Virginia Woolf On Stage With ‘Between the Acts’ At The Hope Theatre



‘Being Totally Ignorant Gave Me the Courage’
John Schmor on Adapting Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts for the Stage

True confession: I have read just about everything (published) that Virginia Woolf ever wrote. I have shelves for the diaries, essays, letters, criticism – and fiction. I’ve read Jacob’s Room countless times, love listening to Juliet Stevenson read Mrs. Dalloway, can make myself laugh and cringe and cry at Orlando (the book) and smile with delight at Orlando (the Sally Potter-directed, Tilda Swinton-starring movie, which I first saw in London in 1993 when I was studying abroad there).


But I’ve never read Between the Acts. Perhaps by the time I finished The Waves, I was just worn out? I don’t remember.

Here’s a plot summary, for as much good as that will do you with Woolf books.

The publicity material for the play, by the way, says “It’s a funny and loving play about an English family and some friends gathered to host on their estate the local summer pageant – which this year attempts to trace (and parodies) the whole history of British drama.  It is set in June of 1939.”

When I got an email saying that the University of Oregon Theatre Department’s John Schmor had adapted the book for the stage, I was intrigued. Woolf’s interiority and experimentation make movie or TV adaptations a little challenging, to put it mildly, so how would this work? Schmor invited me to his house to talk about it. Despite the fact that I was late, he graciously offered me lavender lemonade and let me ask a few questions about the book, the work of adaptation, and this production.



So, John, how much had you read of Virginia Woolf before this?

None. I had not read a single thing by Woolf until [a friend] handed me this book and said, “You’ve got to devise something with the students on this because it needs to be on stage.”

Whoa! OK. Then what?

Eventually, I got around to reading it, and I was so mesmerized by it, I felt foolish.

Here I’ve gotten to be – well, at the time I was nearly 50 – and nobody told me about this magician?

I came across some scholarly thing through the New York Times and the scholar called her the only clear genius of female letters in British writing. I don’t know about that.

She is uncommon. And to realize she’s having that influence on the writers I care about who are writing today – for instance, Caryl Churchill – and also it’s just damned funny, and I wasn’t expecting that.

It is awfully sad to think of this book as her farewell, but it’s a pretty good way to go out. [EDITOR’S NOTE: You can read more about that in the Register-Guard preview of the play.]

Virginia Woolf! She was so prolific.


‘She is uncommon. And to realize she’s having that influence on the writers I care about who are writing today – for instance, Caryl Churchill – and also it’s just damned funny, and I wasn’t expecting that.’


So how did it become a play?
I had just read it, and I was talking to Jane Jones from Book-It Theatre (in Seattle). She was down here, and I took her to coffee and said, You guys have got to pick this book up. And she said, “Why don’t you write it?” I said, “I’ve never written something from a book like this.” She said that’s not true, and she started talking about the Shakespeare adaptations, like Love Will Shake, and my devised work.

Then I had a research term, a month in Brazil where I was teaching in Sao Paulo, and my friend said I should go to this island off the coast, Ilhabela. It was the most bizarre, perfect contradiction because this little place I was staying in was surrounded by jungle, and I’m working on this 1939 English rural church/village community play.

I couldn’t write at night because they have these lightning bugs about as big as an avocado pit, and they’re very attracted to laptops. I had to go to sleep when the sun set.

That was November 2010. Then I sent it to Jane right away, scheduled a reading with actors from Book-It, I went up in April, and we had a great time, but life got in the way [of a full production].

Then I was looking ahead to this summer and thinking what am I going to do? I need a project. So sometime in the fall of 2013, I applied for this grant to give me just enough budget to work with a good costume designer and good designers all around. And then I sat down with four friends of mine who are actors and who I wanted to work with, and then little by little started to cast. The cast changed over time; people dropped out for health or family things. And from that core four, two took totally different roles than they were supposed to be in. But I think it’s better this way. It just worked out.



‘I came up against a lot of people telling me [this adaptation is] not doable – you know, her internal sensibility and thought processes, how are you going to put that on stage? Being totally ignorant gave me the courage.’

Did you read other things by Woolf?

