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Barrier-breaking all-female team courted equality

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Before Title IX changed the educational landscape to legislate against gender bias, women were sidelined on the playing fields. “Shooting Stars,” opening Thursday, Nov. 1 at Ashland High School, tells the story of seven young women who in 1962 played basketball as a gimmick, the only way they could get on a court and compete.

“Shooting Stars,” directed by Oregon Shakespeare Festival veteran Barret O’Brien, is the story of women who find a voice as they find their place on a playing court and who are tougher than they know. Student actors are Nicky Clary, Carmen Kerr, Allie Poole, Samara French, Brooklyn Williams, Anabella Ross, Elena Schmeling, Anabella Ross and Kylah Ward.

There’s a strong message of female empowerment in “Shooting Stars.” Betsy Bishop of the Ashland High School theater faculty remembers her own experience.

“When I started high school in the late ‘60s we were doing calisthenics and ‘Go, You Chicken Fat, Go’ in gym classes,” Bishop remembers. “They didn’t teach us any games or let us do any sports and the only thing they let us do was run around the track. They said ‘girls don’t want to compete, girls aren’t athletic.’”

For OSF actor and director O’Brien, taking time off from OSF to teach and work with the next generation is a priority.

“Working through ideas of empowerment with eight brilliant young actors and talking about these themes over two and a half months — that feels like a really good use of time,” O’Brien says. He also brought in Cecily Macrory as assistant director. Macrory is a specialist in young women’s leadership development, so the work is personal for Macrory as well.

In rehearsal, O’Brien leaps onto the stage and physically demonstrates what he wants to evoke from the students, coaching, correcting and encouraging. He’s checking that the students understand why and how they make physical contact, how language and gesture shape understanding.

“I think the reason we’re able to talk in a really constructive and honest way is that they know I’m an actor too,” O’Brien explains. “Let’s see what this thing is, let’s discover it together.” O’Brien speaks of the students as a company, a company of professional actors.

In directing “Shooting Stars,” O’Brien serves as a model and mentor to these young Ashland High School actors, the latest demonstration of a 25-year partnership between AHS and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Over the years, OSF has loaned dozens of theater technical, professional and administrative staff to the high school. OSF senior set designer, Richard Hay, worked up the plans for “Shooting Stars” based on his designs for the 1987 premiere of the show at the Denver Repertory Theatre. His name in the front of the “Shooting Star” play script was a welcome surprise to Bishop and O’Brien both.

“Betsy saw my name there in the play script and called me up (asking me to handle set design) and I said, ‘well let me think about it.’” In another welcome surprise, Denver Rep had the original drawings and sent them to Hay by email, who simplified the design for the Ashland High School production. “I didn’t have to design it,” said Hay. “I just had to simplify it for the high school kids to build rather than the professionals.”

It’s a year of celebration for the Ashland High School theater program because 2018 is the 25th anniversary of the school’s partnership with the festival, the 25th anniversary of funding for the school theater program and the 25th anniversary of Betsy Bishop’s work to engage AHS students and raise a generation of theater professionals.

In 1993, AHS productions were staged in a 1909 theater that was updated in the 1950s. When Measure 5 reduced school funding, that bare-bones theater program became a bone of contention and an opportunity. At the time, the Oregon State Department of Education funded technical and vocational education; jobs like welding and car repair — the jobs and skills that theaters needed too.

Patty Wixon, who was AHS assistant principal at the time, identified 135 jobs and 400 hires in the 13 theater companies then in operation in the Rogue Valley, people involved with sound, lighting, staging set design and the Oregon State Department of Education reversed its earlier decision and established a precedent, qualifying theater programs for funding as technical and vocational training.

“The funding increase was a huge bonanza,” Wixon recalls. “Theater had never been considered as vocational and it really gave us confidence to plan the theater.” That was when OSF became involved in the Ashland High School theater program.

“The theater was struggling and then Betsy just changed our whole life with her enthusiasm and knowledge,” Wixon said. “There were a lot of connections between the school and OSF because OSF parents had kids in school.”

Betsy Bishop says that in 1993 her students approached Kirk Boyd, OSF’s production manager, and Pat Patton, OSF’s administrator, asking for help. “They said, ‘Of course, we’d love to help you!’ Boyd said, ‘I’ll direct the first show’ and Patton said ‘we’ll find a way to get you technical help,’” Bishop said. “So right away we had five professionals from OSF volunteer their time and they just said, ‘we’ll help you.’”

“Shooting Stars” opens on Thursday, Nov. 1, and continue through Nov. 11 in the Ashland High School Mountain Avenue Theatre at 201 South Mountain Ave.

Tickets range from $7 for seniors to $15 for reserved tickets. They are now on sale at www.showtix4u.com or call 866-967-8167. Tickets are also available at the Ashland High School Main Office, Paddington Station, Tree House Books and the Music Coop. Schools and groups should call 541-482-8771. For more information on the Ashland High School theater program, visit www.ahstheatre.net.

Reach Ashland freelance writer Maureen Flanagan Battistella at mbattistellaor@gmail.com.

Richard Hay shows off his work, a simplification of the set he designed for the 1987 premiere of the play at the Denver Repertory Theatre. (Photo by Maureen Flanagan Battistella)
The cast of “Shooting Stars”: top, from left, Anabella Ross, Allie Poole, Carmen Kerr and Nicky Clary; bottom, Kylah Ward, Brooklyn Williams, Samara French and Elena Schmeling. (Courtesy photo)