Sunday, September 30, 2007

Interview - Marv Ross

October 1, 2007

Word doc of the full interview here.

Full text also pasted into first post of thread.

Marv Ross may be best known for his time with QuarterFlash and The Trail Band, but for the last 10 years he has also been working on a Northwest musical about Celilo Falls, a traditional Native fishing center that disappeared in 1957 beneath the waters of The Dalles Dam.

After years of painstaking research and development, GHOSTS OF CELILO has come to Portland and is currently receiving a stellar production at the Newmark Theatre.


followspot said...

followspot Interview – Marv Ross

October 1, 2007
Portland, Oregon

For the last decade, Marv Ross and a group of collaborators have been working on some new music. A veteran of several successful bands like Quarter Flash and The Trail Band, Ross is not new to writing hit songs. But this project is different. It’s a full length musical about a Northwest tragedy, the disappearance of Celilo Falls.

On March 10, 1957, as water rose behind the new Dalles Dam, Celilo Falls, a dramatic set of falls just east of present day The Dalles and one of the richest salmon fishing grounds the world had ever known, disappeared beneath the surface. Perhaps forever.

Of course completion of Bonneville Dam in 1937 had already sounded a death knell for the salmon, but Celilo was an important Native American cultural site.

Celilo had been continuously inhabited for thousands of years and was a meeting place for tribes from all over the Northwest Coast and Columbia Basin. Its destruction was therefore both a raw display of imperial human power over nature as well as a symbolic crushing of one culture by another.

One famous photograph captured the moment from the viewpoint of Native women gathered on a hillside above. The camera looks over their shoulders as they watch the final inundation.

The physical Celilo slipped beneath the surface that day 50 years ago. But collective memory and ghosts live on. Some Northwesterners have personal memories of this day and either saw it happen or know someone who was there.

The loss of Celilo Falls and its enduring legacy is the story Ross set out to tell with Ghosts of Celilo.

Followspot: Hi, Marv. Thanks for taking time out to talk to us. How is everything going as you prepare to take the stage in Portland?

Marv Ross: Everything’s coming into shape. The big challenges now are the technical aspects of the musical. It’s a big set with a number of complicated intricacies. The music sounds wonderful and the actors are becoming more comfortable with their roles each day.

FS: Can you give us some background on this project? When did you get the idea, how long have you been working on it, and how has it evolved and changed along the way?

MR: The project was initiated 10 years ago by myself, Thomas Morning Owl, and Tom Hampson at Celilo Falls Village. We knew we wanted to create a theatre piece that featured a combination of Native music and musical theatre genres. We had no plot at that time.

After about a year of research and interviews we heard a number of amazing stories about Celilo, including one from the late Warm Springs elder, Nathan Jim Sr. His childhood story of being kidnapped from Celilo Falls and taken to a boarding school was the “breakthrough” that started us on our way.

Another story came from a white woman who was the only white girl at an Indian boarding school. The ghosts came from an interview from a Native fisherman who believed spirits now inhabit the bottom of the Columbia where Celilo Falls used to roar.

Much of the decade was spent writing and honing the script and developing the score with Tom Hampson, Chenoa Egawa, Thomas Morning Owl, Mel Kubik, Greg Tamblyn, and Arlie Neskahi. The play eventually turned into a work about memories, healing, and how the decisions we make today impact future generations.

FS: Was timing the show for the 50th anniversary of The Dalles Dam part of your plan?

MR: No. We intended to finish the show years earlier, but now that it has happened, it seems perfect.

FS: How did you find the rest of your creative team?

MR: One person would lead to another and I visited Native music events like pow-wows and concerts. I became involved with Painted Sky (a non-profit dedicated to providing opportunities for Native singers and dancers) and produced events for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.

FS: You have been workshopping this play around Oregon for some time. How has that experience been? Have you received many first hand testimonials from people in your travels?

MR: The workshops and readings have been invaluable. On one hand, the response has been fantastic from audiences and that has helped us keep going. On the other hand, the readings have also shown us the parts that do not work and have helped us make the necessary changes. We have received songs, stories, novels, and lots of opinions about Celilo over the years - it’s a topic that brings out much passion in people.

FS: I saw your final road show in Pendleton in March, and the Native community turnout and support was incredible. How have you built connections with Native communities around the state?

MR: The main thing is to listen and invite the Native community into the project from the very beginning. To be patient and respectful are essential, too. I spent a lot of time building trust and friendships and had great counsel from Tom Hampson and Thomas Morning Owl.

