Thursday, October 27, 2011

A cabal for all


You’ve heard of a murder of crows, a gaggle of geese and a pride of lions. I think a cabal of dramaturgs describes us nicely, don’t you? Dramaturgs together make for a disparate group, but they tend to have one important thing in common — a talent for bilocation. Because we stand inside the artistic process as well as outside it, frequently we’re able to hold on to a detached sense of perspective that the theater really, really needs. If you ax me.

That’s why the fabulous Kate Bredeson (theater prof @ Reed College) and I are hosting an informal dramaturgs’ town hall this January, during the Portland’s Fertile Ground Festival. This city-wide celebration of original work for the stage is a kaleidoscopic array of spanking new performances, a good chunk of them created just for those crazy 10 days and nights. It’s been a boon for theater folk and theater audiences both, since at this point (2012’s fest is the fourth already), many theaters are launching into new work specifically to leverage the visibility Fertile Ground can offer them.

Playwrights and dramaturgs have been gaining ascendancy in Portlandia for years now. Some of the city’s most interesting companies have literary components helping to set their artistic agendas, including Portland Playhouse, Third Rail Rep and Artists Repertory Theatre. Playwriting groups are flourishing, some which have intriguing dramaturg/producer components. Commissioning is quietly blossoming (more about that in weeks to come). And certain smaller companies have been quick to add the dramaturg job description to their development processes — sometimes, avowedly, without much idea of what their dramaturgs were actually supposed to be doing for them!

Perhaps, then, it’s a good time for a gathering of the tribes. For us to discuss whether there are ways we can better help drive artistic platforms, rather than those platforms driving us.

If this interests you, Kate and I invite you to attend this meeting when January rolls around. Details are below. Questions? Hail me at mead hunter at juno dot com — if you’re not a spambot (and I’m sure you’re not), just close up the spaces in my address and we’re in touch.

………………………………………

Reed College presents
A DRAMATURGS’ TOWN HALL MEETING
Hosted by Kate Bredeson and Mead Hunter

Venue: Reed College mainstage theater, 3203 SE Woodstock Boulevard
Festival Date: Jan 22, 2012 @ 2 pm

Tickets: Event is free and open to the public

More information: directions to Reed's theater here.


Why not admit it, dramaturgs are the unsung heroes of new play development; their ideas and their connections often provide the impetus to kick-start original theater projects. Since Portland is fast becoming known as a hotbed of new work, where do we, as dramaturgs, fit into this changing topography? How can we encourage, support and even initiate innovative developments? In this informal meeting, we’ll attempt to map the new play territory locally and nationally and then brainstorm ways to pursue a proactive theater agenda.

Whether you’re a career dramaturg, an occasional practitioner, a new play stakeholder or just curious about the profession of dramaturgy, you are very welcome at this meeting.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Embraceable Her


Brace Yourself: Louanne’s Benefit for Benefits

7 pm Monday, October 3

$20 suggested donation

Artists Repertory Theatre
1515 SW Morrison St.


If you live in Portland, no doubt you’ve heard that beloved theater icon Louanne Moldovan, founder of Cygnet Productions, suffered a terrible one-two punch of accidents this past August. Following a hospital stint that had her trussed up like a Constructivist installation, Louanne’s now at home in a thick C-collar that Elizabeth I might have envied, but which keeps her (Louanne) unable to do much of the work she is so respected for.

On Monday evening, the theater community is coming together to raise funds for her upcoming operation (insurance will not cover this vital procedure — no surprise there, I’m sorry to say) through a retrospective of the company she founded. The evening includes music by Dave Frishberg and two original short plays by Sue Mach and Doug Baldwin. Details below. With a lot of Portland theater royalty turning out to support one its own, this will be a night to remember.

If, like me, extant commitments prevent you attending on Monday, not to worry — just go to any Wells Fargo Bank and make a deposit to the Louanne Moldovan Fund. Or mail a check to the Fund c/o Cygnet Productions, PO Box 15205, Portland OR 97293.

Here’s some more information from the Facebook page about the event:

Cost: $20 donation suggested at the door. Cash or check only (sorry, no credit cards) for tickets and raffle items.

This will be a Cygnet-style literary cabaret — a retrospective of 20 years of fabulous theater. Food and drink will be available, and strange and wondrous things will be raffled off.

Don Alder and Duffy Epstein will emcee. Dave Frishberg will kick the evening off at 7 pm with something witty and Frishbergian, in Artist Repertory Theatre’s Morrison-side lobby. Then the action moves downstairs to the Alder lobby, and then in to the theater. The Andre St. James trio will play during the evening, and Dorothy Sermol will sing. Actors including (but certainly not limited to) Bobby Bermea, Gregg Bielemeier, Dave Bodin, Kristen Brown, Danny Bruno, David Burnett, Eric Hull and VOX, Michele Mariana, Nyla McCarthy, John Morrison, Vana O’Brien, Ted Roisum, Luisa Sermol, Marilyn Stacey, and Wendy Westerwelle will perform excerpts from Cygnet hits such as Love Letters on Fire, The Wild Party, Withering Looks, Variations on a Bard, The Setup, and more (including the command performance of Chicken Kamasutra).

Two 10-minute plays inspired by Louanne’s tumble will be performed, one by Sue Mach and one by actor/playwright Doug Baldwin.

Enjoy a delightful one-of-a-kind evening as some of Portland’s finest talent does what they do best, for a cause close to their hearts.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Once more into the screech


A little post-TBA fallout for you.

Remember Taylor Mac’s larger-than-life cabaret, subtitled The Ziggy Stardust Meets Tiny Tim Songbook? Taylor gave us a wild sing-a-long version of a Tiny Tim tune that can only be filed under: OB. SCURE. “The Other Side,” it was called, and I was thunderstruck when he started in on it, because I kid you not, I had been telling James all about that very song not a week before.

Part of the fun of Tiny Tim back in those halcyon days (talking the 60s here, and I was very young, okay?) was that you were never quite sure whether Mr. Tim was for real or whether you were totally being had. This was before Andy Kaufman, mind you; it was pre-DEVO and all kinds of other, later stunts designed to make sure your laughter was nervous.

Everything on the God Bless Tiny Tim album was downright bizarre, and it ranged from retro chic (a pacifist Irving Berlin song) to novelty songs like the familiar “Tip-toe Through the Tulips”; there was even an old vaudeville gag (“The Viper”). But nothing was odder — or more prescient — than “The Other Side,” a song about melting polar icecaps and the world’s subsequent drowning “to wash away the sin.”

Don’t take my word for it. Check out this video tribute to the song, which pairs original footage with the vintage Tiny Tim recording. Pay special attention to the televangelist’s voice at the end, urging you to wade into the water and “having a swimming time” as sea swells.

Then congratulate Taylor Mac and me on our fiercely omnivorous tastes.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Twentytwentytwenty-four hours to go: Mike Daisey’s All the Hours in the Day

Getting into Mike Daisey’s epic, 24-hour monologue, All the Hours in the Day, was a lot of like boarding a really popular Disneyland ride. Long lines snaked all over Washington High School, and I passed FOUR checkpoints before even making it to the lines. On the way I got my left wrist stamped with a jack o’lantern image and a grey wristband affixed to my right wrist and my ID checked TWICE.

But Andrea Stolowitz, Kate Bredeson and I snagged excellent close-up seats and settled in for a good hard sit on ancient auditorium chairs. We were the lightweights, however; along the sides of the auditorium, along the first floor’s side exits, were the True Believers: people with coolers, folding chairs and sleeping bags.
And then it starts. Promptly at 6pm, words are projected onto an onstage screen: The Hour We Begin to Speak.

We all scream. And out comes Mike.

