Bob Hicks

 

Ka-ching: Money for the NEA

Bucking the Trump administration's call to eliminate federal funding for the arts and humanities, Congress approves a slight raise for each

FRIDAY, MARCH 23 UPDATE: It’s a done deal. President Trump signed the spending bill into law after first threatening to veto it on Friday morning in a move that “left both political parties in Washington reeling and his own aides bewildered about Mr. Trump’s contradictory actions.”

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Money makes the world go ’round, as the song from Cabaret puts it, and that includes the cultural world, which seems perpetually a day late and a dollar short in the distribution of it. It tends to be a case of trickle-down in reverse: Because museums and performance organizations generally exist on lean budgets – especially in the United States, where government cultural support pales compared to that in most European countries – ticket prices spike and the artists themselves are often poorly paid.

The museum world has been abuzz about the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s decision to charge non-New Yorkers $25 for admission, scrapping a decades-old policy of charging a “suggested” donation that allowed people of limited means (plus a few freeloaders) to engage with great art. The museum responds, in a nutshell, that it has no choice: It has to cover its costs.

Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey performing “Money Makes the World Go
‘Round” in the 1972 movie version of “Cabaret.”

Ticket prices on Broadway are routinely high enough to scrape the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, but in the sellers’ market for a hot property like Hamilton they soar to obscene levels, mitigated slightly in national touring productions like the one that settled into Portland’s Keller Auditorium on Tuesday. (Look for T.J. Acena’s ArtsWatch review soon, and catch Amy Wang’s interview in The Oregonian with Joseph Morales, who stars as Hamilton in this version and began his theatrical career at Southern Oregon University, playing the Emcee in Cabaret.)

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DramaWatch Weekly: Hamilton-plus

Lin-Manuel Miranda's Broadway mega-hit grabs the spotlight. But Portland and Ashland stages are overflowing with other top bets, too.

Don’t look now, but the two-ton elephant’s about to plop down in the living room. That’s right: Hamilton, the touring version of the Broadway mega-hit, opens on Tuesday, March 20, in Portland’s Keller Auditorium for 24 performances through April 8, and if you don’t have your tickets yet – well, good luck. That pencils out to 72,000 available seats, and most of them are long gone.

So you’re on the outside looking in: How to score a ticket? Lottery, baby! Every performance will have 40 tickets available for 10 bucks each, and you can hit the lottery line for each show two days in advance, starting Sunday for opening night. Here’s the link. Or, you could go through one of the ticket-resale sites and offer your first-born child, your mother-in-law, and a case of Eyrie 1975 South Block Pinot noir.

Shoba Narayan, Ta’Rea Campbell and Nyla Sostre head for Portland with the “Hamilton” national touring company. Photo © Joan Marcus 2018

Veteran West Coast theater critic Misha Berson saw the company during its Seattle run before its Puddletown engagement and filed this report for ArtsWatch readers. “Hamilton comes at you at 100 miles per hour, a power vehicle running on all cylinders,” she writes. “It’s the theatrical equivalent of IMAX but all human, all live, and with none of the techno-tricks designed to hypnotize and overwhelm. What seduces you here is a group of mostly black actors in velvet breeches and ruffled shirts, singing ‘I’m not throwing away my shot!’ with a visceral intensity you can feel from the balcony, and an array of drifting, be-gowned young women exhorting you to ‘Look around, look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now’.”

Go ahead: Mortgage the house. Or you could get lucky in the lottery.

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Two Trains, hambone not included

PassinArt's revival of August Wilson's "Two Trains Running" delves into the destruction of a black neighborhood. Oh: it's warm and funny, too.

“I want my ham!” a fellow named Hambone shouts as he stands near the entrance of Memphis Lee’s diner in the Hill District of Pittsburgh. He pauses, gathers energy, then shouts again, louder and more intense this time, in a voice that could shatter steel: “I WANT MY HAM!

In Two Trains Running, PassinArt: A Theatre Company’s new revival at the Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center of August Wilson’s majestic and surprisingly funny 1990 play, Hambone’s been loudly wanting his ham every day for nine and a half years, since the shopkeeper across the street from the diner promised him one for some manual labor and then offered him a chicken instead, saying he hadn’t done the work well enough to earn the ham.

