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ArtsWatch Weekly: Vertigo’s cash crunch, space race

Women & Shakespeare, Roger Kukes' stories in paint, Día de Muertos, prison tales, "Butterfly" time.


SOMETIMES THE ADVENTURES OF THE ARTS WORLD ARE LIKE THE PERILS OF PAULINE. More often, actually, than a lot of people realize. Except for a few brand-name stars – the 1 percent of the arts world – making art is risky business, with high costs and limited income. Some of the best art comes from the creative challenge of making the most from the least. In the performing arts, that often means finding little spaces, in out-of-the-way neighborhoods, and making a virtue of simple and small.

In Portland and a lot of other towns, theater and dance thrive in small spaces that pose creative challenges, like the aptly named Shoe Box Theater in inner Southeast Portland, which has room, if you stuff it like a bulging burrito, for forty people in the audience. Against all odds, this tiny space has been home to some terrific theater over the years. So it was with some chagrin that I saw the news, in Marty Hughley’s most recent DramaWatch column, that both the Shoe Box and its main tenant, Theatre Vertigo, are on the ropes. 

Hughley writes: “With rent prices skyrocketing, The Shoebox in dire need of upgrades and repairs, and theatre attendance dwindling, this Portland theatre icon is in jeopardy of not being able to continue on to year 23,” begins the plea on a recently created Save Theatre Vertigo page at GoFundMe.com. “This campaign will help us cover the immediate costs of closing out our first show of the season, rent and expenses for The Shoebox for November and December (approximately $5,400), much needed repairs to our electrical system, and initial funding for our January show.”

Up close and in your face: Don Alder (left) and Grant Byington in Waiting for Godot in the Shoebox Theater in 2015. Photo: Northwest Classical Theatre Collaborative

Well. Here we go again. It’s an old, old story in theater when creative but small and underfunded groups attempt to ride the waves of a volatile real estate market. And because they’re small, a lot of people think, “Well, that’s the way it goes. Another one will pop up soon somewhere else.” But often it’s precisely the smallness, and the creative challenges that smallness presents, that make these companies and spaces so interesting. In fact, over the past few years the Shoe Box (or Shoebox; it seems never to have quite made up its mind) has been one of my favorite spaces to see theater – a puzzle that is sometimes solved in striking and stimulating ways.

I got to thinking of some of the Shoe Box shows I’ve seen and written about, and how, in many cases, the space itself was an integral (and intimate) part of the experience:

  • On Vertigo’s 2016 world premiere of Rob Handel’s I Want To Destroy You: “When Vertigo moved into the tiny Shoebox Theatre I worried that the little space could limit its imagination. In fact, it seems to have invigorated the company, which has been forced to sharpen what it does, and has emerged with a boldly expressionistic approach to the dictates of intimacy.”
  • On Chekhov’s The Three Sisters in a 2018 Northwest Classical Theater Collaborative production: “Watching Three Sisters in the tiny Shoe Box, which has seats for an audience of maybe 35 and where the performers sometimes seem to rise right out of the crowd, I found myself looking around at faces – the actors’, and my fellow audience members’ – and they seemed to meld. All of us were in this thing together, rapt and ungainly and attentive and intensely human.”
  • On Northwest Classical Theater Collaborative’s 2015 Waiting for Godot: “The tiny Shoebox Theatre, which squeezes in about 40 seats for this production, plays a crucial supporting role, and [director Pat] Patton smartly takes advantage of its intimacy to turn the show into a highly visual spectacle. As at the movies, the actors’ bodies and faces and even their smallest of expressions become crucial tools: the sense for the audience that it’s all happening just a finger’s-reach away amps up the possibilities and changes the relationship from observer to near-participant.”

You can’t get much more in-your-face than that. Sometimes small is very big, indeed.


Roger Kukes, Hanford #4 (Les Fleurs du Mal.) 2018-2019, acrylic on paper, 35.25 x 51 inches, at Portland’s Augen Gallery through November 2.

