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A Symphony For Portland: Christina Hemphill

Interview by Jen Bush

Christina Hemphill is the writer and composer for an exciting new musical opening in August called A Symphony for Portland.  This multi-instrumentalist and singer marched her way through high school with a trumpet in hand.  The key to her success has literally been the keys.  For the past decade she has added composing to all her other musical talents.  “I am primarily a musician, a pianist and classically trained organist. I played trumpet in high school marching band. I sang in a symphonic choir, and managed large church music programs. In the past ten years I’ve been composing.”

If you want to remember something, write it down!  Ms. Hemphill subscribes to that philosophy as part of her creative process.  “I have always struggled with memorization and focus. So, if I am sitting at the piano and trying to find a chord progression I really like and then suddenly find it, I have to write it down right away, or two minutes later, I won’t remember what I played.  Creating a new song is a stress-filled process. Writing dialogue is easier but my best writing has come when I outlined what the characters needed to convey. Otherwise, I find myself writing superfluous story arcs or worse, having the characters setting up puns, forgetting the arc all together.”

 Some of the greatest artistic creations come from a place of tragedy and heartbreak.  Ms. Hemphill’s compassion coupled with a tragic familial event provided the impetus for this musical being composed.  “The inspiration for the musical came from an encounter with a young homeless man, one very cold, wintry evening in downtown Portland, Oregon. Stunned by how young he was, I went home and began researching homelessness among young adults. I knew I wanted to do something, so I thought, well, I’m a musician, I’ll compose something. So, I did, a three-part string quartet piece called A Symphony for Portland. And while that satisfied something deep in my head, I was still troubled in my heart.”

“Then this contest came up for an original, unique Christmas Carol. That’s it, I thought. I can enter the contest and if by some chance my entry wins, I can take the prize money and donate it to one of my favorite shelters that specialize in caring for homeless teen and/or young adults.” 

“A few months later, I’m sitting at my oldest daughter’s kitchen table setting the lyric of the carol to music. I was comparing the Biblical Mary giving birth in a stable to that of a homeless girl giving birth in an abandoned warehouse. My daughter and her husband had gone to the OB/GYN for one final sonogram before being induced. I’m working with these lyrics: “In a Warehouse, lays a girl without a home…” and the phone rings. It’s my daughter. They are on the way to the hospital. She was a week past her due date and so I thought, “grandson time!” But she tells me the baby is dead, stillborn.  So instead of a baptism, we had a funeral.” 

“The poem, the lyrics, ended with a lullaby, which I had planned to sing to my grandson. And in time, it was that lullaby that propelled me back to the story, that poem about a homeless girl, alone in a warehouse. How did she get there? And when I figured that out, I had written a musical.”

Ms. Hemphill is hoping that the audience gets a lot out of this production including making personal connections, becoming more accepting of people in their lives and even becoming inspired to help make societal changes regarding some of the difficult issues addressed in the show.  “It is my hope, my purpose in risking so much to get this musical staged, that someone in the audience will connect to the story on a personal basis. Maybe they have a teenager with behavioral issues, maybe mental illness. Maybe it’s an addiction in the family that needs to be addressed. Maybe it’s a mom or dad, who is having difficulty reconciling their beliefs about LGBTQ+ issues and their faith and they’ve just learned that their child is now identifying as being “gay.” I want them to leave a performance moved to think beyond their preconceptions and to realize that they can love unconditionally their own child and still have a good relationship with God. Or maybe for troubled families, they recognize that the family needs help and seek it.”

“Finally, I hope families will research sex trafficking, homelessness and issues affecting the characters in this musical and then decide to do something, by volunteering or donating to their local charities that deal with these issues, thus helping reduce the instances where teenagers and young adults find themselves homeless.”

Though Covid is not over, Ms. Hemphill is grateful that the performing arts have made a comeback.  She has some sound ideas about what theatre should look like post-Covid.  “Two things I see for theatre, post covid. One, I hope that the trend for more representation on the stage and behind the scenes continues and becomes commonplace in theatre. I do wonder if five years from now, this will still be true. Real change takes hard work, including safe, but possibly uncomfortable conversations. Simply stating “we are making a commitment toward more inclusive theatre making” doesn’t mean long term meaningful action will, in fact, take place. Unless all voices are part of the decisions on just how to make inclusive theatre happen, this will be just a false signal blip on the social justice radar. I do read about good and positive change happening. Good work is getting done. I just hope it continues.”

“Two, I think you will see more musicals including original ones. Covid didn’t cause the deep divide that exists in our country, but it gave time for this terrible wound to fester and grow in its virulence. As we move past the direct effects of the illness, I think audiences are going to crave more feel-good stories, love stories and stories that inspire them.”

Next on the horizon for Ms. Hemphill is time with family, more productions of A Symphony for Portland in bigger venues and finishing two very interesting sounding musicals.  Her talent and experience will surely guide her to further success in the arts.  “I am looking forward to quality time with my family. If the show is as successful as I hope, I will be pushing it to the next level, with performances back home in Utah and with hope, Off-Broadway. Then surrounded by my wonderful husband, two dogs, two cats and family visits, I will be busy working on completing two more musicals. One is a love story that began when my late aunt asked me if that “internet-thing” could look up an old boyfriend, a soldier she knew who died during WWII. And the other musical, an interactive fun show written with a friend of mine, Bill Forrest, centering around the guests in a fictional piano bar on a cruise ship. It will be a combination of real piano-bar type audience sing-a-long and the story arcs of the characters sitting around the piano one night, forced to re-examine their lives when the ship’s emergency whistle begins to blow. “

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