Hambone, played with brilliant physical intensity and attention to detail by Tim Golden, knows better: a deal’s a deal, and he carried out his end. So every morning he goes to the shopkeeper and demands his ham, and every morning the shopkeeper offers him a chicken instead, and every morning Hambone refuses the chicken and walks across the street to Memphis’ diner and shouts “I want my ham!,” and then sits down while the waitress, Risa, gets him a cup of coffee and maybe a bowl of soup.

We are a people made of rituals, and some rituals stick stronger than others.

Wrick Jones (left) as Memphis, Kenneth Dembo as Wolf, Cycerli Ash as Risa in PassinArt’s “Two Trains Running.” Photo: Jerry Foster

Two Trains Running, like all of Wilson’s cycle of plays about African American life in the 20th century, is filled with symbolism and metaphor and tall-tale exaggeration, and it’s structured so musically that you can almost imagine the cast singing it. Director William Earl Ray’s PassinArt actors play the thing a bit like a good blues band, delivering their lines in an array of timbres, tones, and speeds, from the quizzical uptick of veteran Wrick Jones’s Memphis to the mirthful jangle of Kenneth Dembo’s bookie Wolf to the deliberative modulations of Jerry Foster’s undertaker/real-estate player West. If Golden’s booming Hambone holds down the bass line, Jones’s rat-a-tat-tat in Memphis’ angry or exasperated moments provides the snares. James Dixon as the young just-out-of-prison swain Sterling is the slide trombone noodling around the staccato cornet jabs of Cycerli Ash’s Risa, who skitters away a little closer every time she hears that sound. On opening night Saturday director Ray was on book as the old-timer Holloway, having just taken over the role. His voice was still developing: keyboards, maybe, filling in the chords.

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ArtsWatch: Covering more with less

Oregon's cultural scene is stronger and more diverse than it's ever been. But who is telling the stories? ArtsWatch seeks to fill the gap.

On the last Saturday morning in January, as Portland was alight with the Fertile Ground Festival of New Plays and dozens of other significant cultural events, I gave a talk to a good-sized crowd at Terwilliger Plaza, titled “Portland Arts: Covering More With Less.” In it, I talked about the city’s growth in population and culture over the past four decades, the decline of mainstream media’s willingness and ability to reflect those radical changes, and the role that Oregon ArtsWatch plays in providing readers a context for the city and state’s vastly larger and more complex cultural scene. Here is the text of that talk.

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THE CULTURAL LIFE OF PORTLAND AND OREGON has never been stronger or more varied than it is today. And yet, surprisingly, this explosion of creativity sometimes seems to be taking place in a vacuum, with scant public notice, especially in the press. How has this seeming disconnection come about? I want to try to bring three threads together to help explain it, and to suggest a way to amplify the creative voices that are reshaping the city’s identity.

The first thread is Portland’s evolution from a big town to a small city, and the boom in arts and culture that’s gone along with that.

The second thread is the catastrophic weakening of traditional journalism, not just in Portland but across the country and beyond. Newspapers are dying a slow and painful death, or surviving on C-Rations as they try to figure out how to find their way in a digital world. Except for a few largely national publications such as the New York Times, cultural coverage has taken a huge hit in the process. It’s all but disappearing from many newspapers and continuing to be largely a non-starter on for-profit television, which has rarely found a way to cover arts and culture intelligently. So, just at the time when Portland’s cultural scene is undergoing something of a scrappy cultural renaissance, mainstream media coverage of the arts is lower than it’s been in decades.

The third thread is Oregon ArtsWatch, the online cultural site where I’m a writer and a senior editor. ArtsWatch has stepped into the void to provide smart reporting and commentary about everything from the art museum and opera to experimental dance and theater and the rich vein of Oregon contemporary composers. You can find us easily online. We are ORARTSWATCH.ORG.

Are we small? Almost every group we cover has a bigger budget, often ten or twenty or a hundred-fold.

Are we scrappy? Although a few of us work well more than full-time on this, everything we produce is done freelance, and almost every penny we raise goes directly to writers or editors. More money, more writers, more stories. It’s as simple as that.

Are we ambitious? We have plans to deepen and broaden our coverage, and to make the “Oregon” part of our title more of a reality than an aspiration. It’s a big state, and while we’ll always focus on the greater Portland area we want to explore all of Oregon’s cultural parts.

