Spreading Their Wings
The Red Raven Follies plan to take their“vaudeville-cabaret” show to the next level
“Are you gonna sing to it or strip to it?” the blonde-tressed woman asks, her tone calm as she speaks into her cell phone. “Uh-huh. OK, just sing. Got it.”
Her name is Rachel Pietila, but on stage, she goes by the moniker “Golden Delicious,”one of the four women who make up The Red Raven Follies.
A homegrown theater troupe based in Eugene’s Bohemian Whitaker neighborhood, they do song, dance, and vaudevillian skits.
In the armchair by the window, Pietila makes calls to check in with performers set to appear in the Ravens’ upcoming show. Around a living room cluttered with paint, cardboard, and half-assembled props, the other three Ravens perch. On the sofa, Tiffany Hutchins concentrates on her laptop, going over the set list for their upcoming show. Jennifer “Ember” Woodruff daubs paint onto the surface of a large wood-framed box complete with spring-hinged trapdoor on top. Behind them, Ruby McConnell kneels on the floor, cutting out cardboard raven silhouettes to be used in stage decor.
According to Woodruff, who goes by “Lady Slipper” on stage, she and Pietila started The Red Raven Follies after their stint in Terpsichore’s Daughters. When that group folded, they still had the bug to perform. At first, The Red Raven Follies staged a community variety show in backyard events featuring different performers.
Later, with the addition of Hutchins and McConnell, it coalesced into a solid core partnership.
“In the beginning,” Pietila says, “when we were doing these large variety shows with the community, I tended to be the one who had the master list. Now it’s equal in terms of responsibility, a much tighter-knit group. We’re all producing this together.”
Woodruff adds, “Having a set show means a lot less creating new stuff. We do a lot less dancing in rehearsals because we know the dances really well.”
“It’s more about making props and handling business these days,” Hutchins chimes in.
“More fine-tuning,” Woodruff concludes.
Now, they say, they have a wider variety of performers to collaborate with.
While their shows retain the variety show format, it’s more polished, and features greater breadth of talent. “But we still use Rachel’s backyard for rehearsals,” says Woodruff.
“We have jugglers, dancers, burlesque, acrobats, and singers,” says Hutchins, who performs under the stage name “Tarnished Penny.” Groups who appear often with the Ravens include the Grey Matter Jugglers, Dandy Pie, Francia and Annie from Bounce Gymnastics, Vicki Vortex, and Olive from Aeon Now.
“Without them, we wouldn’t be where we are,” says Pietila.
These days, the Ravens produce shows using a shifting cast drawn from their family of orbiting collaborators. According to Pietila, they recruit the acts, arrange the set list, line up sound and lighting needs, handle promotion, and pay out any money the group receives from the door. It’s a long way from the humble beginnings of candlelit backyard shows in the Whitaker. The troupe made headlines last fall when it won the Eugene Weekly’s poll for Best Performing Arts Group.
This week, The Red Raven Follies bring their eclectic community of talent to the Majestic Theater in Corvallis, and the WOW Hall in Eugene. Both shows are happening in collaboration with the Wanderlust Circus, a veteran circus troupe based in Portland.
“I’m always surprised at the positive response,” says Woodruff. “I’d watch the original backyard shows taking shape, and it’d be kind of underwhelming, and then I’d come back later, just before the show, and it’d be…SHAZAM! Total transformation. Magic.”
Pietila utters a laugh. “Honestly? Winning the Weekly poll ups the ante. It’s inspiring, because we feel like we’ve gotten to this place in a kind of leap of faith.” Validation from the community, she says, pushes the Ravens to go even farther creatively.
Hutchins brushes back a copper curl. “The Weekly was a vote of confidence. It showed that what we do when we perform is something people like. It’s not an ego thing for us.”
McConnell, aka “Ruby Blush,” leans forward with a mischievous grin. “You know what? It set a big hot fat burning flame under everybody’s ass.”
The room erupts with laughter.
“Oh yeah, I was surprised!” Woodruff says after the laughter dies down. She continues to paint a straight red border on the stage box.
“We were all surprised,” McConnell replies. But now, she insists, everybody expects the Red Raven Follies to take it to the next level.
“We better make sure we’re giving them a show,” Woodruff murmurs. The rest of the Ravens nod.
But the mood in the room is relaxed, confident. Smiles and laughter burst out as they toss comments, questions, and banter back and forth. Pietila takes another brief call from a performer.
The Red Raven Follies aren’t resting on their laurels. According to Pietila, they’re planning a roadshow in August with their Fool’s Journey show. They want to travel more, explore using grantwriting and other fundraising to support an ongoing road presence and expand their creative range.
“After we go on tour,” McConnell says, “we want to add more acts and new material. We have a bunch of new stuff we prep and then work out the kinks in different shows. We work through the winter–”
“And get ready in the spring,” Hutchins finishes for her.
“If we connect with the festival circuit, that’s where we’d do well,” says Pietila.“But this summer, we’ll go on the road with she same show we’re putting on at the WOW Hall and Majestic Theater. We’ll perform with Tush Burlesque in Olympia, maybe the Provocateurs in Bellingham.”
