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SOU grad wins Yale acting award

Taya Dixon

Misty Upham disappeared in October of 2014 in Auburn, Washington. Eleven days later her body was found with her ribs and skull broken at the bottom of a ravine. The medical examiner ruled blunt force trauma as the cause of death, and said it was impossible to know whether it was foul play, suicide or an accident.

Misty Upham struggled with bi-polar disorder and anxiety for years before her death, wavering between prescriptions and self-medicating. Her family claims they formed a search party to look for her because the police were not. They found her body.

Misty Upham was an actress of rising fame at the time of her death. She played in movies such as “D’jango Unchained” and “Frozen River.”

In 2020, Yale’s Indigenous Performing Arts Program created a yearly award in her honor: the Misty Upham Young Native Actor Award. This year the winning actress was Southern Oregon University graduate Taya Dixon.

A panel of theater artists choose every year one actor younger than 25 for the $500 cash prize and an accompanying opportunity to perform at the YIPAP annual festival of new Native plays.

Taya Dixon

“Taya stood out for the honesty, depth and clarity of choices in her very compelling performance,” Madeline Sayet, YIPAP theater director said.

Dixon feels she has always been an actress at heart. She remembers a childhood spent with singing, playing pretend, and laughing. The laughter she chose consciously, to defend herself and give to others at the same time.

“I was bullied as a kid, and I realized that making people laugh was the kind of sunshine I wanted to spread around to everyone.”

Throughout school Dixon acted in school plays. When Dixon thinks of her time as a student in the theater program at SOU, she remembers first the “goofy, loving and powerful” student actors in her program.

“There are so many teachers who I love that gave every bit of themselves to our theater department in teaching performance, tech and costuming,” Dixon said.

Dixon remembered especially acting and performance professor Jackie Apodaca. Dixon remembers Apodaca’s insistence on honesty in performance, to have confidence, trust herself and push herself. Dixon said she always remembers her professor telling her, “Taya, be confident in knowing that what you have to offer is enough. Believe that.”

Last year Dixon had the confidence to audition for the Misty Upham Award. She was rejected for the prize. But the panel called her back to perform in the festival itself. Dixon tried again this year, and won.

YIPAP’s festival is focused on promoting new and upcoming Native artists within the theater, accepting submissions of plays from playwrights.

Monologues from the winning plays go to the actors competing for the award, who then choose from them and submit their performance.

Dixon choose a monologue from “Boxing Play” by Marisa Carr.

Dixon described the monologue as a Native woman training in a boxing gym. The character expresses how she feels as a Native woman, how she worries that often Native women go missing, are taken or are murdered.

The character believes boxing will make her strong and capable of defending herself.

“It’s a very powerful monologue,” Dixon said.

Dixon describes herself as a “reconnecting Native,” a term used by some who know they are Indigenous people but feel a lack of connection to Native culture. Dixon described reconnecting Natives as often growing up outside a reservation, and having little to no other Native community.

Dixon began reconnecting through her grandmother, who Dixon says grew up at a time when being Native was not to be talked about, and has been reconnecting herself.

Dixon has been investing herself in this effort through powwows, ceremonies, and attempting to learn her Native language.

Acting in plays by Indigenous playwrights, like in the YIPAP festival, gives Dixon another avenue for a deeper reconnection.

“With the Native perspective in these stories, I can better understand and listen to the experiences and traditions that I didn’t get to be raised with. And I find that so rewarding and beautiful.”

When Dixon describes herself as an actress, she describes an attraction to language and dedication. Dixon gravitates toward what she calls poetic language, like the “Crucible” by Arthur Miller and “Love’s Labor’s Lost” by Shakespeare. For all scripts, Dixon reads and rereads.

“I build a beautiful world for the character I am playing — what they want, desire, need, hope for, etc. — and then I let the script tell me if those things come true, and how I should fight for them,” Dixon said of her approach to a script.

The festival will be held over Zoom again this year, due to restrictions on the number of outside guests who can gather on the Yale campus.

This year’s events include readings from three full length plays, “Mush Hole,” “As It Has Always Been,” and “Built on Bones.” For more information on how to attend, email Madeline.Sayet@yale.edu.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Morgan Rothborne at mrothborne@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4487. Follow her on Twitter @MRothborne