The scoop on ‘Spoon River’

Director-actor Ron Danko and musician-music Historian David Gordon have formed The Madrone Theatre Company to produce a new adaptation of the “Spoon River Anthology,” opening Oct. 7 in the Rogue Community College Performance Hall in Medford.

Published in 1915, Edgar Lee Masters “Spoon River Anthology” portrayed small town rural America through poetic portraits of numerous characters who somehow spoke from beyond the grave. Danko pulled 50 out of 240 vignettes and invited David Gordon to weave music into the production. I met Danko and Gordon one afternoon in Rogue Community College’s pristine black-box theater.

EH: How would you describe the “Spoon River Anthology”?

DG: It’s like a haiku or a miniature painting. It somehow condenses life down into its absolute minimal number of words or strokes. These are vignettes about life by people who are done with living. They don’t have to put on pretenses or lie any more. They can be totally honest about their successes and their failures. They admit their failures. To me, the mastery of it is that (sometimes in just a few dozen words) each one creates this little reality that has emotion in it.

RD: A full characterization.

DG: The actors have created, through their voices and body language, these vivid little characters. Some of them are just people that you don’t ever want to see again, and others you would really have loved to have known. They have blossomed into these various personas. These little gems are happy or sad, they rejoice, they’re avenged, they’re affirmed.

EH: And the music?

DG: It’s a great assignment. It’s a blank slate. I chose to pick exclusively songs that these characters would have known if they had been real people back then. Everything I’ve picked was popular before 1910. You’ll hear bits of at least 30 songs, different kinds of songs that either comment on the character or (even ironically) what’s going on, or sympathetically express what’s been expressed. It’s so much fun just inventing how the songs will support, transition, maintain, comment on, and enhance. It’s pure musical creativity for me. There are some really touching things that happen in those magical little moments.

EH: How did you become attracted to theater?

DG: I was trained as an opera singer. I grew tired of opera because it was so grand, and I didn’t feel any connection with the people I was singing to. I was naïve enough to want to actually feel that I was communicating. In opera, you’re singing out into a vast black space. You can’t see the audience at all. I like feeling that I have connected with someone else. That’s why I like intimate things like this.

Why theater? I think it is about connection and about giving the audience the opportunity and the invitation to open up the doors of their imagination, and suspend disbelief. That’s what draws me to it, and I think that’s what draws audience to it as well, to have our imaginations stretched in a way that when we leave the theater, we are somehow different. We haven’t just been entertained and amused for two hours, but something happened that was worth going to.

RD: But that’s “Spoon River” — there’s no set. The words have to ring true. The audiences have to use their imagination.

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