46-year-old Scott Palmer is the artistic director of Bag&Baggage Productions, a thriving professional theatre that’s pioneering new forms of performances through classic play adaptations. The Hillsboro, Oregon native created the theatre in the same town he grew up in and is currently doing groundbreaking work by studying and inventing performances derived from traditional and lost plays; even Scott says himself, “I don’t think there’s anywhere else in the world that this happens.” Scott’s charismatic and enthusiastic demeanor was a joy to encounter as I chatted with him, and his true passion for what he does explains the success he’s encountered as artistic director of Bag&Baggage Productions. Additionally, as a political activist, Scott’s cutting edge play adaptations push the boundaries of modern theatre, as they address important social issues and urge the audience to think critically about moral and ethical matters. Bag&Baggage Productions have gained an international reputation for highly provocative as well as beautifully unique performances, and Scott Palmer has played an essential role in the theatre’s accomplishments.
When did you first start getting involved in theatre?
My first theatre experience was in Mrs. Peterson’s 4th grade class. We did a melodrama and I played the “damsel in distress.” I got tied to a railroad and had to be saved by the dashing Canadian Mountie…I think it started my theatrical interest in cross-gender casting, which is something Bag&Baggage does to this day.
My most formative theatre experience, though, was a trip to Ashland with my Junior year class from Hillsboro High School. We attended 4 shows, including a production of King Lear. The show was looooooong. 2 intermissions and about 4 hours in total. At the second intermission, my teacher said, “If we all agree to leave, we can leave, but if even one of you wants to stay, we all stay.” I put my hand up and said I wanted to stay, which totally pissed off the rest of the class, but I didn’t care. I had to see how it ended.
Tricky question. I did my undergraduate degree at the University of Oregon in Speech/Theatre and my Masters at Oregon State in Speech/Theatre/Political Science. I left the US in 1998 to travel to Scotland to do my PhD in Contemporary Theatre Practice at the University of Glasgow (did the coursework but never got the degree!). I lived in Glasgow for 6 years, and then 2 years in New Zealand before realizing how much I missed my family here in Oregon so moved back. I had worked as a professional theatre director for the entire time I was travelling abroad and, when I got back home, realized that Hillsboro didn’t have a professional theatre company so started one….and have been here ever since. The company was founded in 2005 and we have been performing 4 – 6 shows each year.
What inspired you to create Bag&Baggage Productions?
There were three things, basically:
First, I had just moved home and needed to find a way to stay involved in theatre and in directing. I had been so engaged in directing while living abroad [in Scotland] that once I got home, I had to find an outlet for that…but, there are so few opportunities for people to “guest direct” in this community…a lot of theatre work, but not a lot of freelance work.
Second, I was shocked to discover that Hillsboro didn’t have a professional theatre. Yes, there was a long-standing community theatre, but the city had grown and changed so much in the 10 or so years that I had been gone and I was stunned to realize that no one had developed a professional theatre company.
Third, I have a deep passion and interest in the way that theatre (and all arts, really) can influence social change. That was the focus of my academic work and, combined with my interest in politics, gave me some inspiration to see what we could do with theatre in this growing, changing, and very diverse community. Hillsboro is a remarkable place; it isn’t the sleepy, agricultural town most people think it is. In fact, it is one of the most diverse communities in Oregon and there are lots of fascinating tension between the “old” and “new” Hillsboro. It created a very fruitful and ripe opportunity to explore important issues through our work.
The text. We are sort of exclusively a “classics” theatre company, performing the great works of dramatic literature from Western culture. Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams, Noel Coward, Arthur Miller, etc…and those works are so rich in their language. I love doing textual analysis, doing script work, and also researching the historical, political and social influences on those works. We strive, in every show, to find new and innovative ways to bring these classics to life for modern, contemporary audiences; to really connect the works to the lives of our present day patrons in provocative ways.
That can be through novel or non-traditional stagings, through the use of original source materials (which is probably the thing I am best known for nationally and internationally), but also through challenging interpretations, playing fast and loose with gender or with themes, etc…
I am an unrepentant Shakespeare dork. My favorite thing in the world – not just in theatre but in the whole world – is researching and adapting Shakespeare. We have a slightly different approach to the work of Shakespeare than most other theatres in the world; I believe that Shakespeare was one of the best dramatists in Western history, if not the best, but I also think he was (perhaps more so) the best adaptation of other people’s work that has ever lived. Almost all of Shakespeare’s work was borrowed, stolen, adapted, altered or re-purposed from other earlier works of literature. Greek and Roman plays, histories, novels, epic poems, Italian folk tales, etc…Shakespeare’s genius is not just in his ability to write, but also in his ability to re-write other works to fit the needs of his audience.
I love, love, love sitting down in my study with a copy of the complete works and about 10 other original sources and comparing them line by line. What did he borrow? What did he steal in its entirety? What did he edit, cut, rewrite, alter or change? Why? What do those choices tell us about Shakespeare as a dramatist and poet? Are there things he SHOULDN’T have cut or altered? What happens to the play if I add that stuff BACK IN? Or revert it to its original style? How do we understand, appreciate or engage with the characters and stories in new ways if we include those original materials?
And…are there OTHER adaptations of Shakespeare’s work that came after that are equally as interesting?
A few examples of the kinds of work I have done, either in original adaptations or revisiting lost adaptations after Shakespeare:
The Amorous Adventures of the Comical Knight Sir John Falstaff by John Dennis, the first time the script has ever been performed, and done as a 1950s black and white television sit-com. A Restoration-era adaptation of Shakespeare’s Merry Wives.
The Tempest, or the Enchanted Isle by John Dryden and William Davenant, the first time the full script had been performed in more than 300 years, from Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
Caesar in Egypt by Colley Cibber, as part of our all-female production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar
The Taming of the Shrew & The Woman’s Prize, the first time that Shakespeare’s original had been paired with John Fletcher’s sequel and performed together as two halves of the same story
The Students, or Love’s Labour’s Lost – an anonymous adaptation of Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost written in 1762 and our production was the first ever, in history!
Here is what is so amazing about this: No one else in the world is doing this stuff. No one. But Bag&Baggage, a little professional theatre in Hillsboro, Oregon is exploring these works not only in creative ways, but also in financially successful ways. That is pretty cool.
I am incredibly proud of our success in Hillsboro and the fact that we haven’t compromised our artistic principles. We have heard, over the years, people say, “Oh, suburban theatre…you must do musicals and Neil Simon, right?” No. We do hard hitting, provocative, innovative and difficult work and we do it successfully without pulling punches. We explore difficult issues; gender, sexuality, violence, grief, income inequality, domestic violence…and we have tons of fun; drag queens doing A Christmas Carol, over the top physical comedy, homages to black and white sitcoms, and women playing men playing women playing men (in 70s fashions)…and it works and works well.
Outside of Bag&Baggage Productions, Scott enjoys drinking Oregon Pinot Noir and reads the New York Times Book Review cover to cover every Sunday. In the future, he plans on successfully continuing to study texts and create innovative performances for the theatre. Scott’s advice for aspiring artistic directors helps to account for the achievements that Bag&Baggage Productions has experienced, “Have an opinion about the work. Don’t put anything on stage that doesn’t reflect your opinion of it and how it relates to the specific people who will see it.”