I did. This has been what, four years. I read A Room of One’s Own. I still haven’t gotten To the Lighthouse.

I came up against a lot of people telling me [this adaptation is] not doable – you know, her internal sensibility and thought processes, how are you going to put that on stage? Being totally ignorant gave me the courage.

Of course, Between the Acts is actually between the wars. It’s completely a coincidence that this is happening on the 100th anniversary of the Great War.

Did you try to incorporate that deliberately into this production?

I found her book so moving because it is not prominent. It’s glimpsed, it’s hinted at, but it is not the message. Through the several readings I did, some people said you need to make it clear it’s 1939, the characters are on the verge of World War II.

But the whole point of the book is that people are living their lives, clinging to the daily – and to deeper, wider thoughts, and what’s coming. I don’t think any of them are in denial or anything like that.

It’s the way life is – horrible things can happen, and we do our best to pretend that until they happen, we’re just fine.

The book really reminded me of what I love about Chekhov. These are good people, struggling. Also, I just tried to keep the humor in it, keep everything that was funny to me about reading the book in the play.

How did that work during the first weekend’s performances?

We had one audience that came expecting, you know, dour Virginia Woolf, and they didn’t laugh very much. She has that reputation, but it was physical and funny.

What will happen to this show after this?

I don’t know; this is all just an experiment.

This is sort of like what happened to me when I did a play about Emily Dickinson’s love life.

A very funny playwright in New York wrote a very funny script about Emily and Susan’s relationship. I started reading about that life, and what happened to the poems, and how the two sides of the family controlled those things, Yale and Amherst – that’s why there’s not yet a fully completed library set. PBS should do a series on the Dickinsons! But basically, I fell in love with the poet, and for a while there I couldn’t read anybody else.

You like having projects to work on. So what’s next?
Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information. It’s a totally interesting script, very new. It opened at the Royal Court in 2012, and they did a revival in New York in March, and I don’t know how Ariel [Ogden] did it, but we got the rights. There are 150 characters, more than 50 vignettes, and none have character names or clear gender, age, or race signals. You can go any way you want to go. I don’t know how it’s going to work. It’s a complete jigsaw puzzle.


Meet Scott Freck, New Executive Director of the Eugene Symphony

Last summer, while I was (ironically) in Chicago, the Eugene Symphony announced that its excellent executive director, Paul Winberg (here’s a Q&A I did with Winberg a few years ago), was leaving the symphony for a spot as the executive directorof the Grant Park Music Festival.

Winberg left the symphony in good financial shape, still in the black after years of recession. As symphonies around the country go bankrupt or conduct punishing negotiations with their musicians, Eugene seems calm though the development team certainly works its (collective) butt off to raise the money necessary to stay in the black.

Scott Freck, via Polyphonic

Last week, the symphony sent out a press release to announce that it had hired a new executive director: Scott Freck, currently the VP for artistic operations and the general manager of the North Carolina Symphony, based in Raleigh. Freck will move to Eugene in June, and his family (he has a wife and two kids) will follow in July.

But he won’t be new to Oregon; he grew up “outside of Portland.” When he was young, he was a cellist with the Portland Youth Philharmonic, and he worked as artistic administrator for the Oregon Symphony in Portland for years before he moved in 2000 to that other, hotter, more mosquito-ridden coast.

I had the opportunity to talk to Freck about his return to his home state, his feelings about the Eugene Symphony and his plans for the future – and how to fill Winberg’s shoes and keep the Eugene Symphony financially and musically successful.

Continue reading

A Gaggle Of Playwrights, A Gallimaufry Of Plays: Northwest 10 Hits Its Fourth Year

What stands out most vividly from the Northwest 10 might be similar to what stands out from last year’s Winter’s Tale, also at the Lord Leebrick Theatre: Local actors Tom Wilson and Dan Pegoda make a good comedic team, and Pegoda plays the banjo well.

Wilson’s not even onstage for their particular pairing in “Lunker,” but his voice echoes in the head long after the 10-minute play, by Kato Buss, comes to an end – an end slightly different, and far more amusing, than the tale on which it’s modeled.

