CULTURE

Antarctic journey: Waters on ice

A new frontier for Oregon painter April Waters, known for her waterscapes and large-scale portraits: a research station in Antarctica

The view to the west out the expansive windows in April Waters’ studio is a rolling landscape of woods, farmlands, habitations and foothills stepping up toward the Coast Range. Against one wall a giant bare canvas stretches 72 by 108 inches, almost as wide as and considerably longer than a king size bed. A commissioned portrait in process is visible, and several giclee prints of her landscape paintings are slotted in a folding stand. As the sun moves across the studio, which is built on a hillside to the south of downtown Salem, her easel rolls with it, catching the light the way she likes it.

April Waters with portraits of two of her Sheroes: marine biologist Sylvia Earle (left) and water-rights activist Maude Barlow. Oregon ArtsWatch photo

The vista is rich and fertile, vastly different from the edge of Antarctica, where she’ll travel in November to take part in the National Science Foundation’s Antarctic Artists and Writers Program. The NSF program places artists in one of three United States Antarctic research stations to observe the world at its extremes, and help explain through their art the significance of the life and landscape of the southernmost continent and what changes there mean to the world as a whole. Both the Willamette Valley vistas that Waters paints and the Antarctic ice shores she is about to visit are places intimately involved in the shifts and balances and warning signs of climate change.

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“Small Mouth Sounds”: Things left unsaid

Bess Wohl's play about folks seeking transformation at a silent retreat draws you in but leaves a vague impression.

Quiet has always been a refuge for making sense of our lives. Whether with a short walk, a weekend in the woods, or a meditation practice, it’s sometimes easiest to find ourselves through purposeful stillness. But for some people that’s not enough. They need a lot more quiet; a week’s worth. And those are the people you’ll meet in Artists Rep’s production of Bess Wohl’s Small Mouth Sounds, which leans into the silence — though perhaps a bit too much.

Set at a nameless silent retreat, Small Mouth Sounds follows six participants as they attempt to find personal enlightenment, guided only by the ostentatious voice of an unseen guru and their own exasperated gesturing to each other. There’s not much in the way of an introduction to these characters, a few ticks and some simple costuming get across the shorthand of it: There’s a lesbian odd-couple, a swaggering yoga teacher, an anxious underdog, a religious older gentleman, and the standard stereotypical millennial white woman.

A peaceful, not-so-easy feeling: Susannah Mars (from left), Ayanna Berkshire, John San Nicolas, Michael Mendelson, Kelly Godell and Darius Pierce retreat into silence in “Small Mouth Sounds” at Artists Rep. Photo: David Kinder

The retreat environment imposes an intriguing restriction on the show: While there are moments of dialogue, much of Small Mouth Sounds does actually take place in silence. We tend to think of theater as a visual medium, but it’s easy to forget how much heavy lifting dialogue does until its stripped back. As an audience member, this is a show you have to lean into, literally, to make sure you don’t miss any subtle change in countenance or a lingering finger. And a lot happens in these silent moments. It’s a nice reminder of how meaningful touch is between humans and how much vulnerability it takes.

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Uplifting spirits through clay art

Maori artists from New Zealand visit Astoria to strengthen ties with other Pacific Rim cultures and plant seeds -- both literal and figurative -- for the future

Art instructor Richard Rowland and I had plans to talk Saturday, but the time for our call came and went unanswered. Thirty minutes later, Rowland was on the line, apologetic, but with a good excuse. Rowland, a native Hawaiian and ceramics instructor at Clatsop Community College, had an important task at hand — preparing a pig for a community luau at which the guests of honor were nine visiting Maori clay artists from New Zealand, or in the native tongue, Aotearoa.

Baye Riddell, one of the Maori artists visiting Clatsop Community College, created these “Kaitiaki” or guardians of the environment.

“It is my responsibility to cook in the imu, a traditional way of Hawaiian cooking,” Rowland said. “It is my responsibility that everyone has been fed.”

Rowland expected to see 100 to 130 guests for the meal, after which his Maori friends planned to take the stage to speak, play music, or perhaps tell a story.

The public will have the chance to learn more about the artists on Wednesday, Oct. 17, during a lecture/slide presentation about the work and their home.

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Field of Dreams on the Emerald Isle

In "Hurl," Corrib Theater’s new production, an ancient sport becomes a metaphor for today’s struggles over immigration and diversity.

In Corrib Theatre’s Hurl, conflicts over immigration and race literally play out on the pitch of a rural Irish village. Led by the best one-two acting punch I’ve seen so far this season from co-leads Cynthia Shur Petts and Clara-Liis Hillier, it’s a well-timed shot of Irish theater whiskey sent over to warm Americans during our own new ICE Age.

In Irish playwright Charlie O’Neill’s fictional 2003 story, a group of immigrants from far-flung lands (Sierra Leone, Bosnia, Nigeria, Cuba, Vietnam, Argentina, inner-city Dublin), seeking to forge a community spirit,  assemble to play a centuries-old Gaelic sport distantly resembling lacrosse or field hockey. Initially rebuffed and discouraged by Rusty (a sublimely smarmy Petts), a local sports official, they finally manage to persuade a defrocked priest, Lofty (a sharp, unsentimental Hillier) to coach them in a village team that will compete against other community teams in a national amateur league.

