The Oregon Children’s Theatre in Portland opened its first full length, in-person play since the pandemic began with the dark comedy “WROL (Without Rule of Law).” Four, 8th grade middle school girls are unconvinced adults will be able to take care of them in a cataclysmic event, so they decide to prepare for the coming apocalypse themselves. Throughout, a friend outside of the circle continues to question their prepper activities, insisting everything is “fine.” Lili Ireland is one of the members of Young Professionals at OCT and helped choose “WROL (Without Rule of Law).” She joins us, along with Dani Baldwin, the artistic director of the company, and Andrea White who directed the play.
The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:
Dave Miller: I gave a two sentence version of this play. Can you give us a fuller one without giving important things away?
Lili Ireland: I would say these girls showcase this upcoming generation’s tasks, bearing the weight of what their parents have done before them. I think this whole entire play is all about finding a united sense of ‘we’re in this together’ with this upcoming generation with all the problems that they’re worried about, all the anxieties that they face.
Miller: What drew you and other members of the young professionals company to choose this play out of, I imagine, a number that were in front of you? Why put this on?
Ireland: Oh, wow. When we first read this play, it was so fresh. I feel like a lot of the time, as a young actor, you are used to plays that you’ve seen before, that have been put on and you know the story. Michaela Jeffery presented this work with such an amazing cast of characters and script that I think all of the young professionals were so enamored by this story. It shows what we stand for as youth in theater. We want to tell a story that is focused on what we care about and what we’re passionate about. And I think that this story definitely spoke to us at that level.
Miller: Was it hard to pretend that the world is out of control and that adults are not doing a great job of running things? Obviously that’s a dark joke, but how much do you share the concerns of the central characters in the play?
Ireland: To make a long story short, it felt like I wasn’t acting at times. I felt like I didn’t have to. I’m 18 and playing this 12 year old speaks to the volumes of how this generation has been raised. I feel like more and more now, at a younger age, kids are growing up with more information than they used to have. And it’s harder to be in a place of innocence for longer than usual. So I think that I definitely connected with this character because as she’s growing up, she has all of these resources at her fingertips that are telling her, about global climate change, about racial injustice, about inequalities. And I think that it’s a very true place for me. And I think that’s where I got a lot of the roots to play this character from my own life.
Miller: Dani Baldwin, one of the big themes of the play is that adults don’t take the concerns of young people seriously enough and also don’t really pay attention to one of the truths that Lili just mentioned, which is that even though young people are very aware of what’s happening around them, they’re often treated like they’re not ready to to to be aware or to confront the most serious societal issues. You’re in a kind of a gatekeeping role, it seems, among your many roles as being the artistic director of this young professionals company. How do you think about what plays young people should be taking part in and should be putting on?
Dani Baldwin: That’s a great question. I feel like I’m in a very lucky position to listen to people like Lili and her peers and hear what’s important to them and truly believe that they need a place and a platform where they can speak their voice, where they can share what’s important to them in a creative way and also in a safe way where we can make sure that as they dive into deeper conversations. We have resources there to help them through that process.
I look for plays that offer, of course, a lot of training opportunities and training beyond just the role of the actor. I look for where there is an opportunity for a design apprentice to learn that side of production, that sort of thing. I really look for things that I think speak their voice and speak to their intellect and their abilities and then turn it over to them and let them tell me what they want and have that in depth conversation.
Miller: Why did you bring this play to the professional company as one of the plays they should consider?
Baldwin: A lot of what Lili said rings true to me. Part of it was these characters each have something to say. They each have something different to say, and they felt so real. I also love that there’s humor in it as well as drama and it gives them an opportunity to work both sides of training. There were just so many opportunities in there for them to develop their skills and also speak to what’s important to them.
I thought it was a really great balancing piece to some other shows we might consider in our season. I was very curious to hear their perspective on these people that technically are a little younger than them, they’re middle schoolers, which they don’t normally play younger than them, or older than them, so it was an exciting opportunity to see what they would bring in that way as well.
