Barry Johnson

 

Chris Coleman: The exit interview

Chris Coleman, now the former artistic director of Portland Center Stage, talks about lessons learned during his long tenure here

When people leave Portland for jobs in another city, all good journalists understand that they have just opened a door, not just on a new future for themselves but on the past. Or at least a more candid view of the past they shared with us while they were here. Nothing like putting a city and a job in the rearview mirror for loosening the tongue about the place they are leaving.

Not that anyone leaving Portland for Denver these days—as Portland Center Stage artistic director Chris Coleman announced he was doing last November after 17-and-a-half years here—can feel entirely unrestrained in conversation with a journalist. The more “dynamic” parts of such an interview will inevitably cross the Rockies. But still, at the very least, the leave-taking interview, the exit interview, can lead to a reflective state of mind that can be very valuable for those of us left behind.

Chris Coleman. Photo: Portland Center Stage

Coleman’s time here was marked by two overlapping events: The opening of The Armory’s two theater complex in the Pearl District and the Great Recession of 2008, which affected all the city’s arts organizations in dire ways. That Coleman led the company through both of those events is perhaps the major achievement of his time here. He also helped devise and pass a city Arts Tax, which has bolstered arts education in Portland and helped stabilize Portland’s biggest arts organizations. And he programmed and directed a series of important productions in the theater history of the city, including an “Oklahoma!” set in an African American town.

In February, just after Coleman’s epic “Astoria: Part Two,” opened, we got together to talk about…well, almost anything Coleman wanted to talk about. The conversation lasted more than an hour. I’ve edited it a bit for clarity and length, but mostly it’s Coleman talking as he spoke on the mezzanine level of the Armory Building.

What were the biggest challenges you faced when you started at Portland Center Stage; the biggest challenge you faced in the middle of your run here; and what’s the biggest challenge your successor will face?

The biggest challenge when I got here was moving the programming. I think the board was hungry for more adventure, the staff was hungry for more adventure, but nobody had checked in with the audience. And so I leaned forward at their encouragement, and I leaned too far forward, I think, initially. (1) If I had to do it over again…Julie Vigeland [who was the board president of Center Stage when Coleman was hired] and I have wrestled with this over and over. If I had it to do it over again, I think I would have been a little more evolutionary than revolutionary, because I think I could have kept more people in the fold longer, and it would have been a less difficult first couple of years. Julie feels like, you know what, we needed to say things have changed and this is where we’re going.

It was painful emotionally. It was painful financially. And it was scary initially. So, it was definitely trying to figure out, where is this community or this audience for this organization aesthetically, and how does that fit with what I want to do and how do we line up a little bit better. That was huge.

And then the organization was tremendously under-resourced for a company that was trying to fill 900 seats [in the Newmark Theatre]. The budget my first season was $3.2 million, and boy, that is a brutal equation. So selling the vision, trying to figure out where the community was, and trying to increase our resources so we could put better work on stage, those were the biggest challenges early on.

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Bill Bulick, arts agency architect, has died

Bill Bulick built the Regional Arts & Culture Council into a model arts agency, imitated around the country

Bill Bulick, the architect of the Regional Arts and Culture Council, the primary way government supports the art in the tri-county area, died yesterday in Portland. He had lived with Parkinson’s Disease for many years. He was 65.

When I first met Bulick in the late 1970s, he was affiliated with Artichoke Music, the great folk music center, attempting to get coverage for Artichoke shows. He was so earnest and so affable that his pitches were impossible to resist: He made me feel that I was doing a great service to the culture at large by helping to spread the word, and to this day, I think he was right.

By then, he had attended Reed College, the University of Chicago and Portland State, worked as a studio potter, and spent a couple of years in Ireland studying Celtic music. In 1983 he helped organize Wildgeese, the leading proponent of Celtic music in the Northwest, and he became the first program director at Pioneer Courthouse Square.

Bill Bulick, here making a presentation in Bradenton, Florida, spread the arts plan behind RACC across the country.

The culture at large: Bill switched gears and careers, moving from the folk music niche into arts administration. His sense of fairness, his calm demeanor and his determination were a perfect fit in this role, and he quickly became a crucial figure at the old Metropolitan Arts Commission, Portland’s city arts bureau, which he joined in 1987. By 1989, he had become executive director, succeeding Selina Ottum, who had professionalized the arts commission before moving to the National Endowment for the Arts as Deputy Chair.