FS: Is there an established network of venues and contacts around the state that a touring theatre group or band can tap into, or did you pretty much have to create all that yourself?

MR: Well, I tour the most with The Trail Band these days, and those tours were developed and initiated by the touring version of my first show, Voices From The Oregon Trail. Building relationships with theatres and presenting entities around the NW just takes time and a good product. The Trail Band Christmas show is an excellent product and I could book it extensively if we chose to do so, but it’s hard on all of us to tour in winter and be away from home during the holidays.

FS: Do you feel towns around the state want to see more shows like this?

MR: Yes, of course - they’d love to have more opportunities, but financial restraints are the real challenge. Towns just don’t have the resources to bring in a lot of traveling shows.

FS: Have people told you they want to see more stories about Oregon?

MR: Well, our shows are successful, so I guess they have told us through their support. I think everyone is interested in their home having a sense of “place” - what makes us unique? What makes us Oregonians? What do we have in common? Who are we?

FS: You are an expert in touring from your past and present band activities. How do you compare touring with a theatre project vs. a band?

MR: Touring with a band is hard, but not nearly as hard as touring a show. It really comes down to how many people you must travel and can the venue accommodate your show. It’s relatively simple to produce a band compared to a theatre work.

FS: What is the hardest aspect of a touring show?

MR: Trying to fit a show that has a certain look, sound, schedule, and “feel” into a different venue every night is very challenging. Also, many venues have limited resources and limited staff and so getting a show “up” in a single day or two is daunting.

FS: Many contemporary plays live in a place-unspecific, sitcom-like environment where we could be anywhere. Yours is quite the opposite – we could only be here. Has the specific homegrown subject matter led to deeper audience response?

MR: Well, it’s double-edged sword that can help and cut you at the same time. The good thing is that there is a genuine interest in the audience’s home region that helps you bring in audiences. The bad side is that your work may be viewed by some as “historical” and you can be seen as provincial and some members of your audience may not want to hear anything negative about their “home”. Our work has always tried to bring out the truth of our history and it’s not all been pretty. Some people just do not want to see that.

FS: How do you think this play would work outside of the Northwest – say in the South or on the East Coast where people are not as familiar with the Northwest history? Or is this a universal story?

MR: Cultural struggles between indigenous peoples and Euro-Americans or other dominant societies have been going on for centuries and there are a hundred “Celilos” on every continent. It’s a universal story.

FS: What is your theatre background?

MR: My formal training in theatre is relatively limited. I was an English major and became a secondary teacher in English. Shakespeare was a huge influence, but I read and studied the works rather than performed them. My years of playing in bands taught me dynamics, “taking over” the stage, preparation, how to move an audience, etc. The script writing aspect took longer to learn and I participated in the Nautilus Musical Theatre workshops, took counsel from numerous script mentors, and took scriptwriting and script analysis classes at PSU.

FS: Are you still active in your bands?

MR: Yes, but it has been limited due to Ghosts for the last two years.

FS: There’s another big anniversary just around the corner. Oregon’s 150th birthday is in 2009. Do you have any other plans to do something to coincide with that date? Is this a good opportunity to tell any other important Oregon stories?

MR: Well, I personally need a break from this kind of work. I have been doing it for over 10 years now and would like to explore some other sources of inspiration.

FS: The story you are dealing with can overwhelm you with sadness. How do you deal with this event and stay positive? What can we take away from it?

MR: Yes, it has overwhelmed me a number of times in the process of writing the work. But having the twelve Native children in the play has helped me gain perspective. They are beautiful young people and their potential and hard work has given me such a positive charge. The message to take from Celilo is to listen and to remember that when one culture diminishes another, both cultures are diminished. There is hope in this play, but there is also a challenge set forth by Mary, the ghost who, at the end of the play, challenges the audience to listen to the voices from the past and learn from their mistakes.

FS: Children are a big part of this play. How have kids responded to Ghosts of Celilo?

MR: They love it, though it’s really not suitable for kids under 10. The main characters are all teenagers and our school audiences seem to really relate to what Chokey, Train, and Irene go through. They are very confused and stuck in a situation that is extremely odd – a boarding school where there is only one way to view life.

FS: One could ague that the big hydro era was a series of huge engineering projects carried out at infinite cost to the landscape, Native cultures, and national piggy bank that delivered some temporary benefits, though the long term jury is still out. What is your view of this period? Will some future culture discover a set of moss-covered, decaying concrete blocks in the river and wonder what they were for?

