The Beautiful Underground

The creative power of art and theater from the landscape

A photo of a performer in a Shiny Barn production, a woman with curly gray hair wearing a green zippered jacket and luminous fairy wings. Photo by Meg West.

I’ve always been attracted to the underground, to the subversive. I can list the projects of my youth: the student food cooperative I joined in the mid-1990s at UC Santa Cruz, located under the dorms with organic bagels and strawberries for sale. The illegal tree dwellers I befriended who lived in ramshackle forts in the redwoods above campus. The anarchist train hopper I took as my lover in college, who listened to me read poems at smoky tofu potlucks. The Marxism class for which we were not graded, where we met once a week in Victorian homes for hours upon hours to drink wine, smoke, and converse about communism, Bob Dylan, and peasantry. The pirate radio station in the woods where I was a DJ among a collective of other miscreants dressed in black. The Chavez House where I cohabited with twenty-five other outcasts, an experiment in filthy communal living. Further on, back-to-the-land dirt farming, the Grateful Dead and psychedelic research, environmental activism, and the alternative newspaper I wrote for as a twenty-something socialist, justifiably named Brecht’s Hammer.

Is it ironic that I now live in the suburbs at forty-five—that I’ve adapted to a subdued, conventional existence? Perhaps that’s why I must draw attention to the creativity that exists on the edges of enterprise. Out in rural communities, there resides a remedy to the isolation and detachment we all sense and recognize. We are short on connection and long on loneliness, and yet there is an antidote to what we are experiencing: this slippage of joy, the overwhelming sensation that the skies are falling, that the ecstatic economies of our lives are collapsing. The corrective is to become fastened to place, to create a magnificent temporary theater grounded in the civic and free. A convergence of community spirit and liberation. This is the power of art as revolution in a time of deep grief and political division.  

Imagine a barn, quite lovely on the outside, built of clay and straw and wood, atop a hill. Imagine a stretch of wild mountains beyond the gray strip of sky, and below, in the valley, dairy cows, big white dogs, and a river, beautiful like any great Oregon river, called the Little Applegate, which carries fish and rocks and wishes from little girls. That’s the place I take you now: above this river and to this barn. Inside a glass door, high beamed ceilings stretch with starry pink and gold, some indigo, a projection of the vast universe atop our heads setting a poetic tone, both gentle and calm with a little bit of alchemy. See around you: beautiful people draped in scarves and coats, a bar offering beer, wine, and cider. A metal staircase runs in a twist like chromosomes or candy canes up to the second level where a lighting and sound engineer keeps watch. You are here in this place, in the Shiny Barn, nestled into the diverse Siskiyou Mountains, arranged around a foundation of community rooted in imagination. Something rare and exceptional is here. Home, both as setting and as thematic element. As you settle into your chair, you’ll meet and watch and laugh with characters of the Oregon landscape—farmers, loggers, hunters, foragers, builders, lovers. The nuances of their stories and drama show us the tenuous relationship we all have with the land and with each other.

You feel the vibration.

Let me set the scene on stage: There is a river who speaks wisdom to a gold miner and fisherwoman. A prepper and hippie fight over the last two-by-four in a Home Depot basement at the end of the world. A logger and farmer fall in love across a downed tree. A baby bear returns to a broken home with ailing parents. A woman who has lost her voice makes origami birds to populate the forest, and another contends with becoming a mother while eating star thistle soup post-apocalypse. These are just some of the creative stories of the Little Apple Players in rural southwestern Oregon, a community of creatives who are actively crafting, designing, and performing theater—all without profit or fame, but as authentic acts of collaboration.

Every spring, several members of the collective write short plays, just ten minutes in length, some comedic, some tragic. Over the course of six months, the group meets in living rooms across the Rogue Valley with wine and food, a kind of underground salon, to workshop the plays and improve the scenes for performance. As the writing evolves, so do the connections. Generally, an apocalyptic element underlies the plays, an unintentional, emergent outcome of creative collaboration. One playwright, Meg West, says, “In the collective, right here, right now, writers are working something out that is deeply disturbing. Drama needs conflict, and most of these characters in these plays are dealing with deep internal struggles set up against the world.”

In the fall, the plays are cast by Maud Powell, the original creator and ongoing producer of the Little Apple Players, and then performed over two wintery weekends in The Shiny Barn by local actors, most untrained theater performers. I won’t use the word amateur as it implies incompetence, which is far from the truth. They are beautifully talented farmers, bakers, winemakers, chaplains, builders, musicians, forest activists, and teachers. Imagine the inventiveness that transpires from that kind of synergy. Powell says of this magic, “My belief is that the quality of the performance comes from people feeling like they belong to something, and they don't have to fight for their place within it.”

It becomes an intimacy of association.

The genesis of the Little Apple Players began when Powell’s family in Ireland decided to write a script and perform the scenes all within a weeks’ time. She thought she could do the same, so she brought the concept back to her small rural valley. At first, she selected plays from other playwrights, short vignettes that small groups of actors could rehearse. But there were problems in the original scripts, and Powell thought the collective could write their own, after she was inspired by other twenty-four-hour theater projects. The first year the collective collaborated on a project called “Shelter in Plays,” in which writers wrote for a live performance theater on Zoom. From there, the playwright collective evolved, and they knew they were on to something as excitement grew throughout the community of players. Powell developed guiding principles—fun, inclusivity, low-stress. West says, “We’re all in this for a good time as artists. It’s about cooperation instead of competition.”

The impact on the community is widely felt as the audience witnesses the intimacy of their lives reflected back to them. The specificity of place is strong and deep, part of the movement between performer and audience. The interpretation of both the comedy and tragedy of our lives becomes an alternate reality in which we watch as our neighborhood baker perform on stage. Powell says, “It makes art accessible to everyone.”

The underground is the only place for this kind of creative resistance, following in the tradition of Bertolt Brecht’s political theater or Theater of the Oppressed from Augusto Boal. It works as an antidote to cultural alienation and political division. It’s a place where people meet for the joy of performance—where collective creativity, not individual fame, is the goal. The collaboration represents a position of resistance. It is an act of empowerment—to create and write and produce and perform something without having to sell it or oblige the whimsy of market forces. It’s a commentary on how to live, a temporary intensity of creation, and then, just as it came to be, it’s gone.

It makes survival possible.

I welcome this pursuit of community cohesion as a return to youth, where the embrace of collectivity was a resistant practice. We could, and can, form and fashion an alternative way of life. I want to assume that others feel the same: that creating something outside of the mainstream, this act of creativity that won’t be sold or commodified, holds tremendous power, depth, and strength, when so many of us feel powerless. In the subversive, we can witness, light, sizzle, spark, magic, wonder, and love. We can love and love and love. Because so much of what we do every day—our bustle and hum for the markets—can be righted when humans perform for no other reason but for the joy of creation. It’s a binding, not unlike ecosystems or molecules, the earth and sun, or a costume’s buttons.


No comments yet.

Add a Comment