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Oregon Shakespeare Festival 2018: The first round

The resignation of Bill Rauch focuses our attention on what he has achieved in Ashland in new productions of "Othello," "Henry V," "Sense and Sensibility" and "Destiny of Desire"

Your faithless correspondent has now spent a week dithering over all that this particular brainpan could usefully muster about opening weekend at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Hey, these observations and opinions don’t come ready-made! And maybe it’s harder when said correspondent finds that brainpan in sync with the productions under review and their devotion to the most basic act of theater: telling true stories by locating the humanity within them.

A certain melancholy is also involved, because the ground shifted beneath the Festival last month, when artistic director Bill Rauch announced that he was leaving next year to become the first artistic director of the Perelman Center in New York City. That news changed the context of the four weekend premieres of the 2018 OSF season. Suddenly, they became a sort of emblem of the changes that Rauch has brought to the festival—and to American theater in general—during his run at OSF, which began in 2007.

Rauch was ahead of the times at OSF, although he was also drawing on important changes initiated by previous artistic directors Henry Woronicz and Libby Appel. From the beginning he explicitly linked the festival to social change, both internally and onstage, embracing diversity, feminism and social justice, well ahead of other regional theater companies and even national equality movements—#blacklivesmatter, #metoo, #occupy. During his tenure accessibility projects flourished, sharpened their focus, and had a real effect on how the festival does business and what it puts onstage.

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival. 2018. Henry V by William Shakespeare. Directed by Rosa Joshi. Scenic Design: Richard L. Hay. Costume Design: Sara Ryung Clement. Lighting Design: Geoff Korf. Composer and Sound Designer: Palmer Hefferan. Dramaturg: Amrita Ramanan. Voice and Text: David Carey. Research Dramaturg: Alan Armstrong. Choreography: Alice Gosti. Fight Director: U. Jonathan Toppo. Scenic Design Associate: Richard L. Anderson. Stage Manager: Jill Rendall. Photo: Jenny Graham.

Daniel Jose Molina completes the Prince Hal-Henry V trilogy this season at Oregon Shakespeare Festival/Photo by Jenny Graham

Given the backdrop of Rauch’s departure, the weekend emphasized Rauch’s approach. It highlighted the racism and misogyny in Othello, the consideration of leadership in Henry V, a deeply diverse cast enacting a 19th century novel (Sense and Sensibility), and the riotous celebration and send-up of telenovelas, Destiny of Desire. Taken together, they made a powerful aesthetic case for artistic diversity in all its forms: The audience directly benefits from Rauch’s inclusiveness, because the plays had a sharper edge, a more telling angle, and, ultimately, a deeper truth.

At least that’s how I saw those first four productions, with a little guidance from a panel discussion that featured the weekend’s four directors.

Othello: The outsider

Rauch himself directed Othello, a tragedy that nearly always leaves me in emotional tatters. This production, with its cinematic use of projections, movement, set design, represented the regional theater machine operating at smoothest purr. Full of actors in full possession of their characters, reaching out to us in ways more deeply considered than we can imagine, and STILL, the indivisible core of Othello proved inescapable—its sheer ugliness, a description of humanity that should give us a fearful shudder every time we see it.

“The struggle is to find our common humanity in a story that is this ugly.” That, in the barest shorthand, is the seemingly impenetrable fog that every production of Othello must enter. It happens to be Rauch speaking … and passing on the accumulated practical wisdom of the theater world on this play.

And then you have a crushing thought: that Rauch completely understands that we in America are living inOthello, every day, outside the walls of the theater. How do we find our common humanity in a story, our story, that is this ugly? “A story that is this ugly.” And that is exactly why he decided to stage it.

So, the theater world thinks it can redeem Othello, all of its misogyny and racism and base motives, by finding the common humanity in the characters. How can it do that? After one of the longest questions in my long history of interviewing artists, Rauch answered, “pragmatic utopianism.” That was the answer to my impossible-to-reproduce question, and not to a question about how to make Othello something people could stand to sit through. But in some ways, it fits.

Danforth Comins, left, plays Iago with cunning restraint and bamboozles Chris Butler’s Othello in the process/ Photo by Jenny Graham

Ugly, by the way, is an understatement. The culture the play describes is racist and misogynistic, and the key carrier of both social diseases, Iago, successfully schemes to bring down the African hero (probably: Shakespeare call him the Moor, which might mean African via Spain). The unfolding details of this process lead to the play’s awful conclusion, a murder-suicide and a connected murder, that the audience witnesses with growing horror (even when we know what’s coming).

