Bobby Bermea

 

Vision 2020: Connie Carley and Jerry Foster

For almost four decades the leaders of PassinArt have forged a strong and steady path for Black theater in Portland

For nearly 38 years PassinArt: A Theatre Company has been passing down art, culture, and heritage to the ensuing generations. That’s a long time for a theater company, a nickel-and-dime industry at the best of times. There are other organizations, such as Artists Repertory Theatre, that have been around longer and gotten bigger. But usually (except in special cases like Milagro) those companies’ longevity has been carried on by fresh influxes of new faces at different times.


VISION 2020: TWENTY VIEWS ON OREGON ARTS


For PassinArt, Connie Carley and Jerry Foster have been keeping the flame alive this entire time. There have been periodic breaks here and there, some longer than others, but PassinArt always comes back, its vision intact, its mission still at the forefront of its endeavors: making sure that the next generation of Black people in Portland has something solid that belongs to them.“We are responsible,” Foster says, “for the health and the vitality of our community.” Put another way (when speaking about the fact that PassinArt has always paid its artists something), Carly says, “We’ve never been community theater. But we’ve always been about the community.”

A lot has changed over the years, of course. PassinArt has been around since 1982. At the time they were Connie Carley, Clarice Bailey, and Michael Grant. They had their first performance at the Matt Dishman Center in 1983. PassinArt gained its nonprofit status in 1986. Jerry Foster came on board as artistic director in 1995. In those days, they paid for every show out of their own pockets. Board members were expected to act or direct or work backstage or in the front of house. And they never started a project until a good percentage of funding was in hand.

George Hendricks and Jerry Foster in 2014’s “Two Old Black Guys Just Sitting Around Talking.” Photo courtesy PassinArt

In the old days, surprisingly (to me, at least) PassinArt wasn’t the only game in town if you wanted to see Black theater. There were also Portland Black Repertory Theatre and Sojourner Truth. BRT was a more classic theater company and Truth specialized in historical works. PassinArt was a combination of both. The three companies would work together to make sure that year ’round, Black people could find themselves on stage if they needed to.

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Dani Baldwin forges her own path

As her mentor Stan Foote heads into retirement, Oregon Children's Theatre's Baldwin stays committed to her Young Professionals

It was a surprise when Stan Foote decided to retire as artistic director from Oregon Children’s Theatre, but it wasn’t a shock. Foote, who left in September after 28 years with the company, has been one of the most prominent and respected figures on the Portland theater scene. And though his energy and creativity do not appear to have waned, he decided it was time to change. Dani Baldwin, Foote’s colleague, mentee, fellow-soldier-in-the-trenches and all-around best friend, knew the time was coming, just not so soon.

“He initially said he was going to retire when he was 70,” Baldwin remembers. “That’s three and a half years from now. So that was like, ‘Cool, that’s a great amount of time.’ Then he came to me and said, ‘Maybe two and a half years.’ And then he came to me and said, ‘Maybe one and a half years.’ And then it went down to seven months. So, we’ve had seven months to know he’s retiring, which has been kind of a whirlwind and a lot to adjust to in a short amount of time.”

Dani Baldwin, director of OCT’s Young Professionals Company.

Whenever as large a presence as Foote leaves a room, the people who were around him are bound to be aware of the void. But Baldwin gets it. “Why wait until you’re 70 to do something new and to explore possibilities?”

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Vertigo goes dark and complex

The company that's "the David Lynch of Portland theater" strikes up its 22nd season with a broodingly funny world premiere

Theatre Vertigo has spent the last twenty-two years deftly, sometimes recklessly, spelunking through the dark underbelly of 21st century America. The company’s body of work from Hellcab to Poona the F*** Dog to 99 Ways to Fuck a Swan to Hunter Gatherers has provided a road map through the neuroses and psychoses of a society crazy enough to make Donald Trump the most powerful man in the world, and it’d done it with incisive intelligence and a dogged resolve to never take itself too seriously. Humor is as much a part of the company’s thematic oeuvre as its willingness to walk on the edge of madness. It’s the David Lynch of Portland theater, approaching the madness and mayhem underneath the shopping malls and manicured lawns of contemporary American culture not just with fascination but also with compassion and even affection.

The play that opens Vertigo’s twenty-second season Saturday at the Shoebox Theater, Dominic Finocchiaro’s complex, is right in its wheelhouse. It’s funny, lyrical and not for the faint of heart. At times it feels like all of American pop culture of the past forty years appears, from pop music to reality shows to serial killers (one of the leads is even named Jeffrey – just sayin’), is referred to or makes an appearance in complex. It’s like a nightmare that doesn’t terrify you but leaves you profoundly disturbed. You laughed but you’re not sorry you’re awake. It’s a natural fit for Vertigo.

Life in the complex? It’s complex. Theatre Vertigo photo

Which is all the more interesting because Vertigo, despite the many years of changing roster and sensibilities, has made its bones doing the plays that the larger companies just won’t do. complex, however, received its first professional workshop at Portland Center Stage’s JAW festival some six years ago.

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The Madness of Asae Dean

It's a Shakespearean double or nothing – in rep! –for the mastermind of Salt and Sage's "Troilus and Cressida" and "Antony and Cleopatra"

Making art is often a difficult and thankless proposition. Producing theater, in particular, can be even more of both. It follows that for most fringe theater companies, producing either Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra OR his Troilus and Cressida would be an arduous enough undertaking. Tackling both at the same time, as Salt and Sage Productions is doing with a repertory that opens on Friday, would be an epic task of Herculean proportions – maybe even a little crazy.

