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Bobby Bermea on theater, art, & life: Welcome to a new column

A teller of tales and theater-artist-about-town digs into the "cauldron of creativity" of his happy place, the rehearsal room. And, oh: Got a story idea? Let him know.

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MY NAME, as the byline tells you, is Bobby Bermea. I am a theater artist around town, meaning I act, direct, write, produce, and devise live theater. At times I have also run community engagement, designed sound, worked with young people, and done a variety of other things with which I cobble together a sometimes frustrating, sometimes exhilarating, sometimes tenuous, never-boring existence.

One of the other things I do, one of the things that has consistently brought be me joy, is write for Oregon Arts Watch.

I’ve been doing this, intermittently, over the last four years. From the beginning, when my editor Bob Hicks first invited me on, my focus has been to write about artists and their process. I chose this, honestly, because even though they often drive me crazy, artists of every ilk are some of my favorite people, and nothing fascinates me more than the moment of inspiration; that “moment” – as most artists know – actually lasting for hours, days, weeks or even years.

For me, personally, outside of home or the outdoors (the beach, the desert, a forest, etc.), there is no place I’d rather be than the rehearsal room. Generally, when people come to the rehearsal room they bring their best selves – their ingenuity, sensitivity, vulnerability, generosity and passion. Of course, for that to work, a given rehearsal room also has to have room to fit in all of the egos, insecurities, neuroses, and general clumsiness that those artists bring with them. That means the rehearsal room also has the potential for great volatility and even danger, either physical or emotional.

BUT IT’S IN THAT BREADTH of potentiality, that cauldron of creativity, that I am happiest. You have to be a maker to know how much time and discipline and imagination it took for an actor to figure out when, how and why exactly they are going to even walk across the stage. And that moment when you get it just right, that moment that you know, is worth all the hours that you put in, labor that no one watching the play will ever see. And that’s fine. Let them think it’s effortless.

Actor and ArtsWatch columnist Bobby Bermea in Cygnet Productions’ boxing drama “The Set-Up” in 2016. Photo: Owen Carey

I can remember, years ago, watching a tremendous theater performer, Eleanor O’Brien, struggle with a line that seemed to be a series of non sequiturs: There was no logic, no reasoning, to the order the words had been placed in. Just looking at the script, I remember, I had no idea what the author was getting at, either. I just happened to be looking at O’Brien at the exact instant when all of a sudden it clicked for her, she understood, and all those random words had a very clear, direct, and, it turned out, hilarious intent. (There’s a reason why the cartoon cliché for that moment is a light bulb suddenly clicking on.)

I think of another actor, Dana Millican, as intense and dedicated an actor as we have in Portland. Dana will do a line fifteen different ways in ten minutes, and each iteration will be magic, bringing some new illumination to the character or the script or both – and none of them will be good enough for her. Watching on the outside, all of those interpretations are dynamite. But you’re watching Dana, the artist, absolutely grapple with every iteration.

Or yet another Portland favorite, Victor Mack, who the first time I did a first read with him I was like, can this dude even act? What is he doing? Because Mack, unlike me, unlike a lot of actors, will not have made a definitive decision on any line at that first read, not even to cater to the expectations of the other artists. He is exploring as he is reading; you are listening to his actual thought process as it happens, and that exploration will continue for days or even weeks, happening so subtly you can’t even see it, and then, in what seems all of a sudden, he’s shot into the stratosphere. 

These, of course, are just a few examples – just three instances that popped into my mind, because I know actors, and actors are accessible for me. But that process, the culmination of all the different factors of creation, talent, skill, discipline, imagination, coming together and being actively utilized, is what I find endlessly fascinating.  

NOT JUST WITH ACTING. And not just with theater. I remember hearing a story about the making of the mega-hit single, “Billie Jean,” and that Michael Jackson and producer Quincy Jones had a dispute over the instrumental opening. Jones thought it was too long for radio play. Jackson’s response was, “Yeah, but it makes me want to dance.” Obviously, Jackson-genius won that one over Jones-genius, and the rest is pop music history. That’s just a cool story.