 

Railway worker Tom Stefopoulos and his outdoor art at the Lovejoy Columns.

 

I’m going to talk today less about specific stories ArtsWatch has written or even the specific arts movements and events we write about, and try instead to give you an idea of the more and the less of how the city and its culture grew to the point that ArtsWatch came into existence, and why I think it’s a good thing that we did. It’s going to take a bit of meandering to get there.

All of us at ArtsWatch come from different backgrounds and places, and I think that’s part of our strength.

I’m a native Northwesterner, born in Centralia, Washington, which happened to have the closest hospital to the little foothills farm where my parents had moved from the San Francisco Bay Area after my father had finished his four-year engagement with the Second World War. Farming proved better in the abstract than the actuality, and I grew up not as a farm kid but as a townie, in a very small town near the Canadian border and North Puget Sound, surrounded by Norwegians and Swedes and members of the Lummi nation, and many more churches than beer halls. It was a good place to grow up, and a good place to grow out of.

We were a working-class family, with seven kids, and although we were far from any cultural center, thinking and learning always came first. Everybody read. Libraries were our friends. We were free as children to read anything in our parents’ home library, which was small but well-selected. My mother had studied art history at San Francisco State College, and I pored over the books she’d kept, with all those magnificent paintings from places I’d never been. We had no television but took two daily newspapers, and also subscribed to the local weekly, where I began my journalism career as a sophomore in high school covering high school sports for two bucks a week. Minus taxes. College happened, and some bumming around, and I found myself in the newspaper racket, where in 1974, when I was working for a morning daily in Upstate New York, I got a call from the old Oregon Journal, Portland’s afternoon daily, offering me a job for twice what I was making. I said yes, packed up the Ford Pinto, and drove cross-country in February, back to the West Coast.

I was 26 years old, and I’ve been here since. I thought I’d spend a couple of years and then move on to Seattle or San Francisco. Portland seemed small and stifling in comparison. Instead I stuck around and grew up with the town. I might’ve left yet, if someone, in those first couple of years, hadn’t taken me down to the underbelly of old Northwest Portland, long before the Pearl District was a gleam in anyone’s eye, and showed me the Lovejoy Columns. The columns were hidden jewels beneath a viaduct near the Broadway Bridge, where the Greek-immigrant railway worker Tom Stefopoulos had created a universe in chalk of mythological and historical drawings.

It was sort of like the Sistine Chapel in reverse: Instead of high and open and famous, it was low and hidden and secret. It had dirt beneath its fingernails. I remember thinking something interesting was happening here, after all. This was a fascinating Portland I hadn’t known existed.

 

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Thread One: Big Town to Small City

 

WHEN I MOVED HERE Portland seemed like the kind of place that people from the small towns and countryside moved to, not because they wanted to be in a city, really, but because the small towns were drying up and this was where they could find a job. Once you got beneath things it was raw – genuinely raw, not cute keep-Portland-weird raw – with an underbelly that the city’s elite tried to hide under a tea towel, but it kept poking out. In 1970 the city’s population was 382,000 and the metropolitan area was barely over a million. Today the city has about 640,000 people, and the metro area’s pushing 2.5 million.

About a million of those people have been added just since 1990. To let that sink in, since 1970 the metro area’s grown almost 250 percent. Still small compared to the Bay Area or Greater Seattle or L.A., and yet a very different place from 40 years ago. And it is only going to get bigger, with all of the problems and opportunities that come with size.

Culturally, 40 years ago, most everything was West Side, and most of that downtown. Even inner east side Portland, where I’ve lived most of my years here, might as well have been Boise. The Portland Art Museum was here, and sort of stolid. The symphony was filled with part-time players. The opera stuck to the war horses. There were three or four good art-movie houses, one actually called The Movie House.

Chamber Music Northwest was a feisty little summer festival on the Reed campus, performing in the school cafeteria, which had no air conditioning. I remember one hot night, sitting cross-legged and sweaty on the cafeteria floor, when one of the visiting musicians, during a break in the program, suddenly started shouting to the crowd: “What are you doing sitting in here listening to us play? You’re living in Paradise! The mountains are right there! The ocean’s right there! That’s where the music is! Go out and be in them!”

