Dr. G’s Bingo Extravaganza is an interactive production that puts the audience at the center of the show. The experience is presented by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and opens July 20 in Ashland. The production celebrates Geneva Craig, a nurse and civil rights leader in Southern Oregon. Erika Chong Shuch is a core artist with For You, the performance collective behind the experience. Scarlett Kim is the director of Innovation & Strategy and associate artistic director for Oregon Shakespeare Festival. They join us to talk about the immersive experience.
Note: The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: Next up at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, a bingo game, sort of. It is a new immersive production called “Dr. G’s Bingo Extravaganza.” It’s coming to OSF next week. It is an interactive experience intended to put the audience at the center of the show while celebrating an actual community member. Geneva Craig is a nurse and a civil rights leader who grew up in Selma, Alabama, and has lived in Southern Oregon for about a dozen years now. For more on this production, I’m joined by Erika Chong Shuch, one of the founders of the performance group For You and Scarlett Kim, who is the Director of Innovation and Strategy and the Associate Artistic Director for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Welcome to you both.
Erika Chong Shuch: Hi, Dave, we’re so happy to be here.
Scarlett Kim: Hello.
Miller: I’m thrilled to have you both. Erika first. How do you describe the performance collective that you helped to found? How do you describe it for people who haven’t experienced one of your shows?
Erika Chong Shuch: Dave, I think one of my favorite introductions that I’ve ever had is when you said it’s a bingo game, sort of. And I think that I want to say that we’re a performance group, sort. I just really love art that barely passes for art and I think that we really thrive in thinking about performance as kind of a social event. Performance is an opportunity to bring groups of strangers together, an opportunity for strangers to come together and see each other in a new playful light. And we also think about performance as gift giving.
Miller: What does, what does that mean? What does it mean for a performance, either the act of making it or the act of putting it on, to be a gift?
Chong Shuch: I love that you’re asking that. Dave, this is what I’ll say, I’ll say I spent a lot of time making performances to process my own kind of grief or my own kind of confusion about the world and then something kind of shifted in our practice. I work with Rowena Richie and Ryan Tacata, they are my co conspirators in For You. And when we kind of get out of our own way, when we turn to art, not only to process the things that we need to process in our own lives, but when we turn to performance making as an expression of generosity, the kind of work that we create shifts. So what that means is that we create gifts as performances for people. And sometimes that means that we will create a gift for a bespoke experience for one particular person. Sometimes that means it will be for a group of 12 people; sometimes, that means the gift is for an entire community of thousands of people. But underlying are kind of creative impulses of this idea of an offering and thinking about our audiences as the receivers of this gift that we try our best to craft with care and love.
Miller: Scarlett Kim, is everything that Erika just said about theater or art as gifts, is that different from the way you think theater normally works or has traditionally worked?
Kim: That’s a great question. You know at Osf here we’re thinking about the entire spectrum of the theatrical omniverse. We’ve been really thinking about how we can make theater as expansive and inclusive as possible of all kinds of practices and all kinds of artists. It’s really rooted in our artistic director Nataki Garrett’s vision of centering the artist. What does it mean to center artists in every step of the way and everything we do? So working with the For You collective has been such a gift actually and a joy because they’re thinking about performance making and theater making so expansively that I feel like it really it’s a call to action for audience members to be performers themselves, too. It’s not about walking into a theater and kind of receding into an anonymous bay of audiences sitting in the dark, but it’s actually like walking into the theater and you yourself are part of the performance. The performance can’t happen without the unique humanity and the individuality of the performers or audience as performers. So I think in a way that this project and the artistic practice of For You is deeply theatrical in actually in deeply Shakespearean ways. This is how I imagine Shakespearean theaters were back in the day.
Miller: Erika, can you give us a sense for how much of the show that is opening next week, how much of it existed before you and the team actually arrived in Ashland to start work on it?
