Wednesday, December 30, 2009

2009, only the high points

“…and I remember that some of it wasn’t very nice. But most of it was beautiful. But just the same, all I kept saying to everyone was, I want to go home….and they sent me home. Doesn’t anybody believe me?”

Probably you know 2009 won’t go down in my personal history as a favorite year. But I can’t say it hasn’t been interesting. Over the past nine months I’ve hit a lot of new highs and also despaired just as often — may you never find out to what extent. But I’m not just being plucky when I say this year was memorable.

High points included:

· Launching SuperScript, my editing business, which (thank you Jesus, Mary & Joseph) is doing decently well for a new endeavor
· Having PATA’s Spotlight Award bestowed upon me (it’s kind of a like a People’s Choice award from Portland theater folk) when I wasn’t expecting it
· Working with the fabulous people of Wordstock

A few other favorite things:

Most compelling novel I read this year: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz. Yes, I realize you all read it last year, but what can I say, prior to 2009 I read mostly scripts — at least one a day—for many, many years.

No, I will not select a favorite script of 2009. Too many good ones to mention.

Short story that most bowled me over: Jon Raymond’s devastating “Train Choir” from Livability.

Favorite new music album: can’t decide between the gloomy claustrophilia of Twilight by The Handsome Family (a 2001 release, actually, thus only new to me) or the gleeful psychedelic revival of Merriweather Post Pavilion by the Animal Collective (turn up the volume on the video below to see what I mean).

Beloved musical rediscoveries: “Funny How Love Can Be,” in dueling editions produced by The Ivy League (soulful and a capella) and Harper’s Bizarre (hypercaffeinated), way, way back in the 1960s; also, from the same era, “I Woke Up This Morning,” by We Five (thank you Cousin Tabitha) and “Summer Song,” by Chad and Jeremy.

Favorite theater productions here in Portland: Ragtime (PCS); Apollo, by Nancy Keystone (PCS); Adam Bock’s The Receptionist(CoHo Theatre); Teeth of the Sons by Joseph Sousa (Re-Theater Instrument); Everyone Who Looks Like You (Hand2Mouth); The Lying Kind (Third Rail).

Biggest epiphany transmitted via TV show: Don Draper taking the kids out trick-or-treating, when a parent doling out candy says to him: “And who are you supposed to be?”

So much for the past year. Happy 2010. Let’s usher out the (n)aughts now and look forward to the tweens.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Hey, Happy St Stephen's Day!

Today we celebrate the Feast of St Stephen – an odd commemoration to come so hard upon Christmas, since Stephen was stoned to death early in the first century for blasphemy, whatever that meant prior to the Inquisition. For his transgressions, the saint was killed by a mob that was egged on by St Paul before he was St Paul – prior to setting forth for Damascus and all that.

Check out the allegorical portrait on the left. Those things that looks like potato epaulets represent stones. Often, though not alas in this picture, Stephen is shown holding a miniature church. Because he is, after all, a protomartyr.

Anyway, December 26 is traditionally his day. St Stephen is the one on whose feast day Jolly Old King Wenceslas went forth. He was also beloved of the Grateful Dead, who had this to say about that:

Saint Stephen will remain, all he's lost he shall regain,
Seashore washed by the suds and foam,
Been here so long, he's got to calling it home.

Fortune comes a crawlin', calliope woman, spinnin' that curious sense of your own.
Can you answer? Yes I can. But what would be the answer to the answer man?

Though I could find nothing that explains why Stephen got saddled with the anticlimactic date of 12/26, I for one welcome the shift back to satisfying, definite narrative closure. A steady diet of holiday fare was beginning to make me glucose intolerant. Last night, for example, following a stultifying smorgasbord in which dessert lasted long than the actual dinner, we all watched White Christmas, the Bing Crosby vehicle. Some eye-popping choreography in it (including a well-observed spoof of Agnes DeMille’s dance vocabulary), but like most such confections, it ended the minute everybody got married. Doesn’t that strike you as unversimilitudinous? For many of us, our stories really got interesting after we got married.

Yes, the beat goes on. Which is to say: just because you’ve not yet been stoned to death doesn’t mean that fate doesn’t await you. To wrench Elvis Costello out of context, postmartydom may be a death worse than fate. Happy New Year!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

20 years of unwedded bliss

My brother-in-law, poor guy, had the misfortune to be born on Christmas Eve 50 years ago. Consequently, he says, his birthday got overlooked for most of his childhood, amid the annual gallop through the holidaze. So several years ago we started a tradition of having a special dinner out, somewhere fun, for the express purpose of celebrating his nativity – no mention of the holidays allowed.

This year we did this 24 hours early, taking over the back room at Lucca. And midway through a fabulous and raucous dinner, it came to me that JFF and I met that very night 20 years earlier.

Now: we’re an unsentimental pair, and many’s the year we’ve forgotten our own anniversary amid the mad haste to get presents under the tree. But 20 years seems like a milestone, and this time even we are appalled at our failure to make a fuss out of ourselves.

The occasion calls for saying something heartfelt. But here I am yet again, trying to stuff this post in between a client who is desperate for me to edit another chapter of his novel before Mercury retrograde sets in on the 26th and starting Christmas Eve dinner. (It’s a exceptionally voluptuous ratatouille, by the by, with an augmented dulce de leche for dessert. Yes, thank you.)

So just let me say this. It’s a marvelous thing to have lived through the early years of getting to know each other, and for all the attendant up and downs to have merged into trust. To get to where you no longer fight, really – just occasionally squabble, and to know when you do that it’s comical. And to get to where you can assume you’ll always be together. Barring a particularly bad case of late mid-life crisis, assuming that catastrophe doesn’t impair someone’s health beyond repair, and hopefully escaping some unlooked for accident (and aren’t they are unlooked for?) . . . we expect to always be together.

Until we’re not, of course. Till death we part. Which is what’s so poignant about an anniversary, really. You celebrate your years together. You estimate how many may be left.

The downside of anniversaries? After 20 years, it’s very hard to give a present that isn’t in some way actually for yourself.

Actually, our date depends on when you started counting. We met 20 years ago yesterday. But we moved in together exactly one year later. So what do you say we call this is our 19th anniversary? That gives us a whole year to plan, prepare and forget to celebrate all over again.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Adventures in urban anthropology

In my neighborhood of Irvington, there is a plethora of elementary and middle schools: public, parochial, what have you (as Sister Michael Anthony used to say back when I was a pock-marked middle-schooler). Consequently, while walking the dog, I come across a lot of dropped paper items -- everything from report cards to draft-form love letters.

The note on the left arrested my attention. Obviously it's part of some sort of game; the flap on the bottom (the paper was folded up when I found it) displays several options, including to make out, to kiss or -- I think -- to "bunch." Or are all those things the same?

But it's the names that intrigue me. It's safe to say we've come a way from the bland Toms and Marys and Johns that populated my early education. I love the breadth of these appellations, but Isis? That's a lot to live up to.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Comfort and Joy

Today is the Winter Solstice – an intriguing term, from those assiduous ancient astronomers, meaning figuratively “sun stands still,” or more literally, “sunstop.” Today the sun is at its greatest distance from the celestial equator -- the southernmost point. Hence today is the shortest day of the year and tonight the longest. Hooray!

For those of you who tire quickly of winter’s shenanigans, this means that from now on, nights will start getting shorter — imperceptibly, at first, but assuredly.

