Tuesday, January 22, 2019
Scott Palmer Looks Forward to Life as Head Fool
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At 6-foot-5 Scott Palmer is an imposing figure with big dreams.
 
Thursday, December 20, 2018
 

STORY AND PHOTO BY KAREN BOSSICK

Scott Palmer had just auctioned off the chance to choose his theater company’s annual summer Shakespeare production. And the patron had chosen “Romeo and Juliet.”

Would patrons want to see it again--just 10 years after his Bag & Baggage Productions had staged it?

Intent on delivering it with a twist, he began researching the play’s history and learned that it was actually based on a 12th century epic 4,000-verse poem named “Layla and Majnun” by Persia poet Nizami, one of the most famous Muslim writers in history.

And, with input from every Muslim theater company in America, he created a mash-up that he named “Romeo and Juliet: Layla and Majnun.”

 It was a play that framed the story as a conflict not just between feuding families but also between two religions. And it celebrated the history and literature of Persia, while showing audiences Iranian faces not tainted by extremism or terrorism.

 “I like to push my actors, my audiences, myself,” said Palmer, the new producing artistic director of the Company of Fools. “I love it when a theater is passionate and driven and asks communities to look at themselves.”

Palmer has been described by Oregon Arts Watch as “one of Oregon’s, if not the nation’s, most ambitious directors.”

The theater company he founded in Hillsboro, Ore., has been honored by the American Theatre Wing, the organization that manages the Tony Awards. And Palmer himself has been named to the prestigious National Theatre Conference in recognition of his work with classical theater and his commitment to making quality performing arts accessible to all.

Now he’s poised to turn that energy on the Fools, long recognized as one of the leading theater companies in Idaho.

“I like him a lot,” said R.L. Rowsey, who has been serving as the Fools artistic director. “I have a vested interest in the future of this organization. And Scott understands where it’s been and he’s ready to lead it.”

Palmer grew up in Hillsboro, Ore., casting his siblings and many cousins in Muppet roles as he played the Muppet albums.

“So I was a director at an early age,” he said. “I found my people, my tribe, in theater in high school.  But I was a lousy actor—I didn’t like to take directions. I wanted to give them.”

He earned bachelor and master degrees in theater and political science at the University of Oregon and Oregon State University. And then, after working on projects funding education and the National Endowment for the Arts, he got a Ph.D. in contemporary theater in Glasglow, while founding Scotland’s largest dedicated Shakespeare theater company.

After a stint teaching in New Zealand, he decided eight years abroad was enough and moved home to Hillsboro, Ore., where he founded a Shakespeare Festival and Bag & Baggage, a traveling troupe that packed everything it needed to take theater to underserved towns, such as Hood River, Astoria, Beaverton, Corvallis and Sandy.

“We even staged a play in an old barn that had bats and owls. It was freezing so the audience was wrapped in blankets,” he recounted.

The group unpacked their bags for good after the mayor of Hillsboro offered them the chance to perform at the town’s Venetian Theater. The theater owner was going to let them do one show. But their performance of “Steel Magnolias” sold out and he offered them the chance to move in permanently.

“It was built in the same period as the Liberty Theater but was a little bigger with 400 seats. There was a bar and restaurant attached and they suffered during the economic downturn so he closed it,” Palmer said.

Bag & Baggage by that time had become such an indelible part of the community that Palmer knew they had to continue. So he raised $1.6 million to convert a Wells Fargo Bank into a studio theater similar to Ketchum’s new Argyros Performing Arts Center, only smaller.

 “But then I looked around and said, ‘I don’t know if there are any more dragons for me to slay, any more hills for me to climb.’ So, when I learned of the Fools’ opening I jumped at the chance,” he said.

Palmer’s father was born in Burley and once worked for the Boise-based Albertsons. And Scott had often accompanied his family to visit his grandmother in Twin Falls. But he had never visited Sun Valley until coming here for his interview.

“The minute I walked into the Liberty Theater, I fell in love with the building. I love old theaters, and this has so much character, so much history. And I love the Company of Fools’ commitment to the performing arts in Hailey.”

Sun Valley’s access to great arts of all kinds has not gone unnoticed, either.

