NEWS & NOTES

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 misdirected tizzy over shredded Banksy

Jennifer Rabin considers the target of Banksy's auction prank

Last week, during the ache and anticipation of the Kavanaugh debacle, the art world had its own to-do. Sotheby’s auctioned off a painting, Girl With Balloon, by the street artist Banksy. A split second after it sold for $1.4 million, its unassuming gold frame shredded it into what some reporters would have us believe are now worthless strips of a formerly precious work of art.

Girl With Balloon at Sotheby’s in London on Image posted on Banksy’s Instagram account

Arts writers were aflutter. What would happen next? Would this void the sale? What would it do to the resale value? “Sotheby’s has not named the client whose $1.4 million purchase was destroyed,” one article informed us, perfectly illustrating the art world’s inability, or willful refusal, to see past an object to the intention behind it.

They missed the point.

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Will Vinton, 1947-2018: An Appreciation

A look back at the career of the Oscar-winning Oregonian filmmaker and master of stop-motion animation, who has died at 70.

The innovative Portland filmmaker Will Vinton, best known for his iconic work with stop-motion animation, died on Thursday, October 5, at the age of 70, following a 12-year battle with multiple myeloma. Vinton was the first Oregonian to win an Oscar, and his company, Will Vinton Studios, served as a laboratory, training ground, and creativity magnet for a generation of Portland artists. His legacy survives today in the form of Laika Studios, which has taken stop-motion work to new technological and commercial heights, though not without some controversy along the way. I never had a chance to meet Vinton more than in passing, but if the testimonials and condolences that have emerged over the last few days are anything to go by, his was a genuinely generous soul. His bald head, bushy handlebar mustache, and twinkling eyes denoted a spirit that was independent, mischievous, and bold, even while working in the potentially stifling world of corporate advertising.

Will Vinton in 2017. Photo: K.B. Dixon.

The individual personalities of each of the California Raisins, the in-your-face anarchy of The Noid, and the wistful moments of confused awe experienced by the drunk museum-goer in “Closed Mondays” all seem to stem from an aspect of Vinton himself. Even after his creations became nationwide obsessions, and when his company’s landmark headquarters in Northwest Portland buzzed with activity, there was always the feeling that the work that emerged sprang, at its core, from one especially fertile brain. Needless to say, that’s not the impression one gets, for better or for worse, from the vast majority of the animation on movie screens today. (Television may be another matter.)

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Enigmatic “Theory of Nothing” proffers a peaceful place to be

Adam Rupniewski’s installation in the Art Harvest Studio Tour combines sculpture, music, and poetry for a must-see experience

The 26th annual Art Harvest Studio Tour of Yamhill County is now live, and for those who missed out on the first weekend, take heart: It goes three more days, and this weekend’s weather looks picture perfect, with sunny days and highs in the low 70s. That means lots of crispy orange and yellow leaves swishing at your feet as you hike through wine country meeting our amazing artists.

These calls are subjective, of course, and while studio tours inevitably feature at least one artist who has “must-see” work on display, Adam Rupniewski’s Theory of Nothing installation, tucked away in a second-floor ballroom in downtown McMinnville, is so wildly unique that you really must see it. Trust me, Mac has more than a dozen artists on this countywide tour, so you can’t go wrong by starting your travels downtown on Third Street, where book artist Marilyn Worrix’s sprawling upstairs apartment hosts several artists, including Rupniewski.

From Adam Rupniewski’s “Physiology of Dreams” collection, “Mona Linda,” oil pastel on paper, is one of many pieces on display as the Art Harvest Studio Tour of Yamhill County continues Oct. 12-14.

Rupniewski was born in Poland in 1958 and emigrated with his then-wife and baby son after that country’s martial law expired in July 1983. He lived in several European nations before coming to Oregon in 1986, sponsored by the Presbyterian Church in Portland. He earned his MFA in 1998 from Portland State University, which is where he first showed Theory of Nothing.

