Here is a story: In the Pacific Northwest, a man named Cyrus Jackson is employed as a salmon taxi at the local dam. The dam has made it impossible for the salmon to swim back upstream after spawning; Cyrus’ job is to load ’em up at the bottom and dump ’em out at the top.
He has no particular specialized education; he’s just a blue-collar worker. But he has a natural curiosity about the land and water that surrounds him, and he knows how to ponder questions. And he wonders how the salmon got in this fix. As Cyrus says, “You got to put your toe in the river somewhere.”
Actor/storyteller Peter Donaldson, who has been described as “one part Robin Williams, one part Garrison Keillor,” created the character of Cyrus about five years ago for his one-man show, “Salmonpeople,” which has toured the Pacific Northwest. The show makes its East Coast debut on Thursday and Friday, March 5 and 6, at the Passage Theater Company in Trenton, and kicks off the company’s Seventh Annual Soloflights Festival, comprised of four weeks of nine one-person shows.
The salmon has a unique and honored place in the history of the Northwest, and “Salmonpeople” traces that history and looks at the damage that has been done to the natural habitat there. It asks hard questions about where we all are in our relationship to the world around us. But this is no polemic; it is a humorous, inventive, poignant, and at times raucous look at man and fish, and what binds us together. Donaldson blends storytelling, cartography (at one point, Cyrus tries to memorize and chart every watershed in the Salmon Nation; you’ll have to see the show to find out if he succeeds), music, sound, and lighting to create a unique and entertaining evening.
In a phone interview Donaldson cites as his heroes Garrison Keillor and Hal Holbrook in his one-man show as Mark Twain. He then adds two more names: his grandfather, Lauren Donaldson, a world-renowned expert on salmon who taught at the University of Washington, and his father, Jack, who directed fish and wildlife agencies in Oregon and the Columbia River basin for two decades.
But that didn’t make Donaldson’s journey towards this story inevitable. He describes growing up in Washington, and says, “I never really got the science. I avoided it because I didn’t get it — until I was paying my way through college by working in Alaska in a co-op fisherman’s hatchery in an old cannery site. We had to go out and get some brood stock. I stood in a wild Alaskan salmon stream where there were more fish than water, and that’s when I got it — these huge things, with no room for anything but their purpose. I really began to feel how small I was and how big this system was, and that visceral experience gave me that sense.”
His storytelling abilities had been fostered by his mother, a children’s librarian, who read to her son since day one. “All kinds of facts and concepts get attached to the stories we know and love and trust. And that’s the beginning of me as a storyteller,” says Donaldson.
Donaldson earned a degree in art in college, and while he loved it, it wasn’t enough. “Painting was wonderful, the smell and the colors. But when it was finished, it was hung on a wall, and it was done. I began to realize through theater and dance that the colors and my palette — these juicy colors — were actually words, text, dialogue, poetry, movement, lighting, sound, music. And of all the art forms, drama drew me as the largest palette.”
After a teaching stint, he moved on to children’s theater, and began to put his theories and ideas to work. He calls it “10 years of theatrical therapy. We didn’t do Broadway stuff for kids; we looked at fairytales and myths and wrote our own shows. It coincided with the era in which Joseph Campbell [and his heroic myth theories] became popular. I cut my teeth on story structures and storytelling purpose, which is that we are all living in a story and we can write our own story, because somebody is going to.”
That sense of structure served him well when it came to putting “Salmonpeople” together. He learned how to draw an audience in, and how to keep them enthralled, whether he was playing to fifth graders or their grandparents.
“It starts with me, Peter, on a bare stage, putting on my hip boots and talking about my dad and grandfather, and then I let the audience know that I have this friend, Cyrus, who never went to college but is kind of a blue-collar philosopher, and you’ll know him because he will be wearing that hat over there. And then I go out and leave them with Cyrus. It’s very simple and very sophisticated storytelling. It weaves people in, like Garrison Keillor does so well, where you might start off thinking, ‘This is kind of boring,’ and the details, especially the sensory details, give you what you want and allow the imagination to work.”
The overlying story of the show is citizen stewardship. As Donaldson says, “The story we’ve been living, the industrial economy, just can’t sustain itself. The new story, the sustainable economy, will be richly rewarding, possible for everyone, when we figure out green jobs. It’s exciting, but we’re in transition, so you can’t just bash people over the head with that.”
“Salmonpeople” isn’t just a theater piece; it’s part of an overall campaign. Donaldson works with schools and community groups in each town that he enters, setting up forums, talking to coalitions, passing on what he has learned and encouraging us all to take control of what we have taken for granted.
Says Donaldson: “It’s really crucial to develop the campaign part. I’ve become not just a catalyst but a cross-pollinator. I learn what’s working in terms of sustaining initiatives in each town and pass on the best of those ideas when I talk to the chamber of commerce or city council or school district. I don’t feel that much difference between being a professional actor and a storyteller in front of a Rotary Club. If I can get that Rotary Club to lean into the story like the fourth graders, then I will have communicated. They also could be pissed off. If I come in as an environmentalist or agitator from the city, none of this works. But if I come in as another curious citizen-steward and I’ve picked up some interesting things along the way about what towns are doing, that’s not a lecture, it’s a strategic story. It must be promoted in a careful way.”
Art doesn’t usually present solutions, but if it’s good art, it asks questions, even if they are just blowing in the wind. Cyrus Jackson asks the questions. Says Donaldson: “That’s what makes good theater, I found, after lots and lots of re-writes. He has no soapbox, because he just doesn’t know enough.”
Donaldson does wonder if the theme of the salmon, so familiar to the many audiences he has performed for in the Northwest, will resonate as well here in the East. But after five years, he has gotten to familiarize himself with most audience reactions. “I know I totally have them when there are several moments in the show when there is total silence. And you can see the faces, and see that they have no desire to change the channel. If the audience has some laughers, the whole thing tilts towards the fun of the show. If there are philosophers, then we settle in to more of a whispered exchange. Either way, the mechanics are the same; there are a hundred sound and lighting cues I have to hit correctly.”
Donaldson has written 14 plays, and tours in another one-man show, “Leonardo daVinci.” He admits that the success of “Salmonpeople” and his work in consulting about sustainable living is taking up a lot of time. He’s not complaining. Just don’t call him a man with a cause. He’s still standing in the middle of the stream, still asking questions, still writing his story.
“I don’t feel cause-bound,” he says earnestly, “I feel a sense of purpose. There’s something important that my skills call from me; that is, to pay attention to the story we have been living — 150 years of industrial economy. And the story before that — the gift economy of native peoples. And the story before that — nature’s economy of perfectly adequate exchange of gifts and resources. The culmination here is to face forward and say, ‘How am I supposed to live?’. So that’s the ultimate story. I don’t really feel like an activist, I just feel active. I am standing in the middle of my story, making personal choices.”
Salmonpeople, Passage Theater, Mill Hill Playhouse, Front and Montgomery streets, Trenton. Thursday and Friday, March 5 and 6, 8 p.m. Written and performed by Peter Donaldson. Co-sponsored by D&R Greenway, Friends of the Marsh, New Jersey Conservation Foundation and Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association. $35; 15 for members. 609-392-0766 or www.passagetheatre.org.