He sits at his signature wooden desk, a stack of papers preset there along with the water pitcher and empty glass we expect. Mike is still for a long time, peering into the audience as though mulling over what to say. This is prolonged. We titter. Still he waits. Then from the darkness that surrounds him on all sides, he extracts an bottle of vodka and a shot glass. Downs a shot. The audience cheers. The Mike produces a gun and lays it on the table. Nobody cheers.

Later on, Mike will assure us that both the vodka and the gun are real. And so the stage is set for a Chekhovian moment.

Before that, though, we are still waiting. The man who is going to spend the next 24 hours talking is silent. Finally, he opens his mouth and says:

There isn’t enough time to tell you everything you need to hear.

From there he wanders through a series of stories so crafted with such immense artifice that they appear to natural — which is to say, all but extemporaneous. Mike confesses he’s a very, very angry person, and we segue to the best friend of his teen years, Gibbs, and the stunts they would pull to vent their anger. Then we hear about a bad gambler whose face and body are riddled with “tells” that repeatedly give him away. (“He would have been a great actor,” says Mike, “but made a terrible gambler.”) The gambler had a brilliant but broken son, trained on the piano by Stravinsky himself, whose name was Warren Zevon.

For hours our man goes on, wandering into this odd vein and whatever dark substrata seem to occur to him at the moment — as in a sudden and apparent digression about his wife (and director) Jean-Michele Gregory has always had this astonishing memory, and recalls with absolute clarity friends, teachers, etc., from earliest childhood. And so skill is Mike Daisey that we forget what we came in knowing: that there are no digressions, and this man knows exactly where he’s going.

It’s all never not compelling. Like a novelist who knows how to end a chapter in such a way that you just have to turn the page to see what happens, Mike ends every 45-minute segment suddenly, arising and disappearing into the gloom and making you hunger to see what’s coming next.

In between each “chapter” are divertissements. The first is Holcombe Waller, who does a vocalise of a passage from a science fiction novel (not an inadvertent choice, as we'll find out). Later, not long after dawn, Nikki Weaver will guide the audience in restorative yoga. It’s all icing, of course, because Mike’s narrative skills are all-encompassing.

*

After some time, I’m tranced out. I go home and start watching the live streaming, and try to get to bed early, planning to return in the wee hours. But attempting an early bedtime never works for me. I don’t drift into sleep till around 1:11 am, and I'm in the middle of an extraordinarily vivid dream when the alarm clock goes off at 2. I reach over, turn it off, the next thing I know it’s 7:17 and I have a migraine headache.

Oy. I shuffle into the bathroom, take a triptan medication that guarantees I won’t be able to leave home all day. Discouraged, I cancel the ZipCar, wash off my Halloween tattoo and cut off my wristband. And turn on the live video feed.

But it turns out that being in an altered state is a great way to watch All the Hours in the Day.

Eerily, wherever I come into the story seems to be the perfect place. Early on in the performance, it happens several times that Mike describes a state of mind and says, “If you’re like that — like me — you know exactly what I mean,” and 10 hours into the show, I’m beginning to feel like the show has been written expressly to speak to me personally. Does everybody feel like that? In my own private magical mystery tour, going in and out of consciousness, I guess it’s only natural that my mind would seize on whatever seems to be of greatest moment. Even so, there is a lot about Mike’s narrative that sounds downright cosmic.

For instance. The lengthy and spellbinding sequence about a lucid dream of Jean-Michele’s (remember how Mike established her preternatural memory?) in David Bowie appears, playing Nicola Tesla, and gives her specific instructions. Which she acts upon. Mike delivers this sequence totally in the dark.

Dreaming is a frequently iterated motif on this sleepless night. Mike inveighs against society’s strictures and “how much we’re allowed to dream” — and goes on to castigate the arts and its artists for not dreaming big enough.

…and how our dreams are a big part of producing the “signs and sigils and portents” that shape human perception, which in turn shape reality -- are we therefore creating reality? “That can’t really be true, can it?” Mike asks, and the question is not rhetorical.

What is real, actually? Or to put it another way: what is actually happening? This will drive the narrative arc’s second half, in which we’re informed that there is no magic without sacrifice. Mike implores us to consider this. “You need to stop thinking about why things happen and start thinking about how. And I don’t mean how in the epistemological sense, but in the Jungian. Why are the symbols in your life -- of which I am one -- in your life?”

For me personally, the story’s philosophical dimensions are its strengths; I’m less interested in story per se, and this is what drives the event’s closing hours. All the same, it’s a great, great pleasure to be told a story really well, and Mike Daisey is always mesmerizing. This is even true — or maybe I mean especially true — when the story naturally comes to devolve around his own epiphanies.

“I am after all a monologist; my job is to draw attention to myself. My ‘tells' are everywhere,” he says, recalling his earliest accounts about Zevon Sr.’s failed gambling career. Mike story ends in Tomorrowland, underneath the Carousel of Progress, but we feel he has brought us up to the present moment. Twenty-four hours ago, we entered Washington High while it was still “today,” and now tomorrow awaits us outside.

Not that this decides anything. "There is not enough time," Mike says by way of conclusion, "to tell you everything you need to hear."

*

There’s one last sense of passage: Holcombe returns to the stage and sings a Warren Zevon song that graced Mike and Jean-Michele’s wedding. Followed by Holcombe, along with Sarah Dougher and many TBAers, singing “We All Need Somebody to Lean on.”
All the Hours in the Day is over, and so is TBA11. And I feel like I’ve lived through an extraordinary moment with hundreds of Portlandians — and others far and wide, thanks to the live feed — that will never be repeated.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

tEEth: a dance company with bite


It’s high time I saw a performance by tEEth, the wildly popular dance company reprising its critical success Home Made in this year’s TBA Fest. Judging from the mob scene at Zoomtopia on Monday evening, I’m the last guy in town to find out about the company’s powerful work, choreographed by co-artistic director Angelle Hebert.

“Audience response is critical to the work,” Hebert said earlier this year, when she was awarded an Individual Artist Fellowship from the Oregon Arts Commission. “Something we hope for in every performance is to impact our audience in a meaningful, emotional, and visceral way.” How, exactly? “By creating juxtapositions in movement through displaced limbs or unconventional phrasing, I can investigate these extreme states — our inner beast and gentle nature, weaknesses and strengths, our light and dark side, et cetera.”

And that’s exactly what I saw when TBA presented Home Made this week. Some people like to compare tEEth’s disturbingly physical performance style to Butoh, but this is misleading; Hebert is much more interested in tension between humans than in grotesquerie. In the course of this performance, the two dancers, Keely McIntyre and Noel Plemmons, lead us on a constantly evolving danse macabre that evinces everything from plaintive appeal to outright rampage.

As the audience scrambled for seats on Monday, the stage was pre-set with what appeared to be a soft sculpture of a small mountain. But as soon as the lights went out, the “mountain” became lit from within. Its contents, projected on a back wall scrim, were a man and a woman cocooned within a pod, who began exploring each other’s face with hands, mouth, tongue — teeth.

Once out of the pod, Hebert used the figures as colossal shadow puppets at first, whose silhouettes alternately took on menace and tenderness. Plemmons and McIntyre soon moved from the shadows and acquired human dimensions, and thus their bodies also took on an alarming plasticity; they continually distended muscles and limbs to create unnatural postures (hence the frequent mention of Butoh, I guess). Most surprising of all was the protean nature of their faces; in dance performance, we are so accustomed to see performers whose expressions are perfect masks of impassivity, so it was startling to see facial structures molded into something so startlingly telling.

Equally important to the evening’s sense of dislocation was the music compositions of tEEth co-artistic director Phillip Kraft, whose otherworldly sounds — largely vocal — provided a sense of dramatic throughline. This was especially evident in the performance’s climax, a paroxysm of tortured emotions that called out for explosion but instead devolved into a sense of inarticulate loss.