You see, the Northwest Ten doesn’t contain 10 plays – it’s a festival of several 10-minute plays, mostly by Eugene playwrights. This is its fourth year, and the plan for attendees remains the same: Don’t like a play? Wait 10 or 12 minutes, and boom! New play, new characters. Like the weather in Eugene in the spring, I know. Actors and directors tell me it’s fun, and rather a lot of work considering the 10-minute result. This year’s playwrights responded to a theme: Writing on the Wall. In the results, that’s rarely a physical demonstration, more often an ominous phrase hovering over the characters’ actions.

The plays, with their need to set the scene rapidly, establish character and contain a reveal, have an uneven quality that can be charming or annoying. I found myself wishing that they were developed more like sketches, but perhaps I’ve been watching too many random pieces of Portlandia.

Still, playwrights, wouldn’t it be pleasant to develop the idea with your cast? That might create more seamless intentions and better performances. I haven’t asked Kato Buss, but I wonder if he had his two adult characters in mind when he wrote “Lunker” – his play, directed by Mary Gen Fjelstad, exhibited the closest fit between characters as written and actor ability (I should add that in “Lunker,” 8-year-old Nalua Manaois was admirably cute and had all of her many lines down – nicely done).

The bleak “Fool on the Hill” may be one of this year’s keepers, though I wasn’t a big fan of its tone – Ty (Jay Hash) seemed at first to be heading in a different emotional direction than where he ended up, and both Daniel Borson as the annoyingly panicked Steve and Paul Rhoden as the crazed Paul might have been more convincing with less flailing about.

I also kept wondering if these characters had ever read anything about survival in the wild, which was definitely not the half-existential, half-violent point of the play. Or am I taking it too much into the psychological realm when it was the hand of a malevolent spirit (Bob Buechler, the Tree) that caused them to lose their logic? In any case, like a lot of horror, it sticks around.

I suppose loneliness and loss worm their way into our memories and hearts more easily than something like “You Slay Me,” a comedic contribution by Laura Robinson. In that piece, Ron Judd pulls off quite the amusing transformation with a light, surefooted touch that’s fun to see. (Some of the stage business seems too big for the story itself, but it’s still an enjoyable little piece.)

In “Picketing for Pros,” Jorah LaFleur (literally) kicks some serious energy into the proceedings, making her character, Caroline, both outrageous and sympathetic – and hilarious. I admit to an extra laugh at the mention of “an Iowa City clinic” (wave to the fantastic Emma Goldman– is Portland playwright Ari Chadwich-Saund from the Midwest? Hm…). I didn’t think the revelation of Caroline’s actual job fit with her character in general, but again, I might simply want people to be more consistently good than any playwright would go for.

Paul Calandrino is the original NW10 idea guy and one of three producers behind NW10 this year. His contribution is “Cape Perpetua,” in which poor Jay Hash has to play another schlub and Sarah Papineau has to play the schlub’s annoyed girlfriend. I think this piece is a well-intentioned morality tale with characters who are a bit too stereotypical to work. The annoyed girlfriend redeems herself in a fashion that seems both naïve and overly sweet, which is not at all like the other 10-minute plays we’ve seen from Calandrino. I’m uncomfortable with the politics around asking someone who’s not from the disabled community to play a man with a severe disability, but Dale Light performs that character – unfortunately the vehicle for the girlfriend’s redemption – well.

Have you noticed a theme aside from writing on the wall? Many writers are directors or actors in the production. “Fish Climbs Tree”’ by Light features Tom Wilson again acting beautifully (that terrified whine!), but one of the two main premises, involving a gun and a computer, doesn’t make a lot of sense. The last play, “Inner Tube” by Fjelstad, had me laughing despite some awkward acting over the New Age/Western-style “Buddhism” bullshit its characters spout while one rips the other’s heart to shreds – such a perfect play for Eugene.

The turnEnsemble with Brandon Rumsey, James Bean, Sarah Pyle and Noah Jenkins, all students at the UO, provides music between and occasionally during the plays. It’s unobtrusive and provides small little hints about what’s to come in several of the plays.

