I meet Jesse Graff when he comes to inspect the new heat pump in my Portland, Oregon, bungalow. Graff strings a measuring tape through my house, and we get to talking about life, work, and energy efficiency. As he steps off my porch, he turns back and asks, “Have you heard of Trek in the Park?” I reply, “Please come into my kitchen and tell me everything.”
Graff explains that by day, he’s a tax appraiser for Multnomah County. By night, he portrays Spock in Trek in the Park. His mission? Aside from raising my property taxes, he and the crew of the USS Enterprise put on eight performances each summer. They drew crowds in the thousands to watch episodes of the original Star Trek performed as stage plays in Portland’s Cathedral Park.
This August, the five-year mission came to a close as the crew performed the classic Trek episode “The Trouble With Tribbles.” Opening weekend, on a blistering 95-degree Sunday, I joined thousands of devoted fans and watched Graff boldly go where no tax appraiser had gone before.
Kirk (Adam Rosko) and Spock (Jesse Graff) discuss the growing tribble problem.
A few weeks before the final run of Trek shows, I spoke with Graff and his compatriots: Adam Rosko, who plays Kirk and directs the plays, and his sister, Amy Rosko, who produces them. As we sit down in a local pizza joint, a pair of fans call out from the corner: “Captain Kirk! We’re your biggest fans!” Adam smiles and waves — and he does look a bit like William Shatner, even though he doesn’t yet have his Trek-style haircut, which features pointy sideburns.
Graff, who sports a full Riker-esque beard when it’s not show season, says, “I get to spend most of my life incognito. I don’t get recognized hardly at all.” The only visible evidence that he’s Spock is a tattoo of Leonard Nimoy’s autograph on his right arm.1
Adam was just 23 when he and Amy started Atomic Arts, the theater company that staged the Trek shows as well as a few other productions in Portland. The siblings searched for an idea that would make compelling outdoor theater and that was not Shakespeare. Going through their DVD collection, they came across Star Trek, and it seemed an obvious fit: it had colorful costumes, extended fight scenes, and a built-in fan base.
Adam says, “The first YouTube video [we found] was Kirk and Spock fighting. I thought, I could see that in the park. That would be hilarious. Then we watched the whole episode.”
That episode was “Amok Time,” and it became the first Trek in the Park production in July 2009. Adam met Graff in a production of Robin Hood (“We were bad guys,” Graff recalls); Paul Pistey (their original Bones) was brought onboard shortly after.2
The Atomic Arts crew performed the episodes as written, preferring not to add campiness or wink at the audience. Because the show has an element of camp to it already, the material didn’t need embellishment. “[We] embrace the silliness. I think that the harder you embrace it, the better reaction you’ll get from an audience,” Adam says.
Scotty (Nate Ayling), moments before throwing the first punch in a brawl with Klingon officer Korax (Royal Hebert). Korax incited the fight by saying the Enterprise “should be hauled away as garbage.”
In the park
Watching “The Trouble with Tribbles” performed live is an odd delight when you’re used to watching Star Trek on TV. The audience in the park laughs at the show’s many small gags, cheers during the big brawl scene, and hoots as tribbles (fuzzy fur-balls about the size of kittens) pile up onstage throughout the show.
The episode’s plot starts with a dispute over a shipment of grain, but is rapidly sidetracked when Lieutenant Uhura receives a pet tribble from a shady trader on a space station. The tribble multiplies, causing an uncontrollable population boom that threatens to overwhelm the Enterprise. Bones (played by Jake Street) remarks, “The nearest thing I can figure out is they’re born pregnant, which seems to be quite a time saver.”
The audience eats it up. Then Bones seals the deal with the classic line, “It seems they’re bisexual, reproducing at will. And, brother, have they got a lot of will!” He’s a doctor, dammit — not a sexologist.
The park setting also mixes super fans with casual fans, Trek-loving families, and people who just happen to wander by on a sunny day. On the day I saw “Tribbles,” a family settled on the blanket to my left, and a woman struck up a conversation. “My son Ryan is in the play,” she says. “He’s — I’m not sure which character it is; he does an accent.” Another woman, camped out on the blanket in front of us and reading a massive book, turns around. “Ryan Castro? Yeah, he’s Chekov,” she says. Later, we all share sunscreen.
