Streamers: Cinematic pleasures for your enjoyment

Cinema was big in the Thirties, because people needed an escape. It's the same now.

For those rare times when you’re NOT doomscrolling or staring blankly out the window wondering how we got here, we present a selection of worthwhile viewing on the screen of your choice:

“I’m Your Woman”: I’ve not had the pleasure of watching star Rachel Bresnahan’s award-winning work in “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” but this firecracker of a film has me convinced she’s the real deal. By the same token, I haven’t seen any of director Julia Hart’s previous features, but with this effort she has accomplished the seemingly impossible by making a slick, entertaining, action-packed, character-driven flick that subverts genre paradigms without hitting its audience over the head with its social conscience. Impressive.

ARINZE KENE and RACHEL BROSNAHAN star in I’M YOUR WOMAN Photo: Courtesy of Amazon Studios Courtesy of Amazon Studios

The genre in question is the 1970s crime drama, and Bresnahan plays the ‘crook’s girlfriend’ character typically relegated to the sidelines in such films. When we meet her, Jean (Bresnahan) is aware that when Eddie (Bill Heck) spends his nights out, he’s not exactly volunteering at the local homeless shelter. So, when he brings home a baby, with no explanation where he got it, and presents it to her, she barely bats an eye before naming it Harry.

Shortly thereafter, Jean is awakened one night by one of Eddie’s compatriots. Things have gone awry, and soon she’s on the lam with the baby, accompanied by Cal (Arinzé Kene), another of Eddie’s colleagues she hasn’t previously met. From there, the pair play hide-and-seek with vengeful killers, from a suburban (supposedly) safe house to a mountain cabin, before eventually taking matters into their own hands.

The movie’s period feel is cinematically, if not perfectly, authentic, and centering the narrative on Jean is an effective script-flipping that emphasizes how even the memorable characters played by Edie Falco in “The Sopranos” or Lorraine Bracco in “Goodfellas” were still relegated to the sidelines of their male-dominated stories. The fact that Cal is Black adds another layer of commentary to the film, especially in a scene where Jean and Cal are confronted late at night on the side of a road by a white police officer. But these moments never feel tacked-on or didactic—they naturally flow from character and environment.

Hart, whose husband Jordan Horowitz co-wrote and co-produced with her, doesn’t skimp on the directorial flourishes, either. The action scenes are memorably intense. One sequence involving an active shooter in a crowded nightclub should almost come with a trigger warning, considering how chaotically immersive it is. Another breathes new life into what could have been a by-the-numbers urban car chase.

“I’m Your Woman” certainly would have benefitted from the theatrical experience, but it also could have gotten lost in the shuffle if forced to compete against typical multiplex fare. It’s not self-consciously arty enough to become a critical darling and it’s not broadly pitched enough to be a box-office smash.  With luck, audiences will have a chance to discover this more than impressive movie in due time online. (Amazon Prime) (Trailer)

“Pieces of a Woman”: Speaking of noteworthy movies with distractingly bland titles that include the word “woman,” this harrowing domestic drama should be in the conversation when Oscar nominations are announced on March 15 (the ceremony itself will take place on April 25), at least for the bravura performance by Vanessa Kirby in her first leading film role. Previously, she’s best been known for playing Princess Margaret in the first two seasons of “The Crown,” but she’s light years away from that world here.

PIECES OF A WOMAN: (L to R) Vanessa Kirby as Martha, Ellen Burstyn as Elizabeth

Of course, this film has been, unfortunately, getting more attention for the fact that Shia LaBeouf co-stars as Kirby’s character’s husband than for Kirby’s fine work. LaBeouf has been credibly accused of horrific, abusive behavior and sued for sexual battery and assault by his ex-girlfriend, the musician known as FKA twigs. Netflix has removed LaBeouf’s name from its “For Your Consideration” ads and other marketing materials. But it would be a shame if his behavior distracted from director Kornél Mundruczó’s impressive English-language debut.

The first half-hour of “Pieces of a Woman” ranks among the most grueling sequences in modern cinema. Martha (Kirby) and Sean (LaBeouf) are about to welcome their first child, and have opted for a home birth. When their regular midwife is unable to attend, a substitute (Molly Parker) arrives, and eventually things go tragically awry. Anyone who has experienced similar trauma couldn’t be blamed for wanting to skip ahead to the remainder of the film, which chronicles the fallout from this event and its effect on Martha and Sean’s relationship. Martha’s mother (American treasure Ellen Burstyn, hair as perfect and spirit as strong as ever at the ripe age of 88) pushes for the prosecution of the hapless midwife, while Sean relapses into substance abuse and succumbs to impotent male rage.