Were the man and the woman worse off than ever at the end? Or simply starting over? Hebert and Kraft deny us any sense of narrative closure, but their gift to us is an evening of superheated emotion. If you tend to think of dance as a lovely, pastel cultural duty, not to worry — Home Made is the opposite of all that.

By the way: good news for those who missed the show’s initial TBA run. An extra performance has been added for Thursday night.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Method and Madness

There’s a moment in The Method Gun in which a character is being interviewed for a television show. To the host’s consternation, the guest is of the irascible persuasion, and isn’t much interested in sticking to the subject. The funny thing about television, she tells her host (and I’m paraphrasing) is that you only see what the camera wants you to. In the theater, everything’s all around you at the same time. She looks around the performance space. She look at the host, grinning like an imp.

She might have been describing the Rude Mechanicals’ entire aesthetic philosophy. Taking honesty in the theater to its logical extreme, Kirk Lynn’s script gives us a Foremanesque universe in which everything is on stage at once and the implicit promise is that all of it will be used some time very soon. Of course this extends to the titular gun, enshrined in a bird cage—an inheritance from the group’s acting guru, Stella Burden, who meant it to remind the actors that they could kill one another at any moment.


Unlike Richard Foreman, however, The Method Gun has a definite ubernarrative to tell, even if it’s buried in several layers of metatheatrical conceit. Essentially, Stella Burden disappeared nine years previously, and her students have been rehearsing A Streetcar Named Desire ever since. A very special Streetcar it is, since their exercise instructions were to work through the entire script without ever playing Mitch, Stanley, Stella or Blanche.

Everywhere you look, there is the entire evening in miniature. Whether it’s a menacing tiger (“Think how much better Death of a Salesman would have been if it were Death of a Salesman from Tiger!”), crying practice, or shlongendorfers held aloft by helium balloons, the play has something to say about how our sources of inspiration mold us into something entirely unexpected.

Because this is also about actors seeking the truth in their practiced art of pretend, there’s also lots of references to honesty and to realness. It’s fitting indeed, then, that the play’s stunningly beautiful ending comes from a tense sequence that’s as honest as it gets on any stage — since we’re genuinely scared for the actors, even while we see watch enact their spellbinding version of Streetcar (previously seen only in glimpses) in its fullest realization. This vision is such a coup de theâtre that I won’t describe it; I don’t want to blunt its impact for you when you see it yourself.

I’ll just say you’ll never see the Tennessee Williams staple quite the same away. And that I hope we see the Mechanicals again soon, with PICA bringing them back for subsequent TBA fests. The company is a national treasure, though the Austin-based company (whose town copped a “Keep Austin Weird” motto years before we adopted it here for local use) has a shape-shifting sensibility especially endearing to Portlandians.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Taylor's lament: “everybody wants to be God’s exclamation point”!

Two things to know about Taylor Mac: yes, he is as absolutely fabulous as you’ve heard; and no, the faint of heart should not sit within easy reach of him.

I caught Taylor’s uproarious cabaret last night, on the hottest night of the year, at Washington High School, where his latest performance event has been a conspicuous offering of this year’s Time-Based Art Festival. Entitled Comparison Is Violence or The Ziggy Stardust Meets Tiny Tim Songbook, the evening’s ostensible premise centers around how a lone critic pegged his act as a cross between these two legendary performers, and immediately other Google-dependent journalists adopted the description as Mac’s tagline.

But that’s all a feint, as it turns out.

Early on Mac tells us — after asking us to sing along with the chorus of an obscure Tiny Tim song — how much he hates audience participation. At once point, after having just asked a question of the audience, he goes so far as to reassure us, saying: “Don’t worry, I’m not going to make you do anything.” Yet after singling out a few terrified spectators, he adds: “Okay, the drag queen lied.” And climbs off the stage and into the audience, where he proceeds to embroil his victims in various degrees of participation throughout the evening.

Another feint: after decrying the “niches” that Bowie and Tiny Tim were put into, the artist voices his concern that he’s always getting invited into highly specialized performance occasions such as TBA and No Boundaries. “The trouble is,” he says, “I have boundaries.”

But this too is not true. Because the entire screamingly funny evening, peppered throughout with impressive vocal gymnastics and punctuated by glitter throwing, is all about busting boundaries. Even the glam-rock drag Mac wears gradually gets shed as the cabaret continues, until by the end the bitch goddess towering over us in cothurni is revealed as a smallish bald guy (albeit a strikingly sexy one), whose voice has gone from thunderous to softly appealing.

If I’m making this sound like a jumble, much of the evening it feels that way. But yes, you’ve guessed it—this too is marvelous sleight of hand. Following this performance, director Megan Kate Ward observed: “He acts likes it’s all just a conversation, like he’s just chatting and make it up as he goes along, and then of course it turns out he knew exactly where he was taking us the whole time.”

This much IS true. At the end we’ve learned, among other things, that while comparison may be violence, sometimes a little violence is good thing.

Reportedly The Irish Times has said: “Taylor Mac seduces you, breaks your heart, patches it back up again and sews sequins along the scars.” I know now what the Times means. Once Taylor Mac sprinkles you with glitter, you’ll follow him anywhere.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Made in Oregon gets up close and....

JAW’s Made in Oregon series comes to an appropriately heady climax on Sunday evening with Personal, a new play by Portlander Brian Kettler directed by Jessica Nikkel.

Brian, we don’t often get treated to dramas like Personal in the theater; to me it’s thoughtful investigation of the nature of identity that nevertheless plays like a like a thriller. Apart from just being told a good story, what do you hope audiences will take away from seeing your play?

Well, I love thrillers about memory and identity, and I certainly see Personal fitting into that genre. I hope the audience comes out of the play feeling angry, hopeful, and maybe even a little scared. Personal is written as an attack against unrealistic portrayals of happiness and fulfillment, especially in celebrity journalism. I hope that Personal inspires some sort of catharsis in its audience.

We are all humans, we all fight through pain and muck, and we all have some sort of gap between our ideal selves and our actual selves. I think just about everyone has looked at the beautiful people in magazines and felt crappy about themselves. I hope people come out of the play realizing that we are not alone, we all share the same shit, and we have to help each other through it.


Personal debuts this Sunday, July 17, at 8pm on the Main Stage of the Gerding Theater; no reservations are required, and admission as always is freefreefree.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

MIO continues with Continuum

What is real in a hall of mirrors? That question comes to the fore at Made in Oregon this Sunday with Patrick Wohlmut’s Continuum, directed by Stan Foote. Commissioned by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, this tense cat-and-mouse game will stick in your head a long time after the actors have taken their bows.


So Patrick. Continuum is a play of many reversals, and we have to revise our beliefs about the characters several times during it. What does this say about your world view as a writer? Do you feel that human character is essentially a constantly shifting work in progress?

I do believe that. Many people tend to think of themselves as presenting different faces to different people at different times. I think the truth is more complex than that, more rooted in the Buddha’s observation that (depending on who translates it) either “What we are is what we have thought,” or possibly, “What we think, we become.” I think our personality encompasses the full sum of anything we are in the habit of thinking, and that different situations bring out different parts of us. We don’t have many faces; rather, like Walt Whitman says, we are all large, and contain multitudes that may seem contradictory depending upon the situation in which we find ourselves. However, those aspects are not contradictory — they are all, in fact, us. That means that different people and situations reflect us in very different ways. The world is a hall of mirrors, and we see different aspects of ourselves in everything.

