Dance Slow Decades
On April 23, a crowd packed into a warm upstairs classroom in Warner Hall. Kailea Saplan was nervous, but confident, as she delivered her senior capstone presentation as part of Senior Projects Day 2015.
“I’ve come to realize there’s nothing to worry about, because you’ve all done your jobs correctly,” she told friends and faculty, family and administrators. “Because if I am at all successful today and hereafter, it is a direct result of your support.”
Saplan’s description of her senior capstone project, and of her time at Pacific, spoke so authentically to the Boxer student experience that Pacific magazine has published an abridged version in its Summer 2015 edition.
Saplan majored in theatre and philosophy at Pacific, where she also appeared in stage productions and served as the student representative to the Board of Trustees. Though she delivered her theatre capstone this spring, she will study abroad in Fall 2015 and return in the spring to complete her philosophy capstone and receive her degree. She plans to pursue advanced degrees in education.
“My unwavering goal is to give others the same opportunity to be transformed by theatre and education that you all have given me,” she said.
This project began in September of 2013, when Theatre Professor Ellen Margolis introduced me to Ginger Moshofsky, then in Pacific’s Office of Alumni Relations.
She was inspired by the Whitman College Letters Project, which gathered original materials, like journals and letters, from their alumni and pieced them into a play.
She was confident that we could do something similar at Pacific, but better.
I admit I was not very enthusiastic about taking on this project.
I didn’t want my culminating senior capstone to be constrained by the puritanical, pro-Pacific themes I would undoubtedly have to portray and, as the undergraduate student representative on the Board of Trustees, I was sensitive about being seen as a sycophant.
But Ginger convinced me to at least look into the project further. I received about 200 pages of letters written by Cheron Mayhall ’64, all sent to her mother during her senior year. During the summer of 2014, I sat down and began reading.
I laughed a lot: at the 1960s colloquialisms, at the absurdity of voting for a Homecoming queen, and at Cheron’s fastidiousness (with which I deeply identify).
And that led me to wonder how Cheron’s experience and my own would compare and contrast, how they would interact.
The ideas started flowing immediately, and as they did, I became more and more convinced that writing this play would be worth my while.
And then I read what I now refer to as the October Crisis Letter. It was uncanny: the doubt, the anxiety, the fear of inadequacy, of making the wrong decision, the human frailty that Cheron revealed to her mother in that letter as she wondered what her future would hold, what her four years at college were worth.
I had just had the same conversation with my boyfriend days before.
Then I realized everyone else has, too. And everyone else will.
I decided in that moment to commit to the project, and I’ve been working on it ever since.
"I explore the underlying similarities and differences for these college-aged women at Pacific 50 years apart.
Dance Slow Decades follows two main fictionalized Pacific University characters, Evelyn Fields ‘64 and Akiko Cooper ‘15.
Evelyn is a sociology major and classic overachiever: On top of taking 18 credit hours, she writes for The Index; she’s the president of Theta Nu Alpha; she’s an officer on the Student Senate, a member of the choir, and a proctor.
A shy person, Akiko is less active on campus. She is a theatre major, secretary for the Rainbow Coalition, and an off-campus representative on Student Senate.
Evelyn’s perspective is told through the letters she writes to her mother, while we learn about Akiko through her conversations with friends or over the phone with her mother.
Through these characters, I explore the underlying similarities and differences for these college-aged women at Pacific 50 years apart.
Akiko embraces her independence in many ways, by exploring new passions and career options. Evelyn finds herself constantly toeing the line between being the boss and being a lady.
Akiko deals with hook-up culture; Evelyn’s friends announce pinnings and engagements.
Yet, at age 21, they both often wonder who their life partner will be.
I juxtapose the 1960s Civil Rights Movement with the Ferguson, Mo., unrest of August 2014, and the 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy with Darren Wilson not being indicted in 2014. The point is not to suggest that either era is politically ideal, rather to demonstrate how racial inequity influences the Pacific students of these different eras and impacts their plans for the future.
Evelyn is inspired to join the Peace Corps, and Akiko finds hope in her applied theatre workshop, teaching young kids tolerance and compassion through performance.
"I had just had the same conversation days before. Then I realized everyone else has, too. And everyone else will. "
The process of writing this play was extensive and tedious, but also effortless and exciting. Without knowing it, I have been preparing for this project my entire life. That probably sounds like something you’re supposed to say at a senior presentation, but it’s true.
As a cisgender, half-white, etc., I won’t understand what it’s like to be othered in a lot of ways. But as a theatre kid, I got to meet those Others. I got to befriend them and learn from them and, now, in this play, to advocate for them.
This unique perspective arose in me a desire to better comprehend the human condition, a desire which prevailed throughout my time at Pacific and drew me to courses in literature, philosophy, ethics, history, film and anthropology.