I’m not sure whether he was invited back for the next summer’s festival.

 

Oregon Gov. Tom McCall giving his farewell speech to the Portland City Club in December 1974, at the end of his second and final term. Far more noted for his environmental accomplishments, McCall made his most memorable contribution to the arts with his free, state-sponsored rock festival “Vortex I: A Biodegradable Festival of Life,” which drew somewhere between 30,000 and 100,000 (estimates vary wildly) mostly young revelers to a state park near Estacada in 1970 in an effort to draw potential conflict away from a national American Legion convention and mass march in downtown Portland. Photo: Oregon Historical Society

 

There were a few small amateur or semiprofessional theater companies, which sometimes did terrific work, and a small and underfunded dance scene. Some interesting things were taking place, like the legendary PCVA, the Portland Center for the Visual Arts. From 1972 to 1987 it provided a vital link between Portland’s contemporary arts scene and what was happening in New York and beyond. The city’s parks department operated a series of little neighborhood centers that nurtured small-scale theater and dance and visual art, and lots of arts classes for kids and adults. Artists liked living here because it was cheap and you could try things out.

Portland was a town to begin things, and often a town to reinvent the wheel. It felt like an unfinished place, certainly not a polished place. But it had that grit. And it had a lot of room to grow.

The town DID grow. So did its art scene, which became broader and deeper and much more varied. The city still thrives on a kind of alt-culture sensibility, with big organizations but also a lot of small companies and individual artists striking out on their own. Small is very, very big in Portland.

But the art scene is both vastly larger and much more complex than it was in the 1970s. It reflects the city and the nation better than it did when the town was more ingrown. African American and Hispanic and Asian American and Native American artists are prominent. Women artists have a much stronger impact. And people are much more aware of the work these artists are doing.

When I started writing about theater in Portland, a few people were doing original shows. Ric Young and others were creating new works, some of them quite splendid, at Storefront Theatre. Charles Deemer was writing interesting, usually Oregon-set plays for a variety of companies. Sam Shepard was still in San Francisco, and people here were producing his vivid new American plays almost as soon as they were available. The New Vaudeville movement was in full flower, adding circus skills and acrobatics and mime and juggling and puppetry and countercultural politics to the performance scene. But the emphasis was on revivals (sometimes very good ones) of European and American classics.

 

When avant-garde met old guard: Ric Young’s “Camille” at Portland Civic Theatre, 1979.

 

FLASH FORWARD TO 2018. Right now we’re in the middle of the ninth annual Fertile Ground Festival of New Works, which sprawls across the metro area and includes more than a hundred new plays and other performance works. Almost every established company in town includes at least one new play, and sometimes more, in its season.

And the city has more than a hundred theater companies producing shows at least occasionally, according to the membership rolls of the Portland Area Theatre Alliance. New-music groups playing the music of contemporary composers are proliferating, many of them made up of players whose main gig is with the Oregon Symphony. I can scarcely count the number of art galleries. When I came to town there were the Fountain and a couple of others, including one, the Image Gallery, that was run by the irascible painter and very good printmaker Jack McLarty and his wife Barbara. And Portland has become an attractor city. Younger people, many of them part of the creative industries that are driving much of the economy and interlinking with the city’s arts scene, are moving here in droves, because they like the IDEA of Portland, whatever that idea might be.

So. Not New York, not Chicago, not San Francisco or L.A. But for a major-minor city – we’re ranked these days as the 23rd biggest metro area in the nation – Portland punches above its cultural weight. At its best it reflects a sturdy regional flavor that is also fully aware of national and international trends.

And you’d think the newspapers and other news outlets would be hopping with stories about it. But don’t forget Thread Two of this little saga: the breakdown of the Press.

 

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Thread Two: Media Collapse

 

PORTLAND’S NEW VITALITY has come at a time, to extend the boxing metaphor, when the nation’s traditional media are on the ropes. Into the 1990s urban newspapers were riding high. At The Oregonian the joke was that we were in the business of printing money, and it was only barely a joke. Newspaper profit margins were almost obscenely high.

