Pictured is the Opal Whiteley Mural, as seen in Downtown Cottage Grove. Photo provided
Cottage Grove and Opal Whiteley have a long and somewhat complicated relationship. She grew up in nearby Walden, Star, and other logging towns and camps and was undoubtedly a savant, the likes of Mozart and other child prodigies. Whiteley had a photographic memory and was able to absorb vast amounts of natural history, plant & animal names, long passages from the Bible, etc. She so impressed her teacher at Walden School that she was moved up two grades in her first year.
But it is her connection to the natural world that really reveals her deepest gift. Opal could sense the spirits of the forest, trees, and especially all living creatures. Later in life she put these connections into two books, ”The Fairyland Around Us” and what became a national best seller, ”The Story of Opal: Journal of An Understanding Heart”.
This Thursday, Friday and Saturday fans will have an opportunity to view Opal Whiteley through a completely new and modern lens. A joint production with the Academy of Arts & Academics (A3) School in Springfield and the local Opal Center for Arts & Education will tell Opal’s story from the point of view of high school students forced to study her in class.
The work, ”Opal – The Journey of an Understanding Heart,” is a collaboration between Kirk Boyd, parent and instructor at A3 and Gypsy Prince, a former A3 student and current Theatre Major at UO. I spoke with Boyd, who will be directing the play, and he told me of his long-standing interest and attraction to Opal Whiteley.
”It is a passion project,” he said. ”I feel frustrated that someone as special as Opal was taken down and discredited after offering the world this beautiful book of nature and whimsy.”
The idea grew out of Boyd’s seeing Gypsy Prince’s adaptation of ”Hamlet” at A3 and an invitation to create a piece for the Opal Center. ”I had been intrigued by Opal Whiteley for several years and here was the opportunity to do a co-production with A3 and Opal Center. The nexus was too perfect!”
The play was developed by ”devising.” It used Opal’s diary as the source material and the students improvised off it. Not all of the reactions were positive, ”Some of the students they hated it and didn’t relate. They didn’t see why they would be learning about a woman who lived 100 years ago,” Boyd shared.
Without giving away too much, what emerges is an Ode to Opal. Using as many storytelling tools as possible attendees will experience music, singing, dance, and the enigmatic world of Opal’s animal friends, who add their parts to the story. Set in both 1918 and 2018 you will meet Opal and her contemporaries as well as Sam, a student not too happy about having been moved to Cottage Grove.
Whether you know a lot or just a little about Cottage Grove’s famous writer you are sure to receive some new insights by this production. Performance times are 7 p.m. on Thursday and Friday, 2 p.m. for Saturday’s matinee. The Opal Center is at 513 E Main Street in the Historic Downtown Cottage Grove. Tickets are available next door at the Crafty Mercantile or at the door. The performance runs about an hour without intermission.
Come see what some very talented young people can do with a story that never grows old.
Dana Merryday can be reached at 541-942-7037 or via email at [email protected]