“We often talk in theater about racial diversity and gender diversity. But what we don’t often talk about is geographic inclusion,” Palmer said. “I believe that people in that beautiful little town of Shoshone, Idaho, want to see good theater, and they shouldn’t have to fly to New York and spend $800 on a theater ticket to have a life transforming experience through theater.

“People here should have access to those things. People and communities thrive when they have access to the arts where they live.”

Palmer is also smitten with the role Company of Fools plays in the Sun Valley Center for the Arts’ BIG IDEA projects, which examine often-controversial subjects, such as politics and protest, over a few months’ time through visual arts, theater, music and lectures.

“I told Kristin Poole (artistic director for The Center) that even if I don’t get this job, I’m stealing this idea!” Palmer said. “I know that the Company of Fools and Sun Valley Center for the Arts are very ambitious and interested in growing, and it’s so pretty here. I’m not a skier but I can certainly see myself in front of a fireplace drinking whiskey and watching the snow falling.”

Palmer’s husband Brian Palmer has yet to see the Wood River Valley. A writer dealing in urban fantasy, sci-fi, warlocks and witches, he envisions being snowed in for three months with nothing to do but write and play with their Australian shepherd/pit bull Mac.

“But I think he will also find inspiration in the outdoors here,” Scott Palmer said. “This place is inspirational—the mountains, the woods—how can you not be inspired!?”

For now, however, Palmer is making periodic trips to the valley to consult with staff, plan the Fools’ 24th season, field resumes and learn the budget. He will start fulltime in March.

“Company of Fools actually does similar work to Bags& Baggage. They have a great history of classic work and contemporary modern. They also have done some musicals, which I haven’t done but am a huge fan of,” he said.

Palmer hopes to stretch Sun Valley audiences in his new role as head Fool.

His Bags & Baggage, for instance, just closed a staging of “Death Trap,” in which it put a person of color from a Pacific Island in the lead role.

“It wasn’t just a matter of making sure we have a person of color in the cast. But we explored: What happens if you put a person of color in a role that’s not meant for that? How does it change the dynamic? How does that change your experience?” he said.

“Theater has a responsibility to reflect the community. It has a responsibility to make sure people in the community see themselves on stage, that they see people on stage who look like them.”

Palmer also hopes to use the theater to instigate community conversations.

Bag and Baggage is doing “Bell, Book ad Candle,” a fantasy romance that inspired the TV show “Bewitched,” as its holiday show. Since the show revolves around a free-spirited Greenwich Village witch, he invited leaders of non-traditional religions, such as Sikhs and Hindus, in to talk about their faiths practices.

When he staged his Arabian version of “Romeo and Juliet,” he invited Muslims to hold conversations.

“We had lots of conversations about Christians and Muslims. People got to watch the show and ask questions. And I learned so much. Did you know, for instance, that the hijab actually started with Christian women? They would leave Rome on journeys wearing headscarves, and the scarves were  adopted by Muslim women.”

“Bag & Baggage has become a destination for different conversations—for Moms meeting about pro-gun law, for Black Lives Matter. People love it as they it gives them a chance to be heard and, often, they  find their own perspective changing.”

Palmer calls himself a Shakespeare geek who especially loves “Twelfth Night,” MacBeth” and “Measure for Measure,” which he calls a clever but underappreciated play that’s difficult to stage but contains  beautiful poetry.

“William Shakespeare was one of the best in the world at communicating with humor and thoughtfulness, His work contains politics and drama and wonderful language,” he said.

He loves great American and British classics from such playwrights as Arthur Miller and Oscar Wilde. And he finds Noel Coward’s “Fallen Angels” hilarious.

He also loves plays like “The Drowning Girls,” a story based on the “Brides in the Bath Murders,” in which a man marries three women, drowning each after they name him the sole beneficiary of their life insurance policy.

“It’s a story about the three women coming back out of bathtub to tell their stories,” he said. “And I also love plays that ask a single actor to play multiple roles—like ‘The 39 Steps.’ And, yes, like ‘The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane,’ which Company of Fools is currently staging.”

HEAR FROM SCOTT HIMSELF:

Listen to Scott Palmer introduce himself beginning Sunday on Eye on Sun Valley's show on Cox Cable Channel 13 YURVIEW. The show airs at 7:30 p.m. on Sunday and repeats throughout the week at various times.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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