I remember biking through the streets of Santa Fe, New Mexico, with a friend. We wound up riding behind some houses and we came across the open-air studio of a glass blower. We stopped and stood there and just watched the bubble of molten glass undulate and morph at the end of the artist’s blow pipe, in an inferno that reached some 2,000 degrees. As he twisted and turned the blowpipe, his head would rhythmically bob up and down, as though to some music that only he could hear.

As opposed to another artist, Rocky Lewycky, a potter and ceramicist, who would actually blast Martha Wainwright, Jeff Buckley, or KRS One, depending on his mood, when he plopped a hunk of clay down on his potter’s wheel. As soon as the wheel started spinning, the clay would animate under his hands, and seem to live through an entire time-lapsed life in front of your eyes.

All of which to say that, to me, the artistic process is one of the single most fascinating aspects of the human condition. It is a moment where we touch God; where something that wasn’t there, now exists; where no matter what the medium, a story about humanity is being told, a truth is made manifest, one way or another. I want to present that, support it, uplift it, be dazzled by it, explore it.

AND THAT’S WHERE YOU COME IN. Yes, you reading this. If you are an artist, or you know an artist, or you know of an artist who you appreciate and there is a story that I can help them tell, here, in my capacity as a writer for Oregon ArtsWatch, please drop me a line. It can be a story about yourself, or your process, or even the business of making art as a writer, a comic book artist, a musician, a sculptor. It can be a story about the trials and tribulations of making art in the Rose City. It can be about the fight to make art more accessible to people, or making money accessible to artists so they can ply their trade.

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Send me ideas! I, of course, will have to clear it with my editors and make sure it works with the rest of my schedule. But I’ll be looking, I’ll be searching, and I’ll be reaching out. But you don’t have to wait for me to find you. You can let me know you’re there.

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Reach Bobby Bermea at bobby@orartswatch.org  

Bobby Bermea is an award-winning actor, director, writer and producer. He is co-artistic director of Beirut Wedding, a founding member of Badass Theatre and a long-time member of both Sojourn Theatre and Actors Equity Association. Bermea has appeared in theaters from New York, NY, to Honolulu, HI. In Portland, he’s performed at Portland Center Stage, Artists Repertory Theatre, Portland Playhouse, Profile Theatre, El Teatro Milagro, Sojourn Theatre, Cygnet Productions, Tygre’s Heart, and Life in Arts Productions, and has won three Drammy awards. As a director he’s worked at Beirut Wedding, BaseRoots Productions, Profile Theatre, Theatre Vertigo and Northwest Classical, and was a Drammy finalist. He’s the author of the plays Heart of the City, Mercy and Rocket Man. His writing has also appeared in bleacherreport.com and profootballspot.com.

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  1. Wishing you, Bobby and the Oregon Arts Watch staff and we readers expanded horizons from this new venture. We need a column on the creative process, specifically in theater, which we cannot allow to be taken from us even via Global Pandemic and Public Health considerations. KBOO has tried, French dramatist and pioneering writer Antonin Artaud took radio seriously as a medium for the most intimate, exploratory and low-budget deeply imaginative theater work which can work around and keep our communal creative spirit alive even during Global Pandemic and assorted other calamities.

    Your referencing here of Eleanor O’Brien and Victor Mack’s unique rehearsal processes touches on treasures of our local theatrical scene. We need this kind of experiential coverage from our indie arts scene and its indie journalistic coverage. You too, Bobby are just such a creative process treasure. From the roles I’ve seen you inhabit. back to the Portland Playhouse production of August Wilson’s Pittsburgh Drama Cycle closer RADIO GOLF to even more developmental and experimental work at the old Firehouse Theater on Interstate. Keep on doing and now covering, reporting and essaying!

    Mitch Ritter\Paradigm Sifters, Code Shifters, PsalmSong Chasers
    Lay-Low Studios, Ore-Wa (Refuge of Atonement Seekers)
    Media Discussion List\Looksee

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