Friday, January 22, 2010

Tonight’s the night

Fertile Ground the sequel takes the stage tonight at venues all over Portland, and this time the buzz is really, really audible. The inaugural outing last year was amazing, but let’s face it -- part of our exhausted appreciation stemmed from our astonishment that it happened at all. And that so much of the area’s theater community pulled it together to participate in it.

The difference this year? A broadened sense that Fertile Ground is a civic event -- a welcome and important addition to the public arena in a city already replete with great festivals for music, film and the fine arts and even “time-based” art.

Also, if last year made an invisible sector visible, this year ups the ante by happening all over town and beyond it. Playing with a full deck of 52 different theatrical events, Fertile Ground’s a great excuse to discover some fun venues you might not have visited before: the Curious Comedy Theater on MLK, Portland Playhouse’s converted church space, the World Forestry Center…even, for the dauntlessly peripatetic, the mysterious space in Milwaukee know as The Woods.

Night #1 of festival-hopping for me includes the workshop production of Fighter Girl, written by Catherine Garvin and Arlie Connor, directed by Diane Englert, in Brunish Hall; then over to the Hothouse (the Gerding’s mezzanine) for It Takes All Shorts, which includes short pieces by Claire Willett, Brian Kettler and Marguerite Scott, among others; after which I’ll dash across the river for the opening night party. Madness!

Because I don’t dare provide you with a top picks list that excludes any one of the 52 possibilities, instead I refer you to Marty Hughley’s faves, published in today’s A&E. Yes, that’s me on the cover, below, at Garden Fever, no less (my favorite nursery), surrounded by some outstanding Portland artists drawn from both theater and dance.

You know what a photo like means for me: starvation diet. Just as soon as the Festival ends on February 2.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Fortune Preserv'd

I don’t know about you, but reading Outrageous Fortune has been HARD. Emotionally. The book’s concluding paragraph states, “This study set out to take a snapshot of new play production,” and that’s exactly what it did -- betraying some internalized self-loathing along the way, perhaps, but for the most part, creating a brave act of psychic photorealism that wasn’t always easy to relive.

So you have to love the concluding chapter. After Outrageous Fortune’s rigorous dissection of America’s gimpy new play production process (at least as it’s conducted in the regional system), the book’s concluding chapter attempts to offer something of a restorative -- smelling salts after a mental eclipse. In "Postive Practices and Novel Ideas," we dash through a number of singularities that seem to be getting it right.

The tonic semi-works. We’re treated to the healthy experiences of a number of playwrights I happen to admire: Liz Duffy Adams, Adam Bock, John Walch, Amy Freed and more. Also we hear of a number of theaters and arts organizations that are making a difference. Yet for me, the takeaway about many of these success stories is that they succeed not working the system better than others but largely by transcending the system altogether.

Ironically, therefore, the book in general and the last chapter in particular both inadvertently reinforce a conclusion that many of us have already come to. Which is that the only way to win is not to play. Let the regional system dodder on if it wants to; we don’t have to ape its shopworn antics. The powerful, numinous, affecting work is happening at the extremes: the mammoth venues like BAM that can afford to present important work, and the numerous small theaters around the country that aren’t waiting for funding and subscribers and so-called “world-class” status. Likewise you can look to the “fringes” for encompassing, community-based theater experiences that that have genuine impact on human thought and feeling, and you can look to the many excellent one-person shows to provide an honesty largely missing from the regional machinery of theater production. For these theater artists, Outrageous Fortune is mostly irrelevant.

Don’t get me wrong; this book is valuable, and has already succeeded in its goal of being “the start of a conversation” (those are its closing words). It’s just that some of us feel the tiny universe described in Outrageous Fortune gave up on us long before we gave up on it.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

“Songs for Haiti” -- one night only (Thursday!)

