Becoming Welcome: giving center stage to all artists

A contentious review sparks a critical conversation about Portland arts

by MARY McDONALD-LEWIS

Editor’s note: ArtsWatch invited Mary McDonald-Lewis to write this essay based on a meeting at Artists Repertory Theatre of members of Resonance Ensemble and others with our editors. She speaks for herself and the group in her response to ArtsWatch’s original review of the Resonance concert, ArtsWatch’s subsequent response to complaints about it, and the ongoing implications of both.

The Circle Gathers

Studio 2 at Artists Repertory Theatre was tense. It was a hot day on the last Friday in July, and the air was close, but that wasn’t why.

Mary McDonald-Lewis

In an uneven circle, 11 people, many strangers to one another, arrive in ones and twos to review a tough month in Portland’s arts world. Entering the room are a mixed group from varied backgrounds and professions, but they all have one thing on their mind: a review that caught fire on the virtual pages of Oregon ArtsWatch, and that continued to spark controversy and division in the arts community.

The Review Read ‘Round The City

On June 24th, Resonance Ensemble, helmed by Artistic Director Katherine FitzGibbon, presented a concert featuring local artists addressing the theme of loss. Included was a composition by Renée Favand-See, a musical telling of her journey after the death of her newborn son Owen. The choir also performed works from Dominick DiOrio, Jake Runestad, and Steven Sametz. Greg Ewer performed Bach’s Chaconne on the violin, with Jennifer Craig and David Saffert also contributing to the evening. Actor Vin Shambry performed three pieces, including his own song “Brother Man,” and Nikole Potulsky performed “Baby Mine,” about the loss of her own, and two friends’ infant children.

Resonance Ensemble’s Katherine FitzGibbon. Photo: Rachel Hadiashar.

A review came out on July 3rd, penned by Terry Ross, a longtime classical music critic. It began, “Be careful with your programming.” Ross went on to chastise FitzGibbon, writing “what might have been a cohesive program of music in support of the featured selection, a very well-crafted piece by a local composer, became a very mixed bag of good, bad, and boring music.” And indeed, while Ross praised several performances, he gave poor marks to others.

Two artists fared worst of all. The first was Nikole Potulsky’s work, with Ross writing “…there is no excuse for presenting Nikole Potulsky’s amateurish and lame three-minute song ‘Baby Mine,’ which the composer sang, accompanying herself (amateurishly) on guitar, on which her repertoire consisted of three chords (I-IV-V). However unfortunate it was that Ms. Potulsky was mourning the death of three babies — in her own miscarriage and in a friend’s and a cousin’s still-births — there’s no reason to allow empathy to overrule musical taste and judgment.”

Actor Vin Shambry’s song was also lambasted: “Shambry’s second monologue … was wildly off-target in its impersonation, in a slow, rhythmic rap style, of a Black Lives Matter screed about life on the ghetto’s mean streets and murderous cops, although blacks were not, to my recollection, specifically mentioned. This small bit of actorly free expression was desperately out of place and unwelcome in this setting.”

Vin Shambry

Almost immediately readers began to comment, the conversation turning to the perceived classism, racism and sexism of the article. Artists, critics, audience members, and (full transparency) I waded into the debate. Sides were taken, and tempers flared.

Read the entire review and the comments following it: http://bit.ly/2vW1FMf.

Over 11 days, comments shot back and forth. Oregon ArtsWatch staff remained silent.

The Circle Closes

In Studio 2, Vin Shambry has set up the chairs. Katherine FitzGibbon and Liz Bacon Brownson of Resonance join the circle, as do OAW’s Brett Campbell, Bob Hicks and Barry Johnson. Kisha Jarrett, Audience Development and Events Manager at Artists Rep (also a writer and director) takes a seat. Arriving one by one are the Rep’s director of new play development and dramaturgy and others including Luan Schooler, actor Damien Geter, and me, Mary McDonald-Lewis, the resident voice and text director at Artists Rep.

Vin starts the conversation. He and FitzGibbon had coffee with Terry Ross that morning, where they tried to find commonalities with the critic. They report mixed reviews on the outcome.

Nevertheless, they met. They talked. And now the key players in this real-life drama are going to talk some more.

The thoughts circle, spiraling back over themes of the blindness of privilege, of the place of the critic, of free speech, of crossing the line, of ignorantly promulgating racism in the very place we should, must be free of it. At issue. At the heart of it all. Where the living wound lies, and the metaphor extends a cruel embrace, Ross’s line: “unwelcome in this setting.” The erasure of an African American artist, the erasure of a man, a father, a citizen of Portland. Unwelcome, Nikole Potulsky, whose “amateur” song about her baby’s “unfortunate” death had no place in this concert about loss, because it was a “lame” folk song, not a classical composition. Erased: a mother and her child.

