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Paper, text-message letters share spotlight

Communiques written 50 years apart woven into script for Pacific stage

COURTESY PHOTO - Pacific University senior McKenzie Brock (left) plays Evelyn Fields, Kailea Saplans characterization of handwritten-letter writer Cheron Mayhall, in Dance Slow Decades, which will hit the stage on the Forest Grove campus Feb. 11. Akiko Cooper (played by Emy Gaub, right) represents the text-messaging student from the Class of 2015 in the production. In 2014, Pacific University alumna Cheron Joy (Messmer) Mayhall donated more than 200 pages of letters she wrote to her mother throughout her senior year in 1964. The donation sparked an idea for a collaboration between Pacific’s Alumni Relations office and the school’s theater department — a play written and helmed by Kailea Saplan for her senior thesis project, “Dance Slow Decades,” which will premiere at the Tom Miles Theater on the Forest Grove campus Feb. 11 at 7 p.m.

At first, Saplan wasn’t excited about taking on the task.

“I didn’t want my culminating senior capstone to be constrained by the puritanical, pro-Pacific themes I expected I would have to portray,” said Saplan, who graduated in 2015. “But as I read Cheron’s letters I laughed a lot — at the 1960s colloquialisms, at the absurdity of voting for a Homecoming queen and at Cheron’s fastidiousness, a trait with which I deeply identify.”

The play follows the lives of two students from two very different eras at Pacific during their senior years as they juggle various responsibilities, personal adversity and national crises. Evelyn Fields (played by McKenzie Brock), Saplan’s characterization of Cheron Mayhall, exists in the academic year of 1963 and 1964, and Akiko Cooper (played by Emy Gaub), is from the Class of 2015. Throughout the play, the timelines of the two parallel each other and unfold simultaneously through interactions with their friends and peers. While Evelyn writes letters to her mother, Akiko sends out texts and calls to hers. Saplan also wrote the play to bring up questions of race both in the real world and within theater circles.

“In a time of immense political and social discord, I hope this play reminds us of the humanity that we all have in common,” said Saplan. “While their stories unfold differently fifty years apart, they both experience corresponding moments of pride, happiness, loss and deep suffering — and these moments exist in every one of us.”

Although some of the letters were truncated for the play, they carry the weight of Cheron’s words, expressions and emotions. The letters acted as a backbone for the script, with Saplan structuring the scenes around the timeline the letters provided. At points in editing and producing the play, Saplan discovered how amazing it was to have the resources Cheron donated, and was grateful for becoming acquainted with her through her letters.

Saplan was fortunate enough to meet Cheron before her passing in February of last year.

It took three months of basic drafts and outlines from Saplan — and five months of writing and edits — before the project was ready for the reading in May of last year for her thesis presentation. The first rehearsal for the fully staged play happened at the beginning of last month, where Saplan handed director Debbie Lamedman a fresh draft. Since then she

has been attending other rehearsals to fix lines here and there.

“The most challenging part of this process has been sharing my work. As a theatre major, I’m usually pretty gung-ho about putting my art out in the world, but watching actors bring to life the words and people I created can be anxiety-inducing. As a writer, I am putting my emotions, my opinions, my hopes, my life, my friends’ lives on stage,” Saplan said. “I’ll be sweating the entire night I’m in the audience, waiting to see how people react.”

Usually, student-written work isn’t produced in the main theater, but because of its connection to Alumni Relations — and to Cheron who passed away so recently — it’s been given the honor of being performed on the Tom Miles stage.

The show runs Thursday, Feb. 11 through Sunday, Feb. 14. Curtain is at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, and a 2 p.m. Sunday matinee concludes the run. Tickets range from $5 to $8 and may be purchased in advance online at tinyurl.com/pacudsd, or by calling the Pacific University box office at 503-352-2918.