By Ted Shorack
It’s 6:40 p.m. on a Tuesday in Eugene, Oregon, and Vicki Harkovitch has to settle down a group of about 20 young boys and girls. They’re sitting on the playground blacktop of Edison Elementary in South Eugene. Some of their parents watch from lawn chairs. The kids sit on towels or blankets and their book bags and folders are scattered all around. The sheets of paper next to them rise with each passing breeze. It may be July, but the sun has been hiding most of the day, and rain showered the streets earlier. Harkovitch has a lot to get done before 9 p.m.
Harkovitch is the artistic director of a local community theater group: The Roving Park Players. The children—along with a few adults—will be acting in an adaptation of the “Wizard of Oz” on August 11th. The group practices 3 times a week and will add one or two rehearsals as the first performance draws closer, and then every night the week of opening night.
Before they start rehearsal on this particular night, Harkovitch leaves a young actress in charge to go over line changes while she jogs over to her cottage-style home just kitty-corner from the school playground. She has forgotten the boom box that plays music for their scenes. Props may stay the same for a play, but the stage routinely changes for the Roving Park Players. The organization has no theater to practice in. It is affectionately called by Harkovitch an “itinerant theater company,” and the actors and actresses will be performing in different parks around Eugene and nearby Springfield.
These late nights and rehearsals all began about four years ago. “It was one of those sitting around the living room kind of things,” Harkovitch says about getting the idea for the organization. Her co-director, or “co-banana” as she likes to call the title, is Lisa Shea-Blanchard. The two of them had worked with other theater groups in town but decided they wanted to branch out on their own. The two of them never really envisioned themselves having an actual theater to perform in. They thought: “It would be cool if we could travel around and go to places in Eugene and Springfield where people wouldn’t ordinarily buy a ticket and go sit in a theater,” Harkovitch says. The theater company now puts on four productions a year with eight performances of each. The company takes people who have never acted before and people who have not acted for a long time as well as really experienced people. Some productions might have an all-adult cast, while others are made up of children over the age of nine.
Harkovitch grew up in Fairbanks, Alaska, and doesn’t recall many theatrical opportunities in her hometown. When she was born, the now U.S. state was still just a territory. In a portrait of Harkovitch’s family, she remembers them standing in their Easter outfits on an unpaved muddy street that their house was on. It must have looked like a frontier house in the middle of nowhere.
Oregon was a different world for Harkovitch when she started college in Corvallis at Oregon State University in 1972. “Moving down here was a revelation to me,” she says. During her first term, she took a trip down to Eugene to visit a friend. “I visited her and fell in love with Eugene and the school,” she says. It was an easy and quick decision for her because she was in the wrong city and at the wrong college. After her first term at OSU, she transferred to the U of O. While attending school, she met her husband John and went on to receive a master’s degree in art history from the university.
After school was over, Harkovitch and her husband moved to North Carolina in order for John to complete his medical education. They were brought back to the northwest to Seattle for John to begin his residency. Afterwards, it wasn’t long before they moved back to Eugene. “I always seem to end up back here,” Harkovitch says. She’s been in and out of the city since college but can’t see herself living anywhere else. Her children were born here. This is where she wanted to raise a family.
Harkovitch is a lover of the arts and a true believer. Art is a basic human impulse, a basic human need, she says. It makes a world of difference. When Harkovitch and Shea-Blanchard envisioned the Roving Park Players, they thought of it as a way for anyone to get involved with theater, whether technically, performance wise or as an audience member. She says that the experience has been gratifying and the theater company has gotten a really great response from people. During their first season, Harkovitch recalls she received a note from a homeless person apologizing for being unable to donate, but praising the group for the fine show they had put on and the ability to watch it for free. “Whoa, that’s why we’re doing this,” Harkovitch says she thought at that moment.
But it’s never been easy for Harkovitch and the theater company. They’ve had to work out some kinks over the years, most notably their sound system that they have to lug around to different parks. They just received an Oregon Cultural Trust grant worth $800 to upgrade their sound system, but at one time it consisted of 6 to 8 boom boxes that all had to be tuned to the same channel. The mixer was run off of a car battery. Harkovitch laughs at how one time, during the first season, an actor responsible for the sound system forgot to charge the car battery. The play was Peter Pan. “So he went to get the battery out of his truck and so Captain Hook was out there—he was playing Captain Hook—was out there pulling batteries out of cars,” she says.
Harkovitch is a busy woman, but at 58 shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon. She is planning out possible productions for next year’s fifth season already. She adapts written work—such as Jane Austen’s “Northanger Abbey” for next year—so that it flows nicely in a play format. The living room and dining room of her house are lined with overflowing bookshelves. On desks are stacks of paper with lines she needs to distribute. In the cozy second story of her house, she has costumes piling up from previous productions and ones ready for future use. It is hard work. There’s a lot to consider.
On Tuesday night’s playground rehearsal, Harkovitch has a stack of papers in hand that she flips through to check lines and upcoming scenes. The children giggle when they mess up and Harkovitch chuckles now and again with them. When a scene is over and she smiles to say “good job,” you can tell she loves what she does.