Martha, for her part, seems numbed by an inability to process her loss. This is where Kirby truly shines, conveying the fragility beneath Martha’s steely exterior. The screenplay is by Kata Wéber, Mundruczó’s frequent collaborator and romantic partner, and was inspired in part by the couple’s own experience losing a baby. This likely accounts for the emotional nakedness and sense of intimate detail in the movie, aspects that make it more than a bit disappointing when the third act morphs into a courtroom drama that fails to reach a satisfying emotional resolution. For most of its running time, however, this is a compelling experience, enhanced by the skillful use of extended takes by its director—that opening sequence is essentially a single, twenty-minute shot.

That balletic, unmoored camera is a frequent tool for Mundruczó, at least based on the two other films of his I’ve seen, both made in his native Hungary. One was 2014’s canine allegory “White God,” and the other was 2017’s “Jupiter’s Moon,” which is currently streaming on the MUBI subscription service. “Jupiter’s Moon” is, like “White God,” a fascinating, flawed allegory about intolerance. In it, a Syrian migrant named Aryan (Zsombor Jéger) who is apprehended and shot while trying to enter Hungary emerges from the experience with the supernatural ability to levitate and heal. A cynical doctor (Merab Ninidze) tries to exploit Aryan’s newfound skills for his own financial and personal benefit. Despite a certain heavy-handedness, it’s worth a watch at least for those multi-minute tracking shots and for convincing performances by the leads. (“Pieces of a Woman” is on Netflix (trailer); “Jupiter’s Moon” is on MUBI (trailer).)

“The Ghost of Peter Sellers”: Speaking of Hungarian-born filmmakers, in 1972 director Peter Medak, fresh off the success of “The Ruling Class,” was lured to Cyprus to shoot a pirate comedy starring Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan. The result was “Ghost in the Noonday Sun,” and if you’ve never heard of it that’s because, after a shoot that was, shall we say, troubled, the movie was essentially shelved by its studio and remains basically unseeable today. (Although, of course, Portland’s Movie Madness has a VHS copy available for rental!)

Director Peter Medak on the set of the 1973 movie “Ghost in the Noonday Sun”

Forty years later, Medak returned to the site of this cinematic crime for this documentary, which gives him a chance to exorcise some ghosts, namely that of Sellers, whose erratic, borderline-criminal behavior was the primary reason for the production’s chaos and failure (although Medak’s inexperience may have run a close second). The result is a minor treat for film history buffs, and a must-see for Sellers completists. The story it tells of 1970s moviemaking hubris is not a new one, however, and one wonders if every so-called film maudit will eventually be deemed worthy of its own cultish documentary. If so, it’ll only really be worth it when we get the definitive take on the making of Jerry Lewis’ “The Day the Clown Cried.” (Criterion Channel, which is also showing an array of Sellers’ better-known, and doubtlessly better, films)

“Frantz Fanon: Black Skin, White Mask”: This documentary portrait by British director Isaac Julien (“Looking for Langston”) provides a timely refresher on the anticolonial, antiracist writer whose life and work were cut tragically short. Born and raised on the French island colony of Martinique, Fanon trained as a psychologist and was strongly influenced by the time he spent working in a clinic in Algeria during that nation’s war of independence against France. Despite Fanon’s death from leukemia at only 36, his work on the consciousness of oppressed populations has been influential to future generations of antiracist leaders including Steven Biko and Malcolm X. Julien’s profile includes reminiscences from many of Fanon’s colleagues and brief dramatic reenactments of key moments in his life. As America continues to struggle to reorient itself toward a more equitable treatment of its colonized and oppressed peoples, this film can serve as an effective introduction. (Criterion Channel)

“Sudden Fear”: Despite being restored and re-released several years back, this 1952 thriller remains under-appreciated among the vast oeuvre of Joan Crawford. It was made when she was past the peak of her fame, but her talent continues to shine, at 47, as a playwright who falls in love with and marries a younger, handsome actor (Jack Palance). Initially invigorated by his attentions, Crawford soon descends into desperation when the always disruptive femme fatale Gloria Grahame enters the picture. The movie earned four Academy Award nominations, including Crawford’s third and final one for Best Actress. It’s now be re-released on Blu-ray, and its gets a mention here for the informative and coherent audio commentary track by historian Jeremy Arnold, which lays out the independently-made movie’s fascinating production history. (Blu-ray release from Cohen Home Video, available for rent at Movie Madness)