I can see how this would have cheered the ancients – the knowledge that though the earth seemed irrevocably dead, and was going to be get deader before winter was over, at least you knew the tide of darkness was already ebbing, and in due course day would predominate again. This still holds true for most of humanity, and perhaps especially this year for my snowed-in friends back east who must make the most of the endless nights.

Naturally, though, imp of the perverse that I am, I love that it’s dark when I awake and that the night lasts so long. But then again I live on the west side of the mossy, damp Pacific Northwest, where a white Christmas like we had last year usually lasts for hours, not months.

Winter Solstice came and went at 9:47am here in the Cascadia. And though my fellow creatures of the night and I lament that darkness is now waning, I take comfort from the constant sound of water dripping from the pines and the parti-colored lichens partying everywhere like it’s 2009.

Hey, just to rub it in, let’s listen to the regional theme song:

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Another kind of Advent

Oy vey, I've been meaning to pass this on to you all week, and now here it was Publication Fair Eve already. But come if you can:

Sunday, 11am-6pm at The Cleaners at the Ace Hotel (SW Stark between 10th + 11th). See the best in books, magazines, and printed matter from your favorite PDX printers, publishers, and publication vendors. Enjoy popcorn balls and hot cider. Take part in free public info sessions about the ins & outs of future publication. Buy great books!

Among the participants:

Ace Hotel / Ampersand / Container Corps / Cooley Gallery / Dill Pickle Club / EM-SPACE / fourteen30 Contemporary / Hawthorne Books / IPRC / Mark Searcy / Marriage Publishing House / Publication Studio / Octopus Books / Official Manufacturing Co. / Ooligan Press / Peaches + Bats / PICA / Pinball Publishing / Reading Frenzy / Red 76 / Stand Up Comedy

For more information visit:

Friday, December 18, 2009

Pagans vs Christians

Here in Oregon, one of the season’s best spectator sports is watching the annual skirmish surrounding Christmas trees. Just a couple of weeks ago, an Ashland school banned the display of a decorated tree on the grounds it was associated with Christianity and thereby implicitly excluded other religions. A bemused bystander wrote a letter to The Oregonian recalling that when she was growing, Christmas trees were verboten at her church because they were regarded as Pagan artifacts.

What amuses me is that the school in question replaced the Tannenbaum with a pair of snowmen, reminding me that the severe Sister Aloysius from John Patrick Shanley’s play Doubt had something to say about that:

Sister Aloysius: "Frosty the Snowman" espouses a pagan belief in magic. The snowman comes to life when an enchanted hat is put on his head. If the music were more somber, people would realize the images are disturbing and the song heretical.

Sister James: I've never thought about "Frosty the Snowman" like that.

Sister Aloysius: It should be banned from the airwaves.

That’s about how it goes here. For many of us the whole holiday is thoroughly secular anyway; we never think about the Christmas tree as a pawn in the culture wars.

For the record, though, this time the Christians are semi-closer to the truth. European Pagans did not cut down trees and bring them into the house, but there were widespread traditions of adorning evergreens where they stood naturally. Boughs of evergreens were brought inside to celebrate the return of the light that the winter solstice represented. (Related side note: the “partridge in a pear tree” from “The 12 Days of Christmas” song was originally “a part of a juniper tree.”)

No, reportedly the tradition of hauling a tree indoors and putting lights on it is relatively recent -- 16th century Germany. These “Paradeisbaum” (paradise trees) first showed up in America along with German immigrants, circa 1700. Christmas trees didn’t catch on with Americans in general until around 1850, by which time Dickens’ famous novella had made Christmas downright fashionable – though interestingly, there are no such trees in Dickens’ tale and only one direct reference to Christianity.

For me, the tree is a reminder of life in death – or if that sounds a tad grim, as a reminder that you need winter to give way to spring. Out of death comes renewal. To be less baleful about it, it’s also a great excuse to haul out the ornaments we’ve collected over the decades, each of which is imbued with a story and with memories. Though I agitate every year for the ultramodern aluminum tree of my childhood, I have to admit that there’s something magical about this annual guest that we water and tend to and revere … before tossing it into on the curb a few weeks later.

I always feel ashamed about that part.

Monday, December 14, 2009

My hero

Alfred Jarry changed my life forever. You know, the obnoxious pixie who dashed off all those Pere Ubu plays? Yeah, that guy.

Way, way back in the 20th century, I had landed my first-ever theater job working for Storefront Actors’ Theatre, right here in Portland, and boy did I think I the world had never seen such wild plays before. And then I saw a flyer about a production being put on in the basement of a speakeasy over on NW 10th & Everett.

The venue was then called The Long Goodbye – a bar and sometime music club. Now it’s a popular watering hole known as The Life of Riley, but in an earlier incarnation it was quite the hotbed of performative activity. And all of the sudden it was hosting someone I’d never heard of before, who was putting on this play with the funny name – Ubu the King. Its flyer claimed the original production had basically unleashed avant-garde theater into the world.

So I went, all by myself, to see what the fuss had once been about. Amazingly, what I beheld looked much like what the play’s first audiences witnessed way back in 1896:

[T]he scenery was painted to represent, by a child's conventions, indoors and out of doors, and even the torrid, temperate, and arctic zones at once. Opposite you, at the back of the stage, you saw apple trees in bloom, under a blue sky, and against the sky a small closed window and a fireplace . . . through the very midst of which . . . trooped in and out the clamorous and sanguinary persons of the drama. On the left was painted a bed, and at the foot of the bed a bare tree and snow falling. On the right there were palm trees . . . a door opened against the sky, and beside the door a skeleton dangled. A venerable gentleman in evening dress . . . trotted across the stage on the points of his toes between every scene and hung the new placard on its nail. (Arthur Symons)

Several near-riots took place during the premiere performance – an event to which we can only aspire today. W.B. Yeats was present for the premiere, which prompted him to say, “What more is possible? After us the Savage God.”

One of my favorite moments in the production I saw was a scene that called for the Polish army to march across Ukraine. The play’s ingenious metteurs en scène accomplished this by means of a clothesline from which Styrofoam head forms were suspended and could be yanked along in fits and starts; each one was an outlandish parody of a military thug, parading by while Ubu urged them obscenely on.

For me, the effect on my young mind was all Jarry could have hoped for. The gleeful transcendence of all things versimilitudinous was a liberation. Why should the stage, or performance, or language slavishly reproduce quotidiana? Why not be reckless and uproarious and make coming to the theater an event, a spectacle, rather than a literary observance?

And the rest is … lengthy. Since then I’ve seen Ubu Roi many times, but the shock of the new could never be repeated.

By the way. As if in proof that all our thoughts, which we think come unbidden, actually come from the collective unconscious, I was mulling Ubu over when a friend of a friend happened to mention that a new book’s just been released this month entitled The Play That Changed My Life: America’s Foremost Playwrights on the Plays That Influenced Them. Writers such as Lynn Nottage, Suzan-Lori Parks, Sarah Ruhl and John Patrick Shanley (to name only a few) discuss first seeing the play that propelled on their first faltering steps as would-be writers. I am heading over to Powell’s tomorrow to get the last copy in stock. Maybe I’ll catch you there.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

I got nothing.

Periodically, when I run dry and don’t have something of my own to share with you, I do what everyone else does: tout the more ingenuity of more fecund bloggers. In supplication, then, I offer a few blogs I find consistently worthy of my precious time.