MR: Well, the hydro era has to be placed in the historical context of the Depression. From our perspective today it is easy to see the negative repercussions, but FDR and the other architects of hydro power were grasping for straws in a time when hope was truly diminished. People felt hopeless and the future looked bleak.

The building of great dams represented not only cheap electricity, but flood control, jobs, and irrigation for starving ranchers and farmers. Their size and scope had a psychological effect as well – we are still a great people – we can overcome anything if we can build something like this. These men envisioned aluminum factories all up and down the Columbia providing jobs for people and they had no real idea of what the dams would do to the fish runs. I think the Army Corps of Engineers really believed that fish would be able to pass through the turbines without being harmed. One Colonel claimed a mule could pass through the turbines unscathed.

The other thing we forget is that, by the 1950’s, many scientists believed that the dams were temporary and that nuclear power plants would create safe clean power and replace the dams. As far as consideration for Native populations – well, that was simply not a consideration in that era and that fact demonstrates our cultural racism and dismissal of people without money or political clout. The people at the bottom of the ladder will always be pushed out of the way because they can be pushed out of the way.

FS: When you go back and immerse yourself in the rhetoric and language of that time, the dams are talked about with a near messianic intensity. What are our own blind spots today when it comes to the natural world? Has anything really changed? What windmills are we still tilting at?

MR: Our biggest blind spot is population control. We don’t discuss it seriously – it’s strictly “off the table”. Very few people study the issues and all religions dismiss it to some extent. The drive to have babies is so ingrained in our very essence that it makes it nearly impossible to even bring up in personal discussions except as a very broad conceptual idea. If I was still teaching and asked my students to consider not having children I would probably be kicked out of my job. The population has doubled just in my lifetime and there is just too much strain on the natural resources of this planet. There is overwhelming research showing that the more people you put into a square mile, the more conflict you will have. Almost every major problem we have on this planet can be traced back to having too many people. We are a species in denial and I don’t see an end to it. I think things will just get worse, unfortunately. We are already paying for it.

FS: Dam removal. Is it going to happen? Should it?

MR: The big dams create too much money, irrigation water, flood control, barge passage, and power that cannot be replaced by other means at this point in time. We have created our “inland empire” by having dams. I would love to see the fish runs restored, but thousands of people have inhabited regions where, without the dams, their livelihoods and communities could not exist.

Do we pull out dams and abandon these people and their way of life? I don’t think we have the common will at this point in time to do that. It breaks my heart to think we sacrifice these beautiful fish for money. Dam removal may be the only thing that can truly restore the salmon, and if that’s the case, the fish runs will probably remain in jeopardy for years to come, I’m afraid.

FS: What have you learned about the history of our state and region in the course of this project that really surprised you?

MR: So many things – mostly, the incredible richness of the cultures of the Columbia River Basin Native peoples. The stories, songs, histories, language, and perseverance of these people who called this region “home” for thousands of years before Euro-Americans arrived. This richness is mostly invisible to non-Native people in this region and that’s a shame. It’s a real loss of opportunity and something I hope Ghosts will shed some light upon.

FS: Are you coming away from the project with a stronger sense of regional citizenship?

MR: Absolutely, yes – and a sense of who I am and how we got here as a regional family and what we need to do to keep this area protected – it will always be a struggle to keep our resources protected and maintained responsibly.

FS: You are nearing the end of a long, long project. Would you do it again? Do you have anything else on the drawing board?

MR: Ghosts has been exhausting but as rewarding as art can be. It has brought meaning into my life and opened my eyes. It has challenged me to the max and taken away sleep and more time than I can count. But, it has given me so much new insight into myself and the people I share this region with. I have nothing on the drawing board right now except to take some rest after the run.

FS: Marv, thank you! And thank you for the huge efforts you have made to keep this important story alive for future generations.

MR: Thanks for the opportunity.


OZYMANDIAS by Percy Bysshe Shelley (1817)

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Anonymous said...

Just to give an opinion of Ghosts of Celilo, since no one has: it stunk. Corey Brunish, Amy Jo Arrington, and Marissa Ryder were the only saving graces. Noah Hunt carried his role well. Kevin Michael-Moore was comic relief in his opening song. But as for the actual musical itself, yikes. What have Portland critics come to? Any one in the Portland theater scene can tell you that that was not worthy of the praise it got. What a great disappointment.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed the music for the most part, especially the scene in the dorm where the kids were singing about "going to Celilo" -- classic musical theatre stuff. The young man who played the lead was wonderful! I only wish the young woman had matched his naturalness. She was stiff as an actor, not believable as the character, too "operatic" in voice. I'd like to hear her in another type of performance. Good job overall.