That’s why I tend to appreciate — and try to use — an aspect of playwriting that Paul Castagno describes in his book, New Playwriting Strategies. He describes a trend set by playwrights such as Len Jenkin and Mac Wellman, where character-specific dialogue is eschewed in favor of sometimes rapidly shifting vocal strategies, meaning that several speech genres — ways of speaking — can emerge in the course of a scene, an act, or a whole play. I’m not a die-hard adherent of this strategy of writing, because I think that people do tend to fall into specific speech patterns; it’s not all chaos. However, there’s something in that flexibility of character that attracts me and rings true.


Continuum plays this Sunday, July 17, at 4pm at Gerding Theater. Admission is free and no reservations are necessary, though I’d advise getting there early if you like sitting up close.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

A banner year for Made in Oregon

Antartikos, a powerful new play by Andrea Stolowitz, kicks off JAW’s Made in Oregon weekend this Saturday. I’ve listened to this play several times in rehearsal and I’m always moved by it; I think you will be, too. I hope to see you there this weekend.


Andrea, while clearly Antartikos is not your personal story, it’s also evident that it comes from a very personal place within you. That’s unusual nowadays, when so often real feelings are cloaked within layers of irony. Will you feel exposed or vulnerable when people hear the play performed?


Hearing the play for me is always hard. The play is about saying goodbye to those you love and about accepting the ultimate closure that happens when someone dies. It is hard for me to hear because it makes me feel those things, but also because it is exposing the way I think about the world — a kernel of sadness I have — to people who don’t know me. It feels like suddenly everyone knows more about me than I know about them and what they know are the feelings that I never really talk about.

On the other hand, what I ask of my audience is to go to a deep emotional place with me, and if I weren’t willing to go there, neither would they be. So in the end it is an even exchange. I write plays to create that shared experience with an audience, so even though it feels raw to hear it, I am proud of the experience it creates. In my view, anything you care about and share with a room full of others will always feel raw. But isn't that why we are alive?


Antartikos is directed by Gemma Whelan and performs this Saturday, July 16 at 4pm at the Gerding Theater. No reservations required and always free of charge.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Where to be this weekend

This Saturday kicks off the JAW Festival with....well, moi-même. Funnily enough, I believe my Community Artists Lab happens to be the first event this year. Enrollment for the Lab is closed, by the way; I only mention it to pique you.

More importantly, the big event this weekend is Made in Oregon, where four of Oregon's most intriguing playwrights will share their latest work with you. Matthew B. Zrebski's new opus, Forky, debuts this Saturday, July 16, at 8 pm on the big stage.


Matt, part of the fun with a new play of yours is that all bets are off when it comes to content, style, voice – you name it. No two MBZ plays are alike. Where did this play come from? Will any demons get exorcized in the course of our seeing Forky?

I think more than any play I’ve written, this one reflects my age. At 38, I can no longer pretend that one day I’m going to be an adult. I am an adult. Like it or not. Life is “now.” The future, though still something to dream about, is less about “what I will be” and more about “how I will grow as I am.” And at it’s most basic, Forky is about the choices we’ve made to reach this adult self – and how we deal with that both literally and spiritually. God, could that sound more banal? I suppose a sexier way to describe the play’s genesis is to reveal the first visual image I had: someone dancing romantically with a giant dead sperm. I mean, of course, right? Sexy! And from that image, the tone and content of the play emerged. I hope it’s both silly and devastating, earthly and ethereal – but mostly, I hope it’s a swift and thrilling 80-minute ride for the audience . . . maybe even entertaining. Who knows?

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Add/endum

Never fear, this blog will not become all about Mac (see previous post). But I feel compelled to add the story of his death, because in describing I may get a small measure of closure.

The days leading up to last Thursday were fraught with a confused tangle of worries, fears and hopings against hope. When Mac became mired in a depressed funk, unreachable and unresponsive, I turned again to Patricia Schaller, animal psychic extraordinaire.

Maybe you remember Patricia from her first house call to my home about two years ago. This time, when I made the phone call to her, she was already tuned into Mac. Immediately she said, “He wants to go but he has something to tell you first.” We made an appointment two days later, for that Thursday.

By then, Mac was so bad off — struggling for breath, wincing from pain — that I worried he would die before Patricia could get there. Yet he was working so hard to stay in his body that it occurred to me he might be living just for her visit. And I believe this turned out to be true.

Patricia was expected at our home that last day at 3pm, and it had been a terrible day, beginning with — well, never mind all that. Suffice it to say that Mac was more dead than alive by the afternoon; he was lying on his favorite bench, the one by the picture window, gasping for air. At 2:30 — a full half-hour before Patricia was expected — Mac stood up, shook his ears out, jumped down from the bench and wagged his tail. We gaped at him.

“Patricia must be drawing nigh,” I said, thinking maybe she had just left home or exited the freeway or something. Just then there was a soft knock at the door and we knew what Mac already knew — she was there.

Once in, Patricia got on the floor and looked directly in Mac’s eyes, nuzzling him with her nose. They communed silently for a few minutes, with a look on Mac’s face of immense relief. Patricia had James and I do a meditation/visualization to calm down Mac’s breathing — and yes, this actually happened — and then she began to channel information.

Right away after that, Mac announced through Patricia that he had two important things to say. The first, not surprisingly, was that he wanted to get out of his body and be free, but he needed our help to do that. Patricia explained that the vet would arrive soon and help him to do that, and he thanked us. The second thing was much as he wanted to go, he also wanted to come back and live with us again. He said he liked being a dog and hoped he could be that again, but it was okay if it was something else. In a year or two, we were to look into the eyes of animals until we saw the one that was him again.

For James this was getting really woo-woo; he wasn’t sure what to make of it. But he could see the merciful effect Patricia was having on Mac. There was nothing Age of Aquarius about that. The dog was focused wholly on her.

Those were Mac’s message in essence. Patricia also conveyed some very personal things that came from her. After a time I started urging her to go — she refused to accept any payment from us (it was a gift, she said, but I don’t know why we deserved it), and I knew I was not her last errand of mercy that day. Twice, though, Mac asked her not to leave and she stayed. Finally I convinced her she must go, which now I regret. The little guy might have appreciated having something he could communicate with directly when the end came.

An hour after Patricia departed, another soft knock came at the door. This was Dr. Lori Gibson, from an organization aptly named Compassionate Care, which performs in-home euthanasia. At the sound of her knock, Mac wagged his tail for the last time. Did he think it was Patricia returning? Or was he welcoming his deliverer, along with the plan for releasing him from his body as it had been explained to him.

Lori was indeed compassionate; she carefully explained what was going to happen. I held Mac (who was back on his bench now) and his back legs trembled — a revealing sign that could indicate fear, but more often for him indicated anticipation. Lori explained how one shot would sedate Mac, and when we were ready, the second shot would stop his heart.

We were there at the moment I had dreaded since he was a puppy —the moment of saying goodbye. But we had already said our farewells and expressed our love through Patricia. All that was left was the actual send-off. So Lori administered the shot, and just like that, Mac disappeared. All we had was the body of handsome old dog with no spark of animation in him.

Lori wrapped up Mac’s body in a blanket. She tucked in his legs on each end, so he looked like he was running. James picked up the body and carried it into Lori’s van and she drove off. We went back indoors, stricken and distraught. Our beautiful, soulful boy was gone.

We cried for hours, then got in the car with some food and drove out to Sauvie Island. Dark clouds fringed the foothills, and rays of sunlight burst through them at one point, the way they do in those old-timey images where the rays are meant to suggest God. We looked at each other and said “Mac.” We ate our picnic dinner near where the road ends on the island, looking at the birds skimming the water and talking about Mac.

Then we went home to face a house without him in it. Not physically in it, anyway. Ever since then I’ve been talking to him as if he were here. Don’t worry, he doesn’t talk back, but I get impressions of feeling from him, and derive great comfort from these “conversations.” You’ve seen TV shows where characters die and then their survivors keep on talking to them in subsequent episodes? Turns out that’s no metaphor.