Mr. Scatter’s perspectives on Art of all kinds is always fascinating, as are the comments of the respondents he attracts. (I’m one of the less eloquent ones.) Yes, he and his occasional guest bloggers’ discourses focus largely on Portland, but the implications – O, the implications! – often reverberate far beyond.

Call it the scourge of consumerism run amok. Think of it as preventive buyer’s remorse. Regretsy finds the most outrageously kitschy dreck getting hawked online, with no apparent trace of irony, for fast money. Regretsy pillories it, so you don’t have to. A simple caption – such as SOLD! – says it all. Or just as often, not commenting is the most vociferous editorial statement of all…

And just in case you’re the very last denizen of this astral plane who has not joined the ranks of the Twitterati, you’ll find a compelling case for caving in at last in this amusing string of tweetings and bleating. For ex:

“Pressure? Get married when you want. Your wedding's just one more day in my life I can't wear sweat pants.”

Or this bit of homespun counsel: “Son, no one gives a shit about all the things your cell phone does. You didn't invent it, you just bought it. Anybody can do that.”

Or if you prefer something more existential: “We’re out of Grape Nuts... No, what’s left is for me. Sorry, I should have said “’You’re out of Grape Nuts.’”

Not only are Dad’s tweets oddly reassuring, they’re the only ones so far to get picked up for their very own sitcom. Apparently you may soon expect to see Stuff My Dad Says on a plasma screen near you.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Do you speak Farcey?

Was doing a little research on the history of farce today, as prep for a panel discussion I’m sitting on this Sunday (yes, the one referred to in the previous post). And just for laffs I decided to Google the string “how to write farce” to see what writers would say, since typically a tight structure underlies the apparent chaos of farcical plots.

Sure enough, immediately a video pops up that lays it all out for you. Amusingly, the video itself has farcical elements, in that the speaker’s delivery is so deadpan as to make you wonder if she’s having you on:

How to Write a Farce -- powered by

So you see, sometimes form does not match content, with perplexing results.

Also I came across this great quote by Neil Simon, whose play Rumors is about as zany as farce gets:

At the final curtain, the audience must be as spent as the actors, who by now are on oxygen support. If the audience is only wheezing with laughter, you need rewrites or actors with stronger lungs.

Perfect. Simon could just as easily been describing The Lying Kind.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

News flash! Crazy ass theater rocks Portland

Ya, the holiday fare is upon us, including my own contribution to the crowded performance roster. But there are alternatives – antidotes, even. Portland Playhouse’s Bingo with the Indians, while not avowedly an anti-Christmas show, has a wintry feel to it, and is just about as far from 34th Street as you can get at this time of year.

Since the play is by Adam Rapp and aims to be a goddam laff riot, it’s anomalous from the start. It’s Adam at his most delirious and most reckless; the actually storyline doesn’t track, but you soon understand that it’s not a play about careful plotting anyway. One reviewer referred to the script as “grimy surrealism,” which covers it pretty well.

Many people – well, let’s face it, most people – will not appreciate the play’s giddy unwholesomeness or its potty-mouthed banter. (Don’t worry; the trademark Rapp sucker punch appears more than once.) But I was beguiled by its very premise: that what starts out as a demented-looking gang of thugs turns out to be a rag-tag team of downtown theater avant-gardists hoping to fund their next production by knocking over a bingo game.

Go if you dare. And I hope you do. Go for the obscene insults (I’ve tucked a few away for future use), stay for the stand-out performances by John San Nicolas and Lorraine Bahr.

Across town, the best anti-holiday show of the reason is playing at Third Rail: The Lying Kind, by Anthony Neilson, which is set on Christmas Eve. Don’t miss this. How often do you get to see a balls-out farce? I mean: slamming doors, pratfalls and gobsmacking plot reversals, all stemming from a misunderstanding that could have been avoided in the story’s opening seconds. Now that’s entertainment!

But this ain’t Benny Hill. Expect Neilson and Third Rail to find the razor-sharp edge of human nature to hone the humor into something that can cut you. Not since Joe Orton have I seen farce that’s this heedless of its characters’ well-being. But make no mistake, you’ll laugh like a maniac, and even develop affection for the two hapless constables at the heart of the story. As one character puts it, there’s always “a little sweet corn in the turd.”

This Sunday, by the way, December 6, immediately after the matinee performance (i.e., around 4pm), Third Rail’s hosting a panel discussion to explore how Anthony Neilson achieves his hilariously misanthropic magic. Philip Cuomo moderates, and those impaneled include Scott Yarbrough, Victoria Parker-Pohl, and ME. So come on down to the World Trade Center and use the occasion to see a play you will never forget.

Monday, November 30, 2009

The Hamilton Mixtape!

Am I the last person in America to know about this? Apparently Lin-Manuel Miranda, he of In the Heights fame, performed this slyly humorous new piece last May.

How cool is it that this kind of performance can now happen in the White House? Thank you, Cousin Tabitha, for sharing this with us.

Saturday, November 28, 2009


Below is a lengthy excursus written by my colleague Matthew David Wilder. Those of you who believe we should have dispensed with the messy, frustrating endeavor of theater years ago may want to skip this post. Otherwise, read on. Whether you're struggling within the "mainstream" theater (a risible oxymoron for an increasingly invisible art form), or like me you've been dumped by that system and discovered there's more to life anyway, or whether all that was always irrelevant to you, you may find a kindred spirit in Mr. Wilder.

* * *
FOR SHAWN-MARIE GARRETT: UPON EXITING THE AMERICAN THEATRE (LONG AFTER, IN FACT)Shawn-Marie asked me to write a piece, to collaborate with, or collate with, or ___________ with, her own, about the State of the American Theatre, and in particular why I ejected from it.

This may take a moment.

Many years ago I was a literature major at Yale. This meant that you studied various theoretical, philosophical texts relating to literature; and you read literature. While there I was swayed by various evangelical speeches made by Peter Sellars, the great opera and theatre director. What was most swaying was that, as a mere student, you could *create work that would interface with the greatest texts ever written by human beings--for zero dollars!* That's right! You and your friends and three folding chairs and a parking-garage roof!

Needless to say, I almost instantly subsequently spent many years with friends and folding chairs on parking-garage roofs, as my classmates can attest.

I later was mentored by and worked for--well, haplessly interned for--Peter; and then for Richard Foreman, who now, many decades later, has become a dear friend; and for Robert Woodruff, perhaps the most underappreciated and in some ways the freest and ballsiest of them all.

So I was rolling with some pretty heady characters before I was twenty-five years old. And I was drinking it in. And I was working in my head 24 hours a day to figure out how to sit at that big-boy table.

A detour: there is, I see in retrospect, one reason for this in particular. I grew up an enormous fan of seventies cinema and its auteurs: Altman, Scorsese, Cassavetes. By the eighties--when I was entering college, and entering Theatre-Orbit--these gentlemen were having troubles. Cassavetes was dead. Scorsese was struggling mightly. And Altman was making films out of...well, stage plays!

But in the eighties, the Theatre Auteurs were ascendant. Richard Foreman directing Botho Strauss' profoundly difficult structuralist play "Three Acts of Recognition" AT THE PUBLIC THEATRE? Or how about Woodruff doing a punk-rock "Skin of Our Teeth" as big as three Six Flags attractions crashed together at the Guthrie? Or maybe Lee Breuer doing his epic foley-session "Lulu" at the ART--right before Sellars bumrushed their season with the ENTIRETY of a four-hour plus baroque opera with Handel's "Orlando"?