Mixed art signals amid the turmoil

ArtsWatch Weekly: Tumbling toward Inauguration; Carrie Mae Weems' billboard campaign; opera in full voice; new faces; Zoomy theater

AS WE TUMBLE TOWARD INAUGURATION DAY, fear and uncertainty fill the air like a chemical cloud. Will another attack take place? If so, will it be more damaging than the first, from which five people died – six, if you count the police officer who took his own life after dealing with the mob in the Capitol Building? What of President Trump, now impeached for a second time, this time charged with “incitement of insurrection“? Will he stand down, or once again ramp things up? What will happen in the capitals of the fifty states, whose centers of government right-wing radicals have vowed to occupy? How and when will the impeachment trial play out in the Senate? Will it aid or harm the process of actually governing during perilous times? What of the coronavirus vaccines? When will they become available to the mass of American citizens? Who will or won’t agree to be inoculated, let alone, at a time when even basic public health has been turned into a radically politicized subject, simply wear a mask?

Above all: How did we reach such a state, and how do we extract ourselves from it? 

Such questions both override our cultural lives and define them. The arts are a reflection of their culture and their times, sometimes underlining the flow of world events and sometimes reacting against them. They can no more exist in a vacuum than a demagogue can exist without a ready and willing audience. 
 

From the Five Oaks thread: “A far-right extremist wearing animal furs and holding a plastic shield and a wooden walking stick sits beneath an oil painting of Charles Sumner by portrait artist Walter Ingalls. Charles Sumner was a U.S. senator from Massachusetts who was an abolitionist and supporter of civil rights for African Americans in the Civil War and Reconstruction eras. He was once severely injured and nearly killed when Representative Preston Brooks beat him with a walking cane on the Senate floor after Sumner made an anti-slavery speech. A small object label is located under the painting.”

Continues…

Zooming into a new theater

Director Patrick Nims, who moved to Portland just in time for the pandemic to shut down in-person performances, blazes a trail in live video theater

Patrick Nims was ready for a new start. After a three-decade theater career in the Bay Area, where he co-founded Marin Summer Theater, he and his wife, Marina — now empty nesters — were seeking a smaller city that was easier to get around. After auditioning a few California possibilities, in spring 2018 they moved to Portland, where their oldest son was attending Portland State University. 

Like many other newcomer artists, Nims found the city’s theater scene open to new arrivals, especially those with a track record in directing at various theaters. He reached out to several figures in the local theater community, and coffee dates led to promising opportunities with Stumptown Stages (where he’s now resident director), Beaverton Civic Theatre, and Clackamas Repertory. As last spring was about to blossom anew, so was his theater career.

Then came the coronavirus.

With live theater in suspended animation, Nims turned, like so many others, to Zoom, the online meeting platform that quickly became 2020’s second-most ubiquitous viral phenomenon. He’d used the technology in virtual meetings, so he realized — before almost anyone else in American theater — that the online platform offered real possibilities for making theater. 

When Zoom introduced its virtual backgrounds feature last year, that made it possible to create apparent sets. And the fact that Zoom allows audience members to turn on their microphones and provide instant feedback — laughs, applause — to performers — could help ameliorate the canned feeling of recorded online theater, and allow plays to happen live, in real time — a critical element of theater to Nims. He decided to give live video theater (LVT) a try. He founded his own company — named Zoom Theatre, of course, though it’s in no way connected to Zoom Communications, which makes the app — and embarked on another journey, much less certain than the one that had carried him a few hundred miles north. Now he’d be creating an entirely new form of theater production.

Jesse Lumb and GiGi Buddie in Zoom Theatre’s Enter Your Sleep.

Since then, Zoom and other virtual platforms have become — for better or worse — the main ways to experience live theater, though onscreen instead of in person. Nims has now produced nine fully staged live shows to a live audience– not staged readings or webcasts of previously recorded performances — of steadily increasing complexity, with more coming this year. And he’s learned plenty of lessons that could benefit other live video thespians and theater fans alike.

“The platform is not perfect and is fraught with issues,” he wrote in a blog post, but “I can also testify to the creative joy and satisfaction I have experienced working with brilliant actors, designers and crew to bring exciting, thought-provoking scripts alive for our audience.”





The primary requirement for making theater — monologues aside — during the shutdown is keeping performers and production team safe. In the theatrical context, Zoom allows actors to perform their roles from entirely different locations (usually their homes), each appearing onscreen to viewers in one of those little rectangles that now occupy our days and haunt our dreams. A screen can display either a single rectangle (usually showing whoever’s talking) or a gallery of several performers. 

