Barry Johnson

 

Starting Over: The arts fight back

A new column rolls into view, and news from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, RACC and the Oregon Cultural Trust

Way back before the Covid-19 virus pandemic sent us into a sad and alarming combination of hibernation and vertigo—way back before then, let’s say early March—I would have used the same two words to describe the situation of the arts community in Oregon. “Sad” and “alarming.”

I didn’t need the March 5 panel on Building Political Support for the Arts in Portland to make me think that, but the conclusion was unavoidable after the panel members testified. It was pretty glum. It was also the last public event I attended.

I could quote almost anyone on the panel, hosted by Portland State University and moderated by Portland Creative Laureate Subashini Ganesan, to illustrate this conclusion, but let’s choose Dámaso Rodríguez, the artistic director of Artists Repertory Theatre for the past seven years. Artists Rep is Portland’s second-largest theater company, 38 years old and counting. Its past couple of years have been financially tumultuous and the company is in the middle of raising money for a new theater space. But unusual in a public setting for an arts administrator, Rodríguez was plaintive, and his melancholy had an edge to it, . 

Oregon Shakespeare Festival is closing until at least September 8. /Photo by Kim Budd

“Art elevates society,” he said, quietly and intently. “It is essential to living a good life. It would be nice if public policy made that statement. I feel isolated. I feel alone. I feel like we [in the arts] have become experts at surviving, and public policy could lead to us thriving.”

Artists Rep is going to need all of its survival skills now. And if the people associated with the company do manage to pull that rabbit out of the hat, where will they be? Back to “sad and alarming” where they entered this particular movie? Back to alone?

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News: RACC reorganizes and changes directions

The Regional Arts & Culture Council has shifted focus to fundraising, advocacy and outreach

The Regional Arts and Culture Council is reorganizing to expand its advocacy and fundraising programs with a deeper focus on reaching underserved communities, RACC announced today. In the process it will eliminate five vacant positions, lay off 15 employees and hire 15 new positions later to support the new direction.

The changes are occurring one year after RACC hired a new executive director, Madison Cario, and almost two years since the Portland City Auditor determined that the City had failed to set budgeting priorities for the non-profit group. Though it’s nominally a regional organization, RACC receives most of its budget from the City. It performs a variety of functions for the City in return, from managing public art and city art collections to distributing money to the city’s arts groups. It also manages the distribution of money from the city’s Arts Tax, which passed  in 2012.

RACC manages public artworks in Portland/Image courtesy RACC website

According to the RACC press release, the proposed changes are responsive to the audit of RACC in 2018 and the city’s current budget priorities. The changes are effective immediately. 

“We take this transition very seriously and deeply appreciate the work of RACC employees, especially those leaving the organization,” said RACC board chair Linda McGeady in the release. “These changes respond to what we are seeing and hearing from our community, and position RACC to better serve our region today and in the future.” 

At least some of the eliminated positions will be in the agency’s Right Brain Initiative, which places working artists in classrooms in the tri-county region and integrates the arts into classroom work. The initiative has 70 partnerships with area schools. The Right Brain program will move to another nonprofit, Young Audiences. RACC is also “sunsetting” its workplace giving program.

Some of the new positions will be in a new development team at RACC with clear fundraising goals to help increase and diversify revenue and use public dollars to secure new national and local funding. RACC also intends to increase its outreach and advocacy efforts, both with the general public and elected officials and policy makers, according to the release, hoping to increase awareness of the arts in the area and arguing for their importance.

We will be digging into the changes and the reasoning behind them in future reports. Stay tuned.

Dance preview: Restaging two great Merce Cunningham dances

Robert Swinston, who has been immersed in Merce Cunningham dances for almost 40 years, brings "BIPED" and "Beach Birds" to town

I love that dance is so transient. I hate that dance is so transient.

I love the urgency, the surprise, the physical shudder of understanding that a great dance delivers. I hate that once it’s over, it’s impossible to duplicate. We in the audience, after all, will never precisely pass in this way again, and neither will the dancers onstage. That’s where the urgency comes from—the desire to hold on to a particular, delightful filament of moments in time.

So, yes, I’m talking about the late Merce Cunningham and this weekend’s visit (November 21-23) by the French company CNDC-Angers, part of White Bird’s 2019-20 season. The company will perform two of Cunningham’s astonishing works of the 1990s, Beach Birds and BIPED, and if anyone is going to capture lightning in a bottle, it’s going to be these guys. 

CNDC-Angers will perform Merce Cunningham’s “Beach Birds” this weekend at the Newmark Theatre/Photo by Charlotte Audureau

CNDC-Angers is led by Robert Swinston, who was a central part of the Cunningham company for more than 30 years, performing in both Beach Birds and Biped. He began staging Cunningham dances in1993, and after Merce died in 2009, he became both the company’s director for its final two years of existence and a trustee of the Merce Cunningham Trust. He’s led CNDC-Angers since 2013, working with Cunningham material of various kinds and with other companies along the way.