The days since have been very, very hard. Most of our friends understand; they’ve been through this or at least have the empathy to intuit how it must feel. Some others, I am sure, think “what a lot of fuss, it was just a dog.” But I always felt Mac was not a dog at all, and was actually someone I’d known from somewhere else in the cosmos, someone who was just visiting me here on a prolonged stay.

We got to borrow him for a while, then we had to return him.

Do you remember the first season of Six Feet Under, from way back in 2002? A woman with a tear-stained face asks one of the morticians the eternal question: Why do we have to die?

His answer: To make life important.

That may not be the only answer. But it will have to do for now.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Dog gone



Now cracks a noble heart. Good-night, sweet prince;
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.


We always liked to refer to MacHeath, our Kerry Blue Terrier, as the Clown Prince, because his disposition was so antic. Fiercely independent, he only wanted to be touched when he was in the mood (though he was always in the mood for brushings). He let us know when he wanted to go for a walk, and to get him to eat dinner, you had to all but provide a menu and a fresh rose in a bud vase.

Mac died today, aged 14 years, 1 month and 18 days.

People always say you know when it’s time to put your dog “to sleep.” We didn’t know until just today, when we moved beyond certainty. During Mac's last few weeks, he alternated terrible days — seizures, mental confusion, difficulty breathing — with bright days when, though he was clearly an old dog getting older fast, he was still very much the tenacious terrier. Completely present mentally, still urging us to toss the rubber ring for him that had been his favorite toy since puppyhood.

Letting him go today was one of the hardest decisions of my life. But his leave-taking was as good as it could possibly be. An extraordinarily compassionate vet came to the house; we all sat by his favorite squirrel-watching bench together, James and I both holding Mac, as his last breath went out and did not come back.

Gone. Like snow on the river, goodbye.

In fact those were my last words to him. Goodbye, old friend.

Yet I guess I started my farewells last fall, when Mac’s terminal illness first came to light. At that time I inaugurated an odd form of spiritual exercise: taking the occasional walk around the neighborhood without him.

Don’t worry, he still got plenty of walks — three a day, sometimes more. But increasingly I was aware that our walks together were numbered. My solitary strolls were therefore rehearsals for a day when Mac would no longer be around to accompany me.

Today I realize how patently fatuous that exercise was. Mac’s shadow is everywhere I look.

This will always be so when I walk the familiar routes. During Mac’s blessedly long life, we had thousands of walks (eight years’ worth here in Portland) and countless car trips together. He lived for his outdoor adventures, and delighted in peeing on as many trees and shrubs as possible, scratching up the ground afterward in triumph. Up until just a few months ago, that dog still rushed from tree to tree like a kid on a Halloween outing.

I can only hope that in time my circumambulations and their constant reminders will become joys — celebrations of Mac’s long and happy life — rather than the sorrows they are now.

***

Mac was born in Pinetop, Arizona, the only male in a litter of three pups, the offspring of champions. His breeder, Kathy Bergen, was a devoted caretaker of the Kerry Blue breed; she put us through considerable correspondence and a couple of phone interviews before she was satisfied Mac would have a good life with us. And thus, at 12 weeks old, Mac undertook what must have been a terrifying adventure, leaving his first family to spend several clamorous hours in the dark hold of an airplane, only to wind up among strangers at LAX.

But he adjusted immediately to his new home in South Pasadena; he didn’t cry even on his first night with us. He astounded the trainers in his puppy classes by learning every command on the first try.

Among many favorite activities, Mac loved to ride in the car, and moving up to Oregon was a high point in his life. We came up three weeks in advance of James — Mac and I together on a journey that lasted two days and had several adventures. He was thrilled with it all: the dazzling array of new scents and sights, the constant forward motion. And he loved his new home in Ladd’s Addition, where he must have sniffed out every square centimeter on our first night there, when we wound up dozing on sleeping bags.
That following year I put a lot of energy into hunting for a permanent home, and Mac was a born realtor. Every new house held promise; he was as happy looking in the front windows and scoping out the back yard as he was inspecting the rooms inside. He was always a purposeful pooch who appreciated a sense of mission; unlike many dogs, he rarely liked to sit idly and just relax. He wanted to always be doing, much like a human being.

Until this past year, of course, when he probably spent more time asleep than awake.

***

With dogs as with humans, it’s natural to berate oneself for the ways things might have been better for them. I regret that we never got Mac a canine companion. We expect so much of our animal friends, and our major expectation is that they will automatically adjust to our ways. Mac was a bright, inquisitive dog who appreciated as much stimulation as the world could give him; if I could have a do-over, I would get him a pal from his own species, to keep him company during the many lengthy days I used to spend working in the theater.

Too late for regrets, though. There’s nothing left to do or say, except to reiterate:

Mac, my beloved comrade. Goodbye, old friend. You are lost and gone forever, but doggie, we will never ever forget you.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Monday night and the dramaturg is IN.


Admittedly, I love all aspects of dramaturgical service in the theater. Rehearsals. Think pieces about the shows. Contextualizing a production for audiences. Hanging out with the actors. Design conferences. You name it.

But there’s something especially pure about the research phase of a new project, when I’m simply reveling in the universe a writer has created, that for me is especially luxuriant.

In the past couple of days, I’ve looked into spaghetti westerns as one way to inform the new Milo Mowery/Rody Ortega musical, El Zorrito, which will debut at Northwest Children’s Theater this coming season. And I’ve searched for images of Boise streets, morbidly obese English teachers and Mormon underwear as we start work on Sam Hunter’s The Whale for its production next year at Denver Theater Center.

And tonight I’ve been looking into the story behind the story of a classic fairy tale, also for Northwest Children’s Theater, that James Moore is adapting. The title gives you a good sense of the playwright’s overall tone: Rapunzel — Uncut!

Here’s a tidbit from my research: “rapunzel” was an old-timey name for a leafy plant they used to cultivate in old Europe, more commonly called rampion, which we now call lamb’s lettuce. When Rapunzel’s mother was pregnant with her, she (Mom) had major cravings for the plant, which led to stealing it from the garden of a very talented and lonely witch — and you know the rest of the story.

As Karen Finley has wryly pointed out in her play The Theory of Total Blame, everything is always the mother’s fault, from Clytemnestra to Lynne Spears. So I appreciate this poem I came across by Carolyn Williams-Noren, where she gives voice to the least sympathetic character in the fairy tale in “Rapunzel’s Mother.”

I can't explain why I wanted that simple
thing so much: dark green rampion leaves, the curled
coverlets of them stacked together on the sideboard,
the rainy steam of them cooking, the hot full softness
and the bittersweet bite in my throat, mouthful
after mouthful. It was as if there was no other way to keep alive.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

On with the show



Now that the 2011 Drammy Awards are laid to rest, we can look forward to the 2011-12 season, which is already shaping up to be exceptionally exceptional. Here are just a few of the many, many upcoming shows I wish were opening today.

First of all, check out Portland Playhouse’s entire season, which starts with my favorite August Wilson play (and also his most mysterious), Gem of the Ocean, and ends with one of America’s most dazzling young playwrights (Terell Alvin http://www.blogger.com/img/blank.gifMcCraney). In between are Tony Kushner AND Portland’s very own Greek goddess, Eugenia Woods. Wow. Plus here’s a teaser: stay tuned for some more good news from the Brothers Weaver very soon now.

ART has one of its strongest seasons ever coming up. Just two of its must-see productions are a new adaptation of The Duchess of Malfi by the Joe Fisher and Annie Baker’s profoundly affecting Circle Mirror Transformation. PCS looks strong, too; I’m especially looking forward to Universal Mind, a piece utilizing The Doors’ music and Allen Ginsberg’s writing.