Chong Shuch: I love that question because I think pandemic times for theater artists was that what we did is that we sat in our rooms and we just played the what if game? What if we return to the studio? What if someday we’re finally able to come together in real life space and we’re able to make something together? So I feel like for two years right? And Rowena and I just played this, what if game. And we had so many ideas and so many visions and so many things that we were so excited to try, but we didn’t get to try any of those things in real time and space until two and a half weeks ago or something like this. So when we came into the studio all of these ideas just kind of exploded out of us. We were so excited to be together. We’ve been meeting with Dr. G for over a year. Can I talk a little bit about the origin of this particular project?
Miller: Well that’s what I’m hoping to hear, yes. So how did this project come to be?
Chong Shuch: Right on? Yes. So at the top of the pandemic For You started a project called Artists and Elders and early in the pandemic, we were all so terrified about COVID-19 and the impact that it was having on the elders. We all remember how the elders are disproportionately affected by COVID-19. I remember just my parents being isolated, people’s grandparents being isolated and all of these artists wanting to be productive and creative. So we started essentially a dating service where we were connecting artists and elders for individual exchanges. Over the course of the pandemic, we paired upwards of 80 artists and elders in a number of projects through various collaborations with theaters and community groups. And one of the projects that we did was OSF commissioned us to work with two artists for a year. And so one of those artists that we worked with was Dr. Geneva Craig, Dr. G. So we spent a year hanging out with her on zoom thinking that we were going to create some sort of digital piece of work only through the OSF digital commission. Scarlet, can you help me remember the name? The O digital?
Kim: 19 Commissions,
Chong Shuch: 19 Commissions. So we created a project for this 19 Commissions which is a website endlessly scrolling Christmas tree. Then we wanted to do more than we wanted to get together and create this event.
Miller: And so what was it about your time with Geneva Craig that you so latched onto her and wanted to make her the focus of this show?
Chong Shuch: Dave, have you ever met her? Do you know her?
Miller: No, no I don’t
Chong Shuch: I’ve never met you so I don’t even know what kind of dude you are, but if you met her, I know that she would look at you and within five minutes you would be hugging and you would have your head on her shoulder. She is just such an incredible human being and she’s so incredible in real life. She loves to play bingo, she loves life. She encourages us all to seek joy and that’s actually a really rigorous thing. Dr. G has had an incredible life and has been met with a lot of hardship and she has made this very conscious, deliberate, rigorous decision to now live in a place where she is seeking joy and a lot of the joy that she seeks and that she gives and that she shares with the world is this effusive kind of love that she has for strangers and for good friends. We wouldn’t do this live crazy extravaganza for all of the elders that we worked with. It was really specific to Dr. G that we felt creating some sort of public party was the right move in this particular case to honor her, to get to know her and to kind of explode some of the conversations.
Miller: Scarlett Kim, can you give us a sense if this is possible for what audiences are likely to experience at these shows?
Kim: Wow, all of my favorite moments are bubbling up to the top, but I know that a lot of them are secret surprises, but I know that there’s a moment where actually I wonder if it’s better for Erika to answer these questions because I actually don’t know which ones are meant to be kept as a surprise or not. But I guess I can share my favorite one where an individual audience member is approached with a mailbox, like an actual realistic mailbox and the audience member is asked to reach into it, and there’s a letter inside. It’s a letter that is like one of the letters that Dr. G has written to her fan base across the country. This is real life. She has done this for decades. She has a mailing list of fans all around the country that she writes, these incredible, lyrical poetic letters. So, the audience member reaches in and picks up this letter, and the audience member is asked to read the letter. So, that is a scene in the performance, and there’s so many scenes like that, where a performer will approach an audience member to kind of be a part of the performance in a very active way. And that becomes a different yet, same moment every night within the performance. Erika, are there other moments that you feel comfortable sharing?
Chong Shuch: I’ll just say Dr. G, if you’re listening, you need to turn off the radio now. So, go ahead, thank you, Dr. G, we love you, but turn it off. And then I will say one of our and if you know Dr. G don’t tell her this until after the show afterJuly 20th, but thank you. So, one of her favorite holidays is Halloween. She goes to Las Vegas and she plays bingo, and every year she has a kind of reveal of her Halloween costume, and she has a friend of hers named Cecilia. Hi Cecilia. She designs her costumes every year, and we have a kind of recreation of our favorite Dr. G’s Halloween looks that is going to be performed by the audience. So we have a viking and a pirate and a clown and a lemon and Aquaman. So if you are interested in coming to see our show and perhaps embodying one of Dr. G’s Halloween costumes, you should come and join us in that fashion show.