The NW10 is always a mixed bag – but one that gets the brain spinning. You’ve got one more weekend, this one, to see the plays on Friday or Saturday nights or at the Sunday matinee (there’s a talkback after that one) – the tickets are $15, $12 for people 25 and younger, and you can get them by calling 541-465-1506 or clicking here.

Review: Eugene Opera’s Nixon in China

From the mezzanine at 2:15 p.m. Sunday, just before it started.

I loved the Eugene Opera’s daring, amusing, smart, challenging production of Nixon in China. If I could see it every day for a week, I would.

Sadly for me, that tremendous effort – the rehearsing, the choral practice, the designs, the costumes, the tech rehearsals – ended when the curtain fell at 5:37 on Sunday afternoon, just about three hours after it all began. This is always the case with the Eugene Opera, which produces usually two shows a year (though I’d rank the semi-staged Il Trovatore, the extra show of 2009, up there with the best things I’ve seen in Eugene) with two or three performances of each show. I’ll save for another day my encomiums to the effort, because effort is not all – performance is all, in this case, at least for the audience members who pay $40 to $90 to see the opera. And in this case, the performances were well worth the money.

Once, when I was attending a fabulous arts journalism fellowship right at the beginning of the hemorrhaging of arts journalists from newspapers (we were the canaries in the coal mine; by the time the economy crashed in September of 2008 and then ad revenues crashed along with it, we were mostly long-gone, or a deeply endangered breed), I got schooled by Anthony Tommasini of the New York Times for reviewing a Handel opera as if it were theatre instead of opera. After Act I of Nixon in China, the guys sitting behind me said, “It’s more like a play than an opera, isn’t it?” (They didn’t say that after Act III, though, so I don’t know if they were still thinking it.)

Therefore, I know it’s possible that one of the reasons I liked this staging, and the Met’s 2011 HD broadcast staging, of Nixon in China is that the entire thing is more like theatre. It would be a postmodern-ly absurdist play, a play that wings off into poetry – Pat Nixon’s “This is prophetic” aria, more like an incantation, in Act II makes for a sweet, naïve, absurd, lyrically lovely late 20th-century reworking of “Howl” and it reminds me of Wallace Stevens’ ”Emperor of Ice Cream” – and a fully sung play. As music director Andrew Bisantz wrote in the program, “Nixon and his operatic entourage were not meant to be viewed as characters in a music-hall parody; rather, they were to be seen as historical and dramatic archetypes, as in the historical plays of Shakespeare and the operatic representations of ancient history by G.F. Handel.”

Also, I’m a believer in preparing for operas. The music isn’t usually super-duper complex in operas, but a. there’s a lot of it and b. I get very sleepy with music I don’t know well (I mean symphonic music & for that matter, chamber music – not pop/rock/alt so much, because, lyrics and short songs).

And it’s not as if Nixon in China has the advantage of its arias accompanying dramatic scenes in movies – because it’s newer (1987) and in English (that is, not mysterious), it’s not going to accompany a battle scene, or a romantic scene, the way many Italian opera arias do. OK, and it’s also because many people aren’t used to John Adams’ music. I overheard people saying “It was atonal!” or “It had no shape!” during/after the opera – I don’t agree with either analysis, but I understand that if they’re expecting Carmen, that’s not happening. I find Adams’ music plenty tonal – but that’s a whole big discussion I’m not musically qualified enough to have … others welcome to contribute here. If I think of tonality as the music having some central theme, then I can say I did enjoy hearing a theme from the first chorus repeat several times during the opera, the first time my ear has picked that out, probably because it was live and also Bisantz may have emphasized it a bit.

Anyway, I was prepared, particularly for the opening and for “I am the wife of Mao Tse Tung,” which is an aria of surpassing weird/wonderfulness. That preparedness helps. Also, I’m patient with performances. I’ve only ever walked out on one performance in my life, a god-awful theatrical production that made me furious with its stupidity, so I guess I’m not one to leave after the first act of an opera (apparently, many people did – which is a shame, as the second act is fabulous).