Before arriving at the exhibit’s latest incarnation, the viewer traverses a long, wide hallway displaying Rupniewski’s Physiology of Dreams cycle (nearly all works in oil pastel on paper). The cycle was inspired by two unusual dreams, one from a period of seclusion in the Massif Central mountains of Ardèche, France, and the second from a week-long film festival featuring work by the remarkable Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky. Rupniewski elaborates in his artist’s statement:

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News and Notes: Climate change edition

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival deals with climate change's smoke, Jeff Goodell on the water

This year’s slate of plays at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, I decided after my visit to Ashland in mid-July, has to be my favorite. I loved the mix of new plays and the new approaches to classic, and I thought that the company had begun to reap the benefits of its inclusive approach to casting and play selection. The shows were beautifully produced (as usual), smart with a nice edge, and surprising. I thought I had truly entered the theater of the future. Or maybe the lobby to the theater of the future: The future is a long time, after all.

The week I was in town was hot, but it wasn’t smoky. I’ve been in Ashland when forest fires nearby had filled the streets with that gross particulate haze, and it wasn’t pleasant. The effects of the vast fires in California earlier in the summer hadn’t reached Ashland, and it looked like clear sailing, knock on wood, for the three shows in the outdoor Allen Elizabethan Theatre—”Romeo and Juliet,” “The Book of Will,” and the brilliantly conceived “Love’s Labor’s Lost.” I knocked on wood, but I failed to spit for luck.

Katharine (Tatiana Wechsler), Princess of France (Alejandra Escalante), Rosaline (Jennie Greenberry) and Maria (Niani Feelings). Photo: Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival

The subsequent outburst of forest fires in northern California (creeping into Oregon) and Washington started filling up the Rogue Valley with smoke later that month—the source of the smoke alternating with wind direction—and continued into early September. As a result,
the festival had to cancel or move (to a much smaller indoor theater) 26 productions from that 1,190-seat house—more than the past five years combined.

The company figures that the cost of all that smoke is in the neighborhood of $2 million, which has been widely reported. I would add the phrase, “at least.”

Around 65 percent of the festival’s revenue comes directly from ticket sales, according to Julie Cortez in the press office, and the company’s $2 million estimate included losses from the canceled or moved performances, losses from canceled trips (and tickets), and the low demand for tickets this summer, especially August, from people who hadn’t already purchased tickets but who usually show up to catch a show or three. The festival is pretty good at estimating its attendance by this time.

The $2 million number doesn’t include the likely lower summer demand in future years due to the severity of the 2018 wildfires. These are theater fans who don’t want to risk the trip, given the risk of smoke inhalation. It doesn’t include the donations that the people who canceled this year (or never came at all) would have made to the festival (another steady rate that the festival has a good handle on). And it doesn’t account for the direct costs of smoke mitigation by company, according to Cortez.

It also doesn’t reflect the hours of planning and consulting the company will have to do to figure out a way to deal with future cancellations due to smoke. Is 2018 the new normal in the Rogue Valley or is it an outlier, not likely to be repeated? It’s another way of asking, do we have to start taking climate change into our considerations? Or, do we have to change our forest practices to prevent (what we consider to be) the worst from happening every year? The answer to both is probably yes, though the festival can only deal with the first—directly.

Whatever mitigation plans the festival institutes will cost money, maybe lots of money if it arrives at solutions that involve something like a retractable dome over the Elizabethan Theatre, which is crucial to the festival’s economic model because it’s so much bigger than the festival’s other two theaters. That would protect audiences during the shows, maybe, but not when they walk the smoke-choked streets of Ashland. The problem really isn’t smoke in the Elizabethan—it’s smoke in Ashland, in Oregon, in just about every West Coast city.

It would be understandable and laudable if you wanted to help the festival figure this stuff out with a contribution. We are at the beginning of this sort of thing, and the festival’s process and solutions might help guide us going forward. The easiest way is to click this link and make a donation directly. Or, if you’re in town to see shows in October (my favorite time to go!), you might buy a ticket to a special production of Robin Goodrin Nordli’s take on the women in Shakespeare, “Virgins to Villains,” 7 pm Monday, October 15, in the Thomas Theatre.

*****

Wasn’t I JUST talking about climate change?

Coincidentally, I’ve been reading Jeff Goodell’s “The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World.” Goodell’s concern here isn’t smoke, but in his carefully researched and argued book, he suggests that we are woefully unprepared, especially in the US, to deal with the coastal flooding that will occur with increasing frequency and ferocity as climate change affects sea levels and the intensity of big storms.