In The Oregonian’s culture sections we were living in a golden age, although we didn’t realize it at the time – we always felt we needed more staff, more space, more budget, more freedom from senior editors’ expectations, to explore what was really going on. At our height we had full-time critics covering visual arts, architecture, classical music, popular music, theater, movies, television. We had a literary editor and chief critic with a good-sized budget to assign reviews of new books. We had a large freelance budget so we could cover dance, which did not have a full-time staff writer, and send writers out to cover stories the staff writers couldn’t get to. We had a vast calendar of events with its own staff, and we had the essential luxury of attached staff feature writers on the lookout for cultural stories. We traveled up and down the West Coast, and to New York and Chicago and Louisville and Houston and London and even Russia and China and the Baltic States on the trail of stories. We had several editors, and good copy editors and designers.

And then the Internet happened. And readership plummeted, and advertising revenue dried up. Newspapers used to make a mint publishing classified advertisements. All of that went to the Web. Poof! No more mint.

 

Poster for the original film version of “The Front Page,” 1931: It’s history now. Wikimedia Commons

 

THE STRUGGLE IS REAL, and it is daunting. Tens of thousands of good journalists have left the business or been pushed out, moving on to be government spokespersons or freelancers or entrepreneurs or teachers or just taking early retirement. We are the coal miners of white-collar America, with no regulatory help from the President, who observes our weakness with glee.

The newspaper industry got caught with its pants down. It didn’t see the train coming down the tracks, and by the time the train smacked broadside into it, it was too late. The damage had been done.

That is very painful for journalists. It is crucially harmful for the nation’s citizens, who are now seeing a full-on attack from the highest levels on freedom of the press, and the grossly cynical coining of the term “fake news” to describe, usually, what is actually the opposite, and the passing off of true fakery as the real deal.

There are signs that the forced compact between the Internet giants and the traditional news organizations that provide them with their mostly free feeds may be shifting. The pattern that’s set in is simple: Traditional news organizations do the hard work of gathering the news and paying the workers who do it. Tech companies like Facebook then link to those stories, with no compensation to their originators. Readers click on the stories online, usually bypassing the news organizations’ own web pages, which are sometimes free and sometimes have a pay wall.

That pattern may be about to change. Earlier this week Bloomberg View published a story titled “Tech Is Starting To Lose Its War on Journalism.” One of the story’s unlikely heroes is Rupert Murdoch, head of the News Corporation, which for years has been mistrusted as a slanted and politically motivated source of information. But politics, and business, make strange bedfellows.

“If Facebook wants to recognize ‘trusted’ publishers then it should pay those publishers a carriage fee similar to the model adopted by cable companies,” the Bloomberg story quoted Murdoch. “The publishers are obviously enhancing the value and integrity of Facebook through their news and content but are not being adequately rewarded for those services. Carriage payments would have a minor impact on Facebook’s profits but a major impact on the prospects for publishers and journalists.”

In other words: Internet, don’t kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.

Will such a change actually take place? Maybe. Maybe not. Even if it does it seems likely only to modify the current balance of power, not shift it back to news organizations. And it is much more likely to benefit large national publications than regional and local ones. There are other ways to shift things. Like finding a billionaire angel. Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, bought the Washington Post and bailed it out of a deep financial hole. It’s now doing excellent journalism. Still, it’s troubling that ownership has shifted to a leading player in a financially and politically powerful industry that a newspaper like the Post ordinarily would be watching like a hawk.

In Portland, The Oregonian has reacted in several ways to the financial woes that have beset the industry. It’s cut down to four days of paper delivery a week, placing its bets on its Internet branch, Oregon Live, which it hasn’t substantially beefed up. And it’s gone mostly local in its coverage, although the astounding national events of the past year have forced it to draw back from that a little. Still, it thinks local first, believing it can provide vital local information not available or hard to find elsewhere. Yet it’s trying to do that with a sharply reduced and clearly overworked staff.

And it has slashed its cultural coverage. That seems a huge mistake. What can be more local than a place’s specific cultural life? What more defines what a place is? Having decided to go local, The Oregonian should have put more and more emphasis on the city’s creative and cultural life. Instead, it’s cut that coverage to the bone. (Or to the rib bone: It’s still big on covering the restaurant scene.) To be fair, it’s hardly been alone in that. Newspapers across the country have done the same thing. And so, we begin to live in a nation that is bigger and messier and less informed and more susceptible to angry voices, and does not know itself.

