THEATER

Vision 2020: Dañel Malán

Teatro Milagro's leader talks about bilingual arts, using theater to build community, and the joys and perils of taking the show on the road

Dañel Malán’s path from her planned career as a visual artist and toward her future as the co-founder of Milagro Theatre, the Pacific Northwest’s only Latino theater company, led through a grove of Eucalyptus trees.

“I was probably around 16 when I had my first visual arts exhibit and I thought that was going to be my destiny,” Malán says. That changed at the University of California San Diego, where a mentor suggested that she switch to theatre. “I went over to [the theatre department], crossed the divide—there’s a grove of Eucalyptus trees that you have to hike through—and never turned back,” she remembers.


VISION 2020: TWENTY VIEWS ON OREGON ARTS


It’s a decision that continues to define her. Since co-founding the non-profit Milagro Theatre in 1985 with her husband, Jose Eduardo Gonzalez, Malán has helped transform the company into a colossus of creativity. As the artistic director of Teatro Milagro, the company’s touring arm, she’s responsible for taking Milagro’s shows to schools, colleges and universities across the country.

During a lengthy conversation (which has been edited and condensed for clarity), Malán spoke about her achievements in the 2010s, her ambitions for the 2020s and how she plans to ensure that Milagro endures beyond its looming fiftieth anniversary.

Dañel Malan. Photo courtesy Milagro

Tell me about some of your earliest memories of theater and how you became interested in performing.

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DramaWatch: Working up a “Sweat”

Brilliant designer-turned-director Christopher Acebo stages Lynn Nottage's timely look at labor for Profile. Plus, the theater calendar bursts with new shows.

Bill Rauch’s tenure as artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, from 2007 until last year, was justly lauded for a variety of characteristics and achievements. But one of the less-often remarked upon — yet most significant — contributions to the region no doubt was when he got Christopher Acebo, one of the members of Rauch’s LA-based Cornerstone Theater Company, to move north and serve as OSF’s associate artistic director. 

Festival fans became familiar with Acebo’s genius for scenic design (from thematically trenchant abstractions for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Mojada: a Medea in Los Angeles to scrupulous naturalism for Long Day’s Journey Into Night, he seldom failed to amaze). Meanwhile he also was an operational lynchpin, tackling myriad tasks in planning, producing, casting and so on. Over time he also emerged as a prominent cultural leader, serving on the board of national Theatre Communications Group and becoming chair of the Oregon Arts Commission. Oregon ArtsWatch, too, highlighted Acebo in its recent interview series Vision 2020. 

Rauch has moved on to run the new performing arts program in New York’s World Trade Center, and Acebo, too, has left OSF. 

“I had been planning, even prior to Bill’s announcement, to take a new path,” Acebo said in a recent phone interview. “I was there, ultimately, 14 years. That’s a good amount of time and I thought it was time to get out and try some different things.”

Grit and grind: Even the neighborhood bar’s not so relaxing anymore, as the “de-industrial revolution” hits the workers in Sweat, a Pulitzer-winning play by Lynn Nottage. Linda Hayden (from left), Duffy Epstein and Cycerli Ash. Photo: David Kinder.

Fortunately for Portland theater fans, part of Acebo’s new path includes freelance directing, including a Profile Theatre production of the Lynn Nottage play Sweat, opening at Imago.

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Vision 2020: Connie Carley and Jerry Foster

For almost four decades the leaders of PassinArt have forged a strong and steady path for Black theater in Portland

For nearly 38 years PassinArt: A Theatre Company has been passing down art, culture, and heritage to the ensuing generations. That’s a long time for a theater company, a nickel-and-dime industry at the best of times. There are other organizations, such as Artists Repertory Theatre, that have been around longer and gotten bigger. But usually (except in special cases like Milagro) those companies’ longevity has been carried on by fresh influxes of new faces at different times.


VISION 2020: TWENTY VIEWS ON OREGON ARTS


For PassinArt, Connie Carley and Jerry Foster have been keeping the flame alive this entire time. There have been periodic breaks here and there, some longer than others, but PassinArt always comes back, its vision intact, its mission still at the forefront of its endeavors: making sure that the next generation of Black people in Portland has something solid that belongs to them.“We are responsible,” Foster says, “for the health and the vitality of our community.” Put another way (when speaking about the fact that PassinArt has always paid its artists something), Carly says, “We’ve never been community theater. But we’ve always been about the community.”