“LIKE THE BEST OF OUR POETS AND FILMMAKERS,” Paul Maziar writes, the veteran Portland artist Roger Kukes creates images that  “juxtapose the illogical with the utterly clear, the wryly comical with the tragic, the architectonic with the haphazard.” Kukes, who in fact made a fertile decade-long excursion into the world of film animation years ago, is enjoying a 25-year retrospective exhibition through Nov. 2 at Augen Gallery in Portland, and Masiar’s ArtsWatch essay is excerpted from his introduction for the retrospective.


Working on The Inside Show. Photo: Friderike Heuer 

MOVIES AND NOVELS ABOUND WITH STORIES FROM INSIDE PRISON WALLS. But rarely do we get to see or hear the story as told by the people who are incarcerated. In The Inside Show, Friderike Heuer tells the tale in words and photographs of the making of a video variety show by inmates at the minimum-security Columbia River Correctional Institution in Northeast Portland, in collaboration with artists in a program called Columbia River Creative Initiatives. For the inmates it’s been a liberating experience, she writes, and the show itself contains both hard truths and a lot of humor.


A dance with the dead in Amor Añejo at Milagro. Photo: Russell J Young

WE TALKED ABOVE ABOUT THE SHOE BOX SEGMENT of Marty Hughley’s DramaWatch column. But the main tale he tells in Tina Packer’s feminine forces of Will is the story of Women of Will, a fascinating-sounding show that opens this weekend at Portland Playhouse. Packer, the British-born founding artistic director of Shakespeare & Company in Massachusetts, is setting up shop with her two-actor show in which she both plays Shakespeare’s women characters and analyzes a progression that, as Hughley writes, “roughly speaking, takes us from women as victims of violence to women as truth tellers, to women as seekers of power and finally as what we might think of as agents of redemption.”   

  • AMOR AÑEJO: INTO BEYOND, WITH PAIN AND LAUGHTER. Milagro’s new Día de Muertos-inspired tale of bereavement and rebirth, Bennett Campbell Ferguson writes, is “an unmissable play … at once profoundly soulful and gloriously silly.”
  • DANI BALDWIN FORGES HER OWN PATH. Bobby Bermea profiles the leader of Oregon Children’s Theatre’s Young Professionals Company of teen actors, who’s making her mark with a company within a company.
Dani Baldwin, director of OCT’s Young Professionals Company.


Nina Yoshida Nelsen as Suzuki and Hiromi Omura as Cio-Cio-San in Portland Opera’s Madama Butterfly, opening Friday. Photo: Cory Weaver/Portland Opera

IT’S BEEN A HECTIC FEW MONTHS FOR PORTLAND OPERA, with the severing of its ties to longtime General Director Christopher Mattaliano, the dumping of its financially unsuccessful summer-season experiment, and the return to a fall-through-spring season schedule. Now it’s time to put aside the off-stage drama and settle in with a really big show. The company’s newest production of Puccini’s ever-popular Madama Butterfly opens Friday in Keller Auditorium and continues for three more performances through Nov. 2. The company’s talented conductor George Manahan will be in the orchestra pit, and E. Loren Meeker, who recently directed Show Boat at the Glimmerglass Festival, is stage director. 


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Scott Ballard’s short film North & Nowhere will be screened Saturday night at Linfield College with seven other shorts as part of a McMinnville Short Film Festival fundraiser. Photo courtesy: Justin Zimmerman/McMinnville Short Film Festival

THE HOTTEST MOVIE TICKET THIS WEEKEND IN YAMHILL COUNTY, David Bates writes, isn’t in a theater – it’s on the Linfield College campus, where the McMinnville Short Film Festival is getting a sneak preview. In Falling in love with movies and film festivals, Bates talks with Justin Zimmerman, the Portland filmmaker who’s also the McMinnville festival’s executive director.

  • ARTISTS TALKING TO ARTISTS. Lori Tobias talks with Astoria artist Dave Ambrose about the inaugural Clatsop County Arts Summit, which will cover everything from lease-to-own art to copyright law.


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Bob Hicks has been covering arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest since 1978, including 25 years at The Oregonian. Among his art books are Kazuyuki Ohtsu; James B. Thompson: Fragments in Time; and Beth Van Hoesen: Fauna and Flora. His work has appeared in American Theatre, Biblio, Professional Artist, Northwest Passage, Art Scatter, and elsewhere. He also writes the daily art-history series "Today I Am."

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