At the outset, he’s “banjaxed” (drunk) and they’re disorderly, but if you’ve seen anything from Hoosiers to Bad News Bears and so many others, you pretty much know the standard sports-inspirational story that ensues: motley crew of underdogs takes on the big bad establishment. And you can guess the rest, right up to the climactic Big Game and its Inspirational Halftime Speech.

Teamwork: Wynee Hu (left to right), Falynn Burton, Kenneth Dembo, Clara Liis-Hillier, James Dixon, Alec Lugo, and Heath Hyun Houghton in Corrib Theatre’s “Hurl.” Photo: Adam Liberman

When O’Neill wrote Hurl, his country’s foreign-born population was in the midst of more than tripling to 17 percent, between 1996 and 2011. As a post-show talk back explained, there were important differences between Ireland’s and America’s experiences with recent immigration upsurges. But both there and then, and here and now, recently arrived immigrants sparked resentment from some native-born citizens. Conniving politicians manipulated fears about “differences,” darkly implying that the new arrivals threatened Our Traditional Way of Life — that instead of contributing vitality and diversity to their new home, “They” were somehow taking something away.

Rusty and Lofty respectively represent resistance to and celebration of racial and national diversity. In a brilliantly restrained and subtle performance from Shur Petts, Rusty, who keeps coming back throughout the show like a bad case of head lice, usually keeps the real reasons for the dispute carefully covert. Onstage here as in real life, most racists and nationalists seldom spell out their real reasons for resistance to change. Still, he’s a little too easy to dismiss as one of those backwater racists, not like us urbane good guys. As too many of us have belatedly learned, racism’s reality is less obvious and more pervasive than most of us well-intentioned theater-goers imagine, extending to our own neighborhoods and even assumptions.

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DramaWatch: Building a bigger, broader audience

Portland Center Stage's leaders talk about diversity and inclusion on the stage and in the seats; plus, the rundown on a host of theater openings.

For Cynthia Fuhrman, enthusiasm about Portland Center Stage is part of both her job and her nature. Even so, about a year into her tenure as PCS managing director — and three decades after she helped found the company as an offshoot of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, she really is…well…enthusiastic.

“Chris left us in better shape than we’ve ever been in,” she said in a recent interview, referring to longtime artistic director Chris Coleman’s departure earlier this year for a similar post in Denver. “We don’t have any accumulated debt. We have a $3 million mortgage on the building that’s completely manageable; right now, we’re scheduled to pay (it) off in 2029, but that might happen earlier. We have a growing audience. And we have a higher national visibility than we’ve ever had. For all that to be the platform that he hands over to somebody is kind of amazing.”

Marissa Wolf, Portland Center Stage’s new artistic director, has something to say to her people. Photo: Tess Mayer/The Interval-NY

That somebody is Marissa Wolf, who was hired in August as Coleman’s successor and started her job in the company’s picturesque Armory headquarters on Sept. 15. Not long after Wolf’s arrival, I sat down with her and Fuhrman, in separate interviews, for a forthcoming Artslandia article. That piece focuses on the arc of their careers as women in theater who’ve risen to top leadership positions.

But our conversations also included discussion of PCS and the audience growth that Fuhrman mentioned.

Furhman expounded on the topic in response to a question about what results PCS has seen from a Wallace Foundation grant in 2015, part of a nation-wide audience-building initiative.

“It’s always a question of cause and effect, but we have to give some credit to the Wallace grant,” she said. “Over the past three years our audience has grown, between 4,000 and 6,000 tickets annually. Last year we had 132,000 admissions and three years ago we were at 120,000. The move to the Armory 12 years ago brought down the median age of our audience. When I came back to the theater in 2008 our surveys showed that our median age was around 49. That’s dropped to about 45. A lot of our growth has been in the target age range for the grant, which was 30-45.

“The one thing that’s completely obvious is that a year ago we started this new subscription model for people under 35 called the Armory Card. It’s an idea we stole from Steppenwolf (Theatre in Chicago) — a highly reduced discount ticket on a refillable-card model that unbounds you from a lot of the traditional subscription restrictions. We originally ordered 200 from the card supplier, hoping we could sell those in the first year. We sold 700.

“Another big thing tied to the grant is the Northwest Stories series. We’ve produced one of the commissions, Astoria, and have another this season, Crossing Mnisose, but we’ve branded other shows that have that connection — Oregon Trail, Hold These Truths…Those shows have been selling above average, which is nice, but we found during the artistic-director search that it’s really caught other theaters’ eyes nationally.

“We’ve heard the conversations over the years of regional theaters being homogeneous, all doing the plays that were on Broadway last year. But PCS, over the last several years, has not been doing that as much as other theaters are. And that was noticed. Lots of artistic director candidates said, ‘I love that you are doing plays tied to where you live.’”