Clearly this was where the action was, creatively speaking--not moving to L.A. and getting in line to write a Shelley Long vehicle. "Troop Beverly Hills II" could wait till later.

In grad school, I was a hit, an enfant terrible in a small pond. My productions of Gertrude Stein and Shakespeare made most of what plays on Broadway now look like a flea circus. The great Des McAnuff hired me *before* I graduated to direct "The Hairy Ape" at La Jolla--I was the youngest guy at that time to direct in that theatre (beating Peter by a year or two).

A few more regional gigs followed, but the writing was on the wall. I was a combination unwanted bull in a china shop, and was more often than not considered a little kid in dad dress-up clothing. Old actors used to crossing to the martini glass didn't want to hear from this Gen-X shmegegge in a "Natural Born Killers" t shirt.

So I downshifted to the indie world. You know, that Erik Ehn "Big Cheap Theatre" thing. Austin, barbecue, girls with extensive Lilith Fair cd collections, lotsa readings, lotsa poetic monologues that don't make sense, lots cutesy set design with little Hot Wheels cars on strings.

In brief: it always felt a little bit like being at some hipster couple's Sunday barbecue. They seem an awful lot like their mom and dad, but they dress real weird, and play this slouchy/depressing music that's nothing like Mom and Pop's Stones and Kinks vinyl.

I tried to do my Gesamtkunstwerky thing in this laid-back, slow-poky, slackerrific setting. Most of what I worked on were new plays. It was kind of like an awkward party where Otto Preminger had to sit around making conversation with Dinosaur Jr.

And so, inch by inch, I found my way back to my first love, cinema. In recent years, I made a film about Philip K. Dick with Bill Pullman, Taryn Manning, M. Emmet Walsh and other great actors that has toured the planet on the festival circuit and will soon appear on a laptop near you. I am working on a second feature, about the porn star Linda Lovelace, and am writing a script for Brad Pitt's Plan B and for other excellent establishments. I feel I am in the right place.

There are caveats to this. I often sit with development people in beautifully appointed offices with Japanese or Polish posters for Polanski or Altman or Wakamatsu movies on the walls. We talk about how we wish we could be making "The Killing of a Chinese Bookie" or "3 Women"...and then we get down to the business at hand. So! A sequel to "2012." Like, "2013." What's left to blow up?

The boxes of what is possible within the system in movies grows narrower and narrower. Mainstream bread-and-butter fare gets worse and worse. It's tougher to be an auteur in THIS medium as well.

There is a difference: Paul Thomas Anderson, Quentin Tarantino, Woody Allen, Steven Spielberg, Wes Anderson, Sofia Coppola, David O. Russell, Steven Soderbergh...not to mention the very very many great non-American filmakers...they are part of the cultural conversation. They are not (entirely, at least) doodling in a corner. A sizable portion of the filmgoing public anticipates their next move avidly.

In theatre...well, it is my theory that when the American theatre hit a frightening financial crash in the early nineties, it made all the wrong moves. Those who had jobs lusted to keep those jobs, period. And so the theatres locked themselves into their graying audiences. With the exception of certain intelligent outfits in New York, you know what you're going to get from an average season in an average American regional theatre. One black musical; one one-person show (usually musical); an American chestnut for the seniors, a "Golden Boy" or "Our Town" or "Glass Menagerie;" and one biggie, either a Shakespeare with a cast of eight or a big-kahuna musical. This is pretty much the formula. Occasionally some venturesome soul sticks in a newish play that did well in New York a year or two ago (generally something that in some way resembles "Sex and the City").

When I first entered theatre, this lean upon the old folks and their tastes...well, selling regional theatre as good old entertainment versus television and film was ridiculous, and made theatre the poor, crippled cousin, the old lady who can't get out of her rocking chair. Now, in an era of iPhone apps and Facebook and Grand Theft Auto, it is ridiculous to pretend this is any kind of proper "entertainment." It is--let's face it--a night out for tired businessmen and their wives.

Tired white businessmen who are not venturesome enough to be dragged to an Asian-themed restaurant or a modern-dance concert. So, okay, I'll see the damn Tennessee Williams thing. And at intermission, depending on where their blood sugar is at, they will roll their eyes at Bob from down the hallway at the office and say, "How'd we get roped into this?," or, if they're feeling noblesse obliging, "The girl is actually not half bad."

This is tragic. In Europe, theatre is considered a living thing, and waxworks approaches to classics are anathema. It is considered that the audience is familiar enough with the dramatic literature to deal with a fresh encounter with the meanings of the text. In America, no one cares one way or the other. Not only is no one shocked by a "deconstruction" of a classic text; they can't be bothered to hear a foursquare version of the original anyway!

Were theatre to be of any currency, of any value at all in America, it would have to have been allied more firmly with the fine arts--with painting, with dance, perhaps with experimental fiction. It would--let's put cards on the table now--have to put its snooty-toot hat on a bit. It would have to say, "I am Art now. I am not vaudeville, not burlesque. My actors are no longer in danger of being buried at the crossroads with a stake in their heart. I am a different thing now. Times have changed, culture has changed, above all money has changed."

This would make David Mamet angry and might make a few tired businessmen sad. But I think we'd have a much richer theatre culture than what we have now...which is a bunch of people with theatre jobs hanging on to those jobs until they, or their graying patrons, expire.

And so I sally forth in a different medium. I enjoy working there. I feel connected in every meeting, in every conversation to the culture at large, rather than feeling like a weird fetishist indulging in his fetish in private. It is difficult to get *anything* going, it is difficult to get challenging things going. But I feel good about what I make.

One last thing. In nearly every harrumphing mission statement for, or defense of, the American theatre, there is talk about the primacy of live human presence. I have almost never found this to be the most important element of any theatrical production, save for a few extremely violent Reza Abdoh shows. What WAS unique, one hesitates to say "magical," about theatre, was the kind of acting and in particular the kind of poetic text it allowed. Cinema does not do well with this. You will note that even the strongest filmic Shakespeare adaptations (enter whichever you love in your head right now) tend to physicalize and image-ize the text more abrasively and needily than any strong theatre production does.

That element, to me, is the most beautiful, the most sublime element of theatre; and one that, in our current climate, seems to me utterly lost.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Days have gone by and I couldn't be sorrier.

Yes, I've done it again. Disappeared. But now I'm back.

You did realize I was gone, didn’t you? Well. By way of celebrating my Thanksgiving advent, I’m going to filch from the creativity of some fellow bloggers.

Following playwright Patrick Wohlmut’s lead over at his blog, Draining the Locks, I want to say how grateful I am that you’re checking this blog just to check out my latest mental leakage. (Even if Cousin Tabitha did admit to me last night, during the Thanksgiving dessert course, no less, that she skips over the boring parts.) Back in the day (i.e., last year), when this thing was called Mr. Mead’s PuPu Platter as a way of apologizing for its randomness, the blog felt like a message in a bottle. Nowadays it’s part diary, part safety valve – a way to bridge the gap between the luxurious solitude of working at home and the inconvenient need for contact that apparently comes hard-wired into human consciousness.

Originally I was delighted to get any hits. Nowadays they oscillate inexplicably between ... well, let’s just say much more than a few. Which is a thrill for me personally. Never mind that pundits like Arianna get upwards of 10,000 per day.

