In a time when so much of theater is in trouble, Hand2Mouth Theatre, one of Oregon’s longest-running theater companies and very likely its longest-running devising theater company, is in the midst of purposeful, positive, significant change. And that change comes in the form of company member turned artistic director Michael Cavazos.
Cavazos’ tenure is heralded by a remounting of Home/Land, which he/she/they directed (Cavazos uses all pronouns), an original piece which local hotshot multidisciplinary artist and filmmaker Ashley Song calls “a beautiful, thrilling, tremendous piece of art.” Cavazos created Home/Land with current and former Hand2Mouth company members Geo Alva, Jonathan Walters and Lucille Dawson, as well as Dion Doulis and Karin Holmström, from France’s Begat Theatre, and Erika Latta from New York City’s WaxFactory.
According to Latta, Home/Land is a work whose intention is “to question ownership of land, being mindful that nature was here before you. Indigenous communities were here before you. What is home, and how have we treated the notion of ‘home’ and why put up borders and flags and keep people out?”
Cavazos says that Home/Land is “an immersive installation piece, using a lot of tech, everybody wears a headset, and it tells the history of the land that we live on, here in Portland but also in the greater U.S.”
Home/Land runs for one week only, September 19th-24th, and will be performed at Zidell Yards, 3121 South Moody Ave, Portland.
Zidell is a space that in the last few years has become a hotbed of creative energy. Several artistic organizations call the waterfront space a home, including ProLab, DanceWire, Portland Radio Project, Boom Arts, The Red Door Project, Willamette Light Brigade, Lightmotive Films, Hungry Mantis, Ping Pong Pop, Oregon Poet Laureate Anis Mojgani, and a handful of other business creatives and individual artists. There’s a lot going on there, and at a time when space is at a premium it’s hard to overstate how exciting and important Zidell Yards has become for the artistic life of the city.
If this sounds like an auspicious environment to start for a new artistic director, it is — although Hand2Mouth is not run via the typical hierarchy generally found in theater companies. Historically, it has been an ensemble-based company whose primary engine was founding artistic director Jonathan Walters, who held the title for more than two decades. In 2020, as with so many companies, it was thought that a new approach to directorship was needed and, eventually, Hand2Mouth landed on a three-pronged leadership collective that includes Jenni Greenmiller as the education director, and Walters as the international programs director.
After Walters decided to step aside as AD, company member Giovanni “Geo” Alva held the job down for a year, paving the way for Cavazos to take over. “Geo did a great job and really succeeded in galvanizing the company,” Cavazos says. Even so, when Walters approached Cavazos with the idea of taking over in the new position, his first response, he says, was “No.”
“I really do have an aversion to the administrative part, the paperwork and the organizing and the budgeting and all of that — that’s daunting to me,” he explains, laughing. “But I’ve produced so many shows over the years that I knew I could do it. And because it’s an artistic role, I thought, ‘Yeah, let’s give it a try.’”
Cavazos hails “from a tight-knit Mexican family” in San Antonio, Texas. Early on in his life he recognized that he was queer, and between machismo culture, four military bases and the Catholic church, San Antonio wasn’t a comfortable place to grow up. So when he got the chance, he left, and with the help of a scholarship found himself at Emerson College in Boston.
In a lot of ways, Cavazos found Emerson liberating. “I found that I was really able to explore my creativity,” he remembers. Not that he necessarily felt like he belonged: “I didn’t fit in, because I was too brown, too poor, and hadn’t gone to private schools.” Still, it was at Emerson that Cavazos wrote his first play, Gritos y chismesitos (screams and a little gossip), which was, he explains, “basically a coming-out, coming-of-age story about growing up Mexican and trying to find my way.”
This was an important time in Cavazos’ development: It was in this period that he found a reason to become reconnected with his Mexican roots. “When I left San Antonio, I really pushed away my Mexican side because I was like, ‘They won’t accept me; I’m gonna be better, I’m gonna be smarter, I’m going to do all these great things.’”
But once he got to Emerson, and realized it was so white, Cavazos felt “I miss my family, I miss my roots, I miss my culture.” Out of that impulse, his playwrighting career was born. Gritos was Cavazos’ first experience at writing, producing, casting, and being in process.
It was also at Emerson that Cavazos discovered drag. “Drag gave me a superpower,” he says now. “Suddenly, people were noticing me. People were thinking, ‘Oh, he’s unique. He can do things that not every man can do.’”
With a partner he created Chic and Sassy, and then Chic and Sassy: The Higher the Hair the Closer to God. They submitted these plays to the New York Fringe Festival, got in, and Cavazos decided it was time to move to New York. Then came a job and a masters degree from the New School, and moonlighting as a karaoke host and open mic host in a bunch of dingy, dirty bars. “It was a great New York experience,” he says, laughing at the memory.
