Boom Arts is halfway through its 2018-2019 season, and so far it’s been a season of growth. Kamla Hurst became the risk-taking Portland performance presenter’s very first executive director. The company, which calls itself “a boutique presenter and producer of contemporary theatre and performance from around the world,” brought Teatr-Pralnia, a 10-person performance group from Ukraine, to Portland. And it brought back Penny Arcade, one of America’s most respected performance artists, for an encore show.
So far, so good. “Pralnia delighted us with a fabulous show,” says producer Ruth Wikler. “Word of mouth traveled over the week they were in town and our audiences literally quadrupled between the first and second weekends.” She was also pleased with the community-engagement programming: a workshop with students of theater and of Russian language and literature at Salem’s Willamette University; a program at Central Library; and a visit to Art & Learning Studios, where the artists made connections with adults with developmental disabilities, including native Ukrainian speakers.
BOOM ARTS: THE SEASON: 5
“With Penny Arcade we got to see a master artist at work,” says Wikler. “Our strategy of inviting Penny to perform both finished work and works-in-progress created some very special experiences, both for artist and audiences.” Arcade performed a double bill over her one weekend in Portland, the well-loved Longing Lasts Longer, and a work in progress about the #MeToo movement. “We wish Penny all the best as she performs her acclaimed show Bitch Dyke Faghag Whore at New York City’s Joe’s Pub at the Public Theater through the Under the Radar Theatre Festival in January,” Wikler says. This was also Boom’s first time working with Imago Theatre, where Penny Arcade’s shows ran, and the relationship, Wikler says, was fruitful.
BUT THIS IS HALFTIME, and there’s still a lot of planning that must be done for the rest of the season. The next artist, the contemporary puppet theater Silencio Blanco, is coming from Chile for performances Feb. 2-9. Bringing artists from overseas requires a lot of moving pieces to fall into place. Boom is working with its national tour partners (Chicago International Puppet Festival and University of Maryland Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center) to secure Silencio’s flights and finish the visa process, in addition to finding lodging for the artists during their stay in Portland for their run at Imago Theatre.
Hurst, Boom Arts’ executive director, saw Silencio Blanco when Boom Arts brought them in 2017 for a show about Chilean miners, and is excited for their return: “I remember being in pitch darkness with no sound, watching a very intimate and intricate story being told through puppets, and I think that really grabbed me. It really opened up the way I thought about oppression and poverty than if I was reading about it.”
Much more is involved in creating and managing a season than simply booking performance groups. Making community connections is a big part of Boom Arts’ approach, and that requires an extra amount of planning. In addition to the regularly scheduled performances, Wikler is working on the outreach for Silencio Blanco’s residency. After working with Pralnia, Multnomah County Library is partnering with Boom again, opening up the Gresham Library to host a workshop for Spanish-speaking families. Wikler has tapped Young Audiences, Inc. for help with outreach to local schools. “Pescador wasn’t created as a theater piece for children, but we think it has the capacity to speak powerfully to audiences of all ages, and especially fourth-graders and up,” she says. “We’re making school outreach now with their help, and will have the artists do one schooltime show at Imago and visit up to three schools in the Portland metro area.”
Wikler has engaged composer/singer Ben Landsverk of the band Wonderly and the pop chorus The OK Chorale as the Portland Choir Director for the final show of the season, Primer for a Failed Superpower, by the New York City theater ensemble The TEAM, which will perform in Portland May 10-11 at The Old Church. “Ben and his New York City and Oakland counterparts from The TEAM are working on a recruitment strategy for the multigenerational community choir,” says Wikler. “We are so excited to be the first iteration of this project outside of the TEAM’s NYC home base!”
As Hurst is finding out working with Wikler, planning a season of presenters is a challenge. “It’s really fascinating to me how Ruth is thinking about next season and the different parameters,” she says. It involves deciding what topics to include in a season, finding venues that are available and work with the artists, and seeing which international artists are available to travel to Portland. “There are so many interesting limitations and opportunities,” Hurst says. “As a board member I never got into the weeds that way. But I really enjoy it. And I enjoy getting a deeper sense of the stakes.”
“Season planning is my art form,” says Wikler. “I love creating a journey for audiences that takes them to new realms of understanding, broadens awareness, challenges, and provokes. That’s what I love about experiencing art myself, and I feel honored to be able to provide that experience for my community.” Wikler envisions a season as a whole, and the sequence of performers informs the overall experience.
To build a season of shows means building a network of relationships. Wikler attends conferences, nationally and abroad, throughout the year to meet artists and other curators. It’s not just about finding artists whose work is interesting, but also finding partnership possibilities. “This fall I attended CINARS, the performing art market in Montréal. I attended the National Performance Network in Pittsburgh and in January I’m attending some NYC conferences and a conference that focuses on performing arts for youth.”
She also uses audience feedback to help inform what kind of artists she wants to bring to Portland. “For example, we’ve heard many times that Portlanders value our feminist programming, or that they appreciated how we ‘help Portland’s art scene push boundaries.’ So these inspire our approach to programming.”
While Wikler values audience feedback, she doesn’t program around a particular theme. “That would be too restrictive,” she says. “I program using our mission as a guidepost: to imagine new social and political possibilities through live performance.” She finds it tends to create seasons of ideas that artists are responding to. “Right now some of the ideas that I’m looking at include ocean health; the radicalization of young Muslim men via the internet; the U.S. experience of refugees and asylum seekers.”
TJ Acena has been covering Boom Arts’ 2018-19 season from inside and out for Oregon ArtsWatch. His previous pieces in the series:
- Boom Arts’ festive revolution. Embarking on a new season of theatrical celebration and social change.
- Boom Arts: Puppets from Kiev. From Ukraine, a 10-day dash of song, theater, puppetry and culture.
- Penny Arcade, back in town. Boom Arts brings the celebrated performance artist to town for the second time in a year with an old favorite and some new projects.
- Boom Arts: the executive chair. New executive director Kamla Hurst talks about planning, risk, and growth.