The medium also has its drawbacks. The more rectangles, the less space available to each, and the harder for viewers to discern. Unless the actors are already sharing a home, they can’t interact in person, which limits the kinds of stories that can be told.

Patrick Nims

Accordingly, for his first Zoom production last April, Nims thought about plays that involved just two characters talking to each other. “I’d always had a soft spot for David Mamet’s Reunion,” an uncharacteristically sweet early (1976) one-act about an estranged father and daughter, with their entire conversation happening across the simplest of sets: a kitchen table. He called up a couple of actors he knew, one in Portland, the other in the Bay Area, and asked if they’d give what was then an entirely new kind of production a chance.

Gearing Up

“The single hardest challenge was just getting the equipment,” Nims remembers. The last thing those of us who want to unwind with after a day of work-related Zooming is more blurs and hiccups and “what did you say?” moments brought to us by lame built-in laptop and phone webcams. That’s OK for checking in with relatives, maybe, but not so much for theater. 

Still, “it’s not terribly expensive to add, say, four good-quality webcams,” Nims says. “Then all they need is cable.” Further investments can boost quality. Nims wanted good mikes, separate, movable webcams (not attached to their computers or phones), versatile lighting, and a green screen setup.

As many other home Zoomers discovered last spring, though, Nims found the best webcams backordered for months. “Logitech webcams were harder to get than toilet paper at the time!” he recalls. He finally found some used cameras on Ebay apparently built for Asian markets. “When I plugged them in,” he remembers, “I’d see kanji characters.”

Last summer’s politically imposed post office crisis also caused problems when equipment had to be shipped to performers, who already had the tougher challenge: three weeks to learn a 90-minute show. Eventually, Nims learned to send production assistants to actors homes to help with tech when possible and necessary.

The software itself is free, so investing in hardware and tech-savvy production assistants also frees the already-stressed actors from worrying about getting the tech right. “If you have to worry about turning the camera on or off or whether the mike is working right, that’s not conducive to a good performance,” he says. “Once they get to tech and dress rehearsals, actors need to not think about that and focus on their real job, which is the character.”

For Zoom’s June production of Anna Ziegler‘s “Actually,” Maya Sherer and Kevin Minor rehearsed and performed from locations 1,800 miles apart.

Once he had equipment sorted, Nims (who had “not a whit of film directing experience”) and his actors had to figure out how to make effective theater on screen. For Nims the director, it turned out to be “no harder than doing a normal theater production,” he says. “It’s all still blocking, props — the  same kinds of questions you’d be answering if you were staging a play normally.”

They started, as usual, with “table reads,” in which the actors read their lines aloud, with scripts but without props or costumes, so they could see each other over their own computer screens and develop some feel for their socially distant scene partners. (In actual performance, they’re often playing to a spot on a wall.) Then they focused on “blocking” — determining how they’d move — which wasn’t so complicated with such limited space for movement.

Still, differences abounded. The screen’s more intimate scale meant much thought went into where to place the limited single-view webcams, which are closer in sophistication to simple security cameras than the cameras used in even indie film. And they focused more on tiny gestures that would be invisible to an in-person audience looking at the stage from dozens of feet away.

“You’ll spend 10 minutes on how to hand someone a glass,” Nims says. “‘Extend your hand, on this word, and then bring your hand back.’ It’s a game of inches.” 

Using cameras offered advantages over in-person shows, allowing the director to control exactly what the audience sees. “In a stage production, an audience can look anywhere they want,” Nims points out. “The stage director’s challenge is to get the audience to look where you want them to look.” 

That’s a lot easier when you can point a camera at it. In Reunion, for example, he placed a camera on each actor’s kitchen table so that the audience could see both actors’ faces at the same time, angled so that the actors seemed to be looking not at the audience, but past the camera and talking to each other. 

A big part of an LVT director’s job is more frequently reminding actors what the audience is seeing, since there are no seats to play to. Top priority: make sure that actors stay in the frame when they stood or moved. 

There’s also a difference in how directions are conveyed. “From a director’s standpoint, [LVT] does break you of bad habits,” Nims explains. “You can’t even point to say where to go,” since the actor is seeing a mirror image. “That forces you to rely on verbal communication with your cast,” he says. “It’s like trying to drive a car, but steering with your feet and hands tied behind your back.”

When initial rehearsals were over, setting up the equipment and lighting and mikes for the technical rehearsal and then live-streamed performance took about as long for a Zoom shoot as it would take in a real theater’s tech weekend, Nims says. 

