Boom! Big changes as season ends

Boom Arts founder Ruth Wikler takes a top circus job in Montréal; Tracy Cameron Francis takes over as the company's new artistic director

The end of a season is always a moment of transition for a company. But for Boom Arts this year the transition will be much bigger than normal. Company founder Ruth Wikler has announced she is stepping down and taking a position as Director of Circus Programming for TOHU in Montréal, Canada.

Boom Arts’ board has selected Tracy Cameron Francis as the company’s next artistic producer. Francis is a first-generation Egyptian-American director, producer, deviser, dramaturge and educator. She is the festival director of the Cascade Festival of African Film and has worked in greater Portland with Milagro, Corrib, Artists Repertory Theatre, Portland Center Stage and Bag & Baggage, and PICA’s TBA Festival.

Tracy Cameron Francis, Boom Arts’ new leader.

“I’m really excited for this new adventure,” Wikler says. “And at the same time, I’m so proud of what Boom Arts has achieved since our first event eight years ago. Tracy knows our work and shares our values, and knows the kind of work people know and love Boom Arts for. It’s a very natural choice. I am so excited to see how she brings our mission forward into the future.”

Francis has a long history with Boom Arts, having directed staged readings there since 2012. She went on to produce and direct a full production of one of the first plays Boom produced, Ibrahim El-Husseini’s Comedy of Sorrows, at New York’s HERE Arts Center.


BOOM ARTS: THE SEASON: 9


Working internationally has long been a part of her practice. While in New York she co-founded and ran a theater company in called Hybrid Theatre Works, which focused on the intersection between art and activism through international collaborations. She curated the annual Performance Art Showcase for Bushwick Open Studios and was also a core committee member of Theatre Without Borders, a grassroots organization that works to connect artists from different countries.

“My career has always been focused on politically engaged performance and international collaborations, so being able to carry on the work I am passionate about through the amazing organization that Ruth has established feels like a natural step,” says Francis.

“Growing up between two different cultures, I have always been drawn to the arts as a form of cultural diplomacy. Live performance has the power to create empathy for cultures and experiences outside of ourselves and to be a catalyst for community engagement. I look forward to continuing to deepen Boom Arts’ ties to the community and also deepening Portland’s ties to rest of the world.”

Boon Arts founder Ruth Wikler: Back to her circus roots.

When the founder of an organization leaves it creates a lot of change in its wake. Founding Board Chair Cheryl Grossman has stepped down: Both she and Wikler will remain on the board, and board member Pancho Savery will become the new chair. The organization at least for now will be smaller, without an executive director. Interim Executive Director Kamla Hurst has moved on to a new role as executive director of the Portland-based nonprofit The Bloom Project.

“It’s a new chapter,” says Grossman. “We all wish Ruth well, and look forward to working with Tracy, Pancho, and the rest of the board to help Boom Arts continue to make its unique contribution to our community.”

The changes will also mean a pared-back 2019/20 season. “We will start and end our next season with two outdoor performance events that Ruth has curated,” says Francis. “Including a site-specific walking tour with the French company Begat Theatre, and a large international street theater festival planned for Summer 2020.” That festival comes with first-time support from the National Endowment for the Arts. “I am excited to enliven and reimagine Portland’s public spaces through these performances,” says Francis. She also plans to present some pop-up events during the fall and winter, which will be announced later this summer.

“She has the same spirit I had when I founded Boom Arts,” says Wikler. “Let’s find out what this needs to be within the limits of what’s there.”

Wikler hasn’t had a lot of time process what it means to be leaving. “I’ll still be around,” she says. “But I feel like I don’t have to worry so much about Boom Arts and juggling all that anymore. And I feel very proud.”

“Festive Revolutions” was an apt description for Wikler’s last season guiding Boom Arts. In much of the work she curated there was a call to action from the performers, asking them to look at some problem in the world, and know that they themselves were the solution to that problem.

Looking back, one production stands out for her. “All the shows created wonderful experiences but from a producing standpoint Silencio was the best project we’ve ever done,” says Wikler. “The reason is because all the pieces came together. The piece was high-quality and the artists were very happy. We found them a great Air B&B, figured out all their transportation, the tech stuff all worked, the theater was easy to work with, and the partnership with Young Audiences went great.” That’s not a small thing. Audiences often don’t realize the complex logistics of bringing artists from overseas and working with venues, and in this case it worked out beautifully: “That’s an ace in the hole in my book.”

Fisherman at work in the Boom Arts show Silencio.

But Wikler also feels that the work truly resonated with audiences. “We did post-show discussions the second weekend and it made such a huge difference. The artists started talking about the politics of the piece and made them really evident. It really illuminated it. I wish we had started it the first weekend.”

Working at TOHU, a premiere presenter of contemporary circus in North America, might seem like an unusual move to Portland audiences. But Wikler got her start in circus. “I was a contemporary circus director in New York in my 20s. My group was called Cirque Boom, which Boom Arts is named from.” In her new position she will be curating performances and workshops from artists all over the world. It’s a perfect synthesis of all the work she’s done over the last 20 years.

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TJ Acena has been covering Boom Arts’ 2018-19 season from inside and out for Oregon ArtsWatch. This is his last installment. His previous pieces in the series:

  1. Boom Arts’ festive revolution. Embarking on a new season of theatrical celebration and social change.
  2. Boom Arts: Puppets from Kiev. From Ukraine, a 10-day dash of song, theater, puppetry and culture.
  3. 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.
  4. Boom Arts: the executive chair. New executive director Kamla Hurst talks about planning, risk, and growth.
  5. Boom Arts: The halftime report. Acena looks back on the first half of the 2018-19 season and ahead to what’s still to come.
  6. Boom goes fishing with puppets. “Puppetry is a way of looking at acting,” Dominga Gutiérrez, co-founder of the Chilean troupe Silencio Blanca, tells Acena.
  7. Boom update: hold the choir. The presenting company and The TEAM announce a switch in plans.
  8. Dreaming about ‘Tomorrow.’ The New York ensemble The TEAM talks about its made-in-Portland show, Tomorrow Will Be …

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