Four Days in Ashland

Play Abandons Plot to Focus on Themes

I woke up with someone’s leg pinning my cheek to the aisle floor. “Wha..?” It was the bus ride home from Ashland, Oregon, a mere 12 hours (or was it 14?) away, and, seeking the best place to sleep, I grabbed a spot in the aisle. This was the conclusion to a four-day trip to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival with advanced placement English literature students and teachers. We attended Pride and Prejudicc, Well, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and Hamlet.

The contemporary play Well is about a woman exploring issues of racial tension and health through her own experiences, and though she claims to use these solely as examples, the play is clearly about her problems more than any universal issues.

As the narrator often reminds us, Well is a meta-theatrical production, meaning that it calls attention to the fact that it is a play, and everyone on stage is an actor. For example, at one point almost every actor decides to quit the production, leaving the audience completely ungrounded. Though this brings forward an interesting perspective, the play adopts a new purpose. Instead of presenting themes through plot, the play abandons plot in order to fully focus on themes. The great thing about this is that for me it triggers introspective thoughts.

Yet without any organization or steady plot, it was difficult to encourage the progress of my thoughts. For me, the point of a play is to escape into an alternate world, become involved with the characters, and discuss the messages I feel the author wants to present to the audience. I think that by becoming so wrapped up in the final “message” we lose the importance of plot itself. Bringing our own lives into the theater, we are accustomed to forming unique relationships with characters and enjoying stories just because.

So when I witnessed the plot of Well combust and turn to ashes, I didn’t know what to do or think. In fact, I stopped trying to think or make sense of anything. What do you do when there are only frazzled thoughts darting from one actor to the other? (There were only two actors left on stage at this point). I gave up once there was no suspense, no guidance. And when the play concluded with the main actress sitting on stage sorting through files, and the house lights came on, I wasn’t sure what I got out of it. Maybe I’m just a damn traditionalist.

With that said, the trip was amazing. Just over 50 Santa Barbara High students got to live in our own alternate reality, that being the impossibly charming Ashland. It was perfect to spend a weekend with good company, good food, and great productions.

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