A funny thing happened when Blair Cromwell was hired by Dallas High School’s theater department in her second job after graduating from Western Oregon University. Her mom, Margaret Boatwright, was a package deal.
“We came together in 1987. She had costumed at Central (High Schol) and at Pentacle (Theater) and she sat in that chair and never got up yet,” Cromwell joked, pointing at her mom sitting behind her sewing machine, surrounded by fabric samples, spools of thread and mementos of alumni from past productions and one prominent photo of Kevin Bacon (no, he is not a CHS alumni).
“I used to come in every day, but now I only come in three days and every Saturday. We work together,” Boatwright clarified.
Little did they know, more than three decades later, Cromwell’s daughter, Hannah Fawcett, would join them completing three generations of their family involved in Central’s theatrical productions.
A 1996 alumni of Dallas, Fawcett went on to also graduate from Western and was pursuing a professional career as an actor, sprinkled with mentoring students, and acting credentials from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Cromwell shared the tie with OSF, but as a member of the teaching staff. Fawcett never thought she was interested in directing. That changed when the pandemic changed everything. Completing a contract to be in “Romeo and Juliet,” the production closed a week before COVID and her plans to go to New York afterwards were scuttled.
“The world shifted and my perspective of what I wanted shifted with everything else,” Fawcett said, adding she gladly accepted the opportunity to join the staff at Dallas. “I love being here especially while in between grad school and the next step. It’s been a really cool thing, to sort of hone my directorial esthetic, ‘Oh maybe this is something I may want to keep doing.’”
Cromwell, 59, explained it was probably inevitable the three of them ended up working together, adding she knows many others who couldn’t pull it off.
“My family owns an engineering firm in Salem. So, from the time I was born, I was always in a model where our family works together. When I first got this job, during that first set building, here’s my dad, here’s my brother-in-law and my mom,” Cromwell said.
She said the last three years have been great having her daughter as co-director on several projects now. Cromwell explained that theater is always about having a conversation, keeping up with the latest social trends.
“Having Hanah here is handy because she’s been deep in that professional world. She can engage us in conversations that are of the moment,” Cromwell said. “I like to surround myself with people with skillsets I don’t have. Instead of being afraid of them, I want to grab them and pull them tighter. Because whatever we’re doing here, they’re going to make better.”
Fawcett, 26, said her background in dance and theater have always been collaborative.
“I always love to hear what other people think, because it’s often better than my own (thoughts),” she said. “We want to be able to give the students the ability to answer when somebody asks, ‘Well, what do you think?’”
Fawcett added she and her mom actually often will disagree about an artistic decision. But they also like to turn those disagreements into teachable moments.
“We like to demonstrate how to respectively have different opinions. We are never like, ‘But mine’s better! Blahblublah!’ I think sometimes students don’t always have a positive example of how to disagree with someone, that doesn’t end in tears or hurt feelings,” Fawcett explained.
“Sometimes one of us will have an idea, Margaret as well, we have it so firmly, other folks will just have to trust you. And then later we see it happen, and we’re like, ‘Oooh, that’s what that is.’ Communication, trust and respect, is key,” Cromwell said.
But to be clear, whoever has the title of director above the marquee in any given project gets the final say, Cromwell added.
Over the years, Cromwell said the production that Dallas, hands down, has performed most is “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” followed by “Godspell” and now “Cinderella,” getting its third run. The key component to bringing them before a live audience is the costume. Boatwright’s workshop was converted from the old stage adjacent to the cafeteria. It’s wall-to-wall with hand-crafted outfits dating back decades. Along another wall is lined with filing cabinets, filled with patterns that Boatwright can quickly access to assemble a new costume from scratch.
“Margaret can think of a dress she wants to make and say, ‘I want to use this body, this sleeve, this skirt,’ and puts things together and makes them up, to suit whatever is needed. That’s a real skill to have that not a lot of people have,” Cromwell said.
Boatwright, 87, explained her skill was honed from years of experience.
“I started sewing in grade school in 4H, so, I’ve been sewing for 80 years,” she said.
“But she won’t alter your wedding dress. That’s a hard no,” Cromwell adding, laughing.
Boatwright’s sewing station within the costume shop sports a milk crate on the floor, filled with spent spools of thread. Fawcett figures it holds about five years’ worth, before needing to be replaced. However, together, the trio are not sure how many sewing machines Boatwright has gone through in her tenure. Fawcett was sure it was more than 10 and probably into the teens.
One thing that makes all their jobs easier producing a show is the generosity of the community donating materials needed for costumes crafted at Boatwright’s station. People have provided used upholstery, leather from a couch, bed sheets and even shower curtains that were repurposed.
“A princess costume was made from somebody’s curtains,” Boatwright recalled.
The community donations go a long way to help keep production costs down as new fabric is expensive to order.
“But they’re not as expensive if they come in two panels for your living room,” Fawcett said.
She added they thought their last show they did was costume heavy. But Cinderella takes the need to a whole other level.
“Because everybody needs three costumes,” Fawcett said.
“And full-length dresses need a lot of fabric,” Boatwright added.
Costumes are not the department’s only need.
“We are at the point where we have used our sets of shoes so effectively, they’re falling apart,” Fawcett explained, adding as newer generations get taller, their shoe size gets bigger. She solicited the need for more community donations. “Leather boots, nice shoes. If they’ve gone out of style, give them to us.”
Fawcett pulled out a dress hanging on a nearby rack highlighting the point, once completed, the costumes stick around.
“I made that in 1997 for Pentacle,” Boatwright said, pointing to another gown that was from 1994.
Cromwell recalled a hat that was used in the very first play she directed at DHS was reused in the promotion poster for “Cinderella.”
So, how is it like to have three like minds to bounce ideas off?
“Oh, it’s great,” Boatwright said. “I wouldn’t want it any other way. I have withdrawals if I’m not here.”
Fawcett clarified how her grandmother avoids the withdrawals.
“The other day, you texted me, ‘I’m not doing enough,’ meanwhile she’s doing a bazillion things,” she said.
The list of needs is ever extensive for Dallas High School’s next production and the ones that follow. But the collaborative process to cross off items from that list is made easier with three generations of women who share a love of family and the workplace.
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