Tomorrow night, while relaxing in the boho comfort of Portland’s Aladdin Theater, you can contribute to Mercy Corps’s Haiti fund while being serenaded by outstanding Oregon musicians and vocalists. As organized by the tireless Stephen Marc Beaudoin,

Some of the marquee Portland performers appearing in “Songs for Haiti” include pianist Thomas Lauderdale (bandleader, Pink Martini), the Portland Cello Project, acclaimed hip-hop artist Cool Nutz, Grammy-nominated pianist Janice Scroggins, the legendary Storm Large, Oregon Symphony concertmaster Jun Iwasaki with pianist Grace Fong-Iwasaki, Broadway veteran baritone Douglas Webster (Les Miserables), singer-songwriter Holcombe Waller, and local choral ensembles Flash Choir, PHAME Academy Choir and the Grant High School Royal Blues. Oregonian columnist Margie Boule and KOIN Portland 6 reporter Tim Joyce are the event co-hosts. (emphasis very much mine)

Sweet! Thirty bucks gets you in the door and contributing to disaster relief, and you get to attend one of the most fun events of the whole season.

As a teaser I’m including this video of Thomas Lauderdale -- an inapposite choice, really, since Thomas will doubtless be far less sedate tomorrow evening. But I plop this footage here anyway because it’s from another event Mr. Lauderdale was instrumental (sorry) in bringing to fruition -- the 24/7 concert of last year acknowledging just how long we’ve been mired in a different catastrophe, the war in Iraq.

I was sitting just a few feet away from Thomas when this video was shot, and I will be again tomorrow night. See you there.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

So long, Kate

Aggrieved to hear that Kate McGarrigle died today, leaving the world bereft of both McGarrigle sisters now.

In Kate's honor, I'm posting this video of her and her family singing one of my favorite songs. She's not in her best voice, and the video's not of professional quality, but I love it that Rufus and Martha sing this with her. "Talk to me of Mendicino," while ostensibly about longing to go home, was always about death for me -- for that moment when you can finally say, this has been great, but I'm moving on.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

O.F. chapter 3: 2 rants, 1 rave

Chapter 3 of Outrageous Fortune, “The Way of the Play,” searches for passage through the shoals of new play production. Just as in the chapter I reported on previously, there’s enough in this lengthy assay to generate posts aplenty, so I’m going to narrow my focus. Doubtless different parts will leap out at other readers.

Again, much here is so unerringly true about the fractious journey from page to production that it’s almost a shock to see it delineated so well. Let’s face it, the pitfalls are legion. We all know this. Hence I was encouraged by this chapter’s opening question: “How can we clear the path for plays of merit to get to the stage?”

Alas, this chapter is less successful at responding to that conundrum and more articulate about how and why plays don’t make it. Even so, the chapter is rife with questionable assumptions. You know a bias has come to the fore when a major section has the boldface heading: LITERARY GATEKEEPERS; there's a faintly snarky tone to the whole subject. However, as a former literary director, I have to admit that much in the section was painfully recognizable. I especially winced later on in the chapter at a quote attributed to a playwright who referred to literary staffs as “neutered dogs biting their stitches.” Ouch. So true it smarts.

An aside: Literary folk can wield great influence at a theater, or they can be mere script-rejecters -- the spectrum is broad. But as the chapter points out, ultimately they are in the employ of the theater, not of the playwrights banging on the theater’s door, and that puts a torque on their relationships with the very artists they were hired to cultivate. Personally, I’ve lost some friends over the years because I ran interference at the express demand of one artistic director or another and didn’t dare intimate that to the playwright. I’ve even been disparaged in a popular performance piece for being a blowhard (I guess) because I couldn’t just say, “Look, my AD can’t stand you and you should shop your talents somewhere else.” But that is part of the job. Many literary managers (not all, but many) feel they’ve managed to accomplish whatever they have for playwrights in spite of their bosses, not because of their support or vision …………… only to be spat upon by both sides of the fence. For this reason, it is disappointing to see Outrageous Fortune parrot the extremely offensive term “dramaturged to death,” as though workshops would be new play nirvana were the playwright not shot down by a lone gunmen working on his own.

But anyway. A good chunk of Chapter 3 is devoted to script rejection. “The language of rejection needs to be rethought, and handled with probity and honesty, most agree.” Well -- sure. Of course there should be no dishonesty. But many writers ask for specifics when the fact is that often there is no satisfactory reason why a play does not stay under consideration. Many elements and disparate personalities come into play during season planning, and if the decision-makers’ discussions don’t generate enough heat, even an excellent play will fall off the table.

Also, let’s not be naïve. Do playwrights really want unvarnished honesty? If I say to you, “We passed on your play because we felt your ending was lame,” what subtext do you hear? If you rewrite that ending under the impression that now Theater XYZ will gladly produce it, and that doesn’t happen, then you will really feel had. The danger of specific criticism is that will be received as advice -- or even as a promise.