Salt and Sage artistic director Asae Dean probably wouldn’t even deny the charge. “Theatre is hard work,” she says on her website, “it’s supposed to hurt a bit – you should break a sweat, you should shed a tear – you are doing work that stretches the soul.” 

Asae Dean, double or nothing. Photo: Heath Hyun Houghton

IN THE DIGITAL AGE, THEATER IS THE LOWEST RUNG on the pop culture ladder, and Dean is the outsider’s outsider. She’s been knocking on the door for the past seven years and just can’t get in. “I’d be totally lying to you if I didn’t say that it disappoints me that it seems so hard to gain traction in this city,” she admits. Many who have tried to break into the Portland theater scene have found it a tough shell to crack. If you’re trying to break in solely as a director, it can be even more difficult. When you’re on the fringe level, producers either hire themselves or artists whose work they’re familiar with for the spots that do come open.

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Rody trip: Ortega in Prague

Sound designer and composer Rodolfo Ortega gets a surprise bonus for his stellar work on "Magellanica": a trip to the Prague Quadrennial

The curtain falls, the lights go down, a season comes to an end. The artists have done their work, the audiences have received it, the critics have had their say. The awards ceremonies come and go, met — as always — with equal parts elation, pride, anger and derision. As the dust settled on Portland’s 2018-19 theater season at last week’s Drammy Awards ceremony, 5,000 miles away Rodolfo (Rody) Ortega, composer, musician, and sound designer nonpareil, was receiving recognition of a very different sort: He’d been invited to exhibit his work at the Prague Quadrennial.

What’s the Prague Quadrennial? Ortega had the same question when Stephanie Schwartz, a scenic designer he was working beside on E.M. Lewis’ epic Magellanica at Artists Repertory Theatre, where Ortega is a resident artist, suggested he should submit his compositions from that project to the festival.

Rodolfo Ortega, designer deluxe.

 “‘I have no clue what you’re talking about,’” Ortega remembers saying. “I had never heard of the Prague Quadrennial. So, I started doing a little bit of research and basically it’s this showcase of a variety of different artists from the entire planet that are particularly on the technical side of theater. That is, costume design, scenic design, sound and lights and music composition.”

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OUTwright: a Booty Candy tale

Fuse's annual festival of queer theater focuses on a comedy about a black man navigating the world of sex. It's laughter with an edge.

For a long time now, Fuse Theatre Ensemble has been one of the most openly political theater companies in town. Queer-forward, inclusivity has been a hallmark and a principle of its work for years. But this season is different. This season, the crowning gem of Fuse’s OUTwright Festival is Robert O’Hara’s Booty Candy, and, for a theater company that prides itself on pushing boundaries and upsetting expectations, this production is yet another new direction.

For eight years Fuse’s OUTwright Festival, which this year continues through June 30 at the Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center, has been one of the most anticipated and adventurous events of the theatrical year. It’s never quite the same from one season to the next. Sometimes it engages several venues, sometimes only one. It started out as only table readings of scripts, but now incorporates readings, full productions, and forums exploring a variety of topics centered on the company’s mission. Whatever the offerings, however many venues, whoever the artists are that are involved, the goal of the OUTwright Festival stays constant. “The mission never really changes,” says Fuse Artistic Director Rusty Tennant. “We’re here to celebrate the queers.”

Gerrin Mitchell, Charles Grant, Shareen Jacobs in OUTwright Festival’s Booty Candy.

Tennant, who wears many hats as a theater artist (director, scenic designer, actor, technical director, teacher are just the ones I know off the top of my head) is forthright about what makes this particular OUTwright Festival different from the ones that have gone before. “The focus of this year’s festival,” he says, “is centering people of color and underrepresented groups within the LGBTQIA-plus umbrella.” When asked why this was the year to focus on people of color in the queer community, Tennant says simply, “Because we hadn’t.”

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Finding a voice for black media

Open Signal's screening Friday at the Hollywood Theatre of work by six young black Portland filmmakers opens the door on a world of stories

Something’s happening. And you’d better know what it is.

On Friday, June 14, Open Signal Labs is giving six black filmmakers a chance to showcase their work and let the Portland media world know they’re here, they’re thriving, and they’re ready to enter the industry and take a commanding role. The screening, at 7 p.m. at the Hollywood Theatre in Northeast Portland, is the culmination of a year of work, learning and training for six young, black filmmakers: Kamryn Fall, Elijah Hasan, Tamera Lyn, Sika Stanton, Noah Thomas and Dustin Tolman.

Open Signal’s Ifanyi Bell and RaShaunda Brooks: making it happen. Photo: Sam Gehrke

This fellowship is the first of its kind in the state of Oregon. Over the course of the year, these artists were granted “a $2,000 stipend, training, access to industry-standard equipment, staff and actors from Artists Repertory Theatre, as well as mentorship with media professionals and connections to the field from the Oregon Governor’s Office of Film & Television.” The idea, says Open Signal executive producer and industry veteran Ifanyi Bell, is to “provide our fellows the best possible resources — cutting-edge filmmaking equipment and experienced industry professionals — and then time will tell. We hope to create a safe space immune from outside influence that will inspire true innovation and authentic stories of black Americans.”

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