 

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Thread Three: Oregon ArtsWatch

 

MY LONGTIME FRIEND and colleague Barry Johnson and I worked side by side for more than twenty years at The Oregonian. Barry started ArtsWatch in 2011. He did it mostly on his own, with a couple of grants and a few helpers and the idea that if cultural journalism was going to work in a town like Portland, maybe the best way to go at it was as a nonprofit organization. Money would come from memberships – sort of along the public television line, without the pledge drives – advertising, individual donations, and grants from foundations and government agencies. That’s pretty much how things still work, on a very lean budget that grows a little bit each year. We spend only what we have. We have no debt.

What do our readers get for it?

We write extensively about classical music in Oregon, concentrating much of our energy on contemporary classical, a lot of it produced by Oregon composers and musicians. Less completely, we cover jazz and world music, too.

We cover theater deeply, with reviews, profiles, insider accounts and commentary.

We cover the city’s very busy dance scene, and sometimes dance in Eugene and elsewhere, too.

We write about visual art, including profiles of individual artists, gallery reviews, and news and reviews about museums, among them the Portland Art Museum, the Hallie Ford Museum in Salem, the Maryhill Museum in the Columbia Gorge, and sometimes the Jordan Schnitzer Museum in Eugene.

We write less often about film, television, and the literary arts. We would like to write about them more. When we have the resources, we will. We cover arts politics when the need arises. And we cover everything from a variety of points of view. We can’t hope to cover everything. We want everything we DO cover to count.

IN SHORT, WE PROVIDE a lot of views, from a lot of people, about a lot of art. Our executive director, Laura Grimes, did a count of our contributing writers recently. We have about forty-five – some regular, some now and again. And they come from all over — from Berkeley to Philadelphia to New York City to Germany to the Midwest to the whistle stop of towns that an Air Force family moves through, and beyond. They are jazz saxophonists, art historians, dancers, essayists, singers, biographers, photographers, academics, montage artists, composers, students, poets, actors, small-press editors, drag clowns, members of gamelan orchestras — a lot of experiences, a lot of approaches to the art of writing. Some of us come out of traditional journalism. Some of us come out of the arts world. One of the editors’ jobs is to try to connect the right writer with the right story at the right time.

I’m thrilled when I see good arts and cultural coverage in other publications. The Oregonian’s entertainment editor, Amy Wang, makes the most of the extremely limited resources the newspaper allows her. The Eugene Weekly, in particular, does a fine job of covering the culture in its city. I believe there is no better or more consistent source of cultural reporting and comment in Oregon than ArtsWatch right now.

The collapse of mainstream journalism in Portland – and ArtsWatch is hardly mainstream; people have to take the time to find us – has among many other things changed the relationship between arts groups and cultural journalists. When ArtsWatch began we were less interested in writing traditional reviews than in finding other ways to illuminate the city’s cultural life. Personal essays. Profiles and interviews. Long takes on stories that might be considered obsessions in the mainstream press, but that allowed writers to stretch out and explore the territory.

One of my own first pieces for ArtsWatch, in January of 2012, was titled “Down the rabbit hole: Melody Owen makes a book,” and it was very much down a rabbit hole, about the opening gala for the release of a talented artist’s quirky book called “The Looking Glass Book,” an assemblage of collages she made out of twenty years’ worth of collected images relating to her obsession with the works of Lewis Carroll. Along the way the essay also got into the strange story of the Publication Studio, where Owen’s book was published, and which successfully does things in a way that most of the publishing world would find counterintuitive at the least. In all probability I never would have had the time or priority to write such a story at The Oregonian. It remains one of my favorites.

 

A strange little rabbit: Illustration from Melody Owen’s “Looking Glass Book.”

 

We still encourage and write this sort of story. But as mainstream coverage began to disappear, arts groups let us know that they wanted, needed, reviews. And so we began to emphasize reviews, sometimes to a greater degree than we really wanted. Readers, of course, also wanted reviews: they remain the bread and butter of arts coverage. But we try to make them more than simple thumbs-up, thumbs-down pieces.

