Bob Hicks

 

Isabella Chappell: a good life

Farewell to Portland Civic Theatre's legendary longtime guiding light, who has left the building at 95

Among the many things I remember about Isabella Chappell, the onetime prime minister of Portland theater who died on February 1 at the age of ninety-five, is the antic wit lurking just below her formidable managerial prowess. You could be talking with her about serious stuff – ticket sales, budgets, the need to upgrade facilities at the old Portland Civic Theatre building, the difficulty of selling any show that wasn’t a musical or a comedy or preferably both – and she would rat-a-tat facts and figures and drawbacks and contingencies and possibilities like an economics advisor to the White House. Then, at some point, the edges of her mouth would twitch as an irrepressible thought struck her, something comic and absurd yet also somehow to the point, and she’d giggle and blurt it out. Well, this about sums up the situation, her laughter would suggest, and you would realize that, no matter how tough the situation appeared to be, at some level she was enjoying it.

By the time I met her, in the late 1970s or early ’80s, Isabella had long been established as a significant player, even something of a legend, in the tight circle of Portland theater. She was housemother to the clan, the one who had the knowledge and wisdom and warmth and who knew how to make the decisions and wasn’t afraid to be blunt when being blunt was what was called for. People admired her and loved her and, as several have confessed in the days since her death, were a little in awe of her. She had taken over as general manager of Portland Civic Theatre, at the time the big player in town, in 1969, and steered it straight into the churning cultural waters of the time, protecting its roots in old-fashioned community theater at the same time that she reached out to new voices and more countercultural talents, greenlighting projects by the likes of Storefront Theatre’s Ric Young and others. Comfortable in the West Hills culture that had long supported Civic as its own, she also extended the theater’s reach into rowdier, more proletarian realms.

Isabella Chappell inside Portland Civic Theatre, 1988. Photo: Marian Wood Kolisch (American, 1920-2008), gelatin silver print, Bequest of Marian Wood Kolisch, © Portland Art Museum

By the time she announced her retirement in 1984 she had come to seem a civic inevitability, a landmark you might find on a city map. Isabella retiring, I wrote in The Oregonian, “seemed a little like Admiral Hyman Rickover deciding he was going to quit the Navy or Broadway Joe Namath announcing he was giving up on the Big Apple and moving to Omaha. This is no fly-by-night administrator. In a hard-work, low-pay field where people come and go like pop tunes on an AM radio station, Chappell has been an anomaly. She has been at the Civic’s helm for the past 14 years, a long time in the high-burnout field of arts management. ‘Sometimes I think the best preparation I had for running a theater was raising seven kids,’ Chappell said with a laugh during an interview several days ago. There’s nothing like dealing with the squabblings of a big family, she added, to teach the skills a theater manager needs.”

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On the bridge: American true tales

Theatre Diaspora's "Here On This Bridge: The – Ism Project" tells six stories of life from the nonwhite side of the national divide

Shareen Jacobs, performing the opening monologue in Theatre Diaspora’s Here On This Bridge: The – Ism Project, takes her audience for a walk on the wild side. The wild side is the sidewalks and streets of Lake Oswego, the small and pretty Portland suburb often cited as Oregon’s safest city to live in, but which, in Josie Seid’s short solo piece Being Me in the Current America, can be very much something else again.

Minutes later, in his own piece See Her Strength, writer/performer Samson Syharath, in the midst of the story of his Laotian-immigrant mother’s fortitude and coming to terms with her new culture and her son’s gayness, lays his head softly for comfort onto Jacobs’ lap. Everything stops: It’s a moment of revelation and grace.

Samson Syharath and Shareen Jacobs in “See Her Strength.” Photo: Alex Haslett

On they roll, these short and telling stories, each its own tale yet all gathering force and strength from their mutuality. Sofia Molina’s firm yet gentle telling of Yasmin Ruvalcaba’s Carmelita, a story of danger and bravery and crossing the Rio Grande to the United States. The tough and sorrowful truth in Dré Slaman’s performance of Heather Raffo’s bone-rattling Lockdown Drills, about slain children and the psychic cost of mass-shooting lockdown drills in America’s schools: “Who grew this boy? This girl?” Shelley B. Shelley’s stubborn, wryly humorous, and sometimes angry performance in Bonnie Ratner and Roberta Hunte’s That Diversity Thing as a black lesbian blue-collar worker who loves her job but not the guff that comes with it: “Twenty years later I still hear that voice. ‘You’re only here because you’re black.’ Or, ‘You’re here because you’re a woman. That’s the only reason you’re here.’” Jane Vogel, in Dmae Roberts’ Harvest, her story of an Asian American woman growing up in rural and mostly white and inhospitable Oregon, and the state and family history of stolen land and incarceration during World War II: “It’s like the harvest was us.”