Of course a dismaying percentage of my hits comes from intergalactic white noise – people or other entities who wind up here inadvertently and depart seconds later, have ascertained that this place is nowhere near where they thought they were going. I’m grateful for youse, too, and – in homage to SMB’s suit over at From Every Corner -- here’s a shout out to a few recent castaways hailing from Cairo, Helsinki, Nordrhein-Westfalen (Germany), Mississauga (Ontario), Hyogo (Japan), Sentjur (Brezovica), Ontario, Essex, Tehran, Toronto, London and Bucharest – not to mention all the mysterious visits from the tireless googlebot. And I’m especially honored by the visits from various corners of Cascadia.

Thanks for coming. I promise everything will be better – next year.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Thespian Nation

Just finished the theater equivalent of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride (don’t extend the metaphor too far, please) that’s taken me from one end of the county to the other. It started on Wednesday – not with a play, actually, but a theatrical event. Dmae Roberts read from her work-in-progress memoir, Lady Buddha and the Temple of Ma. The poised Ms. Roberts delivered a funny, self-deprecating and touching performance that left me looking very forward to the publication of her book. Not to steal her thunder, but ask her to tell you what her mother taught her about how to kill chickens. No, it’s not grisly – quite the contrary.

The next night I was back at Lewis & Clark, but at the Theater Department, for Beckett(s), an evening of Sam’s short pieces that director and curatorial mastermind Stephen Weeks described as “somewhere between a museum tour, a haunted house, and installation art.” The experience took me into crannies and nooks I didn’t know existed in the building. A favorite performance included a filmed version of What Where in which the constant blurring and refocusing of the images gave me the sense of being drugged under interrogation. Also I loved Not I, which could be watched from two vantages: a catwalk, where you looked straight across at the frantically confessional mouth jabbering away while a well yawned at your feet that had an ornate sofa at its bottom; or downstairs, peeping through a set of eyeholes. From above you could see that whoever’s peepers peered through the eyeholes were projected into the well, just below the mouth. Eerie.

Most unintentionally theatrical moment of the evening: during a performance of Play, in which the audience was seated onstage and the three actors were seated at the top of the auditorium, a few spectators drifted in and sat directly below the actors. These spectators seemed to take for granted that they were facing a crowd staring back at them while a disjointed dialogue played out over their heads. C’est Beckett!!

Alas, the Beckettfest is history, but I also made it to Hand2Mouth’s current opus, Everyone Who Looks Like You, which has one more week at the Theater!Theatre! space. Make sure you see this one. As one of Portland’s most consistently genre-busting ensembles, Hand2Mouth never fails to surprise, but this piece…this piece alternates between being hilarious, harrowingly recognizable and – dare we acknowledge it – moving.

Just in time for Thanksgiving, H2M has created a piece all about family – the parental units, of course, but just as importantly, the siblings. Those other people hanging around the house while you were growing up that you had to cope with. The title refers to this, of course, but also to something so startling I guarantee you won’t see it coming. And the whole evening is like that.

Everyone Who Looks Like You - Trailer from Hand2Mouth Theatre on Vimeo.

Several times during the show, I caught myself wishing my brother was seeing it with me. Not for sentimental reasons (though the play is often poignant, it is not sappy for even a moment), but because Everyone Who Looks Like You celebrates that sense of childhood sometimes being about kids vs. adults – when the kids aren’t squabbling among themselves, of course. I came away feeling like parents will come and go, but your sibs are the only people who will know all about you all your life.

Also this weekend, I saw Charlie and the Chocoloate Factory, produced by Oregon Children’s Theatre over at the Newmark. Got to tell you: it is something to sit in a 900-seat theater that’s totally packed with kids who are cheering for a show in which brat after brat gets undone by his/her own greed. And it’s adding performances! Amazing! Love seeing theaters make money. You have one more week to see this show, if it’s not already sold out, and to marvel at Sarah Gahagan’s eye-popping costumes.

Finally, I concluded my theater blitz at the closing performance of a new company now resident at Portland Actors Conservatory, The Montgomery Streeet Players, which presented three new one-acts written by Scott Rogers. It was called Stay for the Cake, and indeed a particolored gateau took center stage in the final playlet, which was fed to the audience at the conclusion. Nice. Can we have more plays in which the actors applaud the audience for showing up and even feed us after the curtain call?

Monday, November 9, 2009

At last: a No Exit I can live with

Plays I refuse to sit through again in this lifetime:

All My Sons
Feydeau’s idiotic so-called sex farces
Spring Awakening
Pretty much all Roman “comedies”
Mother Courage
Butterflies Are Free

Although I must admit. There’s a passel of plays that always struck me as thunderously boring in their original forms that have received truly astonishing makeovers from gifted renovators – face-lifts so total as to make those plays entirely fresh experiences. The Wooster Group’s version of The Hairy Ape. Neal Bell’s transmogrification of that shabby little shocker, Thérèse Raquin. Steven Cosson’s uproarious revision of The Children’s Hour, retitled Fingered! (true, this was an out-and-out spoof, but still). And now, right here in Cascadia, Jerry Mouawad and Imago Theatre have actually made me enjoy my most abhorred script of all time, a threadbare little play I swore I would never attend again under any circumstances: No Exit.

The siren call that got to me get over myself was the casting: JoAnn Johnson, Maureen Porter and Tim True, three of Portland’s finest actors. Just as expected, they were superb in every way. What I didn’t expect was a set design (created by Jerry Mouawad, who also directed) that opened up the play’s meticulous triangulation in ways I had never imagined.

As conceived by Jerry, the room where the condemned are to spend eternity together is a flat plane in space, surrounded by infinite darkness on all sides. And it tips. The slightest imbalance puts one character radically downstage, another high in the air. Sudden feints cause the room to reel. Only a carefully choreographed suspension of emotional ballast keeps the room in equilibrium – the rueful state where the play comes to a rest.

Of course this is what the play is supposed to be about, but when have you ever seen this realized with No Exit? All the tension and drama I missed through years of seeing this play done badly melted away, and suddenly I saw the taut, thrilling drama Sartre must have originally envisioned.

Oh, I wanted to add that Maureen, Tim and JoAnn are ably aided by Bryce Flint-Somerville, who played the Valet with demonic glee and held his own with his colleagues. Ultimately, to be sure, this is a version of No Exit, but grab this chance to see what’s probably the only good production you’ll ever bear witness to. This weekend’s the last one of the run, and since Saturday was packed to the rafters -- literally -- I suggest you get tickets soon. Otherwise: No Entrance.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Orpheus a là mode

Forget what you believe about Philip Glass. If you’re accustomed to associated his music with numbing repetition and avant-garde antics, his opera Orphée is going to come as a surprise. Oh, it sounds like Glass all right. But yoked into the service of narrative, his music finds depths and nuances you don’t always find in classic operatic warhorses.

Even the avid opening night audience last evening, who clearly showed up ready to have a good time, was caught off guard by the Joplinesque music of the opening scene. From there the music morphs gradually through a series of musical moods, from movingly lambent intimacy to “heroic” set pieces that would please even grand opera enthusiasts.

Likewise, the story leaps through various dramatic styles. That story is not just the ancient Orpheus myth of a man who follows his wife to the underworld, but also Jean Cocteau’s pre-postmodern gloss on it. Now: I haven’t seen that film since my early 20s, which was probably too young to see a film about the power of love over time and about the way foreknowledge of death affects that love. At the time, I thought Cocteau’s effort was a pretentious snooze. Thirty years later, whether it’s thanks to Glass or from sheer dint of personal experience, I found the same story profound.

