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Outdoor Play 'Hole In The Sky' Turns A Real Horse Ranch Into Environmental Drama

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Octavio. Credit: Marcos Najera

A month ago, a vehicle pulling a trailer along Highway 299 in Northern California got a flat tire, the rim scraping the street. Sparks flew, hitting dry brush nearby and igniting what has become the sixth most destructive wildfire in California history. The Carr Fire has since killed seven people and burned nearly 230,000 acres.
State fire officials say hotter, drier weather conditions during a drought don't help -- but this might be the new normal as climate change continues. The fire is nearly completely contained, but it's still alive. For the people of Scott Valley, who live just 50 miles upwind of the fire's edge, dealing with droughts, wildfires and the forces of nature has become a way of life.

Now, it's the subject of a new play commissioned by the L.A.-based Circle X Theatre Company. It's called Hole in the Sky, by Octavio Solis, and it opens Friday.

"We really think we know drought. We haven't seen drought," Solis suggested. "And yet we confront it every time there is a full moon. There's a place that's beautiful, that gets sun almost every day. But not a drop of water. And we look at it and we forget. That's what this could be. There it is, like a hole in the sky."

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Octavio and a castmember. Credit: Marcos Najera

Solis is multi-talented -- as an actor, he lent his voice to the Disney blockbuster Coco. He's mainly a successful playwright by trade, but he's also picked up a new profession: he's become a farmer.

"We decided to change our lives and just live in a more rural environment," Solis said. "We just needed a change from San Francisco, from the big city!"

Back in the early '90s, Octavio and his wife Jeanne Sexton bought a house in the Bay Area when it was still somewhat affordable. Fast forward to 2015: amidst skyrocketing mortgage payments, matched with a desire to get closer to nature, the couple cashed out and moved to a rural area near the California/Oregon border.

Solis and cast on break. Credit: Marcos Najera

"We've got anywhere from seven to nine goats," Solis explained. "I got seven chickens. We've got three dogs. We grow our own squash, our own chiles, and tomatoes -- all kinds of vegetables. We had bees, but they've all moved on."

Solis and his wife live on a three-acre ranch not far from his current artistic home-base: the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. They moved there about four years ago. That was also when he got a call from Circle X Theater's Kate Jopson.

Jopson had met Solis in 2010 when she worked on Solis' adaptation of John Steinbeck's The Pastures of Heaven in San Francisco. Solis encouraged her to pursue a directing MFA. She took his advice -- but after she finished, her life took a turn.

"I was just finishing grad school at UC San Diego," Jopson recalled, "and in my last month, as I was supposed to be finishing up my thesis, I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer.

"I had to come to L.A. and find all new doctors, do all the surgeries, do the radiation, do all that in my first few months in Los Angeles. So that was really this shift for me and a big moment of change in my life. And that was the same time that I commissioned this piece from Octavio."
After receiving her cancer diagnosis, Jopson says being sick made her think more about wellness, including the health of our planet.

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Kate Jopson. Credit: Marcos Najera

Note: A version of this story was also on the radio. Listen to it here on KPCC's The Frame.

Jopson told Solis that she wanted to create a piece of theater with him about water, people, fire -- and the strife those factors create for the Scott Valley, the area in rural Northern California she calls home. It's not far from where the Carr Fire still burns, and only about an hour's drive from Solis's ranch.

Solis interviewed ranchers, tribal members, environmentalists and politicians throughout Siskiyou County. He asked about their lives, their hopes and how they were addressing the problems that arise as the Earth's temperature climbs. Those conversations became his new play. Solis says the fictionalized story revolves around actual fights over local groundwater and streams.

"The Scott River is one of the rivers that people have been drawing from for years," Solis said. "For their water, their irrigation and for their cattle. Every year, that river has had less and less water in it. It's become kind of a problem, because there's less snowpack in the mountains every year. Sometimes, there is none, because it doesn't snow."

Octavio and castmember. Credit: Marcos Najera

Low levels in the waterways can mean tough times for local Native American tribes who depend on healthy salmon runs to keep their hatcheries and fisheries afloat. On the flip side, the farmers and ranchers need to use the river water and groundwater reserves to irrigate crops and hydrate cattle.

"They're all part of the same system," Solis said. "And if you are draining one, you are draining the other."

That's when conflicts come. From legal battles to town hall squabbles, fights over water rights can pit neighbor against neighbor.

"They're all kind of at odds with each other," Solis explained. "And somewhere in there is the truth. And somewhere in there, we have to find ways to take care of each other and not attack each other."

To capture the spirit of the rural area where the story's set, Solis and Jopson decided to stage the production at a working horse ranch in Los Angeles, the Courtship Ranch. It's fitting -- the Creek Fire came dangerously close to destroying it last December. That fire prompted officials to issue warnings that dry conditions and higher than normal temperatures signaled more trouble ahead.

But Solis is quick to point out that he was constantly surprised that the folks he interviewed for the play didn't seem to pay much heed to those warnings.

"The characters in my play, they say, 'Oh, come on! You are going to bring up global warming? That's fake news! That's a lie! That's a myth!'" Solis said. "The people who are seeing the effects the most are the ones who are immediately most resistant to say it's climate change. And why? It's because they've seen this before. They've been through droughts before.

"Nature has always stacked the odds against them. That's why they have pesticides. That's why they drill deep into the earth to find water there. That's why they don't spend money at Christmas time, because all the money they make goes right back into the survival of their farm."

"That's part of what this [play] is," Jopson explained. "How do we overcome our personal traumas and be able to really come together and face these larger issues like changing climates, droughts, fires -- these things that are happening to us that we feel powerless against sometimes? But it becomes harder when we are not actually working together as a community."

Jopson reviews lighting. Credit: Marcos Najera

The protagonist of the show is Connor Bledsoe. She's a prodigal daughter who comes home to find her town fighting over water and threatened by wildfire. The character is inspired in part by Jopson, who grew up with people always disagreeing about the environment. Jopson says her dad still raises trees back home, and her mom is a water biologist who's helped negotiate water trusts in the area.

"One of the projects my mom worked on when I was really little was getting the river in our valley fenced off from cattle so there would be clean water," Jopson said.

Jopson remembers how community members, including her mom, came to a compromise.

"It's not that you never bring cattle through the water, especially if your ranch is divided by the river. It's just that we find ways to minimize that, to fence different sections of it off. So it's finding those kind of compromises that aren't all-or-nothing solutions, that people can still live with."

Both Jopson and Solis hope their new play can offer glimpses into different viewpoints, where no one is right or wrong. But they want people to agree that there's a lot of work to do, and a lot more to learn.

Hole in the Sky will be performed Aug. 24-Sept. 23 at the Courtship Ranch in Lake View Terrace. Ticket information can be found here.

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