Working a lot in the fringe theater scene eventually led to creating a theater troupe called the Gender Offenders. “We were an all-drag team that were a mix between devising and sketch comedy – though we didn’t have the word ‘devising’ back then,” he says. Gender Offenders kept going for a few years, developing a following, but eventually disbanded because the artists involved were growing in different directions.
In this time period, which lasted about ten years, Cavazos also performed as a rapper, Chic’Speare, with his old partner, Sassy, who now went by SassTronica. You can still see their music videos on YouTube and I highly recommend it.
It was also in this time period that Cavazos met his now husband, Rad Probst.
After ten years of working the circuit in New York, Cavazos was ready for change. “I was tired,” he says now. “I was tired of the grind, I was tired of putting on makeup, I was tired of putting on heels to perform.” So when Probst got a job offer at Lewis & Clark College, Cavazos was ready.
“For the first few years I struggled,” says Cavazos. “There was a little culture shock. Where were all the brown people? I didn’t know anybody in theater; I didn’t know how to get involved in the theater scene here.” So, for a minute, Cavazos went corporate as a photography producer, a job they’d had experience with back in New York. But in 2016, the theater bug came calling.
“I just took any gig I could find,” he says. The first gig was a stage management position at Imago. “I got paid like $300. It was nothing. But I was so desperate to be in a creative space, I was like, ‘Yeah, I wanna do it.’ That gig led to a few years working with Imago until Cavazos decided he needed to branch out and work with other companies, which eventually landed him at Hand2Mouth in 2018-19. And in 2020, he became a member.
“Hand2Mouth reminded me that I have a voice,” says Cavazos. “I’m a natural deviser, based on that work I did with the Gender Offenders group. I love theater in all of its forms. I love musicals. I love straight plays; I love all of those things. But there is something special about being in a room with collaborators that process. Versus, you know, in the rehearsal room with Jerry [Mouwad], who is an amazing, brilliant director – but he’s a director, you know? He’s like you move here and you move there, you do this – he’s going to tell you step by step what you need to do. Coming to Hand2Mouth it was like, ‘Ok, what do you want to do? How do you feel? What are your thoughts? What has been your experience? What informs the things you want to say?’ [Hand2Mouth] feels very exciting to me because all the works are borne out of a very rich collaboration.”
Cavazos is very excited about his tenureship at Hand2Mouth, not just for him, personally, but for the company. “We sent out an announcement because I wanted to show the greater community a changing of the guard,” he says. “Hand2Mouth is an historically white-led organization and historically most of the company members have been white. I really thought that how exciting that Jonathan, who has been the AD for 20-plus years, is stepping aside to make room, and then they’re bringing in this very nontraditional, nonbinary queer, Latino performer to come and take over. I think that’s exciting, and I bring a very different perspective.”
Cavazos is very clear that the heads of the three different departments, as well as the rest of the company, are all heavily involved in figuring out the direction of the company. “We meet regularly,” he says. “We have very deep discussions about what we want to see for the company.”
Like everyone else Hand2Mouth was affected by COVID, but withstood the storm thanks to their educational and international programs. “We’ve been very fortunate in that when COVID hit, we really pushed our education program and built it up,” Cavazos says. “And we also have this robust international program, which I just heard today that we’ll be going to Mexico, Ethiopia and the Dominican Republic this year to do our Dialogue in Difference curriculum with folks there.”
On the homefront, Hand2Mouth is no less busy. There is Home/Land, which Cavazos feels is an important piece: “There’s a lot of history that’s being shared in these stories in a very beautiful way, so that audiences really get a sense of what the history of the land is and hopefully build some compassion for how to think about people who have been displaced.”
After that, he continues, “We’re doing a 24-hour devising theater festival. We’re going to give 16 to 24 Portland-based artists 24 hours, some tools, and a specific theme to create a work. And In the spring we have a youth devising showcase” borne out of the work they do in high schools.
“And then our final show of the season is going to be in the spring and its working title is Memento Mori, which is an artistic trope which goes back centuries, transcends mediums and crosses continents, and means, essentially, ‘Remember that you must die.’”
“The idea is that it’s a reminder to live,” Cavazos says. “Death is inevitable, you should live for today, is basically what it’s about. Though it sounds ominous, it’s really about living and affirmation. So, it’s going to be exciting.”
- Company: Hand2Mouth Theatre
- Where: Zidell Yards, 3121 South Moody Ave., Portland
- When: 7-10 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, 5-8 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 19-24
- Basics: Outdoor walk-through immersive performance; audience members will cover about three-fourths mile. Comfortable shoes recommended. Masks optional. Forty tickets a night, one person enters every three minutes, each ticket will be for an exact entry time.
- Tickets: $25 general, $15 students, $5 Arts for All. Reservations here.