CULTURE

Love & loss in the time of coronavirus

With stages shut down, the work's stopped cold. Bobby Bermea asks his fellow performance artists: Can the fire be relighted post-pandemic?

It’s weird when you wake up one day and realize that everything is different. 

For me, just how different hasn’t fully hit me yet, not even more than a month later. I still feel insulated, like I’m in a bubble where time has become elastic, amorphous. It takes an enormous effort just to intentionally shape the course of a given day. How many times already have I eaten at 11 at night or woken up at 11 in the morning? As violinist Michelle Alany puts it, the struggle is “trying to find some kind of rhythm and structure so I don’t lose the art and creativity.” 

In thirty years as a professional theater artist, I had never rehearsed a show for four weeks only to have it cancelled right before we opened. PassinArt’s Seven Guitars, which was scheduled to open in March, was the first. By that time, I think we’d all seen the handwriting on the wall. I remember the morning the call came that it was over: It felt like I’d woken up in another dimension. It wasn’t the last time I was going to feel that way. 

Since that day I have heard innumerous people describe this moment in history as “crazy” or “surreal” or “like science fiction.” Except, it’s not like science fiction. Face masks. Rubber gloves. Zoom. Science fiction is now real life.


OREGON IN SHUTDOWN: VOICES FROM THE FRONT


As I write this, about 37,000 people have died of COVID-19 in the United States, about 420 a day since the first confirmed U.S. case on Jan. 21 (the first known U.S. death came five weeks later, on Feb. 28). That might not seem like much, considering that about 8,000 people die every day in the U.S. But the numbers are rapidly escalating. On April 16 alone, nearly 4,600 people in the U.S. died from coronavirus. That feels different. 

I have one friend who came down with COVID-19. She’s 70 years old and was my first harmonica teacher when I was working on Seven Guitars. She spent two weeks in the hospital. She has nothing but great things to say about the medical professionals who took care of her. But the disease is no joke, and she felt like hell most of the time she was there. While she was in the hospital we stayed in contact via text (talking took too much out of her). One of the times I checked in to see how she was doing, she texted back, “Feeling shitty! Everything pisses me off!” I suspect that anger helped get her through it. She’s home now. A nurse visits her three times a week. Only today she was told that she can go outside if she wears a mask and practices social distancing. It’s an incredible victory. 

Author Bobby Bermea in CoHo Theatre/Beirut Wedding World Theatre Projects’ “Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train”: “If the actor cannot exist in the same physical space with the audience, then theater doesn’t exist.” Photo: Owen Carey/2019

When the proverbial feces came into contact with the rotating blades of the proverbial air circulation device, I called my parents and offered to come down to where they live in Southern California. I could do my job at Profile Theatre remotely, and I could help them by buying their groceries and taking care of whatever other needs they might have that took place outside of the house. My parents declined my offer, saying they were perfectly okay. 

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Home front: arts at a distance

ArtsWatch Weekly: As the coronavirus crisis reshapes the world, culture shifts gears and our virtual and physical realities overlap

HOW IS SOCIAL DISTANCING WORKING IN YOUR CORNER OF THE WORLD? Are you out and about at all – one of the vital people in our food and delivery and public utility and medical-care systems, maybe, keeping things going through the crisis? Are you busily creating a makeshift world while you keep inside your home, bringing the outside in virtually, via emails and social media and radio and television and music downloads? Are you keeping a sense of the actual, physical territory of our lives that we take for granted until it’s not under our feet anymore?

It’s been five weeks since I’ve been anywhere but home, and my reality has shifted both very little and very much. I’ve been lucky. I have good shelter, and food, and I’m sharing space with close family (including one indispensable and highly entertaining cat). I work from home, anyway, so the adjustment hasn’t been nearly so abrupt as it has been for many people. I miss my afternoon coffee-shop breaks, and going out for conversations with writers or news sources, and real-time, face-to-face interaction with performing and visual art. But those things are small potatoes. I’ve been spared the horrors the COVID-19 pandemic has visited on so many.

The difference between the real and the virtual becomes stark when the real is taken away from us. The other day I was reading Out of Time: Mortality and the Old Masters, a particularly timely column in The New Yorker by the veteran art critic Peter Schjeldahl in which he ponders why “the art of what we term the Old Masters (has) so much more soulful heft than that of most moderns and nearly all of our contemporaries.” It’s an imaginative and provocative piece of writing, bound to raise a few hackles and also prompt a lot of nods of agreement. In it he comments on the real and the not-quite-real – “… the art in the world’s now shuttered museums: inoperative without the physical presence of attentive viewers. Online ‘virtual tours’ add insult to injury, in my view, as strictly spectacular, amorphous disembodiments of aesthetic experience. Inaccessible, the works conjure in the imagination a significance that we have taken for granted.”