Hardcore Trekkies sometimes want the troupe to add material to the show, to expand the play into something more than the episode. This year, fans wanted an entire scene from an episode of Deep Space 9 added to the original “Tribbles”; Adam compromised by adding a few Klingons in the background of the play’s closing scene.3
The crew’s dedication to the original show impressed David Gerrold, author of the original “Tribbles” episode in 1967, who traveled to Portland for a show in August. “The cast was terrific,” he writes via email. “Their enthusiasm and playfulness was infectious. They were clearly having a lot of fun reinterpreting the original script, [and] I laughed my ass off. (If anyone finds a flabby old ass somewhere in the park, it’s probably mine.)” Gerrold joined the cast onstage after the show; his ass appeared to be intact.
One of the challenges of mounting “Tribbles” was simply getting the tribbles themselves. A year prior to the performance, the crew put out a call for fans to help make the furry props. Bags of homemade tribbles arrived from Alaska, Virginia, and points in between. Portland’s Jack London Bar hosted several Star Trek craft nights, during which fans made tribbles in an ad hoc assembly line. Costumer Marge Rosko (Adam and Amy’s mother) laughs as she describes the end of the process: “They had a girl or two with wire combs brushing them, so all the tribbles had a little ’do when they were done.”
Gerrold, who invented the tribble, approves. “They looked like real tribbles to me.”
Trailer in the park
Trek in the Park was an immediate hit when it started five years ago, but the crew was prepared for failure. A key decision came at the end of the first performance of “Amok Time” in Woodlawn Park, which happened to be a few blocks from Amy’s house. The crew had hastily prepared what they called a “trailer” promoting the next year’s show, but they didn’t know whether their play would be received well enough to warrant continuing the mission through a second year, let alone its planned five years.
As the crew took their bows, they looked to Adam and he said one word: “Trailer.” They launched into a two-minute live preview of the next year’s show, “Space Seed” (the episode that was the starting point for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan). From that moment on, Trek in the Park was a juggernaut, drawing enormous crowds and forcing the group to relocate to Portland’s iconic Cathedral Park, which features a stage and a massive lawn bowl that can accommodate thousands.4
The show featured a live band plus sound effects for doors, transporters, and the like. During transporter scenes, the actors stand ramrod-straight as the distinctive sound effect plays, and the audience chuckles. The production was the subject of a doctoral thesis on “geek culture in theater,” appeared in a Portlandia skit, and became a mainstay of Portland summer fun.
And it remained free the whole time, as local businesses pitched in to donate sets and other help in exchange for appearing in the programs distributed in the park. The cast carefully avoids talk of copyright or legal issues, and I did not ask Paramount (which Graff jokingly calls “Starfleet”) for comment, lest the apparently cultivated ignorance at the studio that let it persist was shed.
The show has suffered the kinds of minor mishaps endemic to any public performance, though the audience takes them in stride. During the first summer of the show, an earthbound vessel hurtling past the park interrupted Spock’s Vulcan mating ritual. Graff recalls, “Spock’s having a pon farr moment and I’m trying to explain to Kirk why this is happening. I open my mouth and the loudest train whistle I’ve ever heard goes off. It was like Inception. So I stopped, and we wait. Then I open my mouth again, and the whistle goes off again. It’s literally the longest train whistle I’ve ever heard — it went on for 10 or 15 seconds. So we hold it.”
Adam interjects, “I could tell you were going to break.”
Graff continues, “My mouth was starting to go and I had one more shot. I opened my mouth, the whistle went off again, and I lost it. I keeled over on the chair. Put my head down in my arms. Adam covered. He had the most beautiful cover I’ve ever seen. He didn’t even crack a smile. He just puts his hand on my back, punches an imaginary button, and he says, ‘Mr. Spock, keep it steady, will you?’ The crowd lost their mind. It was fantastic.”5
Dogs also interrupted the show. During one performance, a loose dog jumped to Kirk’s defense during a fight scene. Graff recalls another canine incident: “During ‘Mirror, Mirror’ the evil version of the crew got thrown into the brig. Evil Kirk’s snarling and shouting scared a Rottweiler sitting in the second row, so it started barking loudly at him. In character, Evil Kirk just turned and barked back at the dog. It shut up.”
In later years, a pre-show announcement encouraged dog owners to keep their leashes on and calm their dogs so they didn’t join the cast in any “scenes of mock violence.”
Kirk (Adam Rosko), after opening a tribble-filled hatch.
Trek in the Park has always been a family affair. Marge Rosko, mother of Adam and Amy, says she made around 50 costumes over the five-year mission. She says “the kids” told her what they needed, and she sewed the outfits at home, sometimes with the help of costumer Benja Barker, who also appeared as an actor in four of the five productions. (In “Tribbles,” Barker played Lurry, the man in charge of the Deep Space K-7 station.)
