Getting much more than their feet wet

Actor-director Barret O’Brien is taking a year off the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to take action against climate change — “the biggest challenge ever to face humanity” — and the result is his play “Water Made to Rise,” an ironic and pithy story of three guys trapped in a bar as sea level rises around them.

The situation is slightly comic but deeply tragic because these guys — a shrimper, a National Guard trooper and a professional dancer — symbolize humanity, says O’Brien, as they can talk about the devastation around them, but they can also lock the tavern door and kick back with booze and TV and deny the possible end of the world.

It premiers Monday, Sept. 24, at the Historic Ashland Armory. The three actors — O’Brien, Rodney Gardiner and Daisuke Tsuji — are from OSF, but it’s an independent production.

The play is sponsored by and will benefit Southern Oregon Citizens’ Climate Lobby, Southern Oregon Pachamama Alliance and The Crest at Willow-Witt, an educational nonprofit organization based at Willow-Witt Ranch, an organic farm east of Ashland.

O’Brien is an activist with these groups and also teaches theater at Southern Oregon University and Ashland High School.

Climate change is personal for O’Brien, a New Orleans native whose family members lost homes in Hurricane Katrina in 2005. He started work on a play back then, wanting “to dramatize it to make people feel the effects of the storm, but in the last decade, as climate change affected people in every corner of the country, I wanted to echo the larger theme on a more emotional, narrative level, as it’s the first time in human history that we face the potential for actual extinction.”

The play is influenced by “No Exit” and “Waiting for Godot,” as it has the same “heightened sense of reality and character, is slightly absurd and these gents have an inability to deal with it — and that brings out a lot of comedy. We don’t know if they’re going to die. It’s a question. They’re into something so beyond what they’re capable of grasping, so the alcohol is there to anesthetize.”

Far from blunting his climate activism, recent wildfire smoke has, he said, “made me look forward to what this country is going to look like in 40 years …. I’ve had a surge of optimism the last four months because of my connection with this environmental organizations here and the time I’ve spent learning from them. We have big solutions to these big challenges. Working with them, I can see what the world will be and it’s left me totally engaged and inspired.”

And what might that new world look like?

“It’s an evolutionary leap that has started already, where we go from our history of separateness, with a ‘grab all you can’ philosophy and move back into a more indigenous way of living in the world, with a feeling of connection, where everyone’s welfare is your welfare. That model existed before capitalism … Everything is in change now. We’re making a leap of consciousness that’s going to take Earth into consideration first and foremost.”

O’Brien’s plays have been produced across the U.S. He appeared in premiers of OSF Artistic Director Bill Rauch’s “Roe” and “Off the Rails,” as well as “Julius Caesar.”

Doors open at 7 p.m. for a 7:30 p.m. performance on Monday, Sept. 24, at the Historic Ashland Armory. Tickets ($15) are available at Paddington Station and Music Coop in Ashland, at the door, and online through Eventbrite. Student tickets are $10 and available at the door only.

Willow-Will grounds open at 3 p.m. for a 4 p.m. outdoor performance on Sunday, Sept. 30, at Willow-Witt Ranch, 658 Shale City Road. Tickets are $15 and are available at Student tickets are $10 and available at the door only.

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer.

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