Miller: Lili, what was it like as an 18 year old to play a 12 year old?
Ireland: I remember Andrew and I made some jokes with the cast at first about observing kids and watching them and how they interact with life. I think that was what came really easy to me because I have two younger twin brothers. I think you can imagine how interesting that experience was in terms of training– watching how they interact, watching how smart and how truly capable and curious kids are. That definitely gave a lot of inspiration for this character.
Miller: Andrea White, this is the first full length play that Oregon Children’s Theater has put on since the pandemic. How did COVID-19 affect the preparation for this production or the rehearsals?
Andrea White: As far as preparation is concerned, all of our production meetings were on Zoom, which I’m not certain is such a bad thing because people can be anywhere as we prepare. But as far as rehearsal is concerned, COVID-19 has really had an effect on the arts in that in a business where we are dependent on people being reliable (we have set times for things and the show must go on) COVID-19 put a wrench in all of that. And so it requires being open and taking deep breaths and sometimes losing a cast member for five days and finding ways to have them come to rehearsal on Zoom if they’re well enough or moving on. I mean there were certain sections of the play that we never rehearsed until about a week before we opened with all of the actors actually in the same room. You have to find other ways and I can’t even list what they are because you just have to be open to them as they come up.
Miller: How much of the rehearsals were able to do without masks on?
White: None of it. We didn’t take our masks off until four days before we opened and we always put them right back as soon as they were off stage. So it was amazing, four days before we opened to see the actors’ full faces. In fact when we were rehearsing in the first weeks, I would refer back to the head shots they used at their auditions to remember what their full faces looked like because, even in their auditions, they had masks on. Their characters came to life even more when they were able to see each other’s faces.
Miller: I have had this experience, which probably many people have had, of meeting some people, say parents of kids’ friends, only with masks on and then outdoors at some point, maybe 6 months later seeing what they look like with their full face. What was it like to act with people when you could actually finally see their full expressions?
Ireland: Oh, it was so surreal. I mean, it was amazing. I had actually worked on the show with Tam Silverman before, but the other kids, it was so wonderful. You take what’s underneath a mask for granted. People say, “Eyes are the window to the soul,” and I completely agree with that. But there is so much found in facial acting.
I remember I had a mentor once, Blake Wales. He’s very involved in the deaf community. There’s this thing called NMS (Non-Manual Signals) facial expressions which I think can be applied to acting because facial movement and different gestures with the face are so important in order to convey emotion. When they took those masks off, I was just like wow. It’s so much more fluid now to act.
White: Which says something. Acting is a reflection of life which just says something about how all of us have been interacting in our lives as well. Right? So I think a lot often gets lost and we make up for it in other ways by not having our full face accessible to one another.
Miller: Lili, you’re also one of the members of the teen improv group, Impulse, part of O. C. T. (Oregon Children’s Theater). What has that been like during the pandemic?
Ireland: It’s one of my favorite things to talk about because it’s given me such a perspective on how amazing the young professionals program is. And I remember during the pandemic it was, in a simple way to describe it, it was just so nice. I thought that a virtual approach to a production would definitely come with its cons. But I think when you’re doing comedy you have to convince yourself that you can be goofy and you can still have fun when you’re on a virtual platform. I think it’s all about how you view something, it’s about how you tell yourself that you’re in a show. I remember a lot of the times we would be told to just lean in and have fun and it definitely feels weird to lean into a screen and not see the audience.
Miller: And not hear them laughing either.
Ireland: It was definitely a weird experience because I remember I was up in this office doing the show and my family downstairs would be watching and I could hear them laugh from the room below me. It was so weird to have that happen instead of an audience. But I would say I loved it as much as a production that wasn’t virtual because that’s just how great O C. T. is at planning things.
Miller: Lili, what do you most hope that the adults in the audience for this show, Without Rule of Law, will take from this performance?
Ireland: Listen to kids. Just listen because they’re so much more adept and so much more intelligent than we then we give them and I think that they are the future and everything that they say should be taken with the utmost importance.
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