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A Trek in the Park Through the American Northwest

on Mon, 01/19/2015 - 00:00

Leonard Nimoy as Spock
The works of William Shakespeare have always served as a source of inspiration for the classic science fiction franchise Star Trek. The very first season of the original 1960s television series, for instance, contained an episode entitled “The Conscience of the King,” a line from Hamlet. The installment itself centered on the lead performer in a travelling theater troupe suspected by Captain James T. Kirk of being a former colony governor responsible for the massacre of 4,000 people.

Star Trek: The Next Generation likewise relied on Shakespearean dramas to underscore a number of its installments, while a Klingon chancellor remarks in Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country, “You have never experienced Shakespeare until you have read him in the original Klingon.”

In the mid-1950s, theater director Joseph Papp launched the New York Shakespeare Festival, a series of play productions in the Big Apple’s Central Park that was free to the public. New York Parks Commissioner Robert Moses demanded that Papp charge a fee to cover damage to the grass in the area, but Papp stood his ground and even took his fight to court. Moses in turn became impressed by Papp’s commitment to his vision, and raised the necessary funds to build an amphitheater. Shakespeare in the Park has been a tradition in New York City ever since, and has spread to other cities throughout the country as well.

In 2009, meanwhile, Portland natives Adam and Amy Rosko combined the Shakespeare in the Park concept with Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek for Trek in the Park, a free theater production of episodes from the original series performed in various recreational parks of the Oregon metropolis.

“We wanted to do a show that we wanted to see,” Adam Rosko told WIRED in August 2013. “Jesse Graff, who plays Spock, and I had performed in Shakespeare in the Park, and had a lot of fun doing it. So Amy and I decided we wanted to do something outdoors, and we wanted it to be free to the public and all-ages appropriate. We pulled up the scene from ‘Amok Time’ where Kirk and Spock fight on YouTube, and we were like, ‘Oh my God, this is perfect.’”

Rosko and his sister Amy immediately formed a theater company named Atomic Arts and set about the task of transporting Star Trek from the furthest outreaches of space into the Woodlawn Park area of Portland. Already a member of the local theater scene, Adam Rosko was able to find both actors and friends willing to assist with the sets, while Amy Rosko was in charge of the props. The siblings’ mother was even brought onboard to create Starfleet uniforms for the cast.

The initial performances of the Star Trek episode “Time Amok” in July 2009 were an immediate success, leading to a production of “Space Seed”—the installment that introduced Khan Noonien Singh to the realms of pop culture—the following year. By 2011, Trek in the Park had relocated to the larger Cathedral Park for the classic alternate universe “Mirror, Mirror,” with “Journey to Babel” following the subsequent year.

During the opening credits of the original Star Trek, Captain James T. Kirk declares, “These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission—to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.” Atomic Arts had its own five-year mission, meanwhile, and concluded Trek in the Park with the fan favorite “The Trouble with Tribbles” in September 2013.

“We’ve always tried to have a very restrained, analog approach,” Adam Rosko explained to WIRED shortly beforehand. “We try not to overcomplicate the props. They’re big, but they’re not complicated. There’s been live Star Trek theater before, but never with this approach. Never outside, never for free, and never doing it absolutely straight. I haven’t encountered a single other live Star Trek event that didn’t add things to make it hokey, or at least point at how silly it is. Ours is, I think, one of the first to really just try to present it as any other play that you would go see. I think that’s what the audience really responds to, looking at it as very matter-of-fact.”

During the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “The Defector,” Captain Jean Luc-Picard offers advice to Lieutenant Commander Data in regards to William Shakespeare. “You’re here to learn about the human condition and there is no better way of doing that than by embracing Shakespeare,” Picard begins. “But you must discover it through your own performance, not by imitating others.” It is a philosophy shared by Jesse Graff, the Portland actor following in the footsteps of Leonard Nimoy from the original Star Trek.

“As an actor, you don’t often get to play a character who’s so well-known and so beloved,” Graff told WIRED. “There are so many different ways to do Shakespeare. One person’s Hamlet, one person’s Macbeth can be so wildly different, and there’s not really one version we have in our heads. But Spock–everyone knows who Spock is. It’s exciting, humbling, and always a challenge to do it so the fans are still going to like it, and to respect what Nimoy did. But at the same time, not just to imitate him, and to make it so my Spock is somehow his own thing.”

Just like the concept of Shakespeare in the Park that Joseph Papp launched during the mid-1950s in New York City quickly spread to other cities throughout the United States, the same holds true for the Trek in the Park series originated by Atomic Arts in Portland.

We drove down to see their adaptation of ‘Amok Time,’ and it was so delightful that on the way home, we decided we should do something in Seattle,” Kris Hambrick explained to Geek Girl Con in regards to the inspiration behind Outdoor Trek. “And we quickly decided that we weren’t going to try to mimic either Atomic Arts or the original show, but treat it like any other script, and cast without regard to the gender, race, ethnicity or any other quality of the original crew, aside from talent and the rapport needed between the characters. We wanted to play with what this text—and others—means to our culture, in the same way any other ‘classic’ is carried over and reinvented.”

Hello Earth Productions premiered there version of Trek in the Park at Dr. Blanche Lavizzo Park in Seattle during August 2010, and chose the episode “The Naked Time” as their first production. “This Side of Paradise” followed in 2011, with “The Devil in the Dark” in 2013. Although the first four performances of Outdoor Trek featured different Star Trek installments than Portland’s Trek in the Park, the 2014 production did overlap with “Mirror, Mirror.”

Regardless of the city or the episode, however, live performances of Star Trek in the parks of the Pacific Northwest have met with equal success. “The outdoor ambiance adds a lot,” Kris Hambrick told Geek Girl Con in September 2011. “Both years we performed while the Blue Angels flew overhead. Both years ice cream trucks passed by during performances, and this year a car alarm started going off right when a character was talking about how the planet Starfleet was exploring lived in harmony and perfect peace.”

Considering the number of times that Star Trek has embraced the works of William Shakespeare through the decades, it is only fitting that Shakespeare in the Park has likewise inspired Trek in the Park and Outdoor Trek. “I think science fiction tends to be very theatrical,” Pittsburgh native Zachary Quinto, who portrays Mr. Spock in the reimagined Star Trek films of director J.J. Abrams, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in May 2009. “There’s something about the canon of Star Trek which is almost evocative of a Shakespearean dynamic in terms of the epic storytelling, characters that come in and out of sweeping narratives, and stakes that are really high.”

A sentiment that both Adam Rosko in Portland and Kris Hambrick in Seattle would no doubt agree with—as would William Shakespeare and Gene Roddenberry as well.

Anthony Letizia

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