Musical interlude: I’m listening to this version of “This is prophetic” and smiling as I write this – “Let Gypsy Rose kick off her party shoes … let businessmen speculate further … let the expression on the Statue of Liberty change just a little; let her see what lies inland.” Oh, Pat Nixon! The things you miss in this scene! Such brilliant writing by poet Alice Goodman.

But back to the Eugene Opera’s version, which took a united effort from a rather stunning number of people in and out of Eugene. First of all, the scrim. The gorgeously printed, monumental scrim – I assume designed by scenery designer Peter Beudert – and the light on Nixon (Lee Gregory, whom we’ve seen in Don Giovanni as Leporello and The Marriage of Figaro as Figaro) as he gets changed/dressed in the plane. Speaking of that plane, I’m not sure what happened – I was under the impression there was a plane, but that was from a conversation with Bisantz and opera executive director Mark Beudert before Carmen in December, so anything could have occurred. In this case, it was weird after seeing the Met’s version not to have a plane on stage, but that moment of disappointment went away quickly as Gregory distracted the audience with his smile and waving.

… and I just realized that what I want to do is relive the entire opera as I write this. Not useful, Suzi. FYI, if you want to see the full Houston Opera version from 1987, it’s available on YouTube – in 17 parts – starting here:

So some of my favorite things about this performance and the libretto/score in general:

  • Mark Beudert has a lovely voice! And he was good as Mao. Not even close to frail, the way the usual Mao is played. But I want Mark to sing more and exec less. Well, that’s not true; I think he (with others) has done a superhuman job making the Eugene Opera a going concern again.
  • Ben Goodman of the Eugene Ballet choreographed the piece and danced in the Revolutionary Ballet scene. I am so pleased to see Ben in yet another Eugene performing arts group. Also, he whipped that Eugene Opera chorus into doing tai chi and singing – that was amazing (and no, he didn’t actually use a whip … in the tai chi scene, anyway).
  • The second act, wow. I want to see that second act again and again. Kelly Kaduce, whom we (and the Portland Opera) have enjoyed onstage several times before, didn’t have a Pat Nixon-like wig the way all of the other Pats I’ve seen (on the screen) have, but she made Pat seem like a party-loving, not-too-bright, sweet – and put-upon – woman, and of course, as usual, I enjoyed her voice.

    In the Pat-on-tour scene, she charmed the audience with her ability to interact with the bicyclists, the children … and the pigs (I’m not kidding; that was fun, and as Mark Beudert said in his curtain speech, this was the first time the Eugene Opera had to thank Sweet Briar Farms “for livestock management”). And the juxtaposition of Pat’s wide-eyed attempts to connect to the workers with what they sing when the big elephant’s on the stage … wow. Killer libretto, Alice Goodman.

  • Then Laura Wayte made Chiang Ch’ing/Madame Mao such an impatient, annoyed, strong, intense personality in the ballet scene, not to mention her big “I am the wife of Mao Tse Tung” moment.

    Why and how is this such a memorable/stunning/holyshitdidthatjusthappen aria? I don’t entirely know, but damn. The 2011 Met version:

  • The third act was a bit odd. It’s a different staging – as is the entire Eugene production, by (totally cute, not that I’m a strong judge of the men) stage director Sam Helfrich – than the Met’s staging, and I was at first waiting for the beds. Where were the beds? I mean, Peter Sellars talked about the beds being like coffins! I wanted the beds – nNot Kissinger (a befuddledly excellent Michael Gallup), Chou En-lai (Christopher Burchett, whom we’ve seen sing Masetto in Don Giovanni and Count Almaviva in The Marriage of Figaro), Pat, Dick, Mao and Chiang Ch’ing in a post-party alcoholic funk at separate tables, slumped and out of it and lonely. Which was what we got. WHERE ARE THE COFFINS, SAM? was the thought bubble above my head.

    Then I snapped out of it. I liked this staging. Part of the excellence of the third act (though not all of my companions felt this way or enjoyed that bleakness, trailing off into despair/nothingness) comes from the distracted, isolated, separate, weird, overlapping parts of the libretto. Who’s talking? To whom? Why? Why are they retelling stories they’ve told over and over?

    Well, exactly.

