Monday, October 11, 2010

Back to the Farm

Here is an interview I gave to Adam Stewart of the Vancouver Voice

Until two years ago, Arts Equity, founded by theater veteran Llewellyn Rhoe, had been Vancouver’s alternative theater, putting on challenging and adult productions such as 21A, The God of Hell, and the musical Herringbone. Yet it seemed there wasn’t much of a market for art theater in Vancouver: low public interest forced the theater to close its doors (the Main Street Theater is now being used by the Magenta Theater Company.)

“When I decided to create a version of Arts Equity in Vancouver, it was more about wanting to do work ... that inspired me,” said Rhoe in an email. “That is the arc in my creative life. Along the way you forge a point of view through the art exchange you have with your patrons and detractors.”
“Vancouver is the first place I have yet to make a living as an artist.”

After losing the Main Street Theater, Arts Equity ran productions in Portland, though not to much success. Since then, it has done what it can for the Vancouver arts scene, including collaborate with pianist Thomas Rheingan for the “Live At the Fries” concert series.

“I’ve sat out these last two plus years to analyze what happened during our Main Street tenure and to apply it to going forward in the arts here in this area,” said Rhoe.

Earlier this year, Rhoe was appointed to the Clark County Arts Commission by the Vancouver City Council, though they have yet to assign him any according duties. Like almost any artist, Rhoe supports himself through “day jobs.” Since April, he has been working for the 2010 Census in Vancouver. “I am learning things about Vancouver that I didn’t hear when I worked the 2000 census,” he said. “With the concerns expressed by a lot of very angry individuals about how they view the government, an arts dialogue seems a long way from the public debate.”

For its most recent project, Arts Equity is taking on something a little more “family friendly” than they’ve been known for, though no less artistically valid: a children’s tale of morality that populates the stage with a bear, a dog, trolls, and a cow named Lilywhite.

Nisse’s Dream was written by Paul Safar and Nancy Woods and debuted at the Lord Leebrick Theater in Eugene in 2005. It’s a musical fable about courage and finding help along the road where one might least expect. Nisse, a young farmboy, has been elected by his family to recover Lillywhite, their dairy cow that has been stolen by a pack of greedy trolls. Along the way, Nisse is given a gift that allows him to speak to animals, and through his own good will, a dog and a bear become his companions.

“Part of Arts Equity has always [been] to entertain the ideas,” said Rhoe, “and Nisse’s Dream has a very old-world storyteller morality to the story line without hammering you from the pulpit when delivered through the music. It’s a great example of teaching and entertaining things, like loving the animals who serve us.”

Having spent summers of his upbringing on his grandparents’ farms, Rhoe understands parallels between Nisse’s story and his own. “Certainly part of me is still just a kid off the farm like Nisse,” he said. “Art is completely like farming: If you don’t plant you don’t reap. Make hay while the sun shines. There is always crop failure. What you reap today has nothing to do with what you did today. And even the lessons learned in crop failure help you learn what not to ever do again.

“Nisse is on an adventure where his family’s destiny is at stake against antagonist trolls, who want everything and more,” said Rhoe. “That’s a theme most people come up against at various times in their lives. We’ve all been ‘milked’ by pickers of low hanging fruit, not just out right thieves. As a kid off the farm, I probably have a similar discomfort with pickers of low hanging fruit.”

Some of Rhoe’s first experiences in children’s theater include putting on shows as a child. His first run theater was when he was in the fourth grade, when he fashioned a stage in his neighbor’s garage, complete with trap door, to put on performances. “I also learned that lemonade brought in almost as much revenue and that I had to pay rent to my friend who’s dad owned the house the garage was hooked up to,” he said. “I guess her dad was the first agent type I dealt with.”

Rhoe’s college mentor who attended the prestigious Goodman School of Drama in Chicago, showed him the ropes in entertaining children. They performed for 15,000 elementary students over 10 performances.
“Working for kids is in many ways the most honest,” said Rhoe. “They cheer your good guys and they boo the bad guys.

“The kid’s audience is very sophisticated in many ways,” he said, “so you can’t play down to them, you need to open them up to the world of wonder.”

Rhoe said one of the things that drew him into directing Nisse’s Dream was its music. “[It] has a very sophisticated score that at the same time is extremely accessible to the young and the young at heart,” he said. “‘Take Care of Me’ has a jazzy swing standard quality that makes you think you’re in love, where ‘I Am Strength’ has this wonderful march quality to it.”

Rhoe said when he received a recording of the music of Nisse’s Dream from its creators, he sought and found the emotional moments of the show. “I obsessively listen to the score until I know it and it overtakes my conscious, sub- and unconscious minds,” he said. “I dream it: waking, sleeping, which in the end requires turning it over to my subconscious mind to work out the creation. It becomes stuck in me where the only exorcism is directing it.”

Initially slated to run in late July at the Sherman Auditorium in Vancouver, Rhoe said the production was pushed back to next year, in part to allow a possible collaboration with the Portland Festival Ballet, which has expressed interest in working with Cherry Blossom Musical Arts, Safar and Woods’s non-profit organization. Promotional tie-ins with Burgerville and the Dairy Farmers of Oregon are also in consideration.

Rhoe said he hopes to have the production ready for next spring. In the meantime, he is also penning a historical drama based on the life of Ulysses S. Grant. “It’s a four-hander with Mark Twain,” he said, “Grant at the age he was when he was here at Ft. Vancouver, Grant at the age when he wrote his memoir. Grant missed his wife and it’s here in Vancouver that he started to drink.”

But with Nisse’s Dream, it’s the children who look to benefit from Arts Equity’s ambitious project brought to Vancouver’s stage. That includes, of course, the child in all of us, as well as the children in performers and director.

“When you work at this collaborative level, you experience a very childlike feeling about creating,” said Rhoe. “It is a chance to be a kid again. A chance to be an old soul in a young body, for young bodies.”

For more information, visit and CDs or MP3 downloads of music from "Nisse's Dream" can be found at

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