“All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players.” (Act 2, Scene 7 of “As You Like It”) These words from Shakespeare remind us that we all play our parts in this beautifully chaotic world. Our stories intertwine as we move through the stages of life together.
This classic line, and many others, are highlighted throughout “The Ladies Shakespeare Club,” an original two-act play that will premiere on Feb. 17 at The Very Little Theatre located in downtown Eugene.
Loosely based on a real club, the story is “raucously funny, a bit bawdy, and full of action, surprises, and laughter through tears” as a women’s study group learns how to face life’s afflictions with humor, Shakespeare’s words, and each other.
Many stories converged to make this production possible including those of Shakespeare himself.
There is the story of The Very Little Theatre (VLT) — one of the oldest community theaters on the west coast that heavily influenced the backdrop of the story.
There is The Eugene Shakespeare Club who served as inspiration for the play.
There is the story of Dorothy Velasco, a Springfield playwright whose love of theater shines through her writing.
And then there is the cast and crew that have breathed life into this show for the very first time. Including me.
Dorothy Velasco is a lifelong writer who graduated with a master’s in theater from the University of Southern California with an emphasis in playwriting. After living in Southern California and Mexico for many years, she moved to Lane County in 1976 and has resided in Springfield since.
Velasco is a prolific and versatile writer who has built an impressive career out of the written word. She has penned many columns and theater reviews for The Register Guard, The Oregonian, KLCC, and Eugene Weekly just to name a few.
She has also written a few books about Lane County, and multiple documentaries including the film “The Roads Less Taken” narrated by the late Ken Kesey.
Playwriting is her favorite creative outlet that will always hold a special place in her heart.
Velasco has written over 30 plays and musicals that have been produced throughout the United States, Canada, London, and Mexico.
“Theater is my great love because it is alive. It’s this organism that has a life as long as it gets produced,” she said.
Velasco has worked with many local theaters including LCC, Actors Cabaret of Eugene, and Oregon Contemporary Theater.
For this production, Velasco is thrilled to collaborate with The Very Little Theatre again. She has previously produced two plays with the company before, including “Hattie’s Vote” in November 2022 as part of The VLT’s “Minority Voices” program.
Born out of The Great Depression, The VLT was started by eight Eugene Thespians wanting to create a troupe to entertain its struggling community. Since May of 1929, the newly renovated theatre has succeeded in entertaining Lane County and beyond for 94 seasons.
Velasco has always been impressed with The Very Little Theatre.
“I love their energy and their willingness to just plunge in and do what needs to be done,” Velasco said. “Everyone does what they do with such a love of live theater.”
The setting of her play is based on The Very Little Theatre’s green room.
The characters, however, are based on a real life study group.
The Eugene Shakespeare Club was founded in the 1890s and is still active to this day. At the moment, there are 13 active members who meet once every two weeks.
Club members take turns leading guided studies of Shakespeare’s plays from October-May every year with a brief summer break in the middle.
Lydia Lord, the secretary and librarian of the Eugene Shakespeare Club, has been an active member for nearly 20 years.
“I’ve loved Shakespeare my entire life,” Lord said. “My mother was a teacher and she passed along her love of Shakespeare to me.”
Velasco had the privilege of connecting with The Eugene Shakespeare Club a few years ago and although she never joined the club herself, she was inspired by these women’s devotion to Shakespeare.
Velasco was given the club’s constitutions, by-laws, and stacks of meeting notes to help guide her as she wrote the script.
Over a hundred years of women’s studies were then condensed and dramatized into what is now “The Ladies Shakespeare Club.”
This ensemble play centers around six women from the 1920s-‘60s. Each scene is a snapshot in the life of these women who come to study Shakespeare and distract themselves from the turbulent world around them.
Although this play is predominantly a heartwarming comedy, topics addressed throughout the story include segregation, anti-semitism, women’s rights, and war, just to name a few.
“When creating the characters, I let the natural progression of the decades influence what the women were going through at that time,” Velasco said. “I wanted to ensure that the characters are intelligent, well-informed, and have a strong interest in what is going on throughout the world around them.”
These past couple of months, the cast and crew have been working hard to bring Velasco’s words to life.
Karen Scheeland is the director of the show and a long-serving member of The VLT. She had been cast in one of Velasco’s plays before titled“Open House” about an immigrant family from Scotland.
Scheeland is pleased to work with Velasco again, except this time as the director.
“I have known Dorothy for quite a while. She is a respected member of the arts community,” she said.
Scheeland and Velasco held auditions for the play in late December and it was the first time I had ever walked into The VLT.
Even though I was nervous, late, and nervous about being late, I was in awe of the building around me and just happy to be at my first live theater audition after a four-year hiatus from acting.
Several women and I read passages from the script. We were shuffled around for a couple of hours as Velasco, Scheeland, and the assistant director, Krista Johnson, listened to each person’s interpretations of the characters.
The first woman cast was Denise LaCroix, who has been an actress since she was 15 years old. Poised, professional, and straightforward with a larger-than-life persona, it came as no surprise that she was chosen as Grace Galsworthy, the fictitious founder and president of The Ladies Shakespeare Club.
Christiana Dancer was also one of the first women cast. A method actor with a flair for physical comedy, she suits the role of the chaotic but caring Ardith Ferrell who is always late, but always appreciated.
Jen Ferro was chosen for Hester “Mac” Macdonald, a freelance journalist and a closeted lesbian. During the auditions, Ferro captured Mac’s outspoken, tomboy attitude perfectly with a loud, upbeat energy.
Zepha Wright was cast as the “rarely harmonious” Harmony Tomkins — the secretary of the club. With her versatile acting abilities, Wright brings heart and depth to this character that is oftentimes cantankerous and sarcastic.
Toni Mucker is an elementary school teacher cast as the religious, do-gooder Connie Abbott. This is Mucker’s first time acting in a play and has taken this experience in stride. She suits this naive but lovable character perfectly.
Aimee Okotie-Oyekan was cast as Mrs. Thompson, a featured character who addresses the club’s well-intentioned attempt to diversify their members.
And then there was me, Sarah de Leon, cast as Leah Thompson — a shy Jewish seamstress who comes out of her shell throughout the course of the play.
It has been a true adventure putting this story together piece by piece, scene by scene, decade by decade.
Much like the women we portray, our cast has experienced many ups and downs throughout these past couple of months including illness, emergencies, and even loss of loved ones. These struggles have only made our bond as a cast even stronger.
An acting coach once explained that when a person gets cast as a part, it is because they have accumulated the experiences and emotions necessary to portray that character the way the director, and in this case even the playwright, envisions.
I have seen the strengths each of us have that Scheeland and Velasco saw in the cast, and why each person was cast for their specific character.
Our stories have all led us to this play — giving us the time, the energy, the emotions, and the experience necessary to bring to life these original, dynamic characters.
This play is built off all the stories that have come together to create this never-before-seen show.
The stories found within The Very Little Theater, every member of the Eugene Shakespeare Club, Dorothy Velasco’s journey as a writer, the actors who have brought these new characters to life, and even Shakespeare’s own publications all worked together to create the magic that can be found in “The Ladies Shakespeare Club.”
Tickets are now on sale at thevlt.com. Performances go from Feb. 17-26.