Boom Arts is looking to bring a festive revolution to Portland. “We’re coming together to celebrate and turn things upside down,” says curator and producer Ruth Wikler, describing her vision for the company’s seventh season. In a world of constant bad news she wants to find a way to engage our way to social change.
Shows at Boom Arts, a presenting company that searches the world for provocative and stimulating touring acts, often have short runs, one or two weekends at most. ArtsWatch will be following them this season from the inside – seeing shows, talking with the artists, getting perspectives from Wikler and others – to give readers a variety of insights on what they do and how they work. Performers who BoomArts likes to showcase tend to have singular profiles: they don’t always fall neatly into theater, or dance, or performance. This season’s opening act, Oct. 19-20 and 26-27 at the Paris Theatre, is the Ukrainian group Teatr-Pralnia (Laundry Theatre) with CCA Dakh and their show TseSho?/What’s That?.
This is the group’s first time in the United States. Portland is one stop in the Kiev company’s national tour, which was made possible by Center Stage, a program of the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. Wikler travels a lot in her search for new acts to bring to Portland but it’s not just about finding something new, especially for international acts. Making connections with national presenters allows Boom Arts to host international groups that have secured their visas. “I have to find how to plug them into existing national partnerships. We’ve been talking to Center Stage for a few years now,” she says. “It was an opportunity we were excited to say yes to because we felt they fit our mission.”
BOOM ARTS: THE SEASON: 1
TseSho?/What’s That? draws on real-time events, Facebook feeds, iconic Ukrainian poetry, live music, projections, improvisation, and puppetry to ask: How do we understand the world around us? Who can we trust in a world of “fake news,” corruption and propaganda? Can we discern truth from deception?
The concept of “fake news” makes this show a timely piece to bring to the states. But this is not a new idea to Teatr-Pralnia. Misinformation, particularly from Russia, has played a huge role in the country since the pro-democracy revolution and secession of Crimea in 2014. “We’re interested to see how Portland will relate to these artists,” says Wikler.
And what better venue for a Ukrainian punk-rock cabaret show than the historic Paris Theater? The downtown Portland space just off Burnside has been a burlesque house, turned cinema, turned music club, turned adult movie theater, turned legit stage for the old Storefront Theatre, turned music club again.
This is a small season for Boom Arts – what Wikler calls a “boutique season.” “Last year we did seven projects. We found that seven was too much; it stretched us and our audiences too thin,” she says.
But Boom Arts is not cutting back on its community outreach and cross-cultural exchange, hallmarks of its work. As Wikler puts it, “We don’t just put on performances. We connect the community to the artists. It’s continual learning.” Boom is working with World Oregon to do outreach with Teatr-Pralnia, give people a chance to meet with the artists and talk about their experiences.
The first returnee is the renowned feminist performance artist Penny Arcade, who was just here in February of this year. “Portland is a word-of-mouth town,” said Wikler. “Word starts to circulate but by then our artists are gone. We think there’s still a lot of interest in her. She blew it up in February. People went nuts over her shows and she gained a lot of disciples in just a week.” Penny Arcade will be bringing back Longing Lasts Longer, a critique of the post-gentrification landscape of New York, for those who missed it the first time around, but also some new work. “She’s developing two new pieces right now and she needs guinea pigs,” Wikler says. Those works in progress are The Faghag and Her Friends in the Summer of Love and The Girl Who Knew Too Much.
Bringing Penny Arcade back was an easy choice for Wikler: “She never compromises. She’s always been underground and speaks very frankly about what she’s learned. And there’s a superb quality to her work.”
The other returning company this season is Silencio Blanco, a puppetry group from Chile that explores the complex relationship between humans and nature. Their piece last year, Chiflon, el Silencio del Carbon, examined the lives of miners and their families. This year they look at the fishing industry with Pescador. “They use small puppets, just suggestive of humans,” says Wikler. “But they manipulate them with such care and detail you get enraptured in their reality.”
Part of the appeal of bringing back Silencio Blanco is to expand the age range of Boom’s audience this season. “This piece is suitable for young audiences, but it’s not necessarily a kids’ show. We wanted to show work that invites all ages in –– that families could experience together.” A partnership with Young Audiences will help bring Silencio Blanco to schools during the company’s time in Portland.
The season ends with Primer for a Failed Superpower by New York-based theater ensemble The TEAM, making their Portland debut, and it looks to challenge the audience for Boom Arts as much as possible. The show is to be performed by a multigenerational community choir that rehearses over the course of months.
“It’s their concept and framework but the performers are from our community,” says Wikler. Directed by Tony Award nominee Rachel Chavkin (Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812), and musically directed by Nehemiah Luckett (Reverend Billy & the Stop Shopping Choir), the work celebrates the history of the protest song with newly commissioned choral arrangements of iconic songs from the past and present. The songs will be interspersed with footage including interviews from activists all over the United States. “They’ve never done this piece outside of their home context, so we’re the lab rats for that,” says Wikler.
The TEAM is looking to find more than 30 performers locally from all ages. Contact Boom Arts for information on joining the project. In order to capitalize on the energy of Primer for a Failed Superpower, Wikler plans to invite social justice groups to set up tables at the performances. “We’re trying to immerse you in the world of the art we are bringing.” It’s a fitting end to the season, equal parts celebration and activism social change.
For information on Boom Arts’ 2018-19 season, including a July 2019 outdoor performance in downtown Portland by France’s Begat Theater, look here.