Marge used down-to-earth materials for the costumes: “Everything from knits to sheers to, well, Benja’s worked with leather, and all kinds of cotton and netting. We stay away from wool and polyester — that’s Next Generation.”
Marge’s influence goes deeper than costuming, though; she was the original Trekkie in the family. Marge attended Chicago’s first Star Trek convention, held at the Conrad Hilton Hotel in 1975. Wandering through the crowd of likeminded fans, she bumped into her cousin. She jokes, “I said, ‘Oh, this is too much! Now family is involved.’ That’s always been a joke since then.”
As kids, Adam and Amy watched Star Trek: The Next Generation with their mother, helping her record the show on VHS tapes. The kids weren’t fans in those days, though. “It was [my] one program. It was just something to do together,” Marge says. Adam says that when Trek in the Park started, he was a “very casual” fan, though after five years playing Kirk he has become well-versed in serious fan topics, including the relative merits of Trek movies (he says The Wrath of Khan is the best).
Graff’s friends told him that Trek in the Park is their kids’ only version of Star Trek; they have no concept of Shatner and Pine, or Nimoy and Quinto. He says, “There’s one kid who was only a few months old the first year, and [her parents] brought the kid every year. She’s going to be four this year.” Every year, those parents took a photo with the cast and their daughter, including a bittersweet final photo after “Tribbles.”
Curtain call at the final performance of Trek in the Park on August 25. Front row, starting at left in red: Al Rosko, Marge Rosko, Amy Rosko, Adam Rosko (Kirk), Jesse Graff (Spock), Ryan Castro (Chekov), Dana Thompson (Uhura), Jake Street (McCoy), Nate Ayling (Scotty).
The final frontier
Back in the pizza place, the fans approach Adam, asking him about the show. He explains that this year is the last hurrah, the end of the five-year mission. A few beers later, he tells me the ending of the run has gotten him nothing but criticism. “People don’t like things that end,” he explains.
In the original Star Trek series after it made the jump to movies, several of the core crew went off and became captains of their own ships. The Trek in the Park crew members are mirroring that, beginning their own next missions. Graff is getting married soon, thinking about having kids, and preparing for his next acting projects. Adam wants to do more personal theater projects and prove that Trek isn’t his only gig. He’s also a production assistant for the TV show Grimm, which shoots in Portland.
“It’s a big commitment every year; it takes up the majority of your summer. It’s great to do something in a town like Portland and have it be appreciated. It makes you feel like you’re on the right side of things,” says bandleader Peter Dean. “I’m sorry to see it go. But at the same time, wasn’t the last episode of The Next Generation called ‘All Good Things…’?”
Reflecting on the experience, Adam, Amy, and Graff all liken the final show to a graduation ceremony. “It’s scary because I’m dropping the most successful thing that’s ever happened to me,” Adam says.
Graff says he’s looking forward to having his summers free for the first time since 2008. “[My fiancée] Rebecca loves the show. We met through Trek. But she’s like, ‘Honey, I would like to go camping.’”
He says he’s reserving his left arm for Zachary Quinto, who plays Spock in the recent Star Trek film franchise reboot. If Quinto isn’t available, he says he’ll settle for Shatner. ↩
Pistey, Graff’s former roommate, now lives in South Korea teaching ESL classes. He had to miss the final summer of shows. ↩
The original “Tribbles” episode concludes when Scotty explains that he beamed a shipload of tribbles onto a Klingon vessel — and that’s how the Trek in the Park version ends too, except we see Klingons drawing swords upstage. This is a deep cross-Trek-series reference. In a time-travel episode of Deep Space 9 called “Trials and Tribble-ations,” Worf informs Odo that tribbles “were once considered mortal enemies of the Klingon Empire,” and that “an armada obliterated the tribbles’ home world.” Odo asks Worf, “Do they still sing songs about the great tribble hunt?” I infer that this Klingon/tribble beef resulted from Scotty’s transporter stunt in the original series, plus the fact that tribbles love humans and Vulcans, but hate Klingons. ↩
The crew painted the stage gray and tagged its corners “NCC-1701,” the original Enterprise’s registry number. ↩
Graff says that the Portland paper Willamette Week, in their annual “Best Of” issue, awarded that moment “Best Unintentional Sexual Innuendo Cameo By An Inanimate Object.” I could not find confirmation of this after some research, but it seems logical. ↩
Chris Higgins writes for Mental Floss, This American Life, and The Atlantic. He was writing consultant for Ecstasy of Order: The Tetris Masters. His new book is The Blogger Abides: A Practical Guide to Writing Well and Not Starving.