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Wilson High's Southwest Stageworks explores gender issues in two intimate performances

With the audience hovering a few feet away on the Wilson High stage, Southwest Stageworks Theatre Company showed a modern look at the many nuances of gender identity and relations in mid-February.

The production titled "Him, Her, Them, Us" featured two one-hour plays — "Red Sky at Morning" by Claire Willett and "Lost for Words" by Jeff Denight.

Last June, students, directors and playwrights identified gender issues as a potentially powerful theme for the winter program.

"The writers from Playwrights West came in thinking these issues of gender and gender relationships and issues of sexuality was something that would be of interest to the students and they were right," Wilson High Artistic Director Jamie Miller said. "We had a very powerful conversation."

The first performance depicted a group of friends who enjoy playing a Dungeons and Dragons-style game together dealing with an internet troll who just so happened to be lurking within the group. Isaiah, played by Wolf Morgan-Steiner, started harassing Abby, played by Ella Carson, online to get her to like him based on the shoddy advice of internet misogynists.

It showed the struggles young men face in trying to find relationship advice as well as women enduring objectification and insults online.

"One of the things I loved about Claire's script is it's not just 'This is a bad person this is a bad thing,'" Miller said. "We avoided those clichés."

And Miller says some of the Wilson High actors connected with the plot and messages of the play.

"From overhearing conversations they'll get comments about things they'll post and awful responses from people who feel protected by the online web of anonymity," Miller said.

In "Lost for Words," Jacky, played by Gracie Dotson, experiences a journey toward self-actualization and away from trying to fit into limiting binaries encouraged by society. It features an incongruities narrative arc, repetitive dialogue, a central European feel and an expressionist style, according to Miller.

"Some of those guys did a real masterful job innovating the style and humanity of characters in what was one of the most challenging pieces that we've ever done," Miller said.

In the end, though, once she reaches empowerment, Jacky loses the ability to speak. For Miller, the ending was symbolic of a larger phenomenon.

"For me it certainly feels like there's a cost to standing up and speaking out," he said.

The close proximity of the actors to the audience posed unique challenges, according to Miller.

"You have to have a real grounding and truth to your performance because people aren't looking at it from 40 feet away," Miller said. "A lot of the action needs to be staged with actor and audience safety. If you have physicality on stage you don't have that safety of distance."

But Miller says allowing young actors to experience a variety of settings will help them if they decide to act beyond high school.

"One of the big things I try to do when I'm selecting directors that work with the students on our projects is we look for that variety, large scale presentations, like the musical, intimate type performances that we just saw. So much of Portland theatre takes place in small places," he said. "Many of these people go on to work professionally or college programs that have a huge variety of formats. It's a part of their training to have that variety of performance presentations."

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