Unwelcome is the word those in the circle state, try to spit out, and continue to chew on.

It’s muggy in Studio 2 at Artists Rep, but the circle keeps talking.

Oregon Arts Watch Apologizes

On July 18, two weeks after Ross’ review was published, OAW posted a response titled “The Art of Inclusion: ArtsWatch apologizes for concert review’s errors of judgment and fact.” The timing of the article was deliberate, the editors wrote: “To give our readers the chance to express themselves, we have let that battle play out before weighing in ourselves.”

The editors apologized directly to the artists and to their readership for the tenor of Ross’ review. But in an ironic twist, when citing a quote within the apology, they inadvertently included one of the quote’s authors, Katherine FitzGibbon, and not the other: Vin Shambry, whose name was quickly added after FitzGibbon notified ArtsWatch.

The article and comments can be read here: http://bit.ly/2u5P3ld

Damien Geter. Photo: Levy Moroshon.

The circle was of many minds about OAW’s response. Read my comments online, and you’ll see I wondered where the “institutional outrage” was, particularly around lines like “We keep coming back to the word ‘unwelcome.’ We don’t think Ross meant it quite like many of us are reading it. He might have simply meant ‘inappropriate.'”

What should have followed, I believe, is “However, given racial and class bias, and given our own mission to broaden arts inclusion, and regardless of what he meant, this is unacceptable language, and counter to everything we stand for.” Some online and in the circle felt this was a missed opportunity to discuss how privilege bias played a role in Ross’ review, and in the editor’s failure to see it and question Ross about it.

The article used the word “sorry” once, “regret” and “regrettable” three times, and “apologize” six times. But did it go far enough in condemning institutionalized racism, sexism and classicism, and in articulating its own participation and its plans to improve?

Has any of us gone far enough, in our own art, our own lives?

The Circle Opens

Nearly two hours have passed in Studio 2. Thoughts and feelings flow with tentative freedom, and begin to form around “what next.” What role do the artists of color in the room want to play as leaders in amplifying the voice of diversity? Resonance Ensemble? Artists Repertory Theatre? What lessons can Oregon ArtsWatch learn; how can the community support the publication, and hold it accountable to reflect the revolution happening now?

There is a whiteboard, of course. The 11 contribute ideas faster than Katherine FitzGibbon can write them, but it comes down to this: Prepare the way. Throw open the doors. Provide access and exposure. Help folks learn and change. Expect it. Demand it. Grow Portland’s army of artists so that army cannot, will not be ignored.

For my part, I am angry, and impatient. I want to add, “Recognize that the army is marching toward you. Join in, or get out of the way.”

Liz Bacon Brownson. Photo: Kenton Waltz.

And I want to add that it’s not about leaving OAW to do the heavy lifting. That before we turn to the publication, we need to turn to the mirror and ask ourselves how we can be better at this work. But the circle already knows that, and those of us who don’t are learning.

Plans are made, tasks are assigned, deadlines promised. I volunteer to write this article, to let our arts community know what happened, what is happening, and to invite you to join the army.

The group is reaching out to arts and civic organizations to create a monthly round-table to consider issues of equity and inclusion. Oregon ArtsWatch is expanding their ongoing effort to add young writers of color to their staff, and will connect with community leaders to help with that campaign. Led by Resonance Ensemble, group participants are reaching out to arts and civic organizations to create a monthly round-table to consider issues of equity and inclusion. Shambry, Geter and FitzGibbon are planning artistic collaborations exploring questions of race and bias through performance.

I wonder what I always wonder at times like this, times of high hopes and big dreams: do we have the grit to get this done? The time and energy and money? And how will we know when we’ve, well, done it? Then I think the next thing I always think at times like these: it doesn’t matter. The job is to try.

The job is to try.

We stand and shake off the two hours’ sitting, some of us glancing at our phones and complaining about what the traffic will be like on the bridges going home. We hug. We thank one another.

“You’re welcome,” I hear, over and over. “You’re welcome.”

*

Mary McDonald-Lewis is a writer, voice actor and dialect coach for film, television and stage. Her coaching can be seen at Artists Repertory Theatre, where she is Resident Artist, Voice & Text Director, and at Portland Center Stage, where she is the house dialect coach. Her voice work has been heard on cartoons from GI Joe to Archer, in commercials, and in cars as the voice of OnStar. She’s been series’ coach for Leverage, Grimm and The Librarians, along with dozens of other film and TV series on location in NYC and elsewhere. Mary holds her MFA in Theatre Arts from the University of Portland.

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