The confluence of the Trust, Swinston, and the nature of Merce’s dances, which are organized around a defined dance technique, mean that we’re going to see something very close to the original Beach Birds and BIPED at the Newmark Theatre this weekend. The can’t take us back to the ‘90s or the experience of watching these dances performed for the first time, but the only thing missing entirely will be the shock of the new—because choreographers around the world have been influenced by Merce generally and these two dances in particular. I think that if you’re a dance fan, you’re going to see this right away.

I emailed a few questions about the concert to Swinston and he was kind enough to reply.

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“The Breath of Life”: Boomer regrets

In David Hare's play at Portland Center Stage, Gretchen Corbett and Julia Brothers deal with loss and fear

If I were going to guess (and I suppose I am), I’d suggest that the moment Boomers in the audience will react to most immediately, probably with a snort, comes near the start of the first scene after intermission in David Hare’s 2002 play, “The Breath of Life.”

“The enemies of the bourgeois, isn’t that what we called ourselves?,” asks Madeleine, now in her sixties, still working, and still true to her leftish politics. “And how did it turn out?”

These aren’t real questions. Madeleine continues: “The obituary of my generation. We left no loft unconverted. The revolutionary project: to leave the world a little more chic than we found it. Future historians will write: ‘these are the people who took the world one notch up-market.’”

Julia Brothers, left, and Gretchen Corbett in David Hare’s “The Breath of Life” at Portland Center Stage/Photo by Kate Szrom

Right. “We left no loft unconverted.” In Portland we might say, “We invented the Pearl District.” Or: “We planted million dollar condos on North Williams.”

Madeleine and Frances, the only two characters in the play, exchange a few more lines, and then Madeleine again:

“We imagined we were protesting Vietnam. Looking back it seems like some us were protesting their own future. A rare moment of prescience. A short carnival of revolt before the long luxury of self-improvement. Five years of protest. Thirty of acquiescence.”

This is Hare at his best, really. Sharp, acerbic, funny, keen to the dilemmas of his generation (which also happens to be mine), of the failures of politics, religion, the American empire, and then the wreckage of regret they, we, have left behind. Other Hare plays may be more satisfying as a whole—maybe “Plenty,” “Racing Demon” or “Skylight”—but “The Breath of Life” is a nicely concentrated dose of Hare. (He’s also good at thrillers: “Collateral” on Netflix is a fine case in point.)

Although the production of “The Breath of Life” at Portland Center Stage was disrupted right before opening night when Sharonlee McLean, who was set to play Frances, dropped out of the show, it has found sure footing with Julia Brothers, who is now starring alongside Gretchen Corbett’s Madeleine.

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Remembering Lyndee Mah

The Portland vocalist was also a crucial community resource for artists

Every culture needs at least one Lyndee Mah—an indomitably positive source of energy, compassion and commitment to art, a connector and facilitator, an advisor and advocate, someone to console us when that is necessary. Fortunately for Portland, we had Lyndee Mah herself. A gifted artist, Mah was possibly even more gifted at the creation of community, in her case, a community that included many artists.

Mah died in her sleep on April 1 from a heart attack. She was in Spokane, Washington,  caring for her brother Marshall Mah. She was born in Idaho Falls on August 29, 1958. She studied music at Mt. Hood Community College and finished her general education studies at PSU.

Lyndee Mah during her House Concert Series with her A String Ensemble./Photo by Julie Keefe

Mah was a vocalist in Portland for more than 20 years. She was a founding member of the band Pink Martini and collaborated with a host of Portland musicians and dancers over the years, including 3 Leg Torso, the late pianist Janice Scroggins, and choreographer Gregg Bielemeier. She created  “E`-Bon E`-Bon,” an original mixed-media, musical-memoir performance piece, based on her Chinese-European-American heritage, and she performed with Imago and Liminal theater companies. She touched, literally, hundreds more at her home hair salon.

Mah is survived by her partner Elahi Bradley-Muhammad and her son, Halston Mah-Minniweather.

A celebration of Lyndee K. Mah’s life will be held 7-10 pm August 4 at the Lan Su Chinese Garden, 239 NW Everett Street. Friends, admirers and collaborators of Lyndee’s will honor her incredible artistic and cultural legacy in this community.

Editor’s Note: Choreographer Linda K. Johnson gathered remembrances of Mah from six of the people whose lives she touched. We appreciate her efforts.