What did Rauch mean by pragmatic utopianism? Perhaps Othello supplies us with some clues.

Design Integration: The festival has invariably looked great since my first visit in the early 1980s, and it has learned to take those design values and integrate them with the text and its interpretation in ever deeper ways. This Othello features a savvy and luscious projection system that manages both to move us around the Mediterranean, from Venice to Cyprus, and simulate sunsets and rainstorms. And the set, apparently simple, allows Rauch to keep the rather small company in seemingly constant motion around the stage and up a long ramp that plays many roles itself. As a result, the play never settles into static talking heads taking their turn with the text. We never get stuck on the evil.

As Amy Kim Waschke’s Emilia looks on, Othello (Chris Butler) stalks Desdemona (Alejandra Escalante) in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s “Othello”/Photo by Jenny Graham

Focus on story: The story, ugly as it is, is the center of the production, and decisions by the actors onstage always feed that story. Even what seem like idiosyncratic choices—Iago wandering into the audience for his evil soliloquies, for example—work inside the context of the story as Rauch and company are telling it. Danforth Comins’ Iago benefits from this, becoming a character in a story instead of a representation of Evil Incarnate. Not that we sympathize with him, of course.

When you emphasize story, the one truly heroic moment of the play—Emilia’s resistance to her husband Iago and defense of Desdemona to Othello—stands out. And Amy Kim Waschke as Emilia becomes a heroine in the process. Is there redemption in Othello? If there is, it can only arrive through Emilia and her sacrifice. Desdemona’s steadfast love of her husband, Othello, is not quite enough by itself.

Finding the humanity: Deliberately searching for the humanity in the story led Rauch and his Othello, Chris Butler, to give Othello an African diaspora accent—Sudanese, the program notes say. This emphasizes Othello’s outsider position. He is separated from the rest of the characters by race and country of origin, and the accent signals that. It’s also musical: Butler uses it to explore a wide range of vocalizations, timbres, octaves. That’s another way he stands out in this crowd, and from most of the stentorian baritones who usually speak Othello to us. We understand him a little better, perhaps, and like Iago, he’s humanized in the process.

We may still want to scream out to him from our seat: Don’t believe Iago! But then, we feel the same thing every day in an America that increasingly feels like a Shakespearean tragedy.

This production of Othello makes an excellent introduction to this difficult play, but even if you’ve seen other Othellos, even great ones (Derrick Lee Weeden’s version for OSF in 1999 with Anthony Heald as Iago, for example), I’m guessing that this one will seem fresh to you, lead you to new considerations.

Henry V: Completing the cycle

All of the directors at one of OSF’s opening weekend public events mentioned “humanity” at one time or another. I have to admit, it’s not my favorite word. You could spend a human lifetime trying to figure out what it means, what constitutes humanity and what constitutes “non-humanity.” And “inhumanity” seems to be a constant companion to “humanity”—do we want the nose of that conceptual camel to slip inside our fragile tent? As the wind howls outside?

But still, in everyday language we understand the word: It’s what binds us, gives us a glimpse into the interior life of others (and our own interiors, for that matter), helps us find a basis for tolerance, if not agreement. And though it sounds, yes, remote and conceptual, we use it to describe the most basic of human experience: love and loss; birth, maturity, aging and death; need and compassion.

When Rauch and the other directors talked about finding humanity in the plays, they were mostly talking about the rehearsal room, where the actors attempted make the deepest possible connection with their characters as they understood them, a process (if you’re playing Iago, say, or Othello) that can be harrowing.

Henry V (Daniel José Molina, center) disguises himself as he interacts with his soldiers (left to right: Shaun Taylor-Corbett, Robert Vincent Frank) on the eve of battle. Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Henry V director Rosa Joshi discovered that for her assignment, “a lot of the humanity walked into the room.” The rehearsal room. At the beginning of Henry V we learn that Falstaff, one of Shakespeare’s greatest inventions, has died, and his little band of followers, who had laughed, riposted and drunk with him in Henry IV, Parts One and Two, are saddened by the news. When that happens in THIS production, which features mostly the same cast, it happens to be true in real life: G. Valmont Thomas, who played Falstaff in the two parts of Henry IV last season and had been part of the festival company for 14 season, died on December 18 last year. You can imagine the feeling the actors who worked with Thomas last year have when they learn in the play that Falstaff has died.