Mercy Corps is bringing Goodell to Portland for a lecture, “Resilience in the Age of Climate Change,” at 7 pm Thursday, October 4, Revolution Hall, 1300 SE Stark Street. Portland-based Mercy Corps is already dealing with climate change, both in its emergency relief efforts and its economic develop projects around the world, and the proceeds from Goodell’s talk will help support those activities. Tickets are reasonable ($15-$20 plus $50 patron seats) and available at the door. Maybe I’ll see you there.

Witnesses in a churning world

The artists speak out in the Hallie Ford Museum's big new exhibition on social justice and art. Here's what they have to say.

The idea of art as a pristine thing, separated from the hurly-burly of the everyday world and somehow above it all, is a popular notion. But a much stronger case exists for the idea of art as the expression of the roil of life, in all its messiness and cruelty and prejudices and passions and pleasures and occasional outbursts of joy. Art comes from somewhere, and that somewhere is the world in which we live.

With that world huddled suspiciously against itself, afraid of its own moving parts, gathered defensively in closed tribes, angry over what large fragments of its inhabitants still believe to be a lost paradise, how can art not reflect the political and cultural realities that surround and help define the artists themselves? Artists are our witnesses, the ones who watch and experience and tell the tale.

Witness: Themes of Social Justice in Contemporary Printmaking and Photography grabs our current cultural condition by the collar and gives it a good bracing shake. An expansive exhibition that is helping the Hallie Ford Museum of Art celebrate its twentieth anniversary in Salem, it features a sterling lineup of artists of color who look at the world through both a personal and a cultural lens, demanding each in their particular way that their stories be heard. All of the works are drawn from the collections of Jordan Schnitzer and his Family Foundation, and they’ve been smartly selected and arranged by guest curator Elizabeth Anne Bilyeu. The show she’s put together, which continues through December 20, is bold and revealing and aesthetically accomplished and reflective of a world that is richer and more complex than we can individually comprehend.

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DramaWatch: “Ordinary Days,” “Color” ways and other plays

Isaac Lamb is sweet on the simple -- but moving -- chamber musical he's directing at Broadway Rose; plus other Portland theater news and notes.

Isaac Lamb is among the most versatile, widely accomplished of Portland-area theater artists, but he believes he’s found a particular niche with his work for Broadway Rose. Amid the crowd-pleasing classics, nostalgic tributes and revues, there’s room for what we might call some less obvious fare — “new musicals, stuff that’s been only rarely produced. And they give those to me.”

Though he’s better known as an actor, Lamb has shown his chops as a director at Broadway Rose, most notably with his gorgeous and moving production two years ago of a little-known but marvelously crafted musical called Fly by Night. His latest project there, opening this weekend, is Ordinary Days, by Adam Gwon, which, like Fly by Night, centers on young adults seeking love and self-discovery in New York City.

Ordinary Days tells a different story, but (company founders Sharon Maroney and Dan Murphy) thought that it had a kinship with that show,” Lamb say, talking late on a recent night, following a dress rehearsal. “So I wanted to take a stab at it.”

Ordinary rendition: Benjamin Tissell (from left), pianist/music director Eric Nordin, Seth M. Renne, Quinlan Fitzgerald and Kailey Rhodes in “Ordinary Days” at Broadway Rose. Photo: Sam Ortega

Lamb also admits that initially he wasn’t overly impressed with the material.

“It felt very simple and sweet, but I didn’t give it a lot of credit at first,” he recalls. “But it snuck up on me. It moved me. Gwon’s whole goal was to show how extraordinary the ordinary really is. Everybody has things going on in their lives that are totally commonplace, but they’re incredibly dramatic to the people experiencing them. An ordinary day can turn extraordinary in the blink of an eye. He sneaks in more deep feeling than you expect.”

The show is essentially a song cycle, nearly sung-through, with minimal spoken text. “It’s similar in feeling to, say, (Jason Robert Brown’s) Songs for a New World, but it tracks as a single narrative.” Peter Marks of the Washington Post wrote of a 2014 production that “Gwon’s 19 songs are…lyrically witty and rich enough in narrative and character detail to power the dual plots of the musical” which “feels like such a fresh alternative to most of the over-produced stuff on Broadway.”

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