Miller: Erika, I want to go back to the word you were using a lot earlier saying that Dr. G among other things, has kind of made a conscious choice to seek out joy and also to help create it in others. And it seems like that’s something that you want to do as well in this performance, but in my experience, normally joy kind of just happens. It’s a kind of organic response that you feel you don’t have at some particular moment, and it doesn’t necessarily happen because somebody else wants you to feel it. So, what’s your theatrical strategy? How do you set the stage for joy?
Kim: That’s a great question. I’m gonna get to that answer and I’m gonna say something else first, which is that Rowena Richie, who is the third collaborator for For You, has been working with older populations for decades and we’ve done some work through the Alzheimer’s Association. And so considering how and why we work with elders is kind of at the core of this, of this particular body of work and I think that this is not necessarily the case for Dr. G. This is a more general statement that a lot of times, elders who have had intense experiences in their early life are asked to reflect and relive those experiences. I know this, for my mom. My mom is a Korean War orphan and lost her parents in the Korean War and people always want to hear these kinds of stories of trauma from older people. We have to ask ourselves what does that do that serves the elder? Right? We are not creating a biopic, we’re not creating a documentary, we’re not trying to tell the story of Dr. G’s life in a historically accurate framework. What we’re trying to do is give her something that would tickle her. So, when we ask elders to kind of reflect on experiences that are complicated and hard, within the context of this artist and others project, we’re always asking, does that retelling of that particular story serve the elder in this moment, Right?
Miller: I’m so glad you came back to that, because I guess it crystallized for me, one more way in which what you’re doing seems truly unique because if I understand you correctly, you’re doing something that you want an audience to take part in and to get something from but there is one person you care the most about.
Chong Shuch: Yes.
Miller: I guess it goes back to this word of the gift which you were talking about earlier, but is it fair to say that the main person you’re doing all this for Geneva Craig, this one person and then if the audience also appreciates it, then all the better, but this is about one person?
Chong Shuch: It’s really fun, Dave, I’m sitting across the street right now from the Elizabethan Theater, it’s a 1200-seat theater. When I make a show at OSF Elizabethan theater, 1200 people per night are going to see it. We really want every single one of them to like it. We just can’t measure success based on whether or not the audience is going to love what I do. I have to find some other rubric to measure success. But in the case of this kind of work, we really do want Dr. G to love this. We really do and it’s really hard and it’s really risky and it feels really vulnerable. It feels so much more vulnerable to say, hey Dr. G, we see you, we love you, we made this thing for you, we really hope you like it. And we might totally mess up. We might totally hit the mark wrong. We might all give somebody a spatula when they already have 17 spatulas, you know? But that is our kind of beacon that we’re making moments that we hope will tickle, surprise, ignite Dr. G. She is our primary audience member that we’re making this for. And we think that other audience members being kind of in the midst of that extraordinary, extravagant gift, we think that there will be pleasure. We know that there will be pleasure in others witnessing Dr. G receiving this.
Miller: This is what you’re talking about the act of making this for Dr. G., different from love?
Chong Shuch: Well, I will also say, yeah. I don’t know how to separate love from anything that I do, including my breakfast and in this conversation, I’m loving talking to you. So I don’t know that I know that it’s complicated to bring love as an ethic into these kinds of conversations that can sometimes feel a little bit academic, but I think love is at the heart of what we do, and I will say that the gift, we think that we’re creating something for Dr. G but what we feel again and again is that the gift is for us. Dr. G has been so generous in sharing so much of her time and her story and her care and her love with us. She calls us her kids. And so we feel like the gift is being able to have all of this material to work from, and to be able to have all of Dr. G’s amazing life as a source of inspiration for us. It really is. I think the gift is ending up being more for us than it is for her.
Miller: Erika Chong and Scarlett Kim, thanks very much.
Chong Shuch: Thank you so much.
Kim: Thank you.
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