley Drug Store

Sadly, the Soda Fountain has closed.
— Kara Wilson

"Bob's Ranch House and the Etna Brewery now have new owners, so I wonder if they'll change at all. There seem to be more live music events than when I was a kid. Many of my classmates have moved home or near home with their spouses/kids. I went to a few big gatherings and was struck by how all of the valley teens were on their cell phones not really socializing. I sound like an old lady, but I guess I expected less of that there. There is still nothing else out by the Shell Station where Etna's first and only Automated Teller Machine is (I heard a couple ladies refer to it that way). When they built the Shell Station and named that road Industrial Parkway, people were worried Etna was going to get overrun with city people. The State of Jefferson logo is still going strong on barn roofs, the new Etna Brewery t-shirt, flags, etc. My dad mentioned a big solar panel project that the school board was discussing. I find it funny when I see people from the valley who I haven't seen in years, but they know exactly what's going on with me. It used to be through my dad's clinic, but now it's through Facebook." --Kara Wilson

Farmers Market Fall 2013

Farmers Market Fall 2013

---And I noticed postings on a Facebook group for my hometown about a Farmers Market and Mac Whitman made this Reply--

"I think the one in FJ (Fort Jones) popped up sometime late 2000s as well. Then there is that cool pick your own fruit place. Which are all something that I wouldn't have completely expected out of the valley a while back." If you're interested in seeing the conversation as it progresses, or joining our group here is the link: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1439095413031320/

 

 

 

The Cherry Orchard in Scott Valley

To start getting an idea of how the play, The Cherry Orchard,  might be received in my hometown and what specifically resonated with people there, I’ve started inviting book clubs in my area to read the play starting with…yep… my mother’s book club.  They even divided up the parts and read the play out loud (and reported having fun doing it). 

My mother kindly jotted down some of the main notes that the ladies in the club had about the play:

 

 

The Cherry Orchard & Scott Valley

Feedback from The Etna Bookies, June 20, 2014

Comparison of rural life & land loss in TCO and Scott Valley

Similarities:

• Old families in farming; some “class” structure due to inheritance & heritage, but more subtle

• Marginal economics for some farm or ranch properties and operations

• Heirs can cause inheritance problems and lead to forced sale of ranch

• Optimism of youth

• Newcomers –“new rich” –are trying ‘farming’ but not same emotional attachment as

• Development pressures raise value for non-ag uses (e.g., JH Ranch–Which is a popular outdoor summer camp in the area–, smaller parcels)

• Pressures beyond local control (e.g., environmental regulations) forcing change

• Denial of need to change by some

Differences:

• No cherry orchards or outdated crops (as of yet)

• No history of serfs/slaves

• Progressive farmers here will change to survive (pivots, sunflower crops, soil moisture probes to save cost of irrigation, organic or natural beef)

• Scott Valley Area Plan (1980) set strategy to keep farmland from being subdivided;resistance to outsiders and developers

 

They also gave me some suggestions/had questions about how I’ll reach audiences in the valley I grew up in. 

 

Scott Valley Audience for Play

• Press releases and media outreach important

• Local gal connection will help attract interest (The fact I grew up there) 

• Promote with EHS (Etna High School) teachers and students

• How to prompt interest without spelling out sensitive comparisons?

The State of Jefferson

I grew up Northern, Northern, California right on the Oregon border in a county the size of Massachusetts but with a population of only around 40,000. In the 1940's it broke away along with the northern most counties in CA and the southern most in Oregon to form the State of Jefferson. They used theatrics like shutting down all the roads in and out of the area on the first Thursday of every month and riding out with horses to distribute information to stopped cars. Their grievances were that there was a lack if good roads to the area so they were cut off during the winter months, they were tired of having their needs ignored in favor of places with higher populations, they wanted no tax on booze, and no gun restrictions. They managed to wear down the state legislatures, and rumor has it that they were going to sign off on the new state. We inaugurated a governor (the celebration even had a grizzly bear in attendance). Then December 7th 1941 happened and the idea was abandoned for the sake of national unity during WWII.

But the State of Jefferson has not been forgotten. Passion for it amps up every time another government initiative effects the area negatively. In my lifetime, support for the separatist movement has never been as strong as it is now. My hometown has become a battle ground over water-rights in the state. The rivers are home to an endangered species of Coho salmon. The local Native American tribes, the farmers, the coastal fishermen and environmental policy makers have endless fights and lawsuits over how the water from the rivers that the fish spawn in is used. This is just icing on the cake for an area that has been struggling with unemployment rates of 20% since before the recession. The logging industry diminished in the early 1990's and farms that have split into smaller and smaller parcels as they are passed on through the generations or bought up by retirees from urban areas who aren't always as invested in the community and schools.

Personally, I would like to see a unified California, but I agree that the voices of the people in my hometown are buried by the urban majority. The media coverage either glorifies the farmers "calloused hands" or ridicules them as crazy rednecks. Thus, people in urban California are largely unaware of the real struggles facing my community members or think they are crazy vigilantes.

Having grown up in Siskiyou County and then lived in San Francisco, San Diego and Los Angeles, I have a deep desire to bridge the rural/urban divide in California. I feel that my community needs a platform other than the media to speak about the complexity of their lives.

I'm always felt the play The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov resonated with the issues in my hometown. It's about a family that is close to losing their land. Yet, it's not only about the loss of land, it's the loss of a culture and an end of an era as well. I want to bring professional actors from cities around CA to my hometown to live with residents and rehearse The Cherry Orchard. With guidance from a community advisory board, we will adapt the play to more closely resemble the community, then present the play in a farmhouse in my hometown. This is the first level of exchange between urban and rural communities. I'll also ask local high school students to interview community members and film their stories. These stories will be screened when The Cherry Orchard production tours to urban areas in CA.

In the future, I hope to expand the program to include an exchange of high school students between urban communities and my rural community. The rural kids would get a chance to go to baseball games, museums, plays, and music concerts while the urban kids would get to work with horses, learn local crafts, and spend time in the wilderness.

Source: http://www.artstrategies.org/programs/crea...