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The Circus Project stitches together a bigger tent

With this weekend's multimedia show "Change(d) Together," the Circus Project celebrates ten years of bringing circus arts to marginalized communities.

Zoe Stasko is entirely at peace as she winds her body up the black aerial straps suspended from the ceiling. Even as she unravels rapidly downward she emanates centeredness amidst all the momentum. She rolls, twists, and spins in dizzying circles. From below, her creative director, Mizu Desierto, shouts “Find your limit!”. Stasko then holds a dramatic, strenuous pose for an impossible amount of time. She lets her feet find the floor and places her hand over her heart. With a triumphant smile, she finishes a rigorous run through of her newest aerial straps act.

“Yesterday was my first day off in four months,” Stasko says, panting as she makes her way off the rehearsal mat, “but I love it.”

Internationally active aerialist Zoe Stasko returns to her roots with Portland’s the Circus Project in the show “Change(d) Together.” Photo: Isometric Studios.

Zoe Stasko is a jewel in the crown of The Circus Project, an organization that “uses circus arts as a catalyst for personal and collective transformation.” Stasko trained in 2012 as a student in the Circus Project’s Summer Performance Intensive program. She then proceeded to graduate from one of the most prestigious circus schools in the world, Ecole de Cirque de Québec. Now as a professional aerialist, her skills take her from London to Dublin, France to Scandinavia.

But she is back in Portland, ready to debut her new aerial straps act at the Circus Project’s tenth-anniversary celebration: Change(d) Together.

On October 12th and 13th, The Circus Project will convert the Peter Corvallis Warehouse (2204 N. Randolph Ave.), into a “wonderland of trapeze, silks, lyra, ropes, and straps.” The multimedia performance will feature world-class acrobats and aerialists, many who, like Zoe Stasko, got their start in Portland. Students will present stories of individual transformation and Change(d) Together will celebrate the Circus Project’s evolving identity as an organization.

The Circus Project began in 2008, founded by Jenn Cohen, a process psychology therapist and a circus performer herself. The organization’s primary mission was to empower youth experiencing homelessness. After being thrust into the highly disciplined world of circus training, many students transitioned into more stable living situations. The strength, flexibility, self-care, and trust at the core of circus training helped students step on the path to sobriety and higher education.

“Finding strength, stillness, and the courage to train in these ways helps transcend daily conflict and even trauma.” creative director, Mizu Desierto explains, “this training can provide healing in deeper ways than words ever could.”

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Scott Yarbrough’s Radiant Direction

The former Third Rail Rep leader has been unsurpassed at delivering clear, clean productions of affecting, language-rich plays where storytelling is key.

It’s late August and Scott Yarbrough is at the CoHo Theatre in Northwest Portland, getting a play called Radiant Vermin up on its feet. He paces around, watching, occasionally stopping actors Chris Murray and Kelly Godell with suggestions while he tries to figure out the most effective way for them to move about the stage.

Sometimes it’s just about where and how they’re standing: “Chris, I think you need to stand at a little more of an angle to Kelly, there,” he says.

“I’m just trying to, y’know, be in love with her,” Murray explains.

“Yeah, but it’s looking a little pervy.”

Even though blocking is the night’s focus, though, Yarbrough can’t help fine-tuning what already feel like perceptive performances: “That scene has to be about their denial of the atrocity of what they’re doing,” he tells them at one point. “Because if they recognize that, it’s hard for the audience to shift back into compassion for them… It’s a tonal shift. Put that in your hoppers and think about it, and we’ll work it later.”

Shocked by the light: Chris Murray and Kelly Godell in Philip Ridley’s “Radiant Vermin” at CoHo Theater. Photo: Owen Carey

On a break, he points out that this is the same place where, in 2005, he directed his first show in Portland, Recent Tragic Events, which instantly put a new company called Third Rail Repertory Theatre on the local arts map.

“It’s fun to be back in the room.”

Radiant Vermin, about a young couple who find themselves in moral hot water when they’re given a free home to renovate, is a Scott Yarbrough play.

Though, to be clear, it is a play by the British writer Philip Ridley. Yarbrough directed a production of Radiant Vermin that ran in September at CoHo Theatre. But you couldn’t call it a Scott Yarbrough play because he put his own idiosyncratic stamp on it; that’s not the kind of director he is.

Still, it’s very much a Scott Yarbrough play, in that it’s great example of the kind of play that Yarbrough loves — smart, funny, a little dark, language-rich but unpretentious, idea-driven yet with a surprising emotional payoff, aware that comedy and tragedy grew up in the same bedroom. And it’s also the kind of play Yarbrough excels at directing, burrowing into the text for all its challenges and opportunities, bringing something to the stage that’s solid, clear, seemingly lit from within and moving like a living thing itself.

Back at CoHo Theater, where his stellar Portland career began, director Scott Yarbrough works on “Radiant Vermin.” Photo: Owen Carey

“I was really, really pleased — the direction is really tight,” said the veteran Portland actor Michael O’Connell after catching a dress rehearsal. “It kind of felt like, ‘Scott’s back!’”

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