A lot has changed over the years, of course. PassinArt has been around since 1982. At the time they were Connie Carley, Clarice Bailey, and Michael Grant. They had their first performance at the Matt Dishman Center in 1983. PassinArt gained its nonprofit status in 1986. Jerry Foster came on board as artistic director in 1995. In those days, they paid for every show out of their own pockets. Board members were expected to act or direct or work backstage or in the front of house. And they never started a project until a good percentage of funding was in hand.

George Hendricks and Jerry Foster in 2014’s “Two Old Black Guys Just Sitting Around Talking.” Photo courtesy PassinArt

In the old days, surprisingly (to me, at least) PassinArt wasn’t the only game in town if you wanted to see Black theater. There were also Portland Black Repertory Theatre and Sojourner Truth. BRT was a more classic theater company and Truth specialized in historical works. PassinArt was a combination of both. The three companies would work together to make sure that year ’round, Black people could find themselves on stage if they needed to.

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Vision 2020: Rachael Carnes

The Eugene playwright fears that as the community grows, it becomes harder to enter the performing arts: "Access is the foundation for a vibrant arts scene"

Rachael Carnes has so many irons in the fire that introducing the sheer scope of her work is a bit daunting. She’s a former dancer and journalist who, just three short years ago, enrolled in a play-writing class through Oregon Contemporary Theatre with the award-winning playwright and instructor Paul Calandrino. Today, she lays claim to having had her plays workshopped, published, and produced in Oregon and beyond, from Seattle and Los Angeles to New York and London — and even one in South Korea.

A lifelong Eugenian, Carnes earned a bachelor’s degree from Reed College in 1993 and spent a quarter-century in arts education, journalism, and nonprofit work. Since 2016, her artistic output has exploded, both in terms of the number of plays and partnerships.


VISION 2020: TWENTY VIEWS ON OREGON ARTS


At the New Play Exchange, Carnes has more than 80 plays available, ranging from one-actor shows to full-length pieces and tackling a remarkable range of topics: gun violence, feminism, #MeToo, romance, history, reproductive rights, and the Supreme Court, to name a few. Currently, her artistic home is Oregon Contemporary Theatre, where she recently collaborated with Calandrino in Bunfight, a collection of eight short plays by the two playwrights. Her new play, At Winter’s Edge, was commissioned by Minority Voices Theatre in cooperation with the Very Little Theatre, and performed in December. 

Rachael Carnes says Eugene has a robust theater scene, including long-running Oregon Contemporary Theatre, which is “curating a season that is as bold and as innovative as one you might see in Portland or Ashland.”
Rachael Carnes says Eugene has a robust theater scene, including long-running Oregon Contemporary Theatre, which is “curating a season that is as bold and as innovative as one you might see in Portland or Ashland.”

How would you characterize the state of artistic and cultural life in Eugene and Lane County?

Eugene’s theater scene is robust for a community its size. The University of Oregon and Lane Community College offer a range of student productions each season, along with a variety of community theater offerings. The UO takes on some terrific work, from classics to new work about climate change. And LCC impresses with its student-run organization. I’ve had the opportunity to collaborate with them a few times, and they’re impressive.

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Vision 2020: Christopher Acebo

The longtime OSF designer and arts leader says extending equity to under-represented groups provides a way forward for everyone

As is true of many of our Vision 2020 participants, Christopher Acebo wears many hats. Until leaving recently to pursue freelance opportunities, he was associate artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. In 14 seasons there, his work included virtually every aspect of play production, from season planning and casting to design; he also participated in strategic planning and creative team selections.

He worked on more than 30 productions at OSF, including Robert Schenkkan’s All The Way, which also played on Broadway and won the 2014 Tony Award for best play. His work has also been in theaters in Portland and around the country. Beginning Jan. 16, he’ll be directing Lynn Nottage’s Sweat at Profile Theatre in Portland.


VISION 2020: TWENTY VIEWS ON OREGON ARTS


At OSF, Acebo initiated and curated the Latinx Play Project, which developed and presented new plays and provided a forum for artists, producers, and audiences to discuss and advance Latinx theatre. He was also a founding member of the Latinx Theatre Commons and in 2013 was presented with the LTC Award for Outstanding Advocacy for Latinx Voices in the New American Theater.