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Speed-dating at Fertile Ground

As the new-works festival gets ready for its tenth annual run, a horde of writers and performers check out the media (and vice versa)

And lo, on the third day of the New Year, a great clamor fell upon the multitude, and the dread Pealing of the Four Minutes rang out, and the people scurried from line to line, taking their spots in the sun, pitching their pitches, eager to be heard. And a mighty clatter and confusion arose, accompanied by press releases and business cards, and then the next wave burst, and the pieces shuffled yet again. And the creator of it all smiled, and said, “That’s good!”

It’s true. On January 3, in the upstairs lobby of Artists Repertory Theatre, producers, performers, directors, and writers of shows in Portland’s 10th annual Fertile Ground festival of new works met with members of the press, pressing them, as it were, with quick-hit details on their shows and why the media members should really, truly see and publicize them. Once again Fertile Ground director Nicole Lane was stage-managing this frenzy of what she calls “media speed-dating,” cracking the whip – or, more accurately, blowing a harmonica – to keep things moving swiftly along. What sometimes seemed like bedlam actually had a drill-sergeant efficiency: Line up in front of a press member sitting at a table. Take your turn. Make your pitch. You get four minutes. The mouth harp shrieks. You move on to another line, and someone takes your place.

The Fertile Ground speed-dating crowd. ArtsWatch’s contingent is tucked discreetly toward the back, hidden behind more dashing daters. Photo courtesy Fertile Ground

This year, ArtsWatch’s contingency in the hot seats consisted of me and Marty Hughley, our theater editor and chief theater columnist. We made a deal beforehand. Marty would get the lay of the land, find out what’s out there, use his brief talks to help strategize our coverage, including which full productions to review. I would do my best to simply report the evening as it occurred from my table. And Bobby Bermea, who wasn’t at date night (sensible man), would tackle the festival from the inside, talking about the stages of some of the shows, and talking with artists about the process of creation. 

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2018: A roller-coaster arts ride

Baby 2019's raring to get rolling. But first, a stroll down memory lane with Old Man 2018 and his slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

Well, that was the year that was, wasn’t it? Old Man 2018 limps out of the limelight with a thousand scars, a thousand accomplishments, and a whole lot of who-knows-what. The new kid on the block, Baby 2019, arrives fit and sassy, eager to get rolling and make her mark. She’s got big plans, and the ballgame’s hers to win, lose, or draw.

New kid on the block: 2019 rolls into the picture, fit and sassy and ready to start fresh. (Claude Monet, “Jean Monet on His Hobby Horse,” 1872, oil on canvas, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.)

On the Oregon arts and cultural scene, 2018 entered the game with similar high hopes and then handled a lot of unexpected disruption, holding his ground and even making a few gains even as his hair grew thin and gray. He can retire with his head held high, if he’s not too busy shaking it from side to side over the things he’s seen.

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The Art Gym moves to PAM

The contemporary NW art center, adrift since Marylhurst U. decided to shut down, finds a home for its vital records – but not its programming

THE ART GYM HAS LANDED. The crucial center for Northwest contemporary art has been hunting for a new home since its host, Marylhurst University, decided to shut down. Marylhurst and the Portland Art Museum announced on Friday that the museum and its Crumpacker Library will take over The Art Gym’s important exhibit catalogs, historical documents, trademarks, proprietary rights and website.

Installation view of “Fernanda D’Agostino: The Method of Loci” at The Art Gym in 2013. D’Agostino is a featured artist in the upcoming exhibition the map is not the territory, opening February 9, 2019, at the Portland Art Museum.

The agreement does not include, at least for now, arrangements for continuing programming or a curatorial position. But the vital records have a solid and accessible home. There is some hope that funds will be found to continue in some form The Art Gym’s style of Northwest programming at PAM, although not in a separate Art Gym gallery: It is likely, if it happens, to be folded into the museum’s own contemporary programming. Marylhurst released this statement: “Under state law, Marylhurst needs to seek court approval for the distribution of some endowments, like the Eichholz fund, and it is in the process of doing that. The university remains hopeful that all of the funds will eventually serve to preserve the legacy of The Art Gym at the Portland Art Museum.”

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Wolf Tales: Howl about it?

NW Dance Project goes deep into the mythological woods with a loose and lightly fractured show of tales choreographed by the dancers

Hey, there, Little Red Riding Hood. What’s goin’ down in the neighborhood?

Wolf Tales, the droll and sweetly macabre new program from NW Dance Project that ends its brief run at Lincoln Performance Hall on Saturday night, is something of a case of mistaken self-identity. Nobody seems to know who anybody is at any particular time, even and perhaps especially themselves, since the characters in this mythic wood seem to be going through some downright werewolfian transformations. Joseph Campbell might call what’s happening a Hero’s Journey, but no need to get all hoity-toity about it: Let’s just call it a collection of fractured fairy tales.

