SLIDESHOW: Bag&Baggage's 14 years and counting
Bag&Baggage's founding artistic director Scott Palmer is ready to start his new position as the new creative director at Company of Fools, a prominent theater company in Hailey, Idaho, but not before he looks back on the almost-15 years of the company's legacy on the Washington County art scene.
Sitting at Insomnia Coffee, just across the street from the company's home at The Vault Theater, on a recent afternoon, Palmer reflected on what it means to be inclusive in performing arts, what it was like to go from a travelling troupe to a powerhouse and how Hillsboro has grown alongside the company he affectionately refers to as "my baby."
How would you characterize going from a traveling company, to the Venetian Theatre and finally, The Vault?
Palmer: "I think about this all the time. The touring company before we landed the Venetian, it was quick, dirty, it was very like an Elizabethan touring troupe. The quality was thrown together, edgy, at the edge of your seat, very responsive but not very planned. That was dangerous and nerve-wracking.
"Once, we showed up at a theater in Astoria — a stage we had never been there. We were there for a two-week performance but we saw that the space was bigger (than we'd first realized), and we thought, "We need to go dumpster diving to find more pieces." And we did. We went to the Walmart, Albertsons, a couple of Goodwill's and brought it to the show. Super fun, but very stressful.
"Then, we moved to The Venetian — massive, large, beautiful barn of a building. The challenge of being there was filling that space. The space was huge — it had 400 seats. We needed to change our performance style to be broader. We had to do large statements on stage in terms of lighting and design. At the Venetian, I describe us as being bold. We had to make big, exaggerated changes. We had to go big or go home.
"In 2017, we moved into The Vault. It was so much more intimate and connected. We used to tell people when you were in the Venetian, the closest you could get to an actor was 30 feet. That was a long way. In the Vault, you are more likely to be about 6 feet away from an actor. It's deeply personal, which is a remarkable way to do performances. The audiences can see the sweat, the seams of every costume, they see the spit flying out of the actor's mouth. It is really charged and electric."
You grew up in Hillsboro, but going from a traveling troupe to The Venetian must have been a change. How did you feel about bringing Bag&Baggage to the suburbs?
Palmer: "I was terrified. Obviously, Hillsboro has had a history of community theater, but when we first started, I said that we would do adaptions of Shakespeare, Arthur Miller, Oscar Wilde, John Steinbeck; these really meaty, complex classics of American and English drama. But we were told people in Hillsboro wouldn't come to see that. We were told people in Hillsboro wanted "Oklahoma!" or easier and lighter stuff. We said, 'We disagree.' We wanted to something different and that we wanted to see if Hillsboro would sustain a different approach to theater."
Bag&Baggage is known for its adaptations of William Shakespeare. How did that come about?
Palmer: "My love for Shakespeare started when I was in junior high school and seeing professional shows and trying to figure out how all this stuff works. When I was in college, I did a ton of what we call 'dramaturgy' or just history and background on direct texts. What I discovered is Shakespeare is essentially a thief. I realized Shakespeare's work is based on earlier plays and I was fascinated by his process.
"How do you take a poem like 'The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet,' an epic poem, and how did Shakespeare turn that into 'Romeo and Juliet'? I love that.
"People have gotten grumpy with me about not treating his texts with the respect it deserves. I think if Shakespeare were here, he would be pointing to the work we do at Bag&Baggage as an example of his own process on adapting, editing, rewriting, relying on other sources, bringing in other influences to bring a story to a contemporary audience.
"This tiny theater company in suburban Hillsboro, we are one of the only companies on the planet that has a commitment to exploring restoration era works of Shakespeare that looks at original source material.
"Now, our audiences are among the smartest and best educated when it comes to Shakespeare and his reliance on source materials. We have that conversation with them. We ask questions, answer them; give them director's notes; do workshops, talk-backs and lectures. Our audiences have grown to trust us."
Shakespeare isn't the only way you've challenged audiences. You've said many times that you want to use your theater to support LGBTQ stories. What has that looked like at Bag&Baggage?
Palmer: "It's been a challenge. We've done shows in the past that have really bothered and disturbed people. We did a show called 'Shakespeare's R and J,' about four boys at a Catholic school that find a copy of 'Romeo and Juliet' under the floorboards and start reading it out loud while playing the roles. One of the boys is Juliet, and one is Romeo, and they fall in love.
"We got a lot of pushback from the audiences. We had audiences send hate mail and ask for their money back because they didn't want to see what, at that time, was considered a pro-gay treatment on 'Romeo and Juliet.'"
Why is that important to you?
Palmer: "I want to assure that people in this community see themselves and their experiences on stage. That is hard to do … For us, it is about shared humanity. I often say that when you go into a theater, you sit down in the dark with people who you don't know…They could be gay, straight, bi, trans. You don't know if they are conservative, Democrat, liberal, Republican … You don't know who they are. Once you finish seeing that show, you have a shared experience and something in common. It is an excellent starting off point for discussion and is essential.
"As an openly gay artist in Hillsboro, people say I am the most highly visible gay person in town. This is my town, I grew up here. I have a right to live here and a right to explore my story."
By Janae Easlon
Forest Grove News-Times and Hillsboro Tribune971-762-1166
Follow Janae at @Janae_Easlon
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