Christopher Acebo filled a variety of roles during 14 seasons with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. “Our collective responsibility as an audience/viewer/listener,” he says, “is to enter every artistic experience with deep curiosity and empathy.”

For seven seasons, he was an ensemble member of the nationally acclaimed Cornerstone Theater Company in Los Angeles. He also has taught at Cal State University in Los Angeles and the University of California-San Diego. Along with his OSF duties in Oregon, Acebo is the immediate former chairman of the Oregon Arts Commission and a former board member of Theatre Communications Group.

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December notes: A world apart

Reality and fantasy mingle and pull apart and mingle on a Portland stage and Portland galleries

It is late afternoon on Monday, December 9, and the TriMet bus is packed when you board it. Packed largely with 14 or 15-ish teenagers, cleancut, perhaps from a private or a special school as one or two get off at every other stop for the length of the southbound bus route. The teens jabber back and forth all around you, the whole extent of your ride. Even the busdriver seems infatuated by the joyful atmosphere, telling two jokes. One you don’t catch, but the other goes something like this:

What do you call a cat that you find at the beach at Christmas?

The kids are quick, and call out a couple possibilities. When these die by the wayside, the driver milks the moment a little longer then answers.

Sandy claws.

This answer gets a general laugh and a couple groans, then a chorus of thank-you’s to the busdriver. The kids almost immediately returning to their contrapuntal, back-and-forth jabber, which streams like vapor trails above and around you.

No, I can’t access that site on my phone anymore.

The girl in the seat next to you calls to the boy seated just behind the busdriver. The boy wonders aloud at where the problem is.

My parents changed the password.

She explains.

Set your phone’s clock back to before when they changed it.

He tells her, logically.

I tried.

She says. She’s no idiot.

They blocked that.

The boy nods, pondering.

Talk to Philip. He knows how to get around this.

He advises her.

Which Philip? Philip Teemiter? . . .

And on to other jabber, flying in from some other direction.

The teen world is a world apart from that of their parents. A cozy reality providing a natural-seeming and idyllic sense of belonging.

Laura Berger, “Find Yourself Here”/Image courtesy of Stephanie Chefas Projects

Your mother’s cousin is married to a University of Minnesota professor, Ernest Bormann—a major figure in the fields of Communication Theory and the Theory of Rhetoric (see The Force of Fantasy: Restoring the American Dream). When Sigmund Freud talks about a “fantasy,” he is talking about how the psyche talks to itself. Bormann applies this idea of fantasy instead to cohesive groups of people, who construct between them an effective group-lingua which highlights values and ideas important to them. He describes this group private-language as a symbolic convergence or a fantasy. Everyone on the same wavelength, singing the same tune.

But is this self-assured sense of belonging a luxury everyone shares in?

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ZooZoo, straight from the polar bear’s mouth

What makes Imago's all-star critter spectacular such a cool seasonal treat? Get the whole scoop from an inside-the-costume source.

ZooZoo, Imago Theatre’s one-of-a-kind, all-ages, greatest-hits show, opens again in Portland on Friday, and I’m here to tell you, if you’ve never seen it, get your tickets now. If you have seen it, see it again: Things are always shifting, and given the unique relationship between audiences and performers, no two performances are exactly alike. An amalgamation of vignettes from Imago’s internationally renowned signature show, Frogz, which has been hopping around the globe since Carol Triffle and Jerry Mouawad founded the company in 1979, and Biglittlethings, which opened in 2003, ZooZoo is an enthralling 90 minutes of mask and mime theater and benefits from the blood, sweat and tears of some of Portland’s most gifted artists over the past 40 years. Last year’s production, for instance, featured a new piece called “The Magic Cloth,” a collaboration with The Lion King’s Broadway co-designer, Michael Curry.    

The author in full polar bear mode. Photo courtesy Danielle Vermette

Why take my word for it? First, I’ve gifted this show many times to friends and family, always to ecstatic responses. More to the point, as an Imago performer since 1999, I’ve been in it. I still appear now and then in Imago’s other works, namely in Triffle’s original shows, but my touring career ended after about a decade.  While my heart is forever green and some of my fondest memories are of slithering, frolicking, and white-knuckling my way across the country with comrades in the show (and sometimes in the snow), frog legs ain’t easy to come by: my knees began the slow slide into retirement mid-career in 2005 in a gymnasium in Arcata, California. 

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