Jahnna Beecham and Malcolm Hillgartner are the masterminds behind the smartly conceived and composed “Holmes & Watson Save the Empire,” a musical mystery playing at Oregon Cabaret Theatre and directed by Michael Hume.
Beecham and Hillgartner are married with two children and have developed a successful writing partnership. We visited together in their charming and whimsically decorated Ashland home.
The couple met in the 1970s, when they were actors at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
JB: We acted a lot in regional theater, but continued to write wherever we went.
MH: We didn’t feel restricted, that we could only do theater, but we always felt that if you could find an opportunity you should take it. We learned early on that you have to have lots of balls in the air because as soon as you think that one thing is going to go, that’s when suddenly there’s a change in administration. And the new theater producer or editor is saying, “I’ve got my own friends I’d like to hire.” Then you have to network a new way.
This is the third show that OCT’s done of ours. The first show, “Chaps,” was a British radio show/cowboy musical. The second show, “They Came From Way Out There,” was written with Michael Hume.
MH: The one thing we tell our kids is to find the thing that you have a passion for. Don’t worry about whether it’s going to make you a lot of money. The passion will sustain you, whether the money does or not.
EH: What is it about the medium of theater that draws us like moths to a flame?
MH: It almost goes back to primal storytelling around the fire. We human beings love to sit in the dark and have someone tell us a story. Because I’ve performed, I have to say that I like making the stories more than the doing of them. It’s like putting together the biggest jigsaw puzzle in the world.
JB: And it’s really fun, especially when we sit around with Michael, we’re just laughing, and we act it out and we get props, and we put them on our heads; and we’re doing stuff.
MH: And we’ll free-associate.
JB: And we’ll set a timer, and we’ll say, “OK: Everybody, write as many lyrics as they can for the next five minutes.”
EH: It’s like a game then?
JB: It’s not quite the same as when Malcolm and I write together. We’ve been writing together for 25 years, so we don’t have to sit with yellow pads. We just do that with the plotting.
EH: That’s really borne some fruit for you.
JB: What’s great is, suddenly you get a royalty check. “Chaps” is having a good life right now. A number of theaters are doing it in the East.
MH: The timing couldn’t be better with two kids in college.
EH: How does theater combine with family life?
MH: When the kids happened, I really cut back on acting. I felt really lucky that I didn’t have to go off somewhere when the kids were growing up.
JB: Lately, doing theater somewhere else is an opportunity to take them somewhere. They came and joined us for Christmas in Milwaukee when we were doing “Dog Park the Musical.” It’s the most fun in the whole world, to write these musicals, it really is.
EH: Do you ever write anything serious, like tragedies or dramas?
MH: Life is too short.
Evalyn Hansen is a writer and director living in Ashland. She trained as an actor at the American Conservatory Theatre and is a founding member of San Francisco's Magic Theatre. Reach her email@example.com.