Straining for Effect

The biggest challenges proved neither technical nor directorial. In live video theater, it’s the actors who bear the brunt of performing in a dramatically different medium. “I do think the demands on stage actors are significantly harder,” Nims says. “It’s a different animal.” 

For instance, stage actors who lack screen-acting experience have to learn to modulate their voices to suit microphones, and shorten their beats between lines (because internet latency already imposes a half-second delay between the time an actor speaks and the audience and scene partners hear it. 

The toughest obstacle: learning to play to a piece of tape on the wall instead of to actual people on stage or in the audience — depriving them of the instant feedback that can make a scene feel real — and what Anthony Newley called “the roar of the greasepaint, the smell of the crowd.” Fortunately, for Zoom’s May production of Lungs, Nims found a married couple who could play the two roles without maintaining social distance.

Amber Collins Crane and Gregory Crane starred in “Lungs”.

Still, just the process of recording their parts in their homes poses a challenge for performers. “It’s an invasion of their personal space,” Nims notes. Actors need a reasonably fast, modern computer, reliable fast internet service, and “access to a place where they can perform and the neighbors won’t call the police” when the script calls for yelling or screaming. Moreover, they’re often grappling with new technology and approaches, and they’re missing the camaraderie that draws so many of us to theater in the first place. 

Zoom rehearsals proved so taxing that Nims learned to give his performers frequent breaks and later even provided virtual breakout/hangout rooms for them to decompress in. Some actors decided that they were glad they’d tried it but would decline future Zoom offerings in favor of audio or (knock wood) eventual live shows. But others were so desperate to express the art they’ve spent much of their lives honing that, as the shutdowns stretched on and Zoom Theatre’s profile grew, Nims’s audition announcements netted up to “a couple hundred people from all over the world.” 

Live on Screen

It wasn’t for the limited money the productions netted, Nims says. “A couple hundred bucks for a production is better than nothing, but it’s obviously not a paid gig. When we distributed the audience donations among cast members, we were paying barely semi-pro wages.” That ruled out union actors, but since those early productions, he says, the actors unions have negotiated wage scales for LVT productions, so that may change.

Nims had to figure out how to fit this new streaming approach into the old, live-staging based business model, and abide by the same limits. To license a script from the publisher at an affordable rate, he had to limit attendance to no more than 100 per performance, the same rate applied to live performances at small houses in the past. Zoom Theatre’s shows drew between 60 and 100 viewers per night. Admission was free, with a donation link provided at the end of the show.

The only marketing Nims did was on Facebook. Cast members also spread the word in their circles. Each play ran for a single weekend, four shows total, with all performances happening live — not pre-recorded video, and no later on-demand streaming. Which was fine with Nims, for whom performing in real time is an essential part of what makes theater magic.

After directing and producing three intimate shows that allowed the team to get comfortable with the basics of making Zoom theater — and just confirming that it could actually work — Nims decided to try more ambitious fare, including last August’s Macbeth. He also took a break from directing that one. More elaborate productions can require more tech help, including a couple of tech assistants stationed at laptops and cameras at each actor’s recording space. 

The numbers: By the end of 2020, Zoom’s 34 performances had reached 2,855 audience members, employed 43 actors and 32 production staffers, and required 135 Zoom rehearsals, for a total of 124 hours on Zoom.

The internet’s worldwide reach has brought Zoom and other streaming productions to a potentially much broader audience than any typical stage play, unhindered by geography and or inclement weather or even the necessity of switching from pajamas to pants to go out to the theater. It’s also allowed for easy online feedback from audience members — both during and after performances. Audience members were allowed (not required) to activate their own computer/phone microphones open so the performers could hear their responses. Hearing other audience members laugh, for example, is critical to making much comedy work. “At the beginning, people said ‘that’s insane — there’s so much that can go wrong,’” Nims admits. “But five shows in, it’s not as big a differentiator as one might think.”

Of course, not all feedback is welcome. “If you don’t have barking dogs or talking family members” in the background, Nims says, “we want you.” Once, and only once so far, they even experienced that bane of Zoom meetings: a Zoom bombing. But the production team learned to respond quickly, and have the ability to mute any audience member’s microphone anytime. 

Zoom Theatre’s “Macbeth.”

A number of theater directors eager to see how the new medium might work tuned into the first few shows, and so many of the talkback questions revolved around technology — “how did you do that?” But as the novelty wore off and audiences expanded, Nims says, conversations centered more and more upon the show itself. “Most gratifying to me,” he wrote in a blog post, “is that audience members adjust to the medium and are able to focus on the story and performances, not the technology.”