References to the movie abound – most conspicuously in an ongoing motif involving mirrors that provide both dangerous reflections and passage to unseen worlds -- but I digress. I was going to say that Glass’s unique dramaturgy recalls ancient storytelling more than modern; now we tend to expect a unified tone throughout, where the ancients had no problem mixing comedy and tragedy. The scene in which Orphée tries not to look at Eurydice is treated as out-and-out comedy – close to buffonery, really – yet you know what’s coming, and the permanent loss of Eurydice is all the more poignant because you’ve been tickled into forgetting it for a few minutes.

Most surprisingly of all is the opera’s final scene. Don’t worry, I won’t spoil it for you. Suffice it to say that it’s a marvelous bit of playwriting prestidigitation that makes you recast the entire myth.

Can you tell I was impressed? This is one opera you should catch – never mind if you don’t usually care for the form, and not to worry if you think you don’t care for Glass. It’s all too rare to see an opera that works as theater, so do yourself a favor and go. Just three more performances.

By the way, almost as much fun as the opera itself was the fab celebrity blogging table, which was very much its own event. To catch up on what the opera experience was like as it unfolded, started with Art Scatter’s preliminary account here; Mr. Scatter provides you with links to all the bloggolalia. His cohorts included Cynthia Fuhrman, Storm Large, Byron Beck and even (from backstage) cast member Marc Acito.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

My big trip

Though my Halloween Countdown disguised the fact, I was gone for a spell last week, sunning my pasty northwestern legs and otherwise aging my skin cells in the turquoise waters of Napili Bay. Maui.

Sure, it was lovely. But remind me never to leave Portland again when it’s at the height of its autumn glory. There I was basking in tropical temps (overnight lows in the mid-70s!), and all I could think of was the mist sifting down through the lurid light show of all the falling leaves back home. Just like a Brontë novel. Except for the consumption, madness, and festering cisterns.

Seasonal Affective Disorder aside, I had some adventure, as the photos here attest. Yes, I parasailed! A joyous experience. Not only was I exhilarated as I lifted up into the air, I was actually moved emotionally; to be weightless and aloft and 1,200 feet high in the air was like slipping out of time altogether for a while. Just taking the world in from a distance, like it was a story someone once told me. Like I was leaving it behind forever.

We’ve been to Maui several times before, so the purpose of this trip was to be as idle as possible. To spend all day on the beach, eat from the roadside stands as much as possible, go to bed early. Snack on lotuses. But I can’t handle total relaxation, so I read several books while beached. One was by my friend Joan Herrington, about August Wilson, entitled “I Ain’t Sorry for Nothin’ I Done” -- still one of the best books about the playwright’s work, even though it’s 11 years old now.

And I brought a novel with me that could not have been more wrong for a sunny-soaked holiday: Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic nightmare The Road. This book, about a father and young son tramping through a grey world of ash in search of a warmer climate, is so compelling that I rapidly tore through page after page, hopeful and fearful that they would come across other people (they do, mostly for the worse). This book is bleak. I soon found I couldn’t read it in bed at night unless I seeking insomnia.

So I padded on down to the “hotel” clubhouse, a repository of abandoned vacation books. Reluctantly I picked up a copy of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Anne Shaffer Annie Barrows. Everything about the cutesy title and the pastel-colored cover seemed to shriek FOR GIRLS ONLY. But it’s a mega-best seller, so I considered it research, and therefore work, and therefore acceptable reading. And to my surprise, it turned out to be a lark. Starts out as silly as a daffodil, but then goes on to reach surprising depths. I was grateful for its light touch, finally, as a temporary antidote to The Road.

However, it’s the McCarthy novel that will stay with me forever. And which surprised me, finally, with its Beckettian view of a universe in which both the horror and the redemptive force of being alive is….well, other people.

Yeah, I’m glad to be back among them.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Life on the dark side

Okay, so All Souls’ Day is November 2, not today. Today is the far less interesting All Saints’ Day, but we’ll blip over that in order to continuing with the more mysterious and ooky tides of the season.

Here in tropical Portland, gardening is a big ole deal. And while even the most avid of gardeners looks forward to that time of year when their work is done for a few months, there’s still much to do right now. Conventional wisdom sez you plants new shrubs now so that they overwinter and have a head start when spring arrives.

With that in mind, here’s a little inspiration for those special places in your apothecary. I mean garden.

Wicked Plants, a book of “botanical atrocities” by Amy Stewart, is evil fun. From plants that strangle to shrubs that explode, here’s how to have a garden that will turn the Addams Family bilious with envy.

Black Plants, created by Paul Bonine and published by Oregon’s own Timber Press, is a gorgeous compendium of plants whose dusky shades seem to defy all you thought you knew about photosynthesis.

And as if you needed more reason to ban pastels from your yard, Karen Platt’s Black Magic & Purple Passion, now in its 3rd edition, is the book that started the craze for baleful foliage. Karen richly illustrated tome makes me want to turn my entire property into a haunted house. She warns, though, that dark plants are best used as accents; the more they’re surrounded by contrasting plants, the more they pop.

So come over to the dark side and let’s get to work. During what Portlanders optimistically call “cloud breaks,” there’s still much to do.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

All Hallows is here

And what better way to pay tribute to it than with this paean to the god and goddess within all of us, composed and performed by a woman who’s immortal herself.

What, you were expecting the Monster Mash? Please! Enjoy your Irish New Year, and give a thought to your ancestors tonight; in Gaelic tradition, the veil between their world and yours is more transparent now than during the whole rest of the year.

Halloween Countdown #2

Terribly late here for getting you my penultimate post for this year's All Hallows soundtrack … look for the last one in just a few hours! I’m tardy because of an exciting meeting this morning, the contents of which are so top secret that I can’t even share them here until November of 2011. Really! Two years off. But I share that much right now just to engender wonderment, annoyance and general pique.

For this post I bring you the amazing Lyke-Wake Dirge, which I first mentioned last All Hallow’s Eve on Mighty Toy Cannon’s fabulous music blog. This is a dirge, all right, but so haunting and with such a gradual build as to become spellbinding – which is, in fact, probably its original function.

In terms of its written history, this song dates back to England’s medieval period, but some believe its origins are much older. The pre-Christian version is reputed to be a culling song – a spell, of sorts, whose addictive power Chuck Palahniuk explores deftly in his novel Lullaby. It’s not hard to see how you could adapt the dirge to your own fell purposes …

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Halloween Countdown #4

A lush, lapidary Talking Deads composition from 1979 – 30 Halloweens ago, yikes. Reportedly David Byrne achieved the disjointed quality of his voice here by wearing a recording device while jogging.

I should warn you that this video starts with an inexplicable 30-second lead-in. Bear with it; it goes away soon, and the music's worth the wait.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Halloween Countdown #5

Another classic, composed by Grieg for a production of Ibsen’s unstageable Peer Gynt. Reportedy, when Ibsen attended the premiere, the person sitting next time expressed admiration for Grieg’s version. To which Ibsen replied: “Oh, you think that’s good, do you?”

I know what he meant. But for sheer storytelling theatricality, you can’t beat “Hall of the Mountain King.”

