As of January 20, 2017, Portland has huge a new play. It’s called Astoria Part I, and it came to stage during Portland’s recent Fertile Ground Festival, a 10-day event where dozens of new plays large and small enjoyed their world premieres. The play is written and directed by Portland Center Stage Artistic Director Chris Coleman, and is based on the book Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire, a Story of Wealth, Ambition, and Survival by Montana-based author Peter Stark.
In terms of sheer scale and subject matter, Astoria stands alone. It is remarkable in terms of the breadth of the subject matter that is national and international in its scope. Astoria is an epic tale about our country’s westward expansion. And yet, it is a story most of us, even those relatively familiar with U.S. and Pacific Northwest history, do not know. It is the story of a private expedition funded entirely by German immigrant John Jacob Astor that set off by land and by sea in 1810. Unlike the Lewis and Clark Expedition a few years earlier, which lost one person, Astor’s expedition was a disaster in terms of body count. By the end of Part I, they were stacking up all around us–and we still have to get through Part II same time next year!
Stark’s book was released in March, 2014. Soon thereafter, a theatre patron pressed the book on a hapless Chris Coleman. Sometime during the summer of 2014 he read the book and something caught with him. What captured him when he read the book? “How challenging the survival was. How brutal the voyage was. The miscalculations, the challenge to survival in the mountains. There was a great sense of drama in the book. And there’s the history, the politics, and the questions: what is a leader? What is democracy? What is worth fighting for?”
It didn’t take long for Coleman to take the next step. “I sort of toyed around with it,” he said. “And then I reached out to Peter.” The two really started talking, “And by November 2015 I had a first draft.”
The most difficult part then, Coleman said, was what to leave out. Back and forth they went, and at the end of the fourth draft he was reasonably satisfied. The play went into workshop last July. “There were moments of real terror,” said Coleman. “You just do it.” Sixteen actors performed the work, and a day later Coleman piled his crew into a van for a field trip to Astoria. “Our set designer was totally blown away by Ft. Clatsop,” he said. The most visible result of that day trip is a huge log fortress of a set that handles both the sea and overland segments of the expedition, and will be used in Astoria Part II as well.
How have we not known this story? Said Coleman, a self-proclaimed history buff, “I don’t remember ever hearing of this expedition, and a super interesting theory of Peter’s is that the Lewis and Clark Expedition was a success, whereas this one was a failure. Sixty people died. The territory was in dispute until 1846. Washington Irving wrote a book about it that was a best seller.” But that was a long time ago. Irving’s Astoria: Adventure in the Pacific Northwest was published in 1835. And after that, the story was nearly forgotten.
One of the most fascinating parts of the play was how Coleman as playwright breathed life into the characters. Characters are distinct and well-drawn, their words completely believable in the context of the play. “Peter encouraged me to just relax and let the characters talk…He gave me permission to explore the inner lives of the characters. Initially it was scary, but it was ultimately the fun part,” Coleman said.
And many characters there are–some 60 in all portrayed by 16 actors–guides and trappers; Quebecoise voyageurs, the master paddlers who carried the land expedition on rivers across the country; Scots businessmen on the ship Tonquin; the Tonquin’s rigid Capt. Thorn; the well-intentioned but unqualified Wilson Price Hunt, who led the land expedition; and John Jacob Astor with his stilted German accent. Part of making this bunch believable and distinct depended not only on believable dialog, but upon the excellent work of dialect coach Mary McDonald-Lewis, a familiar name in the Portland theatre scene.
In addition to being a great production, Astoria fulfills the theatre’s mission of inspiring the community by bringing stories to life in uniquely theatrical ways. The production was partly financed by the $770,000 Wallace Foundation Audience-Building Initiative awarded the theatre in 2015. “Part of the grant money funding this project is the Northwest Stories Series,” Coleman said. “This is an opportunity to see if our theory holds true in attracting 25-40 year olds. It’s an amazing story for those of us in the Northwest…an American story…and a humungous undertaking.”
Later this year, PCS will be able to measure the effectiveness of its campaign to attract new audiences. Meanwhile, Astoria I has been extended through February 19, allowing plenty of time for those who want to see it.