Colonialism, Spinsters, and Hillsboro

Bag&Baggage stakes its place in Hillsboro history

Last Friday night, I finally accepted the curtain call from theatre company Bag&Baggage to review one of their productions. The Drowning Girls just happened to be next on the roster in the midst of their 2016-2017 season. I am glad it was.

I know that we city folks don’t consider the buroughs outside our urban core as destination places, but every place has something to offer, as does Hillsboro, home to the Venetian Theatre, the theatre company’s performance venue. In the short time I was there, I gathered a sense of Hillsboro’s reemergence as a place of its own identity. The old Main Street is alive and well with engaged citizens, and the arts are at the core of their plans.

Old towns like that were once self-sustained with their own economy and subculture. Its proprietors were proud, its farmers and merchants traded directly. I suppose some kind of culture never goes away, but as a kid who grew up mostly in suburban tracts, I am keen to how mass-produced suburbia was by 1990, and I suffer from nostalgia for something I never lived.

Just down from The Venetian Theater is a dive bar. I parked there to get some quick food before the play. “It’s just fried food tonight,” said the only man on staff, as he poured me a pint of pale ale. I ordered fish and chips, pondering what an old pub would look like a hundred years ago, assuming that in old times a bar proprietor would be present with their staff, filling in, while entertaining their regulars. Maybe not, but absentee ownership is commonplace today.

After just a few moments of texting with someone, a Scottish man sat down next to me and asked what I was texting about. I asked if he was a spy, he called me paranoid, and I put my phone away. He obtained his American citizenship by serving in the Marines, in the nineties, and then he became a librarian, of all things.

At one point he exclaimed, “It’s only 7:15!” To me implying that a solid night of drinking and exuberant talk was forthcoming. But that was my cue to go. I had to shovel the fried frozen fish into my face to get into that theater.

Marquee being constructed for the Town Theater, Hillsboro 1957.

Continuing along Main, I arrived at the theater with a smile as I took in its humble antique box office. The entryway looked old, with hints of Art Deco, but not quite. The marquee wasn’t original. It turns out the building burned down twice, was remodeled five times, and renamed three times since 1912. I have always loved Portland’s many antique theaters — I am a child of the shopping mall and its multiplexes that killed places like this.

Walking inside, that historical feeling is lost. It is a brand new facility, all very nice and state of the art,  and nothing ornate is leftover. It is all new. The 386-seat theater holds one hundred less than it did in 1916. I could not determine where original spaces began and remodeled spaces ended. For a place that burned down twice, I can accept why.

Founding Artistic Director Scott Palmer introduced The Drowning Girls with an announcement that we were all invited to check out the new digs for his company. A brand new facility, just two blocks away, was now owned by Bag&Baggage Productions and would begin presenting from its planned venue by next season.

The Drowning Girls

Stage appearance early at the opening scene of The Drowning Girls.

All attention goes first onto the scenic design, by Megan Wilkerson, which is alluring and delivers the audience into a mysterious realm where three women emerge from three bathtubs. The tubs each differ in their distance to the floor by a 1:3 foot ratio. Aside from these three bathroom scenes, everything is basically shades of water.

Blue strips of reflective material dangle from ceiling to floor and are delicately lit as to bring out glimmering qualities. Black curtains and light stage smoke absorb digital projections of water dripping, streaming, or showering. Lighting by Jim Ricks-White seamlessly shifts with the storyline, which is told in flashbacks and synchronicity. A high degree of choreography conveys the flashbacks and imaginary scene changes, enough so that movement plays a big role in the dynamics of the play.

Written by Beth Graham, Daniela Vlaskalic, and Charlie Tomlinson, The Drowning Girls is a contemporary play based on a true serial murder that haunts the annals of British colonialism. The result of shipping Britons over to establish trade in Africa, and elsewhere, was half a million more single women than men in Britain. Nicknamed “spinsters” they were a surplus commodity. Lacking financial mobility, these women were desperate for fulfilling lives.

Lacking financial mobility, these women were desperate for fulfilling lives.

The three women in the bathtubs were each killed by George Joseph Smith, in an elaborate insurance scheme. The play imagines an afterlife where they emerge together, still believing they are who they were, and their speech is like a twitching muscle, at first, spilling out fragments of personal identity. As they gain coherence and a patchwork of recollection is spun toward the murder story, suspense ratchets up despite knowing the outcome in advance. You learn precisely how the killer managed to pull it off three times, even down to his drowning technique.

It was a different world, aliases were easier to maintain and white men were the only first-class citizens. Exactly when this very theater was being developed in 1912, the first victim, Bessie Mundy was killed. Over the next two years, Smith took the lives of Alice Burnham and Margaret Lofty.

The actors, Autumn Buck, Jessi Walters, and Jessica Geffen, depict these British women convincingly and compassionately. Whenever my mind drifted from the actual words being recited on stage, I could really conjure these characters and imagine their struggles. Their camaraderie also develops in parallel with exposing this callous murderer. Solidarity is built where perhaps competition over this man would have been a stronger force between them before their lives were taken.

The only issue I would take up is a sense that all three women were very similar characters. I wonder what we know from historical record about these women, their temperament and idiosyncrasies and how that could inform the drama.

Colonizing Hillsboro with the Arts

After the show, I took up the chance to see the new building Scott mentioned at the beginning. I was the first to walk in and grab a cup of red wine and stand around in my awkwardness. I found the architectural plans laid out on a board room table.

They are building a modular stage design that utilizes existing architecture, like steel rows at the ceiling for lighting trusses. With a seating capacity of 146-165, depending on the arrangement, it is a perfect plan for their audience, and comparable to other major companies like Artists Repertory Theatre in Portland.

The Venetian is a traditional stage, but I could see The Drowning Girls in a more intimate room where their usual audience of about 100 could pack the space. This would liberate Bag&Baggage from The Venetian while contributing new options to the regional arts community for presenting new work.

City Councillor Steve Callaway, currently running for Mayor of Hillsboro, and Councillor Fred Nachtigal both made their appearance at the reception to extoll the virtue of colonizing Main Street with the arts. Nachtigal described himself and Palmer as “survivors” of Hillsboro High School, where they both graduated. I am comforted to know its long-time residents act as stewards of progress.

Scott Palmer hosts community members at a Public Sector Meeting inside the new Bag&Baggage facility on Main Street, Hillsboro.

Palmer hopes to raise $1.4 Million for the non-profit theatre company that he founded, to fully outfit the building and hedge back his debt burden. The campaign is going well with $1.1M already secured. This move of course opens a revenue stream out of a production expense and is natural for any theatre company that is serious about establishing themselves in their city of choice.

As I polished off my second cup of wine under the raw fluorescent lights of a building that represents the hopes and dreams of artists and their benefactors in a community just up the highway from Portland, and yet so foreign to me, I smirked, and drove home.

The Drowning Girls opened last week and will continue through October 31. See the links below for further listings.

Sean Ongley

By Sean Ongley

Co-Founder of THRU Media. A background in non-profit, music, and radio preceded my ambitions here. Now, I aspire to produce new media and publish independent journalism at this site and beyond.

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