  • I thought the orchestra performed well with this score. I know it’s a monster. When I said back there that usually operas don’t have super-duper complex music, I didn’t mean this opera. At least that’s the impression I got from some of the musicians, and from Bisantz when I briefly spoke to him at rehearsal. It wasn’t perfect, but they did well.
  • Some of the costumes (the secretaries, Pat, Dick, Henry, Mao) were gorgeous. Sometimes the chorus looked like it had simply brought clothes from home, but other times, it was a little more identical. I would have preferred a more similar look for all chorus members, all of the time.
  • Eugene Ballet! I think those dancers were all company members of yours? Well done. Nice collaboration (or just sharing?).
  • As some of you know, the opera just … ends. It’s not triumphal. It’s not big. It trails off. I loved that a lot … and then it took way too long to get the whole cast up there for curtain calls. Hey, if you’re not there in time, too bad. You don’t get to bow. (Unless you’re a principal, of course, in which case … yeah.)

I know some people didn’t like John Adams’ music. In addition, I heard that on Friday night, there was a lot of backstage noise – as in, things crashing around. I say that means not enough rehearsal time (as they are all too aware – and as I suspected, which was why I bought tickets for Sunday). I know that the chorus, though it did its best, occasionally looked sloppy and/or slapdash, even on Sunday. I know that a few scenes were awkwardly staged, at least with the chorus. (I also know that the people behind me and to the right needed to shut the hell up – “Honey, look! THAT’S PAT NIXON!” Yes. Thank you. Arglesmack.)

All of that is fair criticism. But overall, this was a moonshot for the Eugene Opera. Yes, like Nixon, I have to think of the Apollo astronauts .. ahem. Though it may not be reflected in ticket sales, the opera made it to the moon and back. I hope the board sucks it up, finds more sponsors and keeps on going because from this audience member’s point of view, it was well worth the effort.

Ballet Fantastique Wants to Kick(start) Its Wild West Way to Italy

Krislyn Wessel, Justin Feimster and Adam Haaga (all part of the Italy cast) in "The Tale of Zummurud" from Arabian Nights in January 2012. Photo by Jackson Hager, Vanguard Media

What do you do when Italy calls – but you don’t have a lot of money to fly there?

If you’re scrappy Eugene “chamber ballet” group Ballet Fantastique, you get to work on your funding. Guest dancer Alberto Liberatoscioli hails from San Benedetto del Tronto, Italy, where his mother directs a ballet school (though now he’s with Ballet Nebraska).

He played Lando (that is, Orlando) in the spring 2011 Ballet Fantastique production of As You Like It: A Wild West Ballet. According toBFan executive director Hannah Bontrager, he pitched the idea of taking As You Like It home with him to San Benedetto’s ministry of culture, which had for some time been wanting a U.S. company with Liberatoscioli to come present a ballet there. “Alberto showed them our DVD and our programs and photos,” Bontrager says. The minister was so impressed that the town’s ready to pay for the theatre, their production costs and their lodging.

Bontrager says, “It’s always been a dream of ours, like many ballet companies, to perform internationally.” And like any ballet company, Ballet Fantastique puts a lot of effort into creating each new show, Bontrager says. “To perform it just a few times is always sad for the dancers – and for my mom and me as choreographers and producers.” So heading to San Benedetto holds some serious appeal.

Ashley Bontrager as Annie Oakley, one of the added characters, in As You Like It: A Wild West Ballet in April 2011. Photo by Gregory Burns

Now all Ballet Fantastique has to do is come up with airfare for the 10 artists and their choreographer, BFan artistic director (and Hannah’s mother) Donna Bontrager. Since last summer, the group has been doing everything from a car wash to galas to other fundraising activities in order to get the money together.

“We’re happy with any contribution,” Bontrager said. Company dancer Leanne Mizzoniwas surprised and touched when one of her 7-year-old students brought her a handful of change one day and said, “It’s for the Italy fund, Miss Leanne!”