Not to be outdone, Miracle Theater’s looking very groovy next year with strong plays by José Rivera (Boleros for the Disenchanted) http://www.blogger.com/img/blank.gifand Oedipus el Rey by Luis Alfaro. Theater Vertigo also has a strong line-up; I can't wait for the production of Scottish writer David Greig's play, The American Pilot, which will be directed by Matt Zrebski.


Northwest Children’s Theater
has commissioned new plays from Milo Mowery, who wrote this year’s bracingly original version of Snow White, and James W. Moore (yes, he of defunkt fame). Who can resist James’ title: Rapunzel — Uncut!

And then along comes CoHo. Among three strong offerings this year, look out in particular for a demented new comedy by Ebbe Roe Smith titled Day of the Docent. Yes, that’s right. Prepare to be totally unprepared.

We expect an audacious season from Third Rail, but next year is downright gobsmacking. All three plays will astonish you, and also, I think, extend your sense of what this boundless company can accomplish. My personal fave: Penelope, by Irish genius Enda Walsh, which looks at the situation of Odysseus’ wife from the POV of……her suitors.

However, the grooviest production of all next year just might be Oregon Children Theatre’s adaptation of The Storm in the Barn, the celebrated graphic novel by Matt Phelan, adapted here by the always superb Eric Coble, about a boy’s startling face-down with a sinister presence in a Kansas barn, circa 1937. Original music by Portland band Black Prairie! Here’s a taste from the book’s trailer:



Nor do you have to wait till fall for good theater; next month brings the inaugural production of the long-awaited Portland Shakespeare Project with As You Like It, directed by AD Michael Mendelson.


So color me whatever, but if you ax me, we’re looking at the best season in Portland theater in a long, long time…..

Sunday, June 12, 2011

That most wonderful time of the year

Ah, The Drammy Awards, 2011 edition. We always call it the year’s largest cast party. And every year it really does feel that way, as a good chunk of Portland’s theater community gathers at the Crystal Ballroom to honor another season of gobsmacking theater. Darius Pierce, whose sense of humor make Stephen Colbert look like a stiff, hosts. The famed JAW Festival gets a special achievement award. And beyond that, all bets are off.

If you're not from around these parts, you may be surprised to learn that Portland has a lot of theater — much more than you’d expect, for a town of this size. Every year the work of over a hundred companies is considered for distinction. And, yes, why not admit it, some of that work is subpar (London’s about the only city I know of where you can walk into a theater at random and probably have a good experience), but an astonishing amount of each season’s offerings is of impressively high quality.


Even so, it’s actually pretty hard to get a Drammy Award. Only Committee members who have seen a particular show get to vote on it, of course (there are 15 of us in all), and a nomination must get a whopping 80% of ayes to carry the award. Which means that if all 15 can vote on a particular nomination, that’s 12 people who have to be in agreement. Yikes.

This also means that often a show arousing strong feelings pro and con will fall victim to a hung jury. How this pans out if that for me personally, every year I’m proud to have nudged an award or two in being that wouldn’t have carried the day otherwise . . . and contrariwise, there are some that I really, really regret not being able to inspire enough swing votes. I bet if you polled all 15 Committee members, all would say the same thing.

2011’s ceremony, which takes place Monday evening at the fab Crystal Ballroom, will much of a muchness only more so. There are going to be a few surprises that will astonish people. And some popular favorites that will cause standing ovations and verklempte acceptance speeches. And then too, as Ben Waterhouse points out, part of http://www.blogger.com/img/blank.gifthehttp://www.blogger.com/img/blank.gif fun is griping about all the deserving people and companies who were — yet again! — “overlooked.”

See you there. But you might not see me. I’m thinking of pulling a Ruth Reichl. Not because anyone's looking for me, but just because how often do you get to go somewhere incognito?

Friday, June 10, 2011

You are now watching New Play TV

Dare I wonder if the new play universe is slouching toward reinventing itself? Between the provocative water cooler that HowlRound instantly became, and now New Play TV, the marginalized art form we call the theater is showing signs of jumping from the margins and the footnotes right into the headlines.

New Play TV is is a "collective media outlet for live events and performances relevant to the new play sector." It's interactive and media-savvy and fun, and it's open to any and all new play "stakeholders." Right now it's covering an amazing amount of The Dramatists Guild conference currently in progress, and tonight, par example, you can watch a full performance simulcast from the FURY Factory Festival of Ensemble Theater.

Just today NPTV posted an excellent interview by our own Andrea Stolowitz interviewing the legendary Emily Mann. And you can watch it here or watch it there. How cool is that?


newplay on livestream.com. Broadcast Live Free

Thursday, June 9, 2011

"Hippies of endless variation"

"We're so thankful for all we've got
And so sorry for everything we're not..."


As the only person in the great State of Orygun who has not yet weighed in on the TV show Portlandia — well. Seeing as how the IFC social satire’s been renewed for a second season, it’s high time I added to the general blogritude to say that I thought the show was.........intermittently amusing. Brilliant when it stuck to lampooning things genuinely Bridgetown, but tepid when it resorted to warmed-over SNL-style sketches.

My favorite episode of Season 1 was the second or third one, where the Mayor (played by the eerily apposite Kyle MacLachlan) commissioned a pair of local roustabouts to write a theme song for the City of Roses. Their ham-fisted attempts to hack out something suitably anthematic served as an ongoing motifs for that episode, with each songwriting attempt worse than the one before, of course.

The punch line for the storyline didn’t come till the credits, when you were treated what the two songwriters actually turned in to the Mayor. And the wonderful epiphany was that it was good — dippy and DIY and beguiling at all once, the combination of which is, after all, very much a Stumptown specialty.

I wish it really were the city’s theme song. Here it is, see you what think.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Are you an Oregon playwright?


Fantastic. Do this now: submit your application to Literary Arts for the Oregon Literary Fellowships. It costs nothing to apply; application is E-Z; and if you’re selected you get a nice chunk of change and probably a serious career boost along with it. The deadline for application is June 24 (not a postmark deadline, by the by).

Genres up for awards include poetry, fiction, literary nonfiction, drama, and young readers literature. Which I mention because of all the genres, playwriting is, for some reason, still not on the radar of Oregon’s burgeoning playwriting community. Hence your chances of grabbing the brass ring are much, much greater, statistically, than if you submitted, say, literary fiction.

Questions?
All the coaching you could ever need can be found at Paper Fort, an excellent writer’s resource created by the fabulous Susan Denning.

What you are waiting for, get off the interwebs and starting crafting that application. You’ve got nothing to lose but your undeserved obscurity.



And if you still need encouragement, here’s a little Alice Cooper to inspire you to take action:

Friday, June 3, 2011

JAW 2011 preview, part one




I’m way late in relaying this information — it was released nearly two weeks ago — but I’ve been reallyreally busy. Which calls for another blog post altogether, but for now...

…I want to focus on the first weekend of the festival formerly known as Just Add Water. This first leg of the festivities is called Made in Oregon, and it’s a reading series of new works by — who else? — all Oregon-based writers. This year’s a special one for me personally, because 3 of the 4 participants are former members of PlayGroup (the writers group I ran for seven years back at PCS), and these same writers are now charter members of Playwrights West — a group of playwrights committed to fully producing one work per year of a member playwright, along the lines of 13P and Workhaus Collective.

M in O boasts of a brand new play by the fab Matthew B. Zrebski with a title I find fulsome, for some reason: Forky. I haven’t read it and plan not to, so as to be totally awed by this playwright’s always spellbinding dramatic vision. For now I can only say: Expect to be startled.

