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Gaston High junior rises to professional theater role

Bag&Baggage offers two teen roles in "Moby Dick, Rehearsed."

Dawson Oliver (far left) partakes in several group sea shanties throughout the show. As Dawson Oliver mingles with audience members who’ve come to see the show about a great white whale, he’s quiet, reserved and poised.

But by the time the lights dim and the background music swells, Oliver is waving a stick and belting a sea shanty while precariously perching atop a tall step ladder. He’s snapped from American teenager to swashbuckling harpooner in an instant.

The Gaston High School junior plays Daggoo in Bag&Baggage Productions’ “Moby Dick, Rehearsed,” which runs through March 20 at the Venetian Theatre & Bistro in downtown Hillsboro.

The play — written by Orson Welles in 1955 — follows a Shakespearean acting company about to start rehearsals for “King Lear” when the director hands out scripts for Herman Melville’s classic, “Moby Dick.” In the play, the actors transform their theater with sails, masts and water as they take on their new roles.

Oliver landed one of Bag&Baggage’s Pre-Professional Training Internships, which offers students the chance to be a full member of the production’s team during its spring production. Interns work on set design, costume design, sound and lighting — or act in the production.

While the internship has been fun, Oliver takes his role very seriously. The production’s young people are held up as equal members of the team, just as responsible for the final product as the experienced actors.

“It's obvious that the high school students are not getting any special treatment,” said Tina Arth, a Washington County theater reviewer.

“They’re treated like the professionals,” said Director Scott Palmer. "It’s not my job to handhold and I have not held back."

But Oliver can take it. He said he’s appreciated Palmer’s notes, even when they’re harsh.COURTESY PHOTOS - Gaston High School student Dawson Oliver (second from left) plays a harpooner in Bag&Baggage Productions Moby Dick, Rehearsed.

“I have not been having to give him special attention,” Palmer said. “He’s really been absorbing everything.”

Oliver is one of two students acting in the production (Mia Duckart of Beaverton Arts ad Communication Magnet Academy plays "Member of the Cast/ Tashtego").

“Dawson was a pleasure to watch,” said Arth. “If you hadn't told me in advance, I would not have known he was any different from the rest of the cast.”

When Oliver walked on the stage for his first audition for a real show in front of theater professionals, he was shaky and his mind was running a mile a minute. “He’s a very quiet, reserved and thoughtful young man — until he gets on stage and he springs to life,” said Palmer. “He knocked it out of the park. It’s hard to recognize him.”

Usually the high school students who come to audition are nervous, shy and timid, said Cassie Greer, a resident actor with Bag&Baggage. “Dawson was completely fearless. And that’s continued through the show.”

Oliver got his start in theater three years ago as a freshman at Gaston High, having just moved to the area with his family from China, where his parents were involved with international ministry work. He wasn’t very good at sports, but loved Shakespeare and reading. Looking for activities at a new school, Oliver tried out for drama club and has been hooked sense.

He’s acted in Gaston High productions of “Arsenic and Old Lace,” “Scrooged Up” and “The Last Gladiator.”

“Gaston’s theater program gave me a lot of experience so I felt comfortable in front of an audience already,” Oliver said. “It’s made me feel like I can take risks.”

Ellen Green has been running Gaston’s after-school drama club since 2002. “Gaston is a very sports-oriented school, so if you don’t play sports there’s not a lot you can do. So I think it’s important to keep the drama club going,” she said. “Theater gives kids so many skills they could use in life,” such as public speaking and social skills.

Green has taught several teens who start out in the program shy and looking at their shoes when they speak, only to graduate self-assured and confident.

Oliver discovered Bag&Baggage when his English class took advantage of the free tickets the theater company offers to high school students. While Gaston students can often earn extra credit for going to plays, Oliver goes because it’s just so fun, he said.

“Just like there is no comparison between seeing a baseball game on the television and seeing it live, you cannot replicate the experience of a live theater performance,” said Gaston Junior/Senior High School Principal Christine Collins. “Not only does live theater provide students with the full sensory experience, attending live theater breaks down barriers by taking an unknown and making it a very fun and enriching experience.”

Throughout his internship, Oliver said he’s learned the most about stage presence, that subtle ability to portray his character at all times, even without lines or much action.

Greer finds Oliver a natural in that arena. “He has an innate sense of stage presence,” she said. “It’s in the way you carry yourself and radiate your character through your body. It’s about an honest and authentic exploration of the reality of your character.”

That’s a challenge for a white teenager living in a small, rural town, playing a tall, tough African sailor.

“That’s been the hardest part — learning to present your character at all times even when you don’t think eyes are on you,” Oliver said. “You need people to believe we are sailing across the ocean — not standing in a theater.”