Play readings are weird, right? If you go to a poetry reading, the poet reads her work; if you go to a book reading, the author reads his work; and if you go to a full play, you have actors, designers, stage managers and all kinds of people making sure the experience is immersive for the audience. Play readings usually consist of the actors reading from the script and acting as best they can – more than the first table read-through, but far less than a finished production – and sometimes include some direction, some costuming, some lighting.
So when Theresa May, a professor in the University of Oregon’s Department of Theatre Arts, sent out a flyer about a new play reading series that starts at 7 pm Tuesday, Oct. 25, at the Many Nations Longhouse on the UO campus, I was intrigued.
How often do theater folks hear about Native or First Nations (the preferred term in Canada) playwrights? Not often enough, May told me when I called her to talk about it. May, who is not Native, has worked with several Native playwrights during her decade plus of championing the Earth Matters On Stage festival and in the University Theatre schedule (Burning Vision; Salmon Is Everything; Sila).
I called her over the weekend before the first reading series to talk about everything from last year’s Edward Curtis Project to what the Many Nations Longhouse provides to Native students on the UO campus.
Can you tell me how this Native play reading series came about?
Well, it started with the Edward Curtis Project last year. My colleague Jennifer O’Neal, who is one of the library archivists and one of her area of expertise is Native American history, he curated a symposium and a showing of the Edward Curtis’ [work, The North American Indian]. We have one of the original sets at the University of Oregon.
Jennifer organized the conference around that, where we brought in different Native artists, people who had worked with or whose families were photographed by Edward Curtis. Other faculty worked on it, and I directed a reading as part of that symposium. The people who participated were Native students, and [Native faculty and Grand Ronde elders] read roles. Everybody just had so much fun! I teach contemporary Native theater, and UO English professor Kirby Brown also teaches Native playwrights in his classes, and we got the whole sense that theater could be a tool, a mode of expression that gave voice to issues that were important to the communities. So I proposed we do the Native play reading series.
How does a reading series fit in, and/or how are you planning to create them once a term?
I’ve been teaching Native playwrights and directing them as I can when it fits within the University Theatre season. We decided let’s just do a play reading series, one play a term – plays that don’t have many characters, in just a concert reading to help the plays come alive. It’s for the community – and the UO, obviously, but the community as well.
In Theatre Arts, we have our first Native graduate student, Waylon Lenk, who is a Karuk from Northern California. Waylon has an MFA in dramaturgy from Stonybrook and has worked with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. He’s directing one of the plays on Tuesday. [Editor’s note: Here is a comprehensive piece by Waylon Lenk at HowlRound about Native theater in Oregon.]
You’ve been working on Native theater for some time. Do you feel like some of the non-Native rest of the country is catching up with Native issues and – looking at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival – with Native theater?
I think that Native theater is growing nationally. My putting it on the radar of the Theatre Arts Department is part of that, simply, its time has come. It’s not a credit to me, but to the breeze that I was in the way of.
I am inspired and stoked by so many of these playwrights that I didn’t learn about in school. And by golly, I am going to make sure our theater students get exposed to these plays. These questions are up for us as non-Native people as well, especially in the time of Standing Rock: How are we going to cope, or how are we going to respond, to a history of settler colonization? What is my responsibility with regard to that larger history?
Can you tell me more about each play?
It’s important for people to know that [Native theater ] is not just contemporary Native artists doing white people’s theater; it’s a form that is very much rooted in Native traditions of storytelling and other kinds of performance traditions. I trust Diane as a Native playwright to talk about her own play; I’m not going to analyze it.
Waylon is directing one by an Ojibwe/Ojibway playwright, Drew Hayden Taylor, from Toronto. He’s one of the premier playwrights of Canada, actually. They take better care of their Native playwrights up there than we have here!
Could you talk a little about the Many Nations Longhouse as a space for theater?
Traditionally, it’s a space for community to come together and share, share food or knowledge, and in that way, a Longhouse is really … if the UO is a nation-state, it’s an embassy. You walk through those doors, and you are no longer in the nation-state of the UO.
You are in what is tribal communities’ space. The tribal communities manage the space, and it is a government to government relationship. It’s not like the Longhouse is just one more venue at the UO. It’s not even like the theaters. It’s a sovereign space of the nine federally recognized tribes in the state of Oregon. It’s a place for Native students to feel like they can come home.
The way Gordon [Bettles] runs it, it’s a place of so much welcome, so much care. They have study halls, potlucks, and there’s always a listening ear and food in the refrigerator.
Native Play Reading Series
7-9:30 pm Tuesday, Oct. 25
Many Nations Longhouse, 1630 Columbia St. (near the Knight Law School and Hayward Field)