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Playwright begins looking for Darrington’s history

By Scott Morris / The Everett Herald, Everett Washington

Thu May 19th, 2005

This is the first in a three-part series about a visiting playwright’s ambition of bringing Darrington together in a community play on the town’s history.

Today: Act 1 – Making connections

Saturday: Act 2 – Rehearsals begin

Sunday: Act 3 – The tent goes up

______________________________

Act 1

Some might say springtime in Darrington has sprung with a bit more bounce this year. The buzzing of hummingbirds sipping from salmonberry blossoms competes with the growing buzz about a town play.

It’s audition time inside Darrington United Methodist Church’s multipurpose room. Will Weigler’s pleasant, strong voice cuts through.

“I’d kind of like to have people standing up,” Weigler says. “Gather around the piano.”

Weigler’s confidence stands out more than his lime-green basketball shoes. This is a room that could use some confidence.

Auditions for “Common Wealth” are off to a halting start. Only seven people are trying out for the 40-some parts.

In seven weeks, somehow, Weigler must bring the whole town together inside a circus tent to perform a play about Darrington’s history.

Let’s go back six months, to when it all began, before folks in Darrington knew they were going to have a lot of work to do.

Will Weigler steers his Toyota pickup, the blue one with the canopy, across Squire Creek. The big-city playwright has an idea, a few hundred bucks and a lot of gumption.

He knows he can get these loggers, Tarheels, Indians, newcomers – the whole town – stomping and singing together. It’s his gift. When he’s ready to leave, it will be theirs, too.

It was inevitable for him to find Ann Rankin, one of Darrington’s matriarchs whose late husband, Glenn, brought skyline logging to town. So Weigler rented a tiny logging crew bunkhouse near the Rankin mill. Then he needed everything else: furniture, friends, history, connections, lights, singers, actors – a million things.

In a mile or two, he would find furniture, a friend and his first foothold. The footlights would take a little longer.

Following directions to a garage sale pinned to a town bulletin board, Weigler pulls into the gravel drive leading to Cheryl and Frank Berube’s shop. They’ve got just what he’s looking for: a bookcase, some chairs and friendly conversation.

Soon, Weigler mentions his new place at Rankin’s and lets his enthusiasm for Darrington’s history bubble out.

Even as she wonders “Who is this guy?” Cheryl Berube tells him she has a few books he must read if he wants to know about Darrington. She didn’t grow up there, but she and Frank took early retirement 11 years before to move into their cabin, just through the woods. She loves the town’s history, too.

Inside the cabin, she hands him the books – sturdy Darrington books, the one’s that’ll snap your suspenders.

“Darrington: Mining Town, Timber Town,” “Timber Bowl Valley,” “Lies, Logs and Loggers” and her favorite, “Three Fingers – The Mountain, the Men and the Lookout.” Hang on to them as long as you need, she tells Weigler. As they walk back, she blurts out what she’s thinking: “Some people tend not to trust people who are so overly friendly.”

Weigler laughs and admits he sometimes has a hard time reining himself in. Berube is relieved he didn’t take offense. She likes him. Besides, she tells herself, he knows Ann.

*

As you might suspect, word gets around pretty quickly in Darrington, population 1,136.

On the day Weigler decides to stop in at the senior center, one of the ladies says, “You must be the new fellow from San Francisco, the playwright.”

He shows up at churches, tribal elders’ lunches, square dances, bluegrass jams, a barn renovation, school plays and a Darrington Loggers’ high school basketball game. At each place, he does a little fishing. What’s a choker? How did the Sauk-Suiattle paddle their canoes? Do any tribal elders speak Lushootseed? Who knows any Darrington songs?

The Darrington song, that was the one he really wanted.

At a Christmas party, someone jokingly sings “Oh little town of Darrington” when he asks for a song. No, that’s not it. Go call on Grover and Ernestine Jones, he’s told. Both helped start the Darrington Bluegrass Festival in 1977.They’re music people.

“You might find this interesting,” Ernestine Jones says, disappearing into a backroom for sheet music. She digs out “The Timber Bowl Song.”

The year was 1949. The tune came to Earl Hayter as he bounced down North Mountain in his log truck.

A Darrington boy, Class of ‘36, Hayter flew 65 bombing missions over Europe in World War II. Then he tried to make a living flying a U.S. Forest Service plane out of Darrington’s airstrip, but that job didn’t pay so well.

In Darrington, though, there was always work in the woods. Soon he was driving log trucks. Country music was Hayter’s love. The Timber Bowl was on his mind, a new logger’s festival. He figured it needed a song.

“The Timber Bowl Song” was put to paper in 1950 after he met Marge Whaley, a Seattle piano player. He sang it to her strumming his guitar while she arranged it for piano and scribbled the notes.

That’s the sheet music Weigler opened 55 years later, standing in Ernestine Jones’ home. A true Darrington song: “We’re from the home of the Timber Bowl. Tall timber! Tall timber!”

He needed to know more, and asked around town. Where’s Earl? I’d love to talk to him.

Earl? He’s not been seen in some time. He’d be, gosh, how old would he be by now? He must have died by now.

Oh no, that’s too bad.