Our reviews, when they hit the mark, are really essays that take the performance or the exhibition as a starting point for cultural exploration. Sometimes the arts groups like that and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes, we suspect, what they really want is good quotes for their grant applications and advertising campaigns. Of course it’s always nice if things turn out that way, but it isn’t our first priority. We continue to believe that honest engagement is better in the long run for everybody – readers, writers, and artists.

I’VE TOSSED AROUND THE WORD “CULTURE” quite a bit. There are two kinds of culture, and I think they overlap. One is more or less a synonym for “the arts.” We talk about the cultural life: going to the opera and symphony and theater and museum. The second meaning is much broader: culture as the belief patterns and history and habits of a society; culture as a crucial engagement in community life. Part of what we write about at ArtsWatch is Definition No. 1, the aesthetic life. But we also believe quite strongly in Definition No. 2 – that everything in Definition No. 1 reflects and helps shape and is shaped by its engagement in the communal life of the entire society.

No man is an island, entire of itself. No work of art is, either. We want our stories and ideas always to connect. And that means we want them to take a broad view. A new piece of music has been premiered. What does it mean in context? How does it fit? A stripped-down production of Bertolt Brecht’s 1944 play “The Caucasian Chalk Circle,” which came out of a specific time and situation, takes place in a Southeast Portland warehouse in the fall of 2017. What does it mean in a city like Portland on a day like today, under the political and cultural realities of today’s United States? We’re not a magazine, but in certain ways we want to think like a magazine: write about now, but with an eye on the future and the past.

ArtsWatch is growing and changing all the time, as any good publication should. And we’re always looking for new talent.

We look for people who know their subject and can learn to write. We look for people who are writers and can learn their subject. We look for people who already have both. We look for people with a variety of cultural and racial backgrounds.

And we look for younger people, who might be able to take this thing over and keep it going through changing times. Metro, the Portland regional government, predicts a metropolitan population of more than 3 million by 2035. If more of the nation grows insufferably hot and water supplies dwindle as climate change takes hold, that estimate could be modest: people will be flocking to those parts of the country that still have a decent water supply. How would that change Portland and Oregon? What shifts would it make in their culture – both kinds of culture?

I’m hoping Oregon ArtsWatch will be on hand, bigger and better than it is now, to help people sort it all out.

 

Portland’s August occasions

The great playwright August Wilson takes the spotlight in Red Door's high-school monologues and PassinArt's gala and "Two Trains"

We’re in the middle of August Wilson Week in Portland, which is a very good place to be.

On Friday, PassinArt: A Theatre Company opens the great American playwright’s Two Trains Running at the Interstate Firehouse Center.

On Monday evening before a packed audience in the Newmark Theatre, the August Wilson Red Door Project held its fifth annual high school Monologue Competition, choosing two winners and an alternate to move on to the nationals at the August Wilson Theatre on Broadway in New York.

On Saturday evening in a ballroom at the DoubleTree by Hilton near Lloyd Center, PassinArt celebrated its annual gala, Sweet Taste of the Arts, with a healthy crowd that included, among many others, Two Trains Running director William Earl Ray and the superb veteran actor J.P. Phillips, who is also riding the trains.

And with just a little patience, the August Wilson celebration extends: On May 2, Portland Playhouse will open its revival of his Pulitzer- and Tony-winning Fences. It’ll be the seventh of Wilson’s “American Century Cycle” of ten plays, each from a different decade of the 20th century, that the Playhouse has presented for Portland audiences – a gratifying and illuminating feat. Those plays – in addition to Two Trains Running and Fences they include Gem of the Ocean, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, The Piano Lesson, Seven Guitars, Jitney, King Hedley II, and Radio Golf – constitute one of the great achievements of the American theater, and for that matter, of American literature and culture.

Wilson’s plays are vital historic documents, and they are still urgently current, as a story by Tracy Jan earlier this week in the Washington Post makes clear. Report: No progress for African Americans on homeownership, unemployment and incarceration in 50 years, it’s headlined, and it underlines both the disturbing intransigence of America’s racial divide and the continuing need for honest, revealing, compelling stories about ordinary life in all of the nation’s communities.