El Greco, “View of Toledo,” 1596-1600, oil on canvas, 47.8 x 42.8 inches, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. H. O. Havemeyer Collection, Bequest of Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, 1929.

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Photo First: Running on Empty

As the pandemic turns Portland's center into a ghost town, a paean to the rhythm that has always given the city streets a time of solitude


TEXT AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY K.B. DIXON


The governor’s stay-at-home order has recently emptied the streets of Portland, but this sort of vacancy is not something new. The streets have been emptied before—not in response to a national emergency, but as part of the city’s circadian rhythm, the natural ebb and flow of its normally industrious population. Momentarily abandoned, perhaps, but not forsaken. By turns eerie, mysterious, ominous, and beautiful.

2018

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Friday coronavirus arts news roundup

A news update about the relief efforts for artists and arts organizations in Oregon

The country’s chief executive revels in the ratings for his crazy coronavirus briefings in D.C. Meanwhile, the rest of us deal with the pandemic itself, trying to protect our health and scrape together enough money for the culture to keep from falling into a deep state of dormancy. Sorry, but that’s about as jolly as this roundup of arts news in Oregon is likely to get. Well, maybe there ARE some glimmers.

In case you missed it, yesterday I talked to Brian Rogers, the director of the Oregon Cultural Trust and the Oregon Arts Commission, about what he was seeing out there and the status of the emergency fund the Cultural Trust is assembling. Not to mention how much of that woefully inadequate $75 million the Congress allocated for the National Endowment for the Arts is coming to Oregon. The short answers: “pretty grim,” waiting for approval from the next session of the Oregon legislature, and not much.

Subashini Ganesan and Kim Stafford, the city’s Creative Laureate and the state’s Poet Laureate, started a relief fund for artists, as you probably already know. In the early days of the lockdown they raised $95,000, which they have distributed to 245 artists in Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas counties, mostly in $400-$500 increments. Ganesan reports that MRG Foundation and a few other independent donors have donated an additional $40,000. “Kim and I are reading through a little over 250 applications (that were received through March 29th) to pull together the next round of recipients,” she wrote.

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State of the arts: “Everyone is experiencing the worst”

Brian Rogers, the director of the State's arts service arms, talks about the condition of arts organization and grant opportunities on the way

Brian Rogers is the director of the Oregon Arts Commission and the Oregon Cultural Trust, and during the first two weeks of the coronavirus lockdown he called dozens of arts organizations of all sizes to check in.

And?

“It’s pretty grim,” Rogers said. Rogers is not a histrionic kind of guy, so he said it matter-of-factly. He also provided some historic context for the effect the pandemic is having on the arts. During the last recession in 2008, he said, most of the larger arts organizations were able to adjust with some pain, but made it through OK. So did the smallest groups. “The mid-sized organizations experienced the worst.”

All the state’s arts organizations, even the largest arts ones (such as the Oregon Symphony), are facing difficult times.

And now?

“During this time, everyone is experiencing the worst,” he said. “I do think it’s becoming more and more likely that a couple of big organizations will be forced to shut down.”

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Ch-ch-ch-changes: ghosts in the machine

ArtsWatch Weekly: As the culture moves toward an uncertain future, new art is in the making – and the art of the past shifts with the times

DEEPER AND DEEPER WE DIVE INTO THIS STRANGE NEW WORLD, shifting priorities, scrambling in place, adapting on the virtual run. Everything’s well and truly shut down now. Well, not everything: You can still trek out to the liquor store or pot shop, or get your groceries, or fill ‘er up with bargain-basement gasoline, although my car’s been sitting unused for close to a month now, and maybe yours has, too. But if you’re a going-out person, the going’s gone out. Theaters, concert halls, galleries, museums, restaurants and cafes, coffee shops, even churches and ballparks: See you in June, maybe. Or July, or if paychecks don’t start rolling in again soon, maybe next year.

Much of what we call our cultural life is suspended, and if and when it comes back it’s unlikely to look the same. ArtsWatch’s Barry Johnson makes the case in Starting Over: Enter the Dragon, the second episode in his new “Starting Over” column. The disrupter that is the pandemic, he writes, has changed things in fundamental ways: “I now think of it as a dragon, swooping in and out of our lives, destroying markets, fields, workshops and houses, and threatening all of us with misery and death. … it even gets into our dreams. We will respond with myths and legends, new survival techniques and methodologies, songs and histories, solos and duets, household singing groups and mask-making projects, and new ways to convey comfort, solidarity, sorrow—new words, gestures, dances, music. Those things? They will stay after the dragon leaves.”