A passel of Hoods: William Couture, Franco Nieto, Kody Jauron, Anthony Pucci, and Kevin Pajarillaga in Andrea Parson’s “Little Red Riding Hood.” Photo: Brian Truitt Covert

This is the slot in NDP’s season that’s usually turned over to the dancers to create, and in this case, rather than making a series of independent short pieces, they’ve stitched the thing together to create a narrative arc. A lot of dance companies do dancer-created shows, either on their seasons or as side projects, and good or bad, it’s usually an interesting and revealing sort of program to see. What might the dancers do on their own? Who has interesting choreographic ideas? How might it differ from the company’s usual style?

On those counts, Wolf Tales delivers a pretty high payoff. I wouldn’t call it high art. I would call it a kick in the pants. The show has a looseness, a frivolity, that doesn’t always show up in the company’s more earnest works. Freed from being the vessels of someone else’s choreographic imagination, it seems, dancers just want to have fun. And if the show could be a little tighter, the fun’s infectious.

Katherine Disenhof in Kody Jauron’s “Snow White,” with Andrea Parson in the shadows. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Each of the five linked pieces is based on a well-known folk tale adapted and choreographed by one of the dancers. Company veteran Andrea Parson sets the table with a Little Red Riding Hood inhabited by multiple Reds, multiple Wolves, a fair amount of howling, and a soundtrack built around Li’l Red Riding Hood, Laura Gibson’s catchily pensive 2012 cover that skips the leering and captures the yearning in Sam the Sham and the Pharaoh’s 1966 hit. Colleen Loverde prowls the stage as a sort of neo-Grimm narrator, introducing characters and bringing home the evening’s theme: Things are not as they seem.

Snow White follows, in nicely turned choreography by Kody Jauron that features Parson as a wind-up mechanical toy of a heroine, Katherine Disenhof as a manipulating witch, and, of course, a shiny red apple.

Colleen Loverde in Anthony Pucci’s “Chicken Little.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Then it’s off to Anthony Pucci’s high-camp, farcical Chicken Little, in which Disenhof, Loverde, Parson, and Franco Nieto (as the cool-operator, Snidely Whiplash-style manipulator) squawk about the stage like, well, chickens with their heads cut off at the possibility of a natural (or unnatural) disaster. It segues into Nieto’s The Three Little Pigs, a piece built on bricks and huffs and puffs and yearning and desire: can a young pig and a young wolf find true love and happiness, or will society keep them forever apart? There are echoes here of that infamous wall in The Fantasticks.

Jauron returns to choreograph the rousing and satisfying finale, The Ugly Ducking, which brings the entire company onstage and, browbeaten duckling slowly revealed in all his swanlike glory, completes the transformation. Goodness, Little Red Riding Hood, how did we get from there to here?

Katherine Disenhof, William Couture, Andrea Parson and Kevin Pararillaga in Kody Jauron’s “Ugly Duckling.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

After some retirements and movings-on and a couple of additions, NW Dance Project’s company has emerged as a tight-knit, talented group of eight – Jauron, Parson, Nieto, Loverde, Disenhof, Pucci, William Couture, and Kevin Pararillaga – who know each other’s styles and possibilities and work easily together. They’ve emerged, you might say, from something similar but not quite the same.

Some lovely design work helps pull the whole thing together: costumes by Alexa Stark, a silken-white forest of mystical trees conceived by the choreographers and executed by production manager Thyra Hartshorn, and some spectacular lighting by Jeff Forbes that shifts seamlessly with the seasons and moods.

In the meantime, there’s one final performance of Wolf Tales. If you make it there on Saturday night, you’ll probably laugh. Who knows? You might even howl.

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NW Dance Project’s Wolf Tales concludes with a performance at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 8, at Lincoln Performance Hall on the Portland State University campus. Ticket information here.

Colleen Loverde in Anthony Pucci’s “Chicken Little.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Cranberries and the art of thanks

Maybe generosity of spirit (and an ability to take the tart with the sweet) is at the heart of the holiday and the arts. Happy Thanksgiving.

It’s Thanksgiving, and I hope, if you’re reading this, you’re giving yourself a little break in your day: waiting while the sweet potatoes are baking, maybe, or pausing before you pack hot dishes in the car and head out to break bread with friends. It’s a day for friendships and family and connections. And a day for rituals. We all have them.

One of mine is making the cranberry sauce, which I do two or three days in advance so the flavors meld and settle. My method is both improvisatory and familiar. Take a good-sized orange, peel it well and scrape off all the pith, dice the peel small and toss half or two-thirds of it in the pot. Cut the orange itself into slightly bigger chunks; add them and the juice. A generous dash of nutmeg, half a cinnamon stick, no more than half the amount of sugar that recipes generally call for: a satisfying sauce calls for a touch of sweet, but as with rhubarb, if you don’t like the tartness, why are you bothering? A little water to give the thing some liquid, stir and boil, add the fresh berries and cook ’em until they pop.

Gratitude in a pot: making the cranberry sauce.

Well, that’s one way. That’s one tradition. And Thanksgiving’s very much about tradition.

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