For me, this chapter’s most valuable contribution is its demystification of the commissioning process, which still, after all these years, is subject to much misunderstanding on both sides. Playwrights will find no surprises here, but theaters might. I hope commissioners at all levels will pore over this important section and glean some new ideas about the transaction -- such as understanding that it is a transaction.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Being here now

“This island universe.” Of course the poet was referring to the cosmos, but the phrase always reminds me of the theater -- its insularity, its ever-increasing marginality, its travails and revelations.

Talk about interesting timing. Only last month Applause Books released The Play That Changed My Life, a cheerful book which, as Marissabidilla and others have pointed out, suggests an affirmative view of theater’s health. And now, as if as a corrective, the Theatre Development Fund has launched another book that investigates the moribund means of production through which new plays are brought into being nowadays -- or aren’t.

Outrageous Fortune, subtitled “The Life and Times of the New American Play,” provides a valuable snapshot of where we seem to be right now and what might be done about it. So valuable, in fact, that Isaac Butler has organized a flotilla of bloggers to discuss the book’s findings and recommendations. You can see the schedule and the participants at Parabasis, but in sum: we all look at Chapter 1 today from our various perspectives; on Friday I will take apart Chapter 3, titled “The Way of the Play”; and next Wednesday we’ll all consider the final chapter’s counsel about where to go from here.

So. Deep breath.

Provocative Chapter 1 is entitled “Dialogue in the Dark: Playwrights & Theatres.” And its contribution to the book is to map the territory of new play production as it currently exists. No one imbedded in institutional theater (or who works as a satellite of it, like most “successful” playwrights) will find any surprises here. Nevertheless, it’s bracing to find it all described so thoroughly. Delineating “a crisis in collaboration,” the authors chart a course of increasing estrangement of playwrights from the theaters that produce them.

Plenty of blame to go around, of course, but special attention is given to a bricks-and-mortar mentality that privileges institutionality over artistry and staff over artists. It’s an old argument with an obvious refutation, but Outrageous Fortune is singular in putting its finger squarely (if almost parenthetically) on the REAL problem.

Which is? Once you’ve created a bona fide institution, priorities necessarily change radically. From Board chair to box office, from artistic director to stage door guard, the mission of an institution and its dependents is to survive. No matter what its website says, whatever bland claims it espouses to being all about dynamic new theater, its rock bottom, honest to god mission in life is to survive at all costs. And I do mean all costs. Is it any wonder playwrights tend to feel less like they’re contributing to theater's raison d’être and more like they’re just plain in the way?

This first chapter lays the groundwork for the entire rest of the book, and does so with impressive lucidity. Go to Parabasis for an impressive range of responses to this first salvo, and stayed tuned for tomorrow’s posts on Chapter Two (“The Lives & Livelihoods of Playwrights”), as examined by Ian Moss and Matt Freeman.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Recent reads + whatnot

Drawn though I am to graphic novels, I’ve yet to immerse myself in them, just because that universe seems so arcane. But I couldn’t resist the mysterious and ooky artwork and the foreboding storyline of Stitches, by David Small. This is actually a graphic memoir about Mr. Small’s growing up in a family so twisted that … well, to use Hollywood parlance, think Lovecraft meets Scrubs. This is a book you admire more than “love”; but I think you’ll appreciate the journey Mr. Small takes you on, especially if you’re of a cynical persuasion (like me) and prefer your harrowing bildungsromans with just a smidge of implicit redemption.

Also recently got round to reading the novel whose very title is an epiphany: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz. This is the saga of a Dominican family in virtual exile in New Jersey, told through a vertiginous, macaronic collage of Spanglish, street slang, lit-crit and geekspeak. Often hilarious but touching when you least expect it. GET THIS BOOK. I guarantee you’ll come away from it with an entirely new vocabulary.

Many people responded strongly to Mr. Diaz’s book, as evidenced by its adaptation for the stage, which was a hit for beloved theater company Campo Santo in San Francisco. Sean San José’s adaptation is titled Fukú Americanus, referring to the concept of fukú, the Dominican version of a family curse that courses through seven generations. Sean came up with the brilliant idea of creating a narrator called Fuku, who he uses to convey Diaz’s unique authorial voice.