In addition to studying theatre to develop my acting talents, I expanded my understanding for technical design, my appreciation of critical theory and literary analysis.
I have keen interest in linguistics and foreign language, and Spanish poetry and literature classes helped develop my mastery over the English language.
I can trace the inspiration of my play to specific moments in particular classes: a literary criticism that taught me to think of the act of writing itself as political.
Articles on ethnicity and blind casting that taught representing minorities should happen in the script, not just the cast list.
A Ted Talk about the danger of a single story that sparked the realization that my personal story is important enough to be shared.
Ellen Margolis gave us an article by actress Geena Davis, who said that for every female speaking character in family films, there are three male speaking characters. In crowd scenes, only 17 percent of characters are female.
There was one point during my brainstorming when I wondered if a female writing about two female leads was cliché. And then I face-palmed myself, because who cares if it is?
The prevailing truth that I discovered and tried to manifest is that I know nothing. I’ve amassed all this knowledge and all these skills but the more I learn the less I know, which is terrifying and depressing and isolating … but also exhilarating.
It’s the coalescence of those feelings, the feelings Cheron expressed in the October Crisis Letter, that I wanted to capture.
My title, Dance Slow Decades, was inspired by a song of the same title by folk singer Angel Olsen:
Thought I had a clue,
it was passing by
Thought I had an answer,
it was just a sigh
Thought I had a dream once
— don’t remember why
Thought I had some time here,
left my watch at home
Thought I had ideas once,
they were all on loan
Thought I conquered something,
then it took me down
What I thought I heard clearly,
it wasn’t sound
Thought I felt your heartbeat,
it was just my counting
And to what thoughts
will my life be amounting?
I can see you dancing,
if you’d just take the step
You might still have it in you,
give yourself the benefit
And dance slow decades
toward the sun
Even when you’re
the only one
I imagine Evelyn and Akiko singing this to each other, singing their common failures, singing to console, encourage, and strengthen each other. It is what my mother continuously tries to do for me, what Ellen and Cheron did for me — and what I hope this play can do for those after me. ■
Cheron Joy (Messmer) Mayhall Memoriam
A quick one before the very busy weekend starts. So many meetings and time consuming work projects ahead until Homecoming is over. Thetas have four out of five on the court this year. First time it’s happened in many years that one sorority should be so dominant. I’m pretty darn proud. Today Dr. Ritchie stopped me on the walk, all smiles, etc., and talked with me for ten minutes about my fine work, et. al. How about that?
Going to the Homecoming dance with George. Not overjoyed, but I know I’ll have fun if I want to. I must be off to the Methodist Church for a song-skit practice at 6 p.m. When do I get to slow down?!
Love to all,
Cheron Mayhall ’64, whose letters inspired Evelyn’s character, died Feb. 3, 2015. After graduating from Pacific she volunteered for the Peace Corps in Honduras. Later, she attended Ohio University, earning a master’s degree in human relations in 1968. She married Bill Mayhall in 1967. They moved to Galveston, Texas, where she worked as a medical social worker, and later moved to Albuquerque, N.M., where she was a counselor, instructor and co-director of a career counseling program. In 1975, they moved to Salem, and she enrolled at Oregon State, earning a PhD in 1983. The couple had four children. Following the death of son Scotty, Cheron formed a chapter of Compassionate Friends and dedicated her doctoral research efforts to assisting families surviving the deaths of their young children. She wrote a successful grant for federal funding to establish the Coalition in Oregon for Parental Education. She was executive director of the Oregon COPE project for 14 years. After retiring, she was founder of Habitat for Humanity in Port Townsend, Wash., and president of the American Society for Deaf Children. She also participated in her church’s mission project to build homes in Santa Elena, El Salvador. In 2004, she published her first memoir, The Bridge Is Love: A Journey Through Grief to Joy After the Death of a Child. Her second memoir, Marshaling Support to Survive Breast Cancer: Self-talk, Girl-talk, Doctor-talk, was published in 2008.
In 2009, Cheron became involved with her Tucson, Ariz., church, and volunteered as a grief support group facilitator. She was named a “Remarkable Mom” by Tu Nidito in 2010 and also received Pacific’s 1986 Outstanding Alumni Service Award. She also was honored by the National Parent Network and by the Oregon State University Department of Education.
Following her October 2011 diagnosis of Stage 4 breast cancer, she walked the Las Vegas Rock and Roll half marathon, hiked in and out of the Grand Canyon, completed the Komen Foundation 60-mile charity walk in Seattle, and completed a 90-mile pilgrimage across Spain’s Camino de Santiago. She is survived by her husband of 47 years, Bill; children Phillip ’93, Laura and Katrina; grandsons Jeremy, Christopher Jr., Cedric and Gabryel; and granddaughter Gratia.
This story first appeared in the Summer 2015 issue of Pacific magazine. For more stories, visit pacificu.edu/magazine.