The latest – and most urgent – effort is the $4000 Kickstarter campaign. On the crowd-funding site Kickstarter, you can keep any extra money you raise over your goal, but if you don’t meet that goal, you get none of the money. And the Ballet Fantastique deadline is March 26. As of this writing moment, they’ve got 45 backers and about $3300 pledged – which is still far enough away from the goal that Bontrager admits to some nervousness. “We have our pie chart in the studio, and we’re sort of whittling,” she says.

The company recently concluded a sold-out Arabian Nights, the first time they created a full-length dramatic ballet, and the first time a show sold out before the day of the show. That probably bodes well for the company’s application to become a resident company at the Hult Center (they’re in the middle year of the three-year process). But the dancers and choreographers didn’t rest on their laurels.

“As as soon as we finished Arabian Nights, we resurrected last fall’s Incendio,” Bontrager says – because they’re going on the road, but this time just I-5 to Everett, Washington, where they’ll present Incendio. At the same time, she says, “we’re working on Cinderella: A Rock Opera Ballet, which is going to be one of the most collaborative things we’ve ever done.”

Amelia Unsicker prepares for Cinderella: A Rock Opera Ballet (May 12-13, 2012, at the Hult). Photo: Jared Mills, Woden Photography

So the dancers and choreographers are dealing with several shows at once. It’s not as if the dancers have time to focus solely on BFan rehearsals. Most of them have three or four jobs aside from Ballet Fantastique, where many also teach classes during the day when they’re not rehearsing.

“For us, it really is a labor of love for everybody involved,” Bontrager says. The company would love to raise enough money get to Italy for the planned July performance. “Every dollar really does make a difference to us. We’ve had a few people who have pledged $2 or $10. We have that shoestring mentality, and we’re proud of it. We do a lot with a little.”

What Should I Do This Weekend in Eugene? Top Picks!

Michael P. Watkins as Lawrence Jameson and Tom Wilson as Freddy Benson, the two con men. Photo by Rich Scheeland

What should you, arts loving person, do this weekend? My recs, in a vague order:

1. Nixon in China at the Eugene Opera. Two performances: tonight at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. at the Hult Center. Tix here or at the box office (some are quite reasonably priced – and hint, if you scan the QR code on the opera’s poster and use the coupon code to get tickets, they’re even cheaper. Yes, I did that). I wrote about original opera idea guy Peter Sellars and soprano Laura Decher Wayte earlier in the week, and here’s Bob Keefer’s story from the Register-Guard.

2. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels at the Very Little Theatre. Tix at 541-344-7751 or at the door, if there are any left – this one is totally selling out, people. Get your tix for next weekend maybe?

3.  The Crucible at the University Theatre – tix here or at the door (free if you’re a student with a student ID starting at 7 p.m. tonight and tomorrow night). Last two shows!

4. Fahrenheit 451 at the Lord Leebrick – tix here or at 541-465-1506, if there are any left.

5. Pina in 3D at Valley River Center 15 – yes, it’s coming to the Bijou, and I swear this will be the only time I pick a disgusting mall over the sweet little Bije, which I freaking adore …  but it’s not in 3D at the Bijou (fingers crossed that this will happen someday). Both director Wim Wenders (swoon for Wenders!) and critics near and far have said the 3D is FANTASTIC for dance movies. (I am also not a big fan of 3D – I think it’s a gimmick, for the most part – but in this case, DANCE. 3D. Yes.)

Laura Decher Wayte on Singing Madame Mao for the Eugene Opera’s ‘Nixon in China’

Laura Decher Wayte, soprano, who sings Madame Mao (Jiang Qing) in Nixon in China March 16 & 18 in Eugene, Oregon

Laura Decher Wayte is a soprano who lives in Eugene. She teaches at the UO’s School of Music, and she performs in recital and occasionally in operas, including the Eugene Opera’s Don Giovanni and this week’s Nixon in China.

I ran into her at rehearsal the other day and did a phone interview with her today.

Suzi Steffen: So what are your thoughts about presenting Nixon in China in Eugene?

Laura Decher Wayte: I’m more and more excited about it, in terms of the whole project. When I first heard we were going to do it, I was excited to do my part, but I thought the piece itself … well, I wondered if it would be OK for Eugene. I think more and more that it is an excellent choice.