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Jump for joy: August Wilson monologue winners, from left: third place winner Alyssa Marchant, first place winner Noreena McCleave, second place winner Kai Tomizawa. Wade Owens Photography

Both the August Wilson Monologue Competition and PassinArt’s gala were intensely community events, art growing from the connections among place and people and time. Communities, of course, are both fluid and interlocking, and can be expanded or carried with you when you leave. In Wilson’s case it begins in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, the economically teetering but culturally vibrant African American/Jewish/Italian neighborhood where he grew up and where most of his plays are set. But really, it begins further back, on the slave ships, in the fields and plantation houses (his great and mystical character Aunt Ester is 285 years old when we first meet her in Gem of the Ocean, and lasts through several plays and about 60 more years beyond that), along the route of the Great Migration that brought so many emancipated but not fully free African Americans out of the rural South and into the urban North, bringing their hopes and songs and stories with them.

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NEA and NEH, on the chopping block again

Trump's budget proposal eliminates the national endowments for the arts and humanities, and public broadcasting – but it's not a done deal

“It’s unlikely but not impossible,” I wrote four days ago in the ArtsWatch story A little money for the arts, “that the [National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities], which have been targets of the fiscal and social right almost since they were created in 1965, could end up on the chopping block again. They are pawns in a much larger game, and increasingly, powerful political players are unafraid to sacrifice their pawns in search of bigger victories on the board.”

That was Thursday. Today is Monday. Pass the mustard so I can eat my words: “Unlikely” was a word choice of undue optimism.

In his new federal budget proposal for fiscal year 2019 released today, President Trump has once again called for elimination of both endowments and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, another longtime target of the political right. The 22 agencies targeted in the budget proposal for elimination, according to The Hill, also include the Institute of Museum and Library Services, as well as programs that help fund low-income and after-school learning centers, several education programs, the Global Climate Change Initiative, and public health programs such as the Chemical Safety Board.

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No fool like an old fool

Milagro rediscovers a long-lost comedy from 18th century Mexico and takes it for a brash and funny 21st century spin in commedia clothing

The masks tease, the movements lurch, the dialogue bursts forth like water from a breached linguistic dam: it takes about ninety bedazzling seconds to realize you’re not in American-realism Kansas anymore. Friday’s opening-night performance at Milagro Theatre of Fermín de Reygadas’ 1789 comedy Astucias por heredar un sobrino a un tío (it translates, literally, as Tricks for inheriting a nephew to an uncle) is theater that revels in the theatricality of the artificial, wallowing in playful exaggeration and absurd variations on familiar themes.

I’m OK with that. I’m well more than OK with it: I’m delighted by it, and by Milagro’s funny, breezy, rough-and-tumble production. Astucias por heredar has a brusque vigor that feels like a tumble back in time to some theatrical beginnings, to the days of the traveling commedia dell’arte troupes of the 16th century and beyond, with their stock characters, instantly recognizable costumes, and populist appeal. Molière, whose plays Astucias resembles more than a little, added structure and witty verse dialogue and transferred the action to the French upper and aspiring classes. Even some of Shakespeare’s early plays, like The Taming of the Shrew, were influenced by commedia, and the old English Punch & Judy shows were commedia on a puppet platform. The form’s influence lives on in some of our best situation comedies, like the crisply stylized and brilliantly exaggerated Frasier.

Back row, from left: Bibiana Lorenzo Johnston, Marian Méndez. Front, from left: Carlos Adrián Manzano, Vorónika Nuñez, Enrique Andrade, Yan Collazo, Sara Fay Goldman. Photo: Russell J Young

Astucias por heredar has a pretty preposterous, and true, history of its own. Though it’s set in Madrid, it was one of the early plays written in the New World: Reygadas was a Spanish poet, playwright, astronomer and mining specialist (his true bread and butter) who emigrated to Mexico in the 1780s and remained a prominent figure there for the rest of his life. He wrote Astucias in 1789 and submitted it to the censorship board in Mexico City, where, the following year, a Father Ramón de Rincón denied permission for it to be performed, because, well, that’s what censors do (cue the current semi-official campaign in the United States to muzzle the free press). The good priest possibly considered the play dangerous because the rich old uncle is a lecher and a fool; the women and the servants contrive his comeuppance, thus endangering the stability of class and male privilege; severe flirting and bawdy suggestion occur; and, well, you know: it might undermine the Natural Order of Things. In other words, comedy.

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