That’s not the only example. During the past two years, festival regulars have been able to follow Shakespeare’s story of Prince Hal, through his rowdy early days, to his moment of truth as the throne room beckons, and finally to the field of Agincourt with a small band of brothers as the might of medieval French cavalry approaches. At the same time, they have watched the growing power of a young actor, Daniel Jose Molina, as he has taken on these signature roles. That’s one of the pleasures of a repertory theater company, which can keep a company of actors together through cycles such as this one.

As King, Molina is assured, at least outwardly, but Shakespeare gives him doubts—about himself and his decisions, about the invasion of France he is undertaking, about his men. Because the play is in the smaller Thomas Theatre, we see those struggles, too, sometimes a few feet away, and then his recovery from them, how they come to define his personality as a leader. “In a democracy,” Joshi said, “we have to think about the personalities of our leaders.” Molina’s Henry V becomes a man worthy of following right in front of our eyes.

My two favorite things about his production:

Natural delivery: When Molina delivers the famous lines in the play, specifically the “we few, we happy few, we band of brothers” speech, they seem to erupt from him spontaneously, even a little haltingly. He’s not trying to give the most rousing Crispin’s Day speech possible; he’s trying to give the most honest one he can deliver. And its effect is all the greater for Molina’s approach.

Richard Hay’s moving, interlocking box set: Hay has been designing sets at the festival for 61 years. One year when I wrote for The Oregonian, I spent most of the review talking about his winsome way with stage design. This one is modular and so original that maybe Ikea should take note, signaling scene changes and reminding us that we are in the present time, watching a play written in at the turn of the 17th century about events that took place in 1415 (Shakespeare enhanced the drama by condensing events). Those boxes participate so much in the action that they almost become characters.

“Unless your classical play is speaking to our audience today, I don’t know why you are doing it,” Joshi, a founding member of Seattle’s upstart crow collective, which actively traffics in classical plays, said during the panel. This Henry V is a personal tale of the development of an English king, but, Shakespeare being Shakespeare, it forces us to consider the cost of warfare. The English triumphed at Agincourt, sure, but Henry died soon afterward, and after another 30 years or so of misadventure in France, the stage had been set for the War of the Roses in England. Shakespeare ends with an epilogue:

“Henry the Sixth, in infant bands crowned king/Of France and England, did this king succeed,/Whose state so many had the managing/That they lost France and made his England bleed,/Which oft our stage hath shown—and, for their sake,/In your fair minds let this acceptance take.” Exit

Sense and Sensibility: Underneath the pain

Maybe you’ve read Sense and Sensibility or maybe you know about the Dashwoods from the 1995 film version, directed by Ang Lee, and starring Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet, Alan Rickman and Hugh Grant, as amiable a group of actors as you’ll find in all of Devonshire, where the female vector of the Dashwoods has relocated after the death of Mr. Dashwood and his replacement as pater familias by his weak son, who sends the women packing from the family estate at the urging of his wife. See? You read a little Jane Austen and suddenly your sentence length triples!

Ye gods and little fishes, we’ll put a stop to that right now…

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival. 2018. Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen. Adapted by Kate Hamill. Directed by Hana S. Sharif. Scenic Design: Collette Pollard. Costume Design: Fabio Toblini. Lighting Design: Rui Rita. Composer and Sound Design: Justin Ellington. Dramaturg: Lydia G. Garcia. Voice and Text Director: Robert Ramirez. Choreographer: Jaclyn Miller. Assistant Choreographer: Valerie Rachelle. Fight Director: U. Jonathan Toppo. Photo: Jenny Graham.

A diverse cast gives “Sense and Sensibility” at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival a sharper edge/Photo by Jenny Graham

The stage version here is by Kate Hamill, who has made it her personal project to adapt and write plays with great parts for women. And sometimes she plays those parts herself (she originated the role of Marianne in Sense and Sensibility). I think this is called DIY. But if you go expecting a Sense and Sensibility that’s just loaded with posh British accents and an adorable cast of standard-issue white actors, well, you’re in the wrong part of Devon. It’s still a comedy, but with a cast diverse in race, ethnic origin, size, and definition of “adorable”: Suddenly the edge is a little sharper, the casual cruelty heightened, the morality tale metamorphosed into a critique of oligarchic manners and mores in Austenland. If it all doesn’t turn you into a feminist and an #occupier, well, you’re just not trying hard enough!

“Part of our job is to get underneath the text, underneath the words, underneath the pain,” director Hana S. Sharif said, about theater in general, but it applies to this Sense and Sensibility, too. Not that you should abandon hope, all ye who enter here: This is a comedy, and it ends happily, but not without the pain that Sharif, the artistic director at Baltimore Center Stage, mentioned.

