Play offers entertaining, educational experience
November 18, 2017 | By MARY MALONE, Staff writer, Bonner County Daily Bee
Local actor Mike Clarke is playing Henry David Thoreau in a production of the play, “Walden: The Ballad of Thoreau,” at the Heartwood Center. The play is a collaboration between the Pend Oreille Arts Council and Unknwon Locals Productions. Students from Forrest Bird Charter School got to see the play Friday before it opened up to the public as part of POAC’s Ovations Education Program. The final production is tonight at 6:30pm. (Photo by MARY MALONE)
“Walden: The Ballad of Thoreau,” is a two-act, four-character fictional play documenting the last two days of his life in the cabin.
The Pend Oreille Arts Council and Unknown Locals Productions teamed up to bring the play to the community. Before opening for Friday and Saturday’s public performances, the actors hit the stage to perform for the students of Forrest Bird Charter School as part of POAC’s Ovations Education Program.
“Through that (program), with every performance we bring in for the public, we also do a student performance, workshop or master class,” said Hannah Combs, POAC’s Arts Administrator.
The Ovations Education program started in the 1980s, and an educational element is added in with each performance, typically seven or eight times a year, Combs said. For the workshops and master classes, artists, actors and musicians go into the schools to teach students different aspects of their related fields.
After performances such as Friday’s, a Q&A period is held so the students can ask questions of the cast and director. Combs said the students are also given a list of questions to complete after the show regarding what they got out of it, what they learned about the historical characters and more.
“So it’s educational and it’s entertaining,” Combs said.
Unknown Locals director Madeline Elliott and her husband, Chris Herron, started producing plays in 2011 and officially started the productions company in 2013. Herron is a local writer, who has written several original plays — Elliott said they produced their sixth original play this summer. She said they do a mix of original plays along with more well-known titles, such as works by William Shakespeare.
“We try to foster projects that the community wants to see and wants to be involved in,” Elliott said.
With Thoreau’s 200th birthday in July of this year, POAC board members thought it would be a good educational opportunity for students and the community, Elliott said.
“We’ve been (producing plays) for several years because we want to entertain people, entertain the community, and provide an opportunity for the community to get involved in theater,” Elliott said. “The opportunity to be able to expand that to students, that educational aspect, is really exciting for me.”
The 84 students who attended Friday’s production ranged from grades eight to 12. Michael Bigley, English teacher for FBCS, said he and two other teachers of chemistry and government, all felt the play would be relevant to their subjects.
Bigley said what he enjoyed about the play, it is about the life of a writer.
“It’s about the labor and solitude, but what you are doing, after all, in writing, is trying to reach other people,” Bigley said. “So it is that sort of dilemma that they go through.”
It is a good lesson, Bigley said, particularly for students who are interested in writing.
During the Q&A, the students were full of questions, which the actors did their best to answer. The cast includes Mike Clarke as Thoreau and Seneca Cummings as Ralph Waldo Emerson, as well as Cory Repass and Nicole Buratto, who played the fictional characters of Joshua Barnett and Rachel Stuers respectively.
Some questions posed by the students surrounded the life of Thoreau, such as, “Did he ever marry and have kids?” The answer, of course, was no — he died of tuberculosis at the age of 44. They also asked whether some of the things were symbolic, such as the opening and closing of the window, and leaving the candle lit as Thoreau left the cabin. The cast members could guess at the symbolism, but said only the playwright would know what he truly meant by writing the actions into the play.
Toward the end of the Q&A, Clarke had some advice for the students as they grow up and enter the world as adults.
“Your wonderful ideas and your ability to change the world … it won’t mean anything unless you do something about it,” Clarke said. “If you are stuck in stasis like Henry David Thoreau was at Walden Pond, you do nothing for everyone else.”
A poignant play about personal reflection, solitude and communing with nature
The year is 1847. The setting is an isolated cabin inhabited by one of the play’s four characters. Two of the four actors portray real-life activists, men who believed strongly in what was considered then non-conformist ideas. These seemingly mainstream, conservative, white men were on the cusp of radical changes in cultural beliefs, not unlike the politics of today while two fictional characters try to understand the concepts of progressiveness.
On two evenings, November 17 and November 18 at 7 p.m. at Heartwood Center, Pend Oreille Arts Council partnering with Unknown Locals Productions presents Walden: The Ballad of Thoreau. This play written by Michael Johnathon depicts the last 48 hours of the two years, two months and two days that Henry David Thoreau spent near Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts and a visit from benefactor, mentor and fellow author Ralph Waldo Emerson. The cast is made up of local actors and directed by Madeline Elliott.
Before you chalk this up to perhaps being a little dull, let me assure you that the discussion between the actors in the play is anything but. Of the four characters, Thoreau and Emerson reflect the intelligentsia while Joshua Barnett represents the common man and Rachel Stuers adds the feminine point-of-view.
POAC Arts Administrator, Hannah Combs agrees with me that the play is anything but boring, “The play is far funnier than the director, cast, or I expected before we read the script. For all the high-minded words and ideas being volleyed around by Thoreau, one of the central struggles follows Emerson trying to convince Thoreau to trade in his rustic lifestyle and find a nice young woman to marry.”
Each character brings an insight into how conclusions are drawn and values are challenged. These subjects continue to be pertinent in today’s political and environmental spectrum. This isn’t a biography of Thoreau, but rather a glimpse into his growth as a commentator on life and, perhaps more importantly about friendship, respect, keeping a journal and raising vegetables.