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Halloween Countdown #7

Alas, this is a latter-day adaptation of the opening music for Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining, not the mysteriously unavailable original. Wendy Carlos wrote that – clearly basing it on the “Dies Irae” – which was disturbing almost to the point of being unlistenable…

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Osage County comes to Portland

Tracy Letts is personally responsible for much of the sass I’ve gotten from playwrights in recent years. For decades I’ve said: look, there are a few simple “don’ts” you should follow if you want to be produced. These include:

Three-act plays
Large casts
Kitchen sink dramas about dysfunctional families

Then along comes Steppenwolf and Mr. Letts and August: Osage County, and Q.E.D., come to find out this form, like any other, can be electrifying in the hands of exceptional talent.

Which is not to stay that plays that require 13 actors are any more producible than they used to be. (It will be telling to see how many regional companies slate the play for their seasons once the rights are available.) But can this kind of theater (realistic, sprawling, etc.) still speak to us? Oh yeah.

Now August: Osage County has come to Portland, as a whistle stop in its national tour, to roost for five days at the cavernous Keller Auditorium. Which amounts to a fresh test for the Pulitzer-winning juggernaut. Does the venue swallow up an intimate drama? Will people go to the Keller, which is more often associated with shows like Camelot, for a no-holds-barred drama? Yes and yes.

Tonight’s run was well-attended and warmly received, notwithstanding the Keller’s sound problems. In Act 2 especially, when the family matriarch (played in full-out, pull-no-punches style by larger than life Estelle Parsons) lets the family weaklings have it, the Weston family’s shenanigans are breathtaking.

The outstanding cast (which includes two former Oregonians, Laurence Lau from Lake Oswego High and Paul Vincent O’Connor, formerly of OSF) shines. But no one outshines Estelle, who gets to offer up as vile a cesspool of botulism as you’ll ever see. Or ever wish you’d thought to say yourself. It was great fun tonight to hear some people gasping and others laughing out loud…all at the same lines.

Take note: Portland’s share of the national tour is brief, playing only through this Sunday, October 25. And unlike Camelot, this is one show where you’ll be glad you ponied up for the orchestra seats. Not all the play’s significance lies in its words; you will want to see these characters’ faces.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Halloween Countdown #8

An oldie but moldy, for your delectation. Much of ’60s psychedelia had a sweet tooth for thanatology, which went hand in hand with its penchant for minor keys. Here’s a fun example by the immortal Candadian band Procol Harum.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Halloween Countdown #9

The Munsters are to The Addams Family as beer is to Beaujolais.

Compare. Contrast. Discuss.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

PDX jiffy pops

In keeping with my latest dubious honorific as “the Tim Gunn of Portland theater,” here’s a few cultural kernels that are about to pop.

Tomorrow evening (Friday), Fool for Love opens at the CoHo, directed by the always fashion forward Megan Ward, and way to go, guys, for getting the splashy article in The Oregonian today.

Plus, the [First Annual?] Steven Dietz Festival rages on here. Recently Becky’s New Car opened to critical acclaim over at Artists Repertory Theatre, just barely in advance of Portland Playhouse’s popular production of Fiction.

The latter has the edge, however, with the playwright himself appearing after this Saturday evening’s performance for a post-play confabulation with none other than moi-même. But wait, there’s more! Earlier that same day at 2pm, ART hosts a staged reading coproduction of Yankee Tavern, Mr. Dietz's latest play. Portland hearts Steven.

Bonus gratuitous non sequitur

On the national front: apparently Balloon Boy’s not the one getting a spanking now. Bad dad!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

All's well that starts well

No doubt you’ve heard about Britain’s National Theatre’s latest gambit – showing high-definition, "live-captured" screenings of selected shows? It got off to a great start with the much-lauded production of Phèdre, starring none other than Helen Mirren, and on the strength of that success, now has a whole season of filmed productions ready to tour the galaxy.

When I first heard about this, I was thrilled. Here was an opportunity to see outstanding international theater without first spending eight cramped hours in a fuselage with swine flu in continuous circulation. And I rushed to the laptop to google NT LIVE. Who would be stepping up to the bat? Northwest Film Center? The Art Museum? PCS? A university, peut-etre?

Nope. Nary a taker, and actually, as it turned out, with good reason. Showings require special, high-end gear that’s costly. So Portlanders were apparently out of luck.

Until now. Thanks to the forward-thinking folks at Third Rail Rep and some of their extremely generous (and anonymous) donors, the British are coming to Portland, Oregon. First up: All’s Well That’s Ends Well, a celebrated production directed by Marianne Eliot, on October 24.

Two more productions will air here next year, including an adaptation by the fab Mark Ravenhill and a premiere by Alan Bennett. And get this: tickets are 20 bucks. In London nowadays, that’s what you’ll pay for a pint and a really sad little shepherd’s pie. So thank you, Third Rail, for bringing London to us. Consider me first in line for tickets.

Monday, October 12, 2009

"The choir has a lot to think about."

You remember ground-breaking play The Laramie Project. The original production, as created and performed by the Tectonic Theater Project, was a high watermark of my life in the theater. In the hands of less sterling artists, a play dealing with the brutal and inhuman murder of Matthew Shepard could have been a lachrymose screed. But this company, under the direction of Moisés Kaufman, was astounding. By interviewing people of all stripes in the Wyoming town about the aftermath of the murders, the company’s composite portrait ultimately affirmed my faith in humanity, when it could easily have ratified a more misanthropic view.

The play’s presentational style was thrilling, too, since it proved that a documentary style of performance could also be great theater.

How could it already be a full decade since the murder that sparked the project? Eleven, actually. Somehow it is, and Tectonic has created an epilogue: The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later. It will be read tonight at Lincoln Center and simultaneously all over the country in all kinds of venues and communities -- over 150 in all.

Portland, I’m proud to say that is participating in multiple locations, with at least five different readings going on that I know of. I’m going to the downtown hearing, presented by the New Century Players at downtown’s Newmark Theatre (at PCPA) with a team that represents a spectrum of local theater, including Stan Foote, Rose Riordan and Scott Yarbrough in the large cast.

Many of tonight’s readings are free; the one I’m attending is a benefit, with proceeds being donated to community action groups. Of course I want to support that, but beyond that, I want to be in the midst of other theater folk when I revisit an event that is so emotional for me.

And you know what about that? So what if this is preaching to the choir. I’m tired of people using that expression as an excuse for not participating. Anyway, as Tony Kushner has said, the choir has a lot to think about.

So come on down and be part of something. I’ll see you there.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Because it’s October.

Plus it’s my birthday.

Witch’s Hat, by Robin Williamson

certainly the children have seen them
in quiet places where the moss grows green

coloured shells jangle together
the wind is cold the year is old the trees whisper together
and bend in the wind they lean

next week a monkey is coming to stay

if I was a witches hat
sitting on her head like a paraffin stove
I'd fly away and be a bat
across the air I would rove

stepping like a tightrope walker
putting one foot after another
wearing black cherries for rings

Friday, October 9, 2009

Three things I want you to see at Wordstock

Full disclosure: these are three events I planned, so of course I consider them must-sees. They’re all omnibus occasions -- panel discussion/reading events, designed to extract maximum performance value out of each sojourn. Check it out.

Voices from Another Portland
Saturday, 2pm, Wieden + Kennedy Stage
Remember last June when I gushed over my favorite summer book, Portland Queer? Now meet five of the book’s contributors, as they read from their stories and wax philosophical over writing about Portland places and experiences as viewed through a different lens.