Lyndee Mah performing at one of her House Concerts with guitar given to her by Kristy Edmunds/Photo by Julie Keefe

Courtney Von Drehle, musician and composer

I first got to know Lyndee when 3 Leg Torso worked with choreographer/dancer Gregg Bielemeier, and we were enlisted for the music, with Lyndee as our vocalist. Working with Lyndee, who had been Pink Martini’s first vocalist, was our first collaboration with a singer. We went over to Lyndee’s big old house, and coming into her space, with its deep purple curtains, various adornments on the walls—both stately and casual at the same time—right away I felt at home. Downstairs, in the basement, was Lyndee’s salon, where I, and many I know, would visit for Lyndee’s transformative magic. She knew how to make us look good, and chatting away while her scissors orbited our heads, with her easy going and real nature, she’d make it easy to transcend surface connection, and make us feel good in a far deeper way than just one of her glorious hair cuts alone could provide. It was natural for Lyndee to share her deep empathy and caring with all of those around her, and her home reflected the warmth that she embodied.

Arriving at Lyndee’s for rehearsal would often start with some hanging out on the porch, a fresh cup of coffee in hand, chatting with her partner, Brad, who like Lyndee has an easy ability to connect with others in a deep way. Moving inside and working on music was always relaxed and playful, qualities Lyndee would bring to her performances. I remember a particular Conduit benefit I performed where Lyndee was the MC. At one point, out of the blue, she started beating the microphone against her chest and doing a little rap, a spontaneous departure from the script that brought the room together. I’d seen her and Janice Scroggins perform as a duo at Conduit a while before that, and I was deeply moved by their music. One tune in particular, with the lyrics full of reminiscent observations from a later point of view in life, just floored me. With Janice’s always exquisite playing and Lyndee’s rich and present vocals, they were a powerful duo, two masterful musicians at play.

Lyndee was resourceful and self-reliant. From her independent hair salon, her voice lessons, teaching Body Mapping to musicians, to putting on her one-woman show, Lyndee found her own way forward.

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Earlier this month I landed in Ashland to see the first five plays of the 2018-19 Oregon Shakespeare Festival season, Bill Rauch’s last as artistic director.


The plays under inspection here include:

  • the vastly popular stage version of the John Waters film “Hairspray”
  • Lauren Yee’s instantly (and deservedly) popular “Cambodian Rock Band”
  • an “As You Like It” that preserves the “Shakespeare” in the “Oregon Shakespeare Festival” and also interprets the play in a progressive way
  • the world premiere of long-time festival favorite Octavio Solis’s “Mother Road”
  • and “Between Two Knees,” a seriously pointed sketch comedy by the Native American improv group The 1491s and another world premiere.

Last season I made a similar trip to see a similar batch of new productions, relatively soon after the announcement that Rauch was heading for New York to become the first artistic director of the Perelman Center in New York City. What struck me then was how far the festival had evolved during Rauch’s tenure: “Suddenly, they [the plays] became a sort of emblem of the changes that Rauch has brought to the festival—and to American theater in general—during his run at OSF, which began in 2007.

What changes are we/was I talking about?

Jessica Ko and Roman Zaragoza in director Rosa Joshi’s production of
“As You Like It” at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, 2019. Photo: Jenny Graham.

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

This first round of plays in the 2019 season follows and extends the programming developments Rauch began in 2007. The productions themselves retain the high-end production values the festival is known for, and they are populated with persons of color, tell stories about communities the festival (along with most of the rest of American theater) once neglected and have the edgy energy that new plays, new voices, new actors and directors can bring.

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Theater news: Artists Rep prepares for another leap

Artists Rep has big plans for keeping its theater space in downtown Portland in downtown Portland—a two-theater complex with room for its ArtsHub partners.

Artists Repertory Theatre hired J.S. May to be its executive director less than six months ago, and he and his board are already about to make a big move—a $10 million-plus capital campaign that will redesign and renovate its building on Southwest Morrison Street.

Just looking at the recent financial history of the company, that qualifies as “jaw-dropping.” Since November 2017, the company has: 1) incurred a $309,000 lien from the IRS on unpaid payroll taxes, 2) parted ways with previous executive director Sarah Horton, 3) announced the sale of half its property at 1515 SW Morrison St. to a Texas-based real estate company, which will develop it into a 22-story residential tower (the sale closes on June 1, May says), 4) received an anonymous donation worth $7.1 million, and 5) notched another $500,000 donation that it needed to help shore up the half of the property the company will retain, a requirement of the sale.

The building concept by Lever Architecture for the proposed renovation of Artists Repertory Theatre/Courtesy Artists Repertory Theatre

The influx of money resolved the IRS problem, paid off the mortgage on the building, and covered some substantial bills and debts the company had accrued. Did it also tap out the company’s likeliest donors for the capital campaign? May seemed pretty confident about raising the money Artists Rep needs last week when we went over the company’s plans, primarily because of the value proposition: For $10-11 million Artists Rep will be able to build a theater complex worth more than $30-35 million, May said, if you had to buy the land, too. The proceeds of the sale of the half-block has already jump-started the process.

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