Portland audiences first met the witchy mysterious Willow Jade during the 2008 JAW Festival’s Made in Oregon series. Several months ago when I told someone who’d seen that reading that I’d be working on Portland Playhouse‘s production of Hunt Holman‘s Willow Jade, her eyes flashed a toybox-giddy light, she giggled, and, in the voice of someone promised a guilty pleasure, said, “That’s the one with Dungeons & Dragons.”
Hunt Holman’s plays have had productions across the country, but this is his Portland premiere. So if you don’t know him yet, here’s your chance. I’ve read a few plays by Hunt over the past several years, and let’s just say I would love the honor of crawling through his brain and examining those creative synapses that have a way of making the innocuous everyday into something ever-so-slightly (or enormously), deliciously, and darkly askew.
theresa – Tell me about your inspirations for Willow Jade.
Hunt Holman – This is a story I’ve been kickin’ around for awhile. A long time ago I wrote a play about a bunch of kids who played Dungeons & Dragons together. And then I wrote another play about a guy who ran away with a girl from his soccer team. And then I wrote a another play about a guy who had to come back home to a small eastern Washington town, and they all kinda needed something else, and it didn’t occur to me until years later to write another play using elements of all of those stories. I didn’t arrive at that decision consciously but that’s what happened.
th – Do you think this will be the ultimate culmination of all three of the ideas you had in those initial drafts.
Hunt – For now, yeah.
th – What’s the workshop process been like for you?
Hunt – It started at JAW, and then we had another reading in October  and then we had another series of readings in December. I learned a lot from hearing the cast and from the feedback I got from the dramaturg and the producers and the artistic staff. I had a lot time and a lot of room to experiment, which was good. It was good for the play.
th – What discoveries happened?
Hunt – The biggest change was finding the joy in the game for people and how [it served as] a refuge. And same with the other characters because, you know, the fantasy role-playing in somebody’s life doesn’t have to be limited to if they play Dungeons & Dragons. There’re other characters who have their own sort of fantasy. Like Buckminster thinking he can go to Vegas and start a dog-fighting ring. That evolved out of the workshop, out of having the opportunity to hear [the play] a bunch of times and hearing things that’re maybe not as tight as they could be and finding other stuff to put there and that opens up new possibilities.
th – Did you play D&D when you were a wee one?
Hunt – A little bit. Really, I’m kind of a D&D poseur. The way I got into this whole world was through Tolkien – I’ve always loved those books [The Lord of the Rings]. I’ve never seen those movies because they suck rope. I’ll say it to anybody – I don’t care. I’ve read the whole trilogy 3 or 4 times. I’ve read it to my kids. I like it more each time. That’s how I got in.
th – What kind of character did you play in D&D?
Hunt – I think I was a Paladin for awhile. A Paladin is kind of a holy warrior [with high scores in Strength & Consitution, Charisma, and Wisdom].
th – Is there something in the script where you’re like, Yeah, this is fucking good?
Hunt – There’s an Orc battle. I can say with confidence that you will not see another Orc battle. There’re a lot of character scenes that are gnarly, and they’re funny too. I’m really happy about that – how the characters evolve. I still don’t know what the story is, but as a progression of scenes, like watching how people behave with each other and they change, it is really interesting.
th – Do you think that it matters, that you don’t know what the story is?
Hunt – I don’t really care. It’s probably not okay, but I don’t care.
th – Are you going to working on this after this production?
Hunt – I don’t know. I probably will continue tweaking it. It depends where it goes next.
Speaking with director, Lorraine Bahr:
th – I remember one of the first meetings we had you were just so frikkin’ excited.
Lorraine Bahr – Because I love the characters and I love what the play is about, not even the D&D thing, I just think the people in the play are really interesting. And there’s something really true about the characters. It’s not just about the poverty level, or maybe it’s a class thing, but there’s a shame-based layer that I think goes with a lower economic level in some ways or it’s a small town thing, and I grew up in a small town. I know people like these people. That’s really compelling to me. Hunt has built that into the characters in a really wonderful way and it doesn’t hit you over the head, and they’re funny. I think it’s a really strong play.
th – As a director, does directing a world premiere, a work-in-progress differ from something tried and true?
Lorraine –What’s so exciting about the new-play process, for me, is that we work and experience the collaborative nature of theatre. It’s a collaborative art, we all say that. The new-play process manifests that fully. The actors and I (and Hunt) have had several versions of the script; as we embody the production version, as we discover lines from earlier drafts that we find we are missing in the production version, phrases that were loaded with character/action nuggets, we can ask, “Hunt, can we please have that line back?” He trusts the actors, so he says, “Yes, let me find how to get that back in.”
th – What’s it like having the playwright on board, in the room watching what you’re doing?
Lorraine – At this phase, I’m always a little nervous when [Hunt’s] going to come [to rehearsal], and the actors are a little nervous, but excited as well. It’s really fun. Like the first run through that he saw and he laughed, he was laughing and I was like, “Yaaaay!” And it’s also really great because he’s a resource as we direct the play and shape the play. He may even do more rewriting after this production, but for us [it’s about] really trying to put on the very best production of the play as it is right now, so that he can see if there’s anything he wants to change.
th – What do you think about this play is going to appeal to Portland audiences?
Lorraine – Oh, gosh. I think a lot of different kinds of people are going to like the play, for one thing. I mean the D&D people are going to love it. The cast range is also kind of remarkable because there’re really young actors and, I’m not going to say really old, but experienced actors. I think the character range is interesting to people and it’s funny. And there’s sword fighting. I think it’s really funny and, hopefully, moving. I think the play speaks to a certain age range that Doug is.
th – That mid-20s kind of lost dude?
Lorraine – Lost dude who’s not -“I’m not as big a moron as you all I think I am.” He’s not. I think it speaks really poignantly to that stage of development in a person.
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Cast: Patrick Oury, JJ Johnston, Ben Plont, Jazzi Mason, KB Mercer, Jim Davis, Matthew Dieckman, and Aiyana Cunningham.
The official word on the street:
Willow’s the hottest sweet-young-thing in town, making more than carob-chip banana bread with her old man, and there’s a price on her head. Doug and Lance, thirty-something slackers, and Steve, the spandex-clad bicyclist, are planning live-action D&D that may or may not involve chain mail, broadswords, and some amiable back-stabbing over ancient history. Meanwhile, the Orcs have left the Caves of Chaos early this year, going a-viking down the mountains, hungry for slaughter.
Seattle’s for suckers, L.A.’s for the beautiful, but right here, in small-town Washington, is where it gets real. Be warned: The Spell of Flames won’t always save you. In Willow Jade, Portland playwright and Dungeon Master Hunt Holman takes no prisoners. So strap on your armor and prepare for battle.