I was walking through town a couple days ago and a lady hollered at me from a second floor balcony. “GOOD EVENING, MISTER PLAYWRIGHT.”
I gave her a jaunty wave. This is just one example of the outpouring of love the island has given me in recent weeks. Islanders now know me as a playwright because of PlayFest, a yearly festival of island-grown plays hosted by the Actors Theater of Orcas Island. Among the seven submissions they selected—my western/comedy, Nonviolent Gulch.
Nonviolent Gulch was born this winter after I watched Godless, a Netflix western. Godless was billed as a womencentric western, and I was hoping for something enlightened and different. Instead, I watched a western in which female characters had been cut-and-pasted into male roles. There was the same degree of violence, vengeance, and gun worship. More of the same–and by an all-male production team, no less.
So I had the brainstorm: What if there was a nonviolent town where women held positions of power? And what would happen if a gunslinger came to town? The answer is: Comedy.
In January I saw a call for PlayFest submissions on a community bulletin board (mind you, a physical board with flyers posted on it.) I wrote up my play over the course of a few writing sessions and submitted it. A few days after that I got a very nice email—my play had been accepted.
That’s when I dove into the world of the Actors Theater. The theater is the creation of a longtime islander, Doug Bechtel. Doug was at one point the manager of the local power cooperative, Opalco. In 1999, he resolved to pursue a longheld dream—to get involved in theater. So began the Actors Theater of Orcas Island.
The physical theater is the Orcas Grange—a genuine, old-fashioned, still-operating grange hall. During rehearsals we shared the space with the local 4-H club. We occasionally had to clear sets so goats could use the stage #orcasislandproblems
I have been involved in theater in the past but this was my first proper community theater experience. We had high school students and grandparents in the production. One of the real thrills of the process was working with the older crowd (the median age of our actors was probably 50.) We had multiple actors who, in their 60s or 70s, were new to acting. We also had some high schoolers who dove into acting and production with an energy that only kids can conjure.
Larry, a semi-retired attorney, played the timorous bartender in my play with breathtaking commitment. Each performance I would sit with the audience and watch him with delight. He inhabited the role beautifully, widening his eyes in fear, bending backwards as he was menaced by the antagonist gunslinger, Gunstone. Much to my astonishment, Larry was new to acting.
Our dress rehearsal was on May 3rd, which also happens to be my birthday. Many of my island friends from seasons past have left, so I found myself without birthday plans. I told myself I was fine with skipping my birthday, but some kid part of me was sad.
After the rehearsal, we all gathered in the community room at the Grange to clean up and decompress. Doug appeared with a bottle of red wine. He told the gathered production team, some 50 of us, that it was indeed Evan’s birthday. I cringed but was also gratified and accepted the inevitable round of Happy Birthday to You.
Somewhere in this moment of gratefulness and embarrassment something clicked in my mind. Ah, so this is what community is.
And now…an excerpt from Nonviolent Gulch, 2018.
Are you calling me out, barkeep? Because I would be obliged to fill your carcass full of holes in yonder thoroughfare.
Now Mister Gunstone we are nonviolent here. So I must respectfully decline your offer of a gun duel.
GUNSTONE [Thinking this through]
So no matter what I do you’re not gonna do nothing are you?
Well no, that’s a common misconception Mister Gunstone. I am going to very actively advocate for my needs, just as much I will listen to your own.
Well then I anoint myself proprietor of this establishment, and I dismiss you from your duties, barkeep. And if you have a problem with it, we can solve the matter in the thoroughfare with pistols.
[He takes another deep breath, but again, his voice is shaky]
Now, when you say that to me, Mister Gunstone, I feel mighty frustrated and angry—
And as proprietor I will now clean out the till as is my solemn duty. [GUNSTONE comes around to the back of the bar and starts taking money out of the cash register. He body checks SMITTY out of the way. SMITTY circles around to the front of the bar–Now he and GUNSTONE’S positions are reversed.]
[trying and failing to speak confidently] Now just hold on, I am feeling very agitated and unhappy and I have something to say to you.
Barkeep I believe I have already described a solution to our differences, which involves yonder thoroughfare, the sun at high noon, and gunplay.
SMITTY [Losing his temper]
I told you we are nonviolent here!
photos by Rebecca McDonough