Would love to see some daring Portland company take on this truly wondrous work….and I think we can all agree there’s only one here that could……

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Go ahead, geek out.

Though this video’s been around since last April, it caused such a sensation when I put in on Facebook yesterday that I’m putting it here, too.

I’ve been trying to figure out why this video makes me so happy, and I’ve decided it’s the same thing that’s always astounded me about theater or indeed any kind of live performance. And that’s how human it is. While there are many creatures on the planet that perform for one another – crows and dolphins, for example – there’s something quintessentially human about organizing it into a big production, and especially about the need to present that effort to someone else, that makes me proud of humanity.

Many years, I remember a trip my friend and colleague Marc Robinson took to what was then called Czechoslovakia. This was decades ago – a world away from now, and unauthorized performances were still illegal. Marc recalls being accosted by a theater artist who led him through the city via a circuitous route, ending up in an apartment where the man offered a clandestine, one-man command performance of a piece he’d written himself, all at terrible risk. So that someone could bear witness to what he’d created.

Some of us, probably most of us, are hard-wired for performance. Don’t you feel it’s endearing that we want to do that for each other? I don’t know who the performers in the Antwerp train station were or how they conceived of a flash mob rendition of “Do Re Mi.” But I bet most of the people who happened to be there that day felt somehow singled out for joy.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Tonight on Planet Earth

You know: you could start off a new year more worser than by paying heed to Anne Bogart's sage adjurations.

Many thanks to my colleague Megan Kate Ward for posting this on her blog and recalling me to what I’m up to. What we’re all up to.

* * * * *

A Word of Advice by Anne Bogart

Do Not assume that you have to have some prescribed conditions to do your best work.


Do Not wait for enough time or money to accomplish what you think you have in mind.

Work with what you have right now.

Work with the people around you right now.

Work with the architecture you see around you right now.

Do Not wait till you are sure that you know what you are doing.

Do Not wait for what you assume is the appropriate, stress-free environment in which to generate expression.

Do Not wait for maturity or insight or wisdom.

Do Not wait until you have enough technique.

What you do now, what you make of your present circumstances will determine the quality and scope of your future endeavors.

And at the same time, be patient.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

How to start the new year right

You may recall that the beloved and historic Marysville School in SE Portland was badly damaged recently in a fire.

Now there’s a way to help. Come to this benefit if you can. Here’s the press release that gives you the details, including the fun stuff at the end.


On November 10th, fire devastated Portland’s historic Marysville School. Fortunately, every child got out safely, but nearly two months later, the entire community and the Marysville PTA are still struggling to help the kids get back what they lost. That’s the driving force behind the Marysville School Benefit Auction, to be held January 7th at the Ambridge Events Center (1333 NE M L King Blvd).

The Marysville PTA is the backbone of the school, providing the funding for programs and necessities; during the recent cold snap, they bought gloves and hats for kids who would otherwise go without. In the wake of the fire, the coffers of the PTA were drained as they scrambled to replace lost items. The goal of this benefit is to replenish those funds that will:

· Replace lost equipment and supplies. Many of the students still don’t have items they lost from their desks, such as calculators.
· Provide transportation for parent volunteers. Marysville is truly a community school; kids and parents walked to school. Now, it’s 15 miles away, and most of the parents don’t have cars, and they simply can’t provide the help they used to. And, there’s a new need for volunteers to oversee bus safety.
· Replace lost uniforms and equipment; help the sports program. The basketball program had just gotten off the ground and the PTA was in the process of raising the funds to expand the sports program, including soccer; those funds are now gone.
· Help fund after school enrichment programs.
· Replace items the PTA used to generate funds, such as the popcorn machine and copier.
How can you help? Attend the auction on Thursday January 7th. Tickets are $30, which includes food, wine and beer, and a wonderful evening of evening of music, comedy, and even magic! Come dance to Boka Marimba and have a wonderful time while bidding on a great variety of items-from jewelry to sports equipment to weekend getaways. If you can’t attend, you can easily make a tax-deductible donation online.

To buy tickets online or donate, please visit .

· Marysville School Benefit Auction
· 6:00pm January 7th
· Ambridge Events Center, ( 1333 NE M L King Blvd).
· Tickets $30 purchase at