Destiny of Desire: Addicted to telenovelas

Two billion earthlings of the persuasion homo sapiens watch telenovelas. Which is to say, in effect, that two billion of your fellow humans are addicted to telenovelas, a television form that resembles the American soap, except that it isn’t open-ended. The telenovela is usually wrapped up in one year, so while it’s longer than a mini-series, it’s shorter than Days of Our Lives.

Sebastian Jose Castillo (Eduardo Enrikez, left) and Pilar Esperanza Castillo (Esperanza America) share a romantic encounter. Sister Sonia (Catherine Castellanos) provides musical accompaniment in “Destiny of Desire”/Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

I bring this up because Destiny of Desire is a staged send-up of the telenovela invented by playwright Karen Zacarias, and having watched it, I can understand why they are so popular. Director José Luis Valenzuela told us that he had never watched a telenovela before he directed Destiny of Desire the first time. He started researching. He continued to research. And before he was done, he had watched 450 hours of telenovelas. “I wanted to learn the trick,” he shrugged as the audience laughed. There’s research, after all, and then there is addiction.

Destiny of Desire has all the elements of telenovela except the length: It runs an exciting 2 hours and thirty minutes of preposterous melodrama, more preposterous plot twists, children switched at birth, illnesses whose courses fit the ever-shifting plot, threats, stage violence, passion, more passion, love at first sight, yet more passion, multiple attempts to suppress all that passion by perfect stage villains, and… singing, most excellent singing by Ella Saldana North and Experaza America and Eduardo Enrikez!

Surely, that’s all you need to know? Outside of Oklahoma!, this is likely to be the hardest ticket to secure at the festival this year. It’s that much fun.

Bill Rauch is headed for New York City’s Perelman Center

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival's longtime artistic director is moving to a new performance complex on the site of the World Trade Center

Bill Rauch, the artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival since 2007, is leaving Ashland to become the first artistic director of the Perelman Center, the festival announced this morning. The Perelman Center is the performing arts component of the reconstruction on the World Trade Center site, slated to begin operations in 2020.

“The opportunity to move to New York to lead the Perelman Center is tremendously exciting,” Rauch said in a festival press release. “I’m honored to be able to create transformative art and cultivate a community gathering space at a site that has such powerful emotional resonance for our country and the world.”

Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s artistic director, Bill Rauch, is headed for New York/Photo: Oregon Shakespeare Festival/2008

Rauch transformed OSF during his tenure, turning it into a central player in the national theater scene, not just the nonprofit world, where the company’s practices regarding inclusion and its aggressive new play commissioning have spread nationwide, but also into the commercial theater scene, where Rauch-commissioned plays have frequently gone to Broadway and beyond.

“What we have collectively accomplished in the past 12 years at OSF exceeds my wildest dreams of what was possible when I first started the job,” Rauch said. “An ever-diversifying universe of actors, artisans, administrators, board members, audience members and so many more have led this Festival boldly forward to the forefront of the American theater.”

“Leaving OSF and this amazing company has been one of the most difficult decisions of my life,” Rauch continued. “The Festival and this wonderful town are where my husband and I have raised our two children together—it’s truly our home in so many senses of the word. We have been deeply impacted and changed by our time here in Ashland.”

Rauch will leave Ashland in August 2019 to take over the Perelman Center. The festival has engaged a search firm to help identify candidates to replace him.

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VizArts Monthly: February lights

Lighten your February load with the Portland Winter Light Festival and an abundance of visual arts exhibitions

Nearly everyone within earshot of these words already understands that one of the implications of the dramatic uptick in the cost of real estate and rents we’ve experienced lands directly on artists and the arts.

At City Hall, it’s apparent that Mayor Ted Wheeler and Commissioners Chloe Eudaly and Nick Fish understand it, too. “Nothing is inevitable about what we’ve achieved around the arts and culture,” Fish said at a January 9 public workshop on the issue of artists space. Fish, the commissioner responsible for the Regional Arts and Culture Council, has been working on a set of proposals—23 separate items were on his list as of January 9—to address the problem.

That plan will hit city council on February 28, and we’ll be writing about it both before and after that political event. None of the 23 items on the list require any capital expenditure by the city, which makes their passage more likely. Why the city budget is always tight is the subject for a vast treatise on political economy (I’d recommend Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Empire) and an analysis of where tax money goes. Don’t worry: I’m not going there. The pressing question for artists and arts groups priced out of Portland right now: how soon and how effectively can they alter the market and demographic forces creating the rent squeeze. So, we’ll have LOTS to talk about.