The initial attempts at Zoom and other LVT might have been able to ride the freshness factor, and the fact that for a while it was about the only option available to theater junkies. By now, “audiences are adapting to not being in the live environment and becoming more sophisticated about being online,” Nims says. 

Still, after so many more Zoom productions invaded the airwaves, “the fatigue factor is absolutely real,” Nims says. “Even if the ticket might be free, you still have to justify them giving up their time.”

Some audience responses definitely fall into the “love it or hate it” categories, Nims says, with words like “fantastic” and “amazing” peppering the former. Some praised the strong chemistry displayed between actors separated by hundreds of miles who’d never actually met. “Innovative, provocative, you managed to get through the ‘obstacles’ imposed by our current state of affairs as it affects theatre,” one audience comment read, “and present something that was not an excuse for not being able to present theater in its usual form, but rather a vibrant presentation of something altogether new and very much alive.” 

Lessons Learned

Other directors — including one in India — have asked Nims for advice about doing their own LVT shows. Last summer, Portland Area Theatre Alliance and Hillsboro’s Bag n Baggage Productions hosted Nims’s detailed, comprehensive webinar — almost a master class — about how to make Zoom theater that showed just how much he’d learned.

• Plan out your production team well in advance

• Decide how long a stream will be up and whether it’ll be behind a paywall

• Make sure actors have the necessary tech and supply directors with a photo or video of their home performance spaces

• Make sure the audience feels comfortable and welcome and tell them exactly what steps they’ll need to take to gain access to the show and any interactive elements, and to donate

• Post-show debriefings from both audiences and participants can make future productions better. 

One of the biggest lessons: get help. “If you’re not digitally inclined, get somebody as your tech director who’ll sit and work with you through rehearsals,” Nims advises. “Anyone who has the skills to be a stage manager or run a sound board or lighting [in a standard stage production] already knows what’s necessary to run cues at proper time,” he explains. “If they have experience in that world and are digitally confident, it’s no harder than running tech in any other show.” 

Experienced LVT personnel can help directors take advantage of the new medium and expand their artistic palettes. “A lot of [initial live video productions] used a readers theater/staged reading approach because directors didn’t know what they could do,” Nims says. “They need to lean into the medium and know what it can and can’t do.” 

Silver Linings

After some initial skepticism, more theater companies are embracing LVT. “Live video theatre will not replace live in-person theatre, nor will it replace television or film,” wrote Peter J. Kuo in Howlround. “Nor will it destroy any of those industries. The investment in this art form requires a mental shift among creators on how we define theatre, but the product and process will be strangely familiar and satisfying for artists and audiences of both theatre and film. With the community’s support, live video theatre can pump the oxygen into our respiratory systems, not simply sustaining us through this pandemic, but growing our field into the future.”

In a blog post, Nims ticked off the advantages digital platforms offer theater.

• allows theatre artists from all over the world to collaborate without travel or housing budgets.

• opens the doors to audience members that could otherwise not attend performances due to geographic or physical limitations. (It does however, impose a new “digital access” limitation for audience members that might not have computers or fast internet.)

• allows audience members from all over the world to respond to performances verbally and via text in real time, completing the loop and giving theatre makers feedback on their work.

• can be much less expensive to produce, allowing theatre companies to mount productions that might not otherwise be viable.

That doesn’t mean LVT is a complete substitute for old-school productions. Instead, Nims believes, theater makers and audiences should adjust expectations and judgment to what LVT is, not what it’s not. “The motto of Zoom Theatre,” he wrote, “ has become ‘embrace the limitations of the medium.’”

Nims is especially grateful that live video theater has enabled him to direct passion projects — shows like last fall’s Collective Rage whose subject matter is risky or niche enough to make breaking even unlikely, given the costs (especially venue rental) of a live production. 

Zoom Theatre’s “Collective Rage.”

“Having done this for six months, I regret it not at all,” he says. “I’m so happy to have made connections with directors, audience, and actors I would not necessarily have had access to. There is a community that’s different from a staged theater. It’s definitely satisfying, but in a different way. I encourage anybody to try it out. Once you get over that initial cost of equipment, you will be flexing creative muscles and problem solving like you do anyway in theater.”

Looking ahead, Nims predicts that even after live performances return, LVT will continue. “There is an audience that would love to see live theater but can’t get out anyway, pandemic aside,” he notes. “Theater companies are already investing in equipment” and have picked up the needed skills from this year’s experiments.