Dragons over Portland, and most of the world. Image by Nathan Johnson


THE DRAGON’S KICKING UP QUITE A STORM. Livelihoods in the arts are disappearing left, right, and in between – the Portland Art Museum, for one, has gone through a massive round of layoffs while its doors stay shut – and I worry about those people, and the people who make their livings in theater or dance or music or movie halls, and the librarians and bookstore workers and restaurant workers, too. I worry that many of the companies that so recently employed them won’t survive, and that we’ll wake one day, when the dragon’s gone, to a very different world.

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Lincoln City theater owner aces celebrity name game

Bijou Theatre’s Betsy Altomare met plenty of musicians when she worked for Tower Records on Sunset Boulevard

In these strange days, I’m game for pretty much anything that might inspire a few grins, and lately that’s coming, often as not, from Facebook, where I spend entirely too much time.

One recent “game” going around asks for the names of five (or sometimes 10) celebrities you’ve met, including one that’s a lie. Then it’s up to your friends to guess which one that is.

I listed Joe Cocker, Wally Lamb, Ty Burrell, David Ogden Stiers, and Tippi Hedren.

I met Cocker when I interviewed him at his wife’s café in Crawford, Colo., a little town about 70 miles southeast of Grand Junction. He was shy, friendly, and constantly in motion. I had lunch with Stiers as the guest of a friend who bid on the meal for a fundraiser. Wally Lamb — just as nice as you might imagine — read from one of his novels at the Denver Woman’s Press Club, and I met Hedren when I interviewed her for a story for The Oregonian. She was friendly but disturbed that I wasn’t taping our conversation. She said she had canceled interviews over a lack of recording. But she let me go ahead and later thanked me for getting it right. You can guess from the above whom I never actually met — I’ve always loved that he was raised in the Rogue Valley, where I also lived for a couple of years.

My list, however, pales next to Betsy Altomare’s. Betsy and her husband, Keith, own and operate the Bijou Theatre in Lincoln City. Although the Bijou is closed for now, you can still get their famous popcorn and stream movies from their virtual theater.

Betsy Altomare remembers meeting Paul Newman when she was 16 years old. He did not give her an autograph.

But about that list. Altomare named nine celebrities she met and one she didn’t.  They are: Elton John, David Bowie, Lenny Kravitz, Tina Turner, Neil Young, Sarah McLachlan, Cameron Crowe, Paul Newman, John Entwistle, and Bruce Springsteen. How did she meet all those famous people? Turns out she worked at Tower Records on Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood, and also did marketing for music trade publication HITS Magazine.

Who was your first?

Altomare: Paul Newman. When I was 16, a bunch of actors — Newman, Joanne Woodward, Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, and Jacqueline Bisset — came to sign a petition at a Santa Monica Beach parking lot to stop off-shore drilling. Me, my best friend, and my dad went to see all the Hollywood stars. I caught Paul Newman going into his bus and I asked for an autograph. He said, “No, I don’t believe in that sort of thing.”

What was the most surprising encounter?

I guess maybe Elton John. I was a huge Elton John fan when I was a teenage girl. When I was 25, he came into Tower and I was too shy to talk to him. He went across the street to a video store after the record store. I followed him. That’s when I finally went up to him and told him I loved his music and got his autograph.

Elton John, however, did give Altomare an autograph.

Was he friendly?

He was polite. He had bodyguards with him. It was the biggest record store on the West Coast. Elton John was known to just close down the record store and do his shopping. His song writer, Bernie Taupin, used to come in regularly, and I would help him. He would bring a list and we would help him find the records.

Neil Young?

He was a character in the movie, Human Highway.  It was pretty silly. My boyfriend and I got tickets to the premiere and premiere party and he was there. It was in a big warehouse and they had these games related to the movie. He was very, very polite. I asked for his autograph and he said, “You know, let’s wait a second.” There were a couple of guys across the room and there was something going on, and he walked over to them, then he came back and signed it.

What was the most memorable?

Probably having dinner and riding in a car with R.E.M. My boyfriend, now my husband, worked for the record company that represented R.E.M and the Go-Go’s. I was invited to go to a dinner with R.E.M. members Peter Buck and Mike Mills.

Wait, that’s not on your list.

I know, but I only had room for 10.

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