Another must-see: Andrea Stolowitz’s beautiful and moving play Antartikos, fresh from its workshop at the New Harmony Project. ART presented an early version of this play for this year’s Fertile Ground Festival, directed by Gemma Whelan, which came off splendidly. Someone is going to up and actually produce this play and do very well by it. Theaters, take note!

Rounding out the Playwrights West juggernaut is Patrick Wohlmut’s play Continuum. Megan Kate Ward presented an early version a couple of years ago in her popular Now Hear This series at PCS, to showcase the play as a Sloan Commission. The story is a surprising cat-and-mouse game between two scientist, one of whom has several different identities at his disposal—and equally complex reason for creating them.

Also exploring questions of identity is Made in Oregon’s fourth offering, by Portlander Brian Kettler. Personal is a thriller that investigates how personality and especially celebrity can be created as well as dissolved by our society’s avid love of hero workshop. Inspired by a James Tiptree story (though pretty much using the story as a point of departure), Brian’s play is disturbingly funny and thoughtful and, ultimately, like Patrick’s play, a mystery at heart.

Made in Oregon runs during the week of July 11, probably later in the week. You can check specific show times once they’re posted on the JAW website; meanwhile you can read more about these writers here.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Mixed Blood wants YOU

Let's just admit it: it’s not very often that I weigh in on the major theater conundrums of our time, thank you for noticing. It’s not that I’m totally thoughtless, it’s just that there are others who do this more consistently, more deeply, and, well—generally more better. Parabasis and Theatre Ideas, to name only two.

Anyway.

The recent news from Mixed Blood cheers me, so I want to acknowledge it today. To wit: the venerable Minneapolis company, known for adventurous programming under its founder since 1976 (yes, that’s right), announced this past week that at least for the 2011/12 season, it will not charge admission.

Here’s how Mixed Blood describes this bold move:

What is Radical Hospitality?
Radical Hospitality provides no-cost access to all mainstage productions for all audience members beginning with the 2011–12 season. An expansion of Mixed Blood’s egalitarian mission, Radical Hospitality erases economic barriers in pursuit of building a truly inclusive, global audience. Whether a patron is a long-time Mixed Blood attendee, a new immigrant living in Mixed Blood’s Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, a person with low income or disabilities, a college student, or someone who has never been to theater, he or she will be welcomed, free of charge—with radical hospitality.

Why is Mixed Blood doing it?

Revolutionizing access is a core part of Mixed Blood’s vision. In pursuit of that goal, Radical Hospitality aims to: 1) Build relationships with those who have been traditionally underserved by the arts; 2) Eliminate real or perceived barriers to participation; and 3) Increase the number of Minnesotans participating in the arts.


For me, what’s phenomenal about this decision is that solves a major problem by transcending the question. The issue, of course, is how to sustain an art form like theater, which is both culturally marginalized and incredibly expensive to produce. Now Mixed Blood has come up with the most interesting answer I’ve ever heard, which is to not expect theater to pay for itself. It has to be supported in ways that create no financial barriers — ways that people are welcome in the theater not just for their money or their demographics, but because something about that theater’s offerings interest them.

First question, naturally enough, is how is this possible. Here’s what MBT has to say:

By revolutionizing access, Mixed Blood believes audiences will grow to be truly inclusive and reflective of the entire community. With that growth, Mixed Blood believes that audiences and supporters will embrace the egalitarian core value of the company, providing support in return. Simply put, instead of charging for tickets, audiences will be asked, subsequent to attendance, to voluntarily become supporters of a vision that ensures access for all. Funding from the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund will support the launch of Radical Hospitality in 2011-12, with individual, corporate and philanthropic sponsorships sustaining no-cost admission beyond next season.


It’s been a bit disturbing, this past week, to see how angry Mixed Blood’s generosity of spirit has made certain people. And I mean certain theater folk—insiders whose reactionary statements have startled me. Some think that “free” will be interpreted by public as “without value.” But you have to wonder: if someone’s world view is that culture improves the more you pay for it, isn’t that exactly the kind of patron you’re better off without? Now that you don’t depend on them to pony up, over and over again?

An aside here. Years ago, while working for a regional theater, I was working yet another late night in the office when I realized someone else was toiling away in a nearby cubicle. To my surprise, it was a prominent board member, performing some sort of clerical task. “M___,” I said, “what are you doing here so late?”

She didn’t even look up as she snapped at me. “I’m here getting out gala invitations so that you people can have jobs,” she said, nasty as a badger.

I was so shocked that I couldn't formulate anything to say. Did she really think that’s what her donations of money, time and contacts were supposed to achieve? Was there no sense of joy in helping to sustain an ancient art form or at least a community institution? Finally I moved away from that board member’s work area without saying anything—a move that inadvertently spoke for itself, I guess, because she never looked me in the eye again. After all, I had seen her for what she really was.

So yeah. I’m all for an approach to theater-making that doesn’t look at the art form and its practitioners as infantilized beggars.


Okay. To a degree, I understand the naysayers’ concerns. There are other arguments that hold a little more water for me. What if there’s a dry patch with the funding, for one. And there are similar detractions. There will always be similar detractions, so what. I for one am excited to see what happens, to see how Minneapolis and other cities respond to Radical Hospitality. Smaller theaters have embraced this ethic before, but never before (to my knowledge) one of Mixed Blood’s size.

There will still be work to be done — I doubt patrons will flood Mixed Blood’s gates just because the plays are free, so there will still be two tons of outreach necessary to attract audiences — but the simple notion that all people are welcome is inherently radical. And you can bet that next time I’m in Minneapolis, Mixed Blood will be at the top of my theatergoing itinerary. I want to be among the number who are genuinely wanted in that building.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Variations long after a theme





Photo by the fab Gary Norman.










I would have preferred to inherit Grandpappy's talent, instead of his penchant for fatty snacks, but oh well.


Sunday, May 1, 2011

RadioLab: Desperately Seeking Symmetry

Thank you, Cousin Tabitha, for sharing this wondrous and affecting video by the endlessly inventive people at Radiolab with the music of Sufjan Stevens. Don't blink when you watch it!


http://www.blogger.com/img/blank.gif

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

What are you doing on Shakespeare’s birthday?


His putative birthday, anyway, which is this coming Saturday, April 23. I’m inviting you herewith to spend part of this high holiday talking about a subject central to the Bard’s life: playwriting.

In honor of the upcoming Oregon Book Awards, the good people at Literary Arts, the Dramatists Guild, Portland Center Stage and Portland Theatre Works are hosting a panel discussion with the nominees for the Angus L. Bowmer Award — that’s the drama prize, mais oui. And guess who’s moderating? Moi-même. But it’s not all about us. We’ll discuss both the plight and the promise of being a contemporary playwright. Can you be one without living in New York? Or sans MFA? How do you get known outside of Portland, which is fast becoming known as the nation’s favorite “tryout town”?

These are a few things we might discuss, but how much we cover is really up to you and your most incisive questions. Our panelists will share their thoughts, and with any luck, so will YOU.

Details in the press release below. Please come!


...........................

PANEL ON OREGON PLAYWRITING RAMPS UP TO LITERARY ARTS’ OREGON BOOK AWARDS

Panel includes nominees for Angus L. Bowmer Award

This year on Shakespeare’s birthday — Saturday, April 23 — the Dramatists Guild offers Northwest members an opportunity to meet some of Oregon’s finest playwrights, ask questions about their work, and hear what they have to say about the dramatist’s life. The panel discussion includes Wayne Harrel,* Susan Mach, George Taylor,* and Cynthia Whitcomb, the Oregon Book Award finalists for the coveted Angus L. Bowmer Award for Drama.