“We’re excited to make it a caravan, a family thing,” she says. “That way, we can take our kids and give them an opportunity to perform.”
It’s clear these women have developed an easy but strong bond of camaraderie.
When asked what each of them brings to the troupe, they hesitate.
After a long beat, McConnell is the one who speaks up. “That’s a diplomatic silence. That’s probably why we get along.”
“I’m good at juggling metaphorical rubber balls,” Hutchins begins. “I roll with it when things don’t go as planned.”
“Ember [Woodruff] brings a lot of ideas to the group,” Pietila says to nods from Hutchins and McConnell. “A lot.” Woodruff is also, according to her colleagues, the chief set and prop maker.
McConnell is the only one of them with a technical dance background, Hutchins points out. “She has that eight-count ballet mistress thing down: keep your hands here, point your toes…”
Pietila agrees. “Thanks to Ruby [McConnell], we have a language for what we do. We’ve had totally rad choreography, but it’s been ‘wiggle to the right,’ and whatever.”
“In ballet, everything is codified, every step has a name,” McConnell explains. “There are precise words for what dancers do.”
Pietila is the troupe’s grounding force, Hutchins says. “While the rest of us go through this frantic intense artist energy, Rachel stays chill.”
“She’s butter,” McConnell quips to general laughter. “Buttah!”
“She’s a fantastic actress and a total sparkle bunny,” Woodruff says. “And Tiffany brings organization and technical knowledge. She brings…”
“Spreadsheets.” Pietila says, directing a megawatt smile at Hutchins.
Hutchins gives a modest shrug. “Bookkeeping.”
“Enthusiasm,” Woodruff declares. “Tons of it.”
The ladies quiet a little when asked if what they do is burlesque. But Pietila says, “I always say we’re Vaudeville-Cabaret. Old-timey and a little suggestive. There’s a little element of naughtiness, but it’s classy.”
“I like to tell people it’s not that the costumes are small, it’s that the girls are so darn pretty,” McConnell says. “Put us in potato sacks, and people would still say it was burlesque.”
“See? We’ve tested this theory,” McConnell says.
Their involvement with The Red Raven Follies has been tremendously rewarding, all the women agree. Not the least of which has been the friendships they’ve made with one another and with other performers.
“There’s been a lot of personal growth and development,” Pietila says. “Something that’s great for me is growing close to people I didn’t just fall into a relationship with accidentally. It’s choosing to cultivate relationships with people based on shared passion.”
But the experience deepens them in other ways as well.
According to Pietila, her own self-image has been tested many times because the Ravens have been so frequently photographed and videotaped.
“I’ve had to face down my insecurities. I had an epiphany about what’s real and what’s not real. That was a really neat thing for me to realize, not to focus on appearances. It feels more healthy and whole for me.”
“It’s true,” Woodruff says. “You get to the point where you’re like, whatever. You learn to make the faces for the camera, but you learn to let go and not be attached to it.”
THE RED RAVEN FOLLIES
with The Mata Hari Hustle
Thu. Jun. 14
The Majestic Theater
115 SW 2nd St., Corvallis
Doors open at 7PM
Fri. Jun. 15
The WOW Hall
291 W. 8th Ave., Eugene
Door open at 9PM
The most challenging part of being in the Ravens? “The fact that we’re not rich,” says Woodruff. “There’s a lot of volunteer hours in this.” They rehearse twice a week, she says, sometimes more before a show.
She’s not complaining, though. “I have actors on both sides of my family. It’s in the blood, that smoke and mirrors excitement.”
“We make or have made all of our costumes or props,” Hutchins says. “It does take a lot of time and energy.”
“Time,” McConnell says with a theatrical groan. “I danced a show before I came to tonight’s rehearsal. Just a little one.”
Pietila stresses the challenge of finding the energy to work on the show. “It’s worth noting all of us are mature women with children and families and jobs.”
Hutchins says, “We’ve all taken on more responsibility as far as the transitions and the communication necessary to develop, rehearse, run, and produce our own show. It’s an evolving thing.”
“My desire to do it comes from the thrill of the magic,” says Pietila. “The chaos–”
“YEAH…!” the other ladies interject, practically in chorus.
Pietila continues, unfazed. “–and everything coming together, bringing joy and happiness to the audience, creating a space…where everyone can come and represent themselves in pure creative expression, and that’s thrilling.”
Hutchins says her motivation is to get outside her comfort zone and create an intentional connection with other people, trusting that the audience would see something in her she didn’t see in herself.
“Oh, I just dance,” says McConnell. “I say yes to dance.” A self-described product of the ’80’s studio system, she was dancing 40 hours a week before she became a geologist. Eventually, she quit geology and moved to Eugene to resume dancing full-time, becoming involved with the Middle Eastern Dance Guild of Eugene..
“I was bellydancing this piece with a sword on my head. The Follies asked me to dance with them, and I said yes.”
Pietila laughs. “I wanted that girl with the sword on her head to be in our show!”
“I’m a rabid artist,” Woodruff says. “There are endless possibilities in performance art. I’m totally in love with it.”
“It is rather addictive,” Hutchins agrees.