What’s more, “some interesting technical improvements are coming down the road that could be very exciting,” including technology that allows simultaneous, no-latency singing from different locations (which groups like Portland’s 45th Parallel Universe, Kronos Quartet and others are already using), and other advancements that allow tech directors to remotely run lights, control Zoom windows, and even run synthesized instruments — obviating the need for actors or tech assistants to handle those tasks from actors’ home performance spaces. And he has plenty of other feature suggestions for Zoom (the company) to make its product work better for theater.

“We surely have much to learn and many mistakes more to make,” Nims wrote on Zoom Theatre’s blog. “We also have to educate and learn from our audiences to develop a new on-line performance etiquette together. But this notwithstanding, live digital theatre, and Zoom Theatre in particular, is no longer an experiment in ‘will this work.’ Zoom Theatre is now an exploration into ‘how far can we take this?'”

However far that is, Nims says, “I’ll take this for now,” and even after theaters reopen, he’ll keep the Zoom Theatre website up, maybe live-streaming occasional productions that would work better online, or wouldn’t draw a big enough audience to justify an in-person production. But as soon as it’s possible to direct shows on stage rather than onscreen, he vows, he’ll be right back there, making live theater in the room where it happens. 

***

Zoom Theatre’s next shows include Shakespeare’s The Tempest (Feb. 25-Mar 7), and MJ Kaufman’s Sensitive Guys (April 1-4). Tickets and info here.

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Art on the walls, violence in the Capitol

The art on the walls helped interpret the failed coup attempt in the Capitol Building

By Victoria Sundell, Molly Alloy, Nathanael Andreini, Mariah Berlanga-Shevchuk, and Rachel Brumit

Editor’s note: We saw this visual essay from Five Oaks Museum published as a thread on Twitter and Instagram and asked permission to post it on Oregon ArtsWatch. It addresses the discordances—and harmonies—between the invaders of the Capitol Building on January 6 and the art on the building’s walls that provided the backdrop.

Now Hear This is a monthly column that scours the pages of music distributor Bandcamp, looking for new work from local artists that would make fine additions to your digital library. This time around, that includes cryptic metal, meditative music, and heaps of hip-hop. Bandcamp’s Fee Free First Fridays start back up in February–welcome to 2021!

Plight, The Queen’s Tomb

What we know about the person behind Plight, a solo black metal project that recently released its first demo, is approximately zero. The photo on their Bandcamp page is hazy and inconclusive, and the artist homepage link sends you right back to the same Bandcamp page. Even Encyclopaedia Metallum, the resource for information on heavy bands old and new, has no clue who is responsible. I really want to know because I want to thank them for releasing these three unforgiving, blasted out tunes–and encourage them to make many, many more. 

K-Penn, Art of Evolution

Rapper K-Penn contains multitudes on his latest release, shifting gears ably between the candy-colored brightness of the J-Free-produced “Lyrical Acrobatics,” the trap sensations of “Real Recognize Real,” and the psychedelic-fueled collaborations with producer Svgar Beats. At each stop, the Portland rhymer juggles braggadocio, introspection, and carefree lyrical weirdness. K-Penn released Evolution on Christmas day, and has promised his Twitter followers that he has tunes ready to drop. Our bodies are ready. 

Anna Vo, Abolition Annihilation

The cover art for Anna Vo’s latest album evoke images of crucifixion, the torture of prisoners at Abu Gharaib, and the lynching of Black Americans. Rendered in sickly colors, it’s the perfect visual encapsulation of this record’s unsettling power. Vo uses their inimitable voice, groaning strings, synth drones, and field recordings to capture the spirit of BIPOC leading the charge for police and prison abolition, and the violence they endure to get their voices heard. 

David Swick, Breathing Strings: Low Tide & Rain

The concept behind these meditative pieces by local composer David Swick is that their pace is dictated by the breathing of the musicians—each note running the length of an inhalation or exhalation. Swick describes it as “music made to fall apart, like waves on the beach,” but this collection also carries that sensation of those soothing deep breaths that take over just before falling asleep.

Old Grape God, Torcher

Getting one last lick in before the end of last year, multi-disciplinary artist Old Grape God dropped this collection of instrumental weirdness on December 31st. On any other day, a lysergic blast to the body and brain. On New Year’s Eve 2020, a weirdly perfect soundtrack to accompany the visuals of socially distanced celebrations and housebound house parties. 