Marc Acito and Molly Best Tinsley* are also finalists for the Bowmer Award. The winner of Angus L. Bowmer Award for Drama, as well as the Oregon Book Awards winners in seven other categories, will be announced at the Oregon Book Awards ceremony on Monday, April 25, at 7:00 pm at the Gerding Theater. To learn more about the awards ceremony and view a complete list of finalists and nominees in all genres, please visit http://www.literary-arts.org/awards/.

The OBA drama panel on April 23 will be held at Portland Center Stage’s Julie S. Vigeland Rehearsal Hall, on the theater’s third floor, 5:30-6:30 pm, and moderated by nationally known dramaturg Mead Hunter. Admission is free. In addition to the Dramatists Guild, event co-sponsors include Literary Arts, Portland Center Stage, and Portland Theatre Works. The Guild’s Oregon representatives, playwrights Andrea Stolowitz and Steve Patterson, will also be on hand to answer questions about Dramatists Guild news and the playwriting trade. Immediately following the panel, members are invited to a wine and cheese reception from 6:30-7:30 on the mezzanine level of Portland Center Stage’s Armory Building.

If you haven’t yet had your fill of culture, PCS also presents a 7:30 pm performance of Opus that evening, and you can receive $5.00 off your ticket price when you mention the promotional code “STRINGS” over the phone or when ordering tickets online. This offer is good for any Tuesday through Sunday performance from April 15 to May 8.

For more information, contact your Oregon Guild reps, Andrea and Steve, or contact Sarah Mitchell, Education & Community Programs Coordinator for Portland Center Stage, 503.445.3795 or sarahm@pcs.org.


*Dramatists Guild member

Andrea Stolowitz and Steve Patterson
DG Portland, OR co-Regional Reps

Friday, April 8, 2011

Dance, Billy, Dance!


Contrarian that I am, I’m probably the only person you know who wasn’t bowled over by Billy Elliot the movie. Sure, there was plenty to like about the Stephen Daldry vehicle, and I enjoyed it well enough; but instinctively I resisted its multiple attempts to wheedle more and more saltwater from my overworked tear ducts.

Imagine my bemusement, then, when the musical version (also directed by Daldry, with music by Elton John), now playing at the Keller as part of the Broadway Across America tour, was fun and impactful. Big surprise for me: while the musical version has its occasional lapses into Broadway hokum, it actually carries a great of political punch. More about that in a minute.

The play’s narrative strategy involves a lot of plot gapping; it’s clear its devisers decided that since nobody but nobody was showing up who hadn’t seen the movie, they could just drop the pretense of cogent storytelling and hit the high points without further fuss. Hence, for instance, Billy’s love of dance is a big secret in Act 1, and then suddenly whole town knows about it in Act 2. How’d they find out? Who cares! We just want to be there when Billy triumphs.

But this is not to say the book is weak — far from it. As adapted by Lee Hall from his own screenplay, the ongoing struggle of the striking miners is no mere backdrop to Billy’s individuation; the two go hand in hand. The boy’s immediate victory coincides with the strike’s collapse and Thatcher’s successful gutting of a whole way of life — along with the livelihoods and communities that relied upon it.

The musical’s actually at its best when it portrays those struggles through all the resources at its disposal. Of special note is the muscular choreography by Peter Darling, which often interweaves constables and miners to taut effect. During the lighter scenes, this sense of worlds in collision is even joyous, as when a chorus of police backs up a class of young ballet students in a way that makes us laugh yet which also honor the athleticism of dance.

My favorite scene, though, involves a village holiday party and pageant, where the company sings “Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher” and brings down the house with a colossal Maggie puppet whose grasping, gnarled hands reach out to the audience like she’s coming after them. That gives you an idea of where the script’s sympathies ultimately lie. And in that sense, the story cuts even closer to the mark then it did when the movie was released 11 years ago.

(A quick aside here: Lee Hall, who wrote book and lyrics, is a terrific British playwright whose hilarious and affecting play Cooking with Elvis will make a fortune for the first Portland theater that dares to embrace the script’s uproarious, scabrous and racy sense of humor.)

Usually you have to be quick to catch the Broadway tours as they sprint through Portland, but Billy Elliot the Musical plays here through April 17. Go see it if you can; it’s worth it. Try for mid-orchestra seats, where you’re close enough to see faces but far enough back to take in the whole stage at once. There’s a lot to see in this show, and you’ll want to see it all.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Fan mail from some flounder?

Not from a flounder at all, actually — whatever that even means — but one of my most devoted blog-readers. Still I couldn’t resist tarting up this post by using the phrase. Know where it comes from? Here’s a clue.

Anyway. Today I did get fan mail of a sort, clearly intended to be sung to the tune of "Norwegian Wood." I suppose it’s more epitaph than epigram, but I’m taking a compliment where I can find it, okay? Here’s what I got:

Onnnnce
you had a blog
or should I say, once it had you.

Yoooooour
friends from the bog
often stopped by,
commented too.

I think you were coping with bosses you wished you could roast.
You work for yourself now and never have time left to post.

Now nobody reads
new posts from Mead
this bird is freed.

la,
la la la la
la la la la
la la la la.



In case you’d like to sing along, here’s something Fabulicious for your edification…



…along with my promise (yet again and not for the last time) to post more soon.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Coming attractions: Charise Castro Smith


Charise Castro Smith’s amazing new play BoomCrackleFly opens tomorrow at Miracle Theater Group — and what an opening it will be. Ms. Smith’s here in town for occasion, and she was able to answer a few questions between rehearsals.

.....................

SO. First off: I love your script, and I love the wild, reckless sensibility that informs it. It’s going to be amazing to see how Miracle manages to stage it – people bobbing in a world covered with water, for instance. Would you say you believe your first responsibility, as a writer, is to your poetic vision, without regard to staging concerns? And that it’s up to the director to figure out how to realize that vision?

This is one of the first questions people usually ask after reading this play — how do you think they will stage the magical huge stuff? I think one of the great things about theater is the fact that if an actor stands on stage and says something is true, then at that moment it's true. It's the huge imaginative possibility of theater to call all sorts of things into being with language. If you think about some of the things that happen in Shakespeare's plays: forests moving from one place to another, ghosts, battles, tempests...I just try to listen to the characters as I'm writing and trust that the actor's and director will make it happen. And I think that Olga and the actors at Milagro are doing a really amazing job of just that.

Your work holds all kinds of contradictions in suspension; it’s hallucinatory, yet also tremendously vivid. Who would you say are your literary influences?

I've been a lifelong serious reader of just about anything I could get my hands on. One first aha moments with a play was sitting on the floor of the public library when I was thirteen or so and reading Jose Rivera's Marisol and just watching this whole new world open up in front of me. Then about a year later I read Angels in America and was totally blown away too. With Boomcracklefly I sort of had Thornton Wilder's The Skin of our Teeth bouncing around in my mind. It's one of my favorite plays.

Hemingway appears in this play – is he an influence? Why does he appear in the play to the two sisters? Why Hemingway, I mean, and not Dante or Kushner or Sappho?

I grew up in Miami, and my family and I would sometimes drive down to Key West for the weekend. There's a whole culture of street performers there -- jugglers and clowns and people who get together and put on little shows by the water at sunset every night. So I think that's were the acrobat sisters came from. And then Hemingway is also such a huge figure in Key West. The house he lived in there is a museum now- and there's this little studio in the back where he had his office and wrote. He's sort of a local celebrity there. He's also interesting to me because he's such a big historical macho man and yet he writes some of his female characters with such tenderness. Catherine in A Farewell to Arms just breaks my heart.

What are you working on now?

I'm working on a couple of different plays right now. One is about the life and adventures of a little girl spy during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Another is about the last couple months of Queen Isabella's life. And also writing a couple of other shorter plays and some cool projects as an actor in New York.