Editor Ariel Gore assures these writers – Marc Acito, Jacob Anderson-Minshall, Wayne Flowers, Colleen Siviter and moderator Dexter Flowers – are writers who love to perform and/or are performers who love to write. Sounds heady!

Stages of Playwriting
Sunday, 2pm, McMenamins Stage
Our three guests – Marc Acito, Storm Large and Cynthia Whitcomb – have all had recent hits on Portland stages that are now primed to wow audiences on the national scene. These writers will talk about the many advantages of workshopping homegrown work – including the support of local collaborators, an avid fan base, and most importantly, fellow writers (all three participate in the Big Brain Trust). Plus this panel is moderated by bon vivant Floyd Sklaver, so what’s not to like?

And yes, that is indeed Storm in the photo at right -- because I will stop at nothing to attract people to these panels – all dolled up as Gretchen Lowell, the dangerously fetching antiheroine of Chelsea Cain’s novels. (Chelsaa, you know, is also appearing at Wordstock: Sunday, 1pm, Colubmia Sportwear Stage.)

Border Crossings
Sunday, 3pm, McMenamins Stage
First of all, this discussion is moderated by Portland media goddess Dmae Roberts, okay? And then her guests are Marilyn Chin, Canyon Sam, and redoubtable Portlander Polo Catalani. Together they’ll discuss the tricky business of how you represent other cultures in writing without casting them in the dubious distinction of being exotic or resorting to other forms of orientalism. This is bound to be a lively discussion.

Saturday, by the way, is my 2nd annual 75th birthday. So show up for me, why don’t you.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Hellzapoppin’: Wordstock opens!

For you kids, Hellzapoppin’ was a riotously popular revue, in its heyday, that changed all the time. It was understood anything could happen at any time. You know it better through its descendant, the ancient TV show, Laugh-In.

But never mind, because that’s not what this post is about. The old title was also once a synonym for a constantly revolving kaleidoscope of activity, and today, on the eve of Wordstock’s opening, that describes things pretty well. With over 160 authors participating, it’s a thrilling advent.

Probably you know that you can get the weekend schedule of authors speaking, reading and teaching at the Wordstock website, but did you know that meanwhile a cavalcade of coterminous activity is happening all over town?

One must-see event is Chicago’s celebrated 2nd Story troupe, the company that “combines high-energy performance storytelling with live music and delicious wine.” What better way to inaugurate a festival celebrates the spinning of tales, right?

Doug Whippo from 2nd Story on Vimeo.

But wait, there’s more. Naturally you know Live Wire!, the live radio event that “isn’t just a show, it’s a happening.” Well, Saturday night at the Aladdin brings us the 5th Live Wire! Wordstock Extravaganza at the Aladdin Theater, starring a glittering bevy of Wordstock guests including Sherman Alexie, Richard Dawkins, Chelsea Cain, Candy Tan and more.

Both events are sure to be popular, and as a die-hard Portlandian you know that Live Wire! always sells out, so don’t wait for hell to freeze over. Get those tickets now.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Playing hooky

Entre nous, even whilst feverishly preparing for Wordstock, I have managed to sneak in a novel by a writer not appearing in this year’s festival. (Hopefully you’ll meet him at future fests.) You may know the divine Mr. M already from his theater assays: several Marivaux translations to his credit, for instance, plus the book for the Broadway musical version of The Triumph of Love, to name just a few things. So naturally when I learned that University of Wisconsin Press was publishing his first novel, I was all over it.

And my fanaticism was rewarded. Sugarless is a sparkling, beguiling sucker punch. It starts out as an edgy, nervously funny high school romp. Then the author gradually lures you into more dangerous waters. And even as Rick (the story’s young protagonist) achieves his pyrrhic victory, the story becomes unexpectedly poignant.

Serendipitously, Sugarless comes out a time when Fox’s musical juggernaut Glee is attracting huge audiences. But this book – which mines a different high school refuge, the speech department and its myriad contests – focuses less on the reactions of the rest of the student body (who are well nigh irrelevant in this miniature terrarium) and more on the internecine rivalries between Rick and his competitors.

Obviously this is a great book for anyone who endured the rigors of less than mainstream glory during high school: glee club, chess club, the drama department, et al. But anyone who came of age sexually during this period – which is to say, I think…all of us? – will respond to Rick’s misadventures with a sympathy that’s sometimes aggrieved, more often amused, and most often with wry commiseration.

I loved this book, and I think you will, too.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

"Everyone's Waiting."

Some weeks ago I watched just enough of the Emmy Awards to hear a notion iterated several times -- that we’re currently enjoying a new golden age of television. Maybe they say stuff like that every year, for all I know, but this time the phrase struck me as more than mere pro forma puffery.

It started years ago with the ascendancy of cable – and with cable’s savvy predilection for hiring playwrights to craft its narratives, mind you. First HBO got hot, which spurred Showtime and others to catch up, and at long last even broadcast got with it, albeit within the confines of its métier.

I’ll never forget what a revelation it was when The Sopranos debuted in 1999, and how astonishing it was that HBO struck gold again two years later with Six Feet Under. Fodder for a different post is my conviction that neither series quite surpassed the miracles of their first years out, but never mind.

Both series also gave us conclusions that are still discussed, debated and admired today. I must have watched SFU’s final episode dozens of times now. And let me warn you right now, if you have not seen it, read no further if you don’t want to know what happens. In an act of awesome prestidigitation, the writers reversed the show’s very premise (or extended it): a saga that started every episode of the previous six years showing you someone’s death now extended that convention into the future, showing us the possible demise of each of the main characters.

At first viewing, I was puzzled. Why was the make-up so obviously overdone? Why the soft focus, and the nervous oscillation between the sentimental and the cavalier? But returning to the conclusion again made it clear that we were not seeing the characters’ “real” deaths at all. Instead we witnessed a projection of the story’s youngest protagon, Claire, as she broke ranks with the Fisher family to literally drive off into the vast desert that separated her past from her future.

All right. But why do those closing six minutes continue to affect me so much? My chest gets tight as I think about it even now. And what I think … is that the story of the Fishers ends at a defining moment, for Claire, that we have all experienced at least once (and some of us, several times): a moment when you know that the entire rest of your life in some sense spools out from that moment. So naturally Claire projects herself into the future. It all lies before her. Her life. And the endpoint that gives that life its poignancy, perhaps even its very meaning.

Not for nothing is this last chapter entitled “Everyone’s Waiting.” In the context of the episode, I think Keith says this to Claire, meaning that the family is waiting to see her off on her journey. But as so often with the show’s breathtaking writing, the phrase has multiple reverberations. Yes, everyone’s waiting to die. But also, some of us like to feel that those who have gone before us are waiting for us to catch up. In Claire’s final seconds of life, the camera scans the photographs on her wall to remind us of everyone we ever met through this story. Claire is the sole survivor, just about to join their ranks at last.


But wait, there's more. Something that stuns me about the series ending is that it speeds up as it goes along, giving you the vertiginous feeling you already know so well – that each year goes by faster than the one before, and that all too soon your hoard of days will be exhausted. Contributing powerfully to this sense of time overtaking you is the austerely opulent, understated and yet overpowering song that scores the sequence, “Breathe Me,” by Sia.

Here it is. Watch it again, and just try to resist the undertow. I wonder if television has ever had a better marriage of form and content.