That’s one of the backdrops for this month’s First Thursday and First Friday art openings. The other is the passing of Portland’s Ursula K. Le Guin, a very great artist of the word, whose books did what every great piece of art does: connect us mind, body and spirit to our present reality and propose, directly or indirectly, alternate ones for us to consider. All of this while engaging us so completely that we aren’t thinking about any of this as we experience the work. Le Guin is a model for the artist in all of us.

OK, then, death and government policy: Not such a jolly way to enter the month’s art openings, maybe. I assure you, though, there’s less bread and circus and more serious grappling with our current dire political condition in the shows of our art galleries these days.

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Theater review: Uncle Vanya lets his hair down

Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble's rousing 'Uncle Vanya' locates the clown in Chekhov

Before Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble’s smashing version of Anton Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” takes center stage in this particular review—and it will, I promise, it will—allow me a little digression?

We all come to the theater in various states: physical, emotional, spiritual, intellectual. The theater may change one or all of those states (which is exactly what it’s intended to do!), but those states also bleed over into the play we see. At least that’s the way I understand it.

My state of mind entering Reed College’s Performing Arts Center was partly affected by a book. It is among my favorite possessions—a copy of Tolstoy’s extended essay “What Is Art?”, translated by Aylmer Maude in 1930 for the Oxford University Press’s The World’s Classics series. The book is small and deep blue and old—this edition of it was reprinted in 1950—nothing fancy or pretentious, my favorite kind of edition, like the Penguin Classics, say, or Everyman’s Library.

The scenic design for PETE’s “Uncle Vanya” is by Peter Ksander, and lighting is by Miranda k Hardy./Photo by Owen Carey

What makes this book one of my favorites, though, is its provenance. A friend and colleague picked it up at an estate sale, and on the inside cover it is inscribed in a beautiful, calligraphic hand: Lloyd J. Reynolds December 1955. Reynolds, about whom I knew nothing until I moved to Portland, famously taught at Reed College from 1929 until 1969. His subjects included creative writing, art history and the graphic arts, especially calligraphy, and his students included poets Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen, among many others. His successor at Reed, Robert Palladino, carried on the tradition, and one of Palladino’s students was Steve Jobs.

So, I loved that the book had belonged to Reynolds, but better yet, that he had marked the copy of “What Is Art?” with his own annotations, underlinings, and passages he considered particularly pertinent. It is a wonderful book in all ways.

Although I had dipped into it many times previously, I started reading it in earnest over the holidays, and so it was on my mind when I collided with PETE’s “Uncle Vanya.” And Tolstoy affected my experience of Chekhov as a result.

He would almost have to.

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VizArts Monthly: Revolving by degree

A new year opens, inch by inch, and lines of flight are revealed

The Earth inches around the sun a fraction less than one degree between December 31 and January 1, and yet somehow I still believe that something momentous has occurred. “Thank the far-flung heavens that 2017 is over,” I exclaim aloud to myself and anyone within hearing distance. People roll their eyes in agreement, make the universal gesture of disgust (raising the index and middle fingers toward the mouth), even snarl audibly—these are the times we live in. We are hoping for better, or at least no worse, a psychological imperative, maybe.

I resolve, I resolve, I resolve. And for some minutes, hours, days, under the spell of those resolutions, I may feel a new lightness in my step. All the same, I know that the environment that produced those universal gestures of disgust hasn’t changed very much during that one degree of revolution (will someone out there check my math?).

Fortunately, the culture itself, our local culture, still has the elements that offered me support during 2017, no matter how grotesque it seemed. I’ll paraphrase Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari in “A Thousand Plateaus” (and pardon me if it’s wildly inappropriate here): In 2017 there were “lines of articulation or segmentarity, strata and territories”; but I also found “lines of flight, movements of deterritorialization and destratification.” Mostly I found them manifest and represented in the creative acts of art I bumped into during the year, and even in the society itself occasionally, often prompted by a state of mind initiated by the arts.

Lines of flight. Movements of deterritorialization and destratification. Deleuze and Guattari’s book was published in 1987. And yet…I’m sifting through the experiences the culture offers looking for those same things some 30 years later. Degree by degree, as the Earth revolves. Which maybe itself is a line of flight.

Some art exhibitions opening in January that may destratify your consciousness?

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