Magenta Moon, Rapid When It Happens

Fed by the influence of modern R&B, future pop, and neo-jazz, Magenta Moon is overstuffed with warm feelings and good intentions and glowing with a sensuality and intimacy that, at times on their debut full-length, starts to feel a little blushworthy. The inspiration behind their music, according to the group, is “ecstatic healing.” Color us rejuvenated.

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Clap good and hard from home

Portland Opera ends livestream recital series with Isiguen and Bakari

In November 2020, Portland Opera premiered its “Live From the Hampton Opera Center,” a series of free, virtual recitals featuring artists who call the PNW home. Read the ArtsWatch review of the first two–featuring Camille Sherman and Damien Geter–right here. The recitals are archived for one month following their premieres; be sure to catch the last one before it disappears this week.

Martin Bakari wastes no time in his introductions. The moment the show is live the tenor lists the program’s composers and invites the audience to “clap good and hard from home.” Clearing his throat, he jumps into a lovely rendition of “Un’aura amorosa” from Cosí fan tutte. After a clipped piano arpeggio from Portland Opera’s chorus master and assistant conductor, Nicholas Fox, Bakari sings with Mozartian lightness. On the return to the opening phrase, the camera stays close on Bakari’s face. His eyes are closed, yet he communicates a love-sick emotion just as effectively. As the song ends, Bakari takes a deep breath in – a “breath of love” – then lets it all out. You want to sigh with him.

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Bright spots peep through in Yamhill County arts forecast

Many events are canceled or scaled back for 2021, as gathering in crowds remains unlikely for some time, but it’s not all bad news

As the calendar rolled over into the new year, I reached out to more than a dozen leaders in Yamhill County’s arts scene (along with a couple in Salem) to ask what they could say about their plans and expectations for life returning to some degree of normalcy in 2021.

Bottom line? It probably won’t.

With a few exceptions, the organizers behind major local cultural events, institutions, and venues don’t expect we’ll be flinging our masks away anytime soon. We won’t be packing theaters to see plays, and we won’t sip wine at crowded artist receptions. More of us will (presumably) be vaccinated, but in terms of events where people come together to experience art up close and personal, 2021 pretty much resembles 2020.

“We have lost a lot of art and culture in this pandemic,” said Lisa Weidman, a Terroir writing festival planner. And, she added, “ a sense of community, too.”

It’s not all bad news. So let’s begin with the good news, because there is some.

McMinnville Short Film Festival: This year marks the 10th anniversary of the short film festival organized by Dan and Nancy Morrow. It is the only major tent-pole cultural event left standing in Yamhill County’s largest city. The festival barely squeezed under the quarantine wire last year because the event is held in February, which is otherwise a bit of a cultural dead zone. But organizers learned last fall, with their annual fundraiser, that people can and will attend such an event in significant numbers if the goodies are streamed online, which is where most of us are watching movies anyway. So instead of scaling down, they’re ramping up. The festival kicking off Feb. 18 will unveil 127 films with screening blocks scheduled over nearly two weeks. Visit the website to check out the titles and register.

“Chocolate Cake & Ice Cream,” an animated short about friendship between a dog and cat by Steve Cowden of Lake Oswego, is on the schedule for the McMinnville Short Film Festival.
“Chocolate Cake & Ice Cream,” an animated short about friendship between a dog and cat by Steve Cowden of Lake Oswego, is on the schedule for the McMinnville Short Film Festival.

Paper Gardens: Yamhill County’s annual writing contest, culminating in a spring publication of the best of the best, will soldier on. “We know the pandemic has sparked lots of writing,” said one of the organizers, Deborah Weiner. “So we encourage children, teens, and adults who live, work, or go to school in Yamhill County to submit their pieces.” Entries are due March 3 and a release party is tentatively scheduled for May 13 at the Chehalem Cultural Center in Newberg. As that date looms, organizers will reassess the COVID situation in crafting protocols for gathering in person.

Willamette Shakespeare: The theater company is sound financially, according to board chairman David Pasqualini, and operating on the assumption that an outdoor production of Pericles will be unveiled at select area wineries in August. They’ll be working with Patrick Walsh, executive artistic director of the Northwest Classical Theater Collaborative, and expect to have COVID safety protocols in place for both the company and audience. 

Chehalem Cultural Center: Along with local art galleries that remain open, the Newberg nonprofit will continue to be a cultural beacon for visual art. The exhibition calendar has shows booked through April 30, and beyond that, Director of Arts Programs Carissa Burkett has 2021 mapped out for visual art. “I do have additional exhibits planned for the rest of the year that aren’t on the website yet, primarily because of delays in getting info from the artists,” she said.

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