And how did that change? Why?
I can see that as a company, we can handle it. It was lovely to have all the build-up through the university to bring more community members into the idea of it so it becomes interesting to more than to your traditional group of opera aficionados.

Madame Mao is an … interesting … character. How do you play this woman? What kind of research did you do?

I did read about a third of the biography written by Roxane Witca, who came to give a lecture, and while that was fascinating, it doesn’t necessarily inform the part because [Jiang Qing] isn’t an historically based part in its emotional details.

What we have to do as singers is use the score and text a lot in a nonhistorical way. We have to think of it as its own document that has its own goal of portraying the confusion of being in power [when you’re] a human being.

Let’s talk about what she’s feeling during the opera, and what she’s feeling during the famous aria ‘I am the wife of Mao Tse Tung’.

At any given moment in the opera, it’s obvious she’s either frustrated or feeling rejected or depressed by her history or the inflexibility of the people around her to do what she says. It’s easy to portray those kind of blanket emotions; I don’t find that challenging. What’s hard to do is to tie it together to make sense. But there’s a gift in this opera; it’s supposed to be a more impression of things, it doesn’t necessarily have to make sense.

What would you say to people who have a hard time with the story arc? I mean, in that it’s not a traditional opera story, with a Romantic arc or even much of a narrative arc?

Well, what I would say is they shouldn’t think of it as a story that’s supposed to parallel history but that it’s more of a fictionalized history. We’re using the structure of history to examine ourselves as humans, not to examine a particular moment in history. It’s no about would Mao have ever said that in real life – those kinds of questions I don’t find interesting. It’s more about the rhythms of humanity, the ways we expand and contract our societies.

How well should people know the opera before they come?

The thing I think that’s hard about this piece is that it’s so textually dense, and the librettist does not give away the meaning behind what she’s written very easily. No matter how much you know it, you’re going to get different levels of something from it. If you go to it with this being your only exposure, you will let go of struggling for plot and listen to the way the music manipulates us, the way the text makes us have thoughts that are not a linear story.

You allow your brain to let go and enjoy what happens because of what it’s being exposed to. But if you can prepare for it, whatever you do is going to help. There’s a lot of little references in the text to history, to different characters in history, but if you don’t know them, there’s still plenty.

I compare it to, I used to read a lot of Shakespeare, and at first it was work. I’d have to grab out a dictionary to figure out what was happening. Then I decided, I’m just going to read – and it became fun at a totally different level.

Because you’re relaxed?

Yes, because you’re relaxed.

What have you heard people in the community saying about Nixon in China?

I’ve heard lots of people say they’re interested in coming. I think it’s worthy of commenting on that I’ve heard more people say they’re interested in coming than in the other work I’ve been involved in with this company for. It’s new, it’s different, it’s not just Don Giovanni again – Don Giovanni, it’s a great thing; my dad would see Don Giovanni 50 times, but … [We both made noises of assent, and that was that.]

How do you feel about singing in English?

I love it; I absolutely love it. I love singing in the other languages as well, especially the ones I know, but I’ve lately been feeling frustration with having a language barrier between my work and what my audience can hear of the work I’ve done. I love that I can put all kinds of meaning into a word and somebody can actually get it. With German and French, I do all of this work, and I have so much relationship with the text, and I feel frustrated because nobody’s getting a portion of what I’m putting into it.

And on that note, do you think people will read the supertitles less and pay attention to the stage?

We had breakfast with Peter Sellars last week. He was saying that when he was younger, before there were supertitles, he would go to a foreign opera and let go of comprehension and be affected by the music, and he really misses that.

Do you think Nixon in China is a complex work, or does it feel that way just because it’s newer, and maybe we don’t know the music as well?

I’ve been asked that a lot. My answer has been that the music is that hard; it’s not that complex – I can learn any page easily. But the problem comes when you have to put it together. There’s the lack of an overarching structure to any moment. There’s not a coda, for instance. It doesn’t have all these labels we have for the way music feels and flows – that is gone. We all were looking forward to being staged because that would give us structure and put the structure into our bodies and into our brains where it didn’t exist musically.