Weigler was glad they at least held on to his song.

______________________________

Act 2

Darrington’s play gets off to a shaky but lively start

By Scott Morris / The Everett Herald, Everett Washington

Fri May 20th, 2005

Tim Monte Calvo stands at the beat-up piano, shuffling through pages of music he composed.

He settles on “The Timeline Chorus,” a scene-setting refrain. He hunches over, works it out on the keys, then leads the vocals:  “In this corner of the world … On this land, on this land.”

“Wait for the two,” he says, counting beats. Those trying out for Darrington’s play sing with him:

“Mountains, cedars, rivers all around

” On this land, on this land

“And it’s springtime, a long, long time ago.”

Playwright Will Weigler wants to hear the individual voices. It’s obvious some are too shy to sing. Weigler’s looking for courage more than for singing ability. He puts 15-year-old Paden Newberry on the spot. Paden tries, but it’s barely more than a mumble. “Thank you. Thank you, that was lovely,” Weigler says. Others take their turn.

Jessica Ward, 12, says she has a song. “I don’t want to sing it,” she adds. Weigler tries coaxing the song out of her. Paden breaks the standoff. He announces, “I’ll sing a song for you,” and delivers an assertive rendition of “Keep on Rockin’ in the Free World.”

“All right!” Weigler booms.

It’s the starting that’s the hard part.

*

You might think a fella would get rattled by such a shaky start, but you wouldn’t know it looking at Weigler.

Here he had spent six months of his life living off his savings in a shack in Darrington. He sponged up the culture, fascinated by the Tarheel loggers and the Sauk-Suiattle Tribe.

They didn’t always get along, but to Weigler they seemed to have a bunch in common. So he wrote a play called “Common Wealth” to help them tell their stories.

An early scene shows young Nels Bruseth in 1898. A frontier Renaissance man, Bruseth was renowned as a woodsman and artist. A Darrington boy, he grew up speaking Norwegian at home, English at school and Lushootseed with his young Sauk-Suiattle friends. Jake Lovell, 11, another Darrington boy, is playing Bruseth. Weigler’s script requires him to speak Norwegian, English and Lushootseed.

“You may not have to do much of a Norwegian accent,” Weigler says, “Har dee var dee her – that’s the Flintstones version.”  Jake shows a knack for the more understated twang.

Lora Pennington joins the rehearsal in the tribe’s longhouse. Pennington, of the Upper Skagit Tribe, and Katherine Joseph, the Sauk-Suiattle’s eldest member, translated the Lushootseed parts of Weigler’s script.

Pennington works with Jake; with Forrest Thompson, 9, who plays one of Bruseth’s young white friends; and with David Harris, 13, a Sauk-Suiattle Tribe member who plays one of Bruseth’s Indian friends. “Lushootseed isn’t as hard as you think it is,” she says to the boys. “It’s like hacking a goober in your throat. “You’ll spit. You’ll clear your throat. You just say, ‘Excuse me.’”

*

There’s still much to do, lines to run and songs to learn. People can’t always make rehearsals. There’s the first day for razor clams, spring break, the trout opener, Little League and Mother’s Day.

Weigler can’t rest between rehearsals. He needs salmon heads, an electrician, stumps, a tent, a stage, umbrellas, the big finale, Christmas lights, some sleep, perhaps a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, definitely plywood, ladders and a main character or two.

And he really needs a Harold Engles.

He tracks down a drama club trunk at the high school rumored to have lights. “I feel like Geraldo Rivera,” he jokes. High school fixture Beryl Mauldin unlocks the trunk: Inside are several Fresnel lights.

He sweet-talks the senior center quilters into sewing costumes meant to resemble strips of cedar bark.

With three weeks to go, the play seems to turn a corner during song rehearsals at Darrington United Methodist Church. A group of men and teenage boys playing loggers stands in a tight oval near the piano. A few bars of “The Timber Bowl Song,” and the room jumps to life. The men catch the song’s wild-blue-yonder spirit – corny, yet confident. Many can’t seem to help but close a fist and sweep it forward as they sing, rat-a-tat, of chokers, fallers, buckers, whistle punks and loaders. No voice booms more than Merle McCaulley’s bass, which might even call a Sasquatch home for dinner.

One night an elderly couple walk into the church. The men sing:

“Then the buckers come along and make logs out of the trees.

“The choker men wrap the riggin’ around ‘em by twos and by threes …”

Weigler introduces the guests: Earl and Laverne Hayter.

It turns out that Earl Hayter, 86, who wrote the song, is still alive. People in town had lost track of him after he moved to Edmonds years before. Merle McCaulley is eager to talk to Hayter. He tells him that he worked as a choker setter with his brother, Charlton Hayter. “I would’ve known you were Charlton’s brother,” McCaulley says. “There wouldn’t have been a doubt.” Charlton Hayter helped change his life. “Actually, that boy led me to the Lord,” McCaulley said. “It’s true.”

It seems things are coming together.

Except for Harold Engles. You can’t have a play about Darrington without its late, legendary Forest Service ranger and climber. Weigler has Engles’ voice on tape, his exact words. He even has the ranger’s favorite hat and coat. It’s everything an actor needs.

