Field Work: Community Stories Onstage

Student-created show raises consciousness in Southern Oregon's Illinois Valley.

RiverStars Performing Arts

This December, community members in Cave Junction will gather to see the latest production by RiverStars Performing Arts, a four-year-old dance and theater group that all school-age children in the Illinois Valley can participate in for free.

RiverStars was created to fill a gap in theater opportunities for local youth and to help build community, says cofounder and lead educator Lindsey Gillette, who also serves on the Cave Junction city council.

“The performances have become cornerstone events for the community,” Gillette says. “There’s always a part of the Illinois Valley in each show. It’s become a tradition to see who we’re making fun of, who we’re holding up. And we’re always looking for opportunities to hear the kids’ voices.”

In fact, the community’s youth are fundamental to creating the performances. From research to script-writing to performing, this year’s comic book–themed production, Super Real, has been student-led. It’s also supported by an Oregon Humanities Public Program Grant.

Starting last spring, students interviewed community members—including family and church members, as well as shoppers at the Cave Junction Farmers’ Market—and invited them to help create a comic-book version of the Illinois Valley by asking questions like “Who are our local superheroes?” and “Who holds the power in our community?” 

“We’re trying to explore themes of social justice,” Gillette says, “so the comic-book theme made sense. ‘Who holds the power?’ is a huge question.”

The community has been receptive. “People were interested in the project and thought it was a cool thing we were doing,” says seventeen-year-old Elijah Ocean, a homeschooled student in his senior year of high school who has been performing with RiverStars for the past two years. “Pretty much everyone participated.” 

After gathering feedback from the community, students participated in a series of workshops this past August to take the responses and transform them into a script that will be performed publicly this December. 

As a result of this process, “The kids have become very interested in our community,” Gillette says. “They’re also becoming more vocal about what they think is right.” 

“We try to bring attention to things that matter in the community,” Ocean says. “Theater is an art form that helps bring the community together. I hope everyone leaves feeling like everyone is a hero in their own way. Everyone is needed in their community.”

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