If you weren’t tasked with reading works by Thoreau and Emerson when you were in school, we should take a moment to explain who they were. Thoreau, our protagonist, is renowned for being a voracious essayist, poet, philosopher, abolitionist, naturalist, tax resister, development critic, surveyor and historian.
Best known for writing Civil Disobedience, an essay that argues in favor of just that and for penning the novel Walden which is the culmination of the time we’ll see in the play, Thoreau is typically described as a transcendentalist as was Emerson. So, you might ask, what’s that?
Dictionary.com explains that transcendentalism calls on people “to view the objects in the world as small versions of the whole universe and to trust their individual intuitions.” In other words, not to just accept dogmas (authoritative points of view) but to come to one’s own conclusions about things such as spirituality and relationship to nature.
Thoreau was at the forefront of environmentalism and was a proponent of feminism long before either one was top-of-mind. Emerson was a lecturer as well as an essayist who was a champion of individualism which advocated for independence and self-reliance.
So in the play, the self-imposed exile of Thoreau gives both these men an avenue for lively dialogue that Johnathon brilliantly weaves into the play along with actual words that each of them penned. It’s, in my humble opinion, an incredible piece of historical drama and well worth the time to see it.
Students give vision to human rights
Allison Kinard, a senior at Sandpoint High School, stands next to her painting of a woman of color dancing. The painting is on display at the Student Art for Human Rights show at the Pend Oreille Arts Council gallery in Sandpoint. (Photo by MARY MALONE)
Local students gave voice to a powerful vision of human rights through artwork, which is currently displayed in the Pend Oreille Arts Council gallery.
The works were done in many different mediums, but the message was the same — that all humans should be treated equal and given the rights outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights document.
Allison Kinard, a junior at Sandpoint High School, used watercolor and a hint of Sharpie detail to depict a woman of color dancing with an array of colors streaming around her. During the opening reception for the Student Art for Human Rights event Monday evening, Kinard said the message is to show that the word “colored” is not a negative term.
“It’s something beautiful, it’s a cultural identity and there is so many beautiful things about it,” Kinard said.
For 12 years, the Bonner County Human Rights Task Force and Pend Oreille Arts Council have partnered in the student art event to bring the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to the attention of students in the area.
Formulated by Eleanor Roosevelt as she was the chair of the United Nations Human Rights Commission at the time, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted and proclaimed by the General Assembly of the United Nations on Dec. 10, 1948. The document consists of 30 articles meant to guarantee the rights of all people.
“It is an important thing to be aware of,” said Brenda Hammond, BCHRTF secretary, as she flipped through the small booklet containing the articles. “Like Article 25. ‘Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family.’ The fact that that is considered a human right is really significant.”
Art students at Sandpoint High School, Forrest M. Bird Charter School and Sandpoint Middle School were instructed to choose an article and represent it artistically. Therefore, the representations were of equality, the right to marriage and family, the right to own property and the right to education. Many of the other articles were represented as well.
“It’s amazing to see what they drew,” Hammond said. “As someone who has worked in human rights for a number of years, every year I am re-inspired and re-committed and encouraged by seeing what the young people are able to do and the depth of engagement with these ideas.”
Sandpoint High School art instructors Ezra Stafford and Heather Guthrie attended the event to see their students’ artwork displayed in the gallery. Stafford said while it was a spur of the moment assignment for his students, they were able to use what they have learned throughout the semester and integrate it into their own personal style using the article as an influence for the work.
Guthrie said the students seem to have a “really amazing grasp at this age” of politics and a global society. She said it may be because of social media, but they seem more “in tune” with what is happening in the world than kids were when she was their age.
“And I guess with this (presidential) election being such a high profile one, too, they understand what human rights are, what they mean,” Guthrie said. “They did a really good job with the show.”
Seventh- and eighth-grade art teacher for Sandpoint Middle School, Linda Navarre, also attended the reception. Navarre said her favorite part of the project is seeing the kids choose the Article they intend to artistically create. Navarre said she does “a little front-loading” on Eleanor Roosevelt and how the articles came to be, and let’s the kids do the rest.
Local artist Whitney Palmer graduated from SHS in 2002, and growing up in the district had Navarre as a teacher in middle school. As Palmer conversed with Navarre at the event, she recalled the teacher’s attention to human rights dating back to when she took her class.
“She was amazing about informing us as students, in seventh-grade, about human rights issues,” Palmer said. “… It’s great to have that influence at a younger age and that awareness. It really influenced me and I became more involved in human rights issues.”
Annual Student Art Exhibit: A Review
“Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.”
I found the show to be provocative in many ways. What I appreciated more than anything was the raw energy and lack of inhibition, a freedom from the fear of making a mistake. Maybe some of the artists were more able to know which mistakes to keep than others, but I didn’t feel that was as important as the simple act of expressing themselves, putting the process before the results.
This made it difficult for me to decide which pieces I liked “best,” even though there were some stellar standouts, especially among the portraits in the back room. Yet, who wouldn’t love the cute elephant and puppy showing in the front room, the colorful,, large-scale selfies, the mosaics and ceramics?
Again, the show’s overwhelming feeling of innocent freshness is what I came away with most. As I walked up Cedar Street later that night, I saw another rather fitting quote on a sign in a shop window:
“It is not our abilities that show who we truly are… it is our choices.”