Now he just needs a Harold Engles to show up before showtime.

______________________________

​Showtime, ready or not

 

By Scott Morris / The Everett Herald, Everett Washington

Sat May 21st, 2005

Act 3

Rain clouds hang over Whitehorse Mountain. They’ve been there all day, waiting.

At last, the grand white tent goes up in Old School Park. It’s 21 feet tall from the grass to its top. The lines are tightened.

An hour later, the clouds open up.

The timing isn’t lost on the folks inside, who get to stay dry while they work. It’s the final week of pulling together “Common Wealth,” their play about Darrington’s history. Ready or not, the curtain is going up in four days.

Will Weigler is pumped. And he’s very busy, driving screws through thick plywood into two-by-sixes, building the stage. “The idea is to make people say, ‘Ahhh,’” says the playwright and director. Production manager Alan Pickard hums a circus theme as he checks the house lights – some strings of Christmas bulbs. His neighbor, Julie Newberry, who plays Mrs. White, imagines the buzz already on the town grapevine: “‘You should see what’s going on at Old School Park!’”

Expressions on the faces of passing drivers seem to prove her hunch.

The rain just boosts Weigler’s mood. He turns to a line from the play in a hammy, BIG DRAMA voice: “I think we might have to build ourselves an ark!”

Six months ago, this play was a barely hatched idea. Six weeks ago, only seven people showed up at the first audition.

All 135 seats for Friday night’s opening performance are sold out. Everyone’s been waiting.

You never know how these things can go. Maybe some disaster lurks – a forgotten soliloquy or a neighbor running a chain saw during the show.

None of that would matter much.

You see, Weigler’s idea for the play was really to create a good excuse for Darrington folks to come together. Loggers, Sauk-Suiattle Indians, newcomers and old-timers – all singing, acting, laughing, watching. A look at their past, he figures, will show them their future. You can see it during the first run-through in the tent.

There’s Martha Rasmussen, a local historian with new energy for finishing a play of her own she’s got up her sleeve. Over there are the town hams she’ll probably call on, Lavinia Bryson and Kelly Brown. Nine-year-olds Riley Anderson, Destiny Peden and Natalie Misanes are running through the “Timeline Chorus” with all the other kids carrying wooden salmon heads, swimming upstream. “Remember to circle the weave,” Weigler says, using the phrase he learned at Scramblin’ Squares, the town’s square dancing club.

The tiny girl fussing because her bottle’s out of milk is Eden DeCoteau-Dominguez, 1 1/2. She plays the toddler Harry Bedal. Over there, singer Alice Hung – she’s new in town, from Seattle – plays Mrs. Chang. And that sturdy logger is Seth Robbins, a mechanic who taped the recordings used in the play in his own home music studio.

No matter how much you look, though, you still won’t find Harold Engles, Darrington’s famous ranger. Legend has it that he flattened the peak of Three Fingers mountain by dynamiting 9 feet off to build a fire lookout on top.

Weigler skips over the Engles scene. If he has an idea for how to do it on play night, he’s not letting on.

*

Now we all know how a lot of folks hate it when somebody gives away a surprise. So if you’re one of the lucky ones with tickets to today’s show, and you haven’t already heard around town, you might want to finish reading this tomorrow.

Because right here’s where the beans are fixin’ to be spilt about Harold Engles.

At Friday night’s show, the tent fills with rowdy applause at the end of “The Timber Bowl Song,” a home-grown salute to Darrington’s logging heyday in the 1940s. The next scene shifts to 1971. The tent grows quiet. No actor takes the stage, but the tones of an older man’s voice fill the void: “Hello. My name is Harold Engles.”

It’s a recording describing his long career with the U.S. Forest Service in Darrington, starting in 1927. Weigler crafted the words based on talks with Engles’ closest friends and family.

Engles’ voice talks about how he learned the importance of including the locals in his decisions as a ranger.

“When it comes down to it, your neighbors, the ones who are living here alongside you, are here because they care about this place. They more or less want the same things you do. “They want a healthy, safe place for their families. They want to be able to put some good food on the table and have a good roof over their heads. They want to be able to enjoy the clean water and the clean air.” And then Engles, gone since 1993, speaks his wise old words.

“If there’s one thing I could tell you, it would be to treat each other well. We have all chosen to be here. We all have that in common.”

No actor could be found to play Engles, but then, maybe that’s the way it oughta be. Some folks would say nobody ever could fill Harold’s boots.

Weeks earlier, Litza Lovell stood outside the Sauk-Suiattle longhouse, out of Weigler’s earshot. She was impressed. This outsider had come to the heart of town to help the town find its heart. “I think it had to come from somebody from outside,” she said. Taking a gander last week at all the energy Darrington has poured into “Common Wealth,” maybe it’s more than that.

When Weigler leaves, he’ll say goodbye to the songs, mountains, salmon, friends, dancing, the applause and the lights. You might say “Common Wealth” was never really Weigler’s gift to give. He just borrowed the stories, polished them up and gave them back.

Once the big white tent in Old School Park comes down, the curtain will rise on Darrington’s next act.

It’s an open audition.