THEATER

Voices from the front: Ghostlighting

As live theater disappears, Eugene playwright Rachael Carnes turns her hand to video-conference plays – and leaves a light on for good luck


BY RACHAEL CARNES


When Lin-Manuel Miranda and bestie Andrew Lloyd-Weber are both socially distancing in their respective homes, yet engaging in a good-natured musical theater pingpong match in the Twittersphere, it has been a decidedly weird week in theater.

As a playwright, my first canceled production announcement came from Nylon Fusion in New York City, which had made the painful choice to cancel its coming festival, including the premiere of my new play Catalyst. The cancellations, closures and cheerily optimistic postponements exploded relentlessly after that, for me and for every other theater artist and dancer and musician — for anyone who depends on a stage and an audience, not to mention all the people who get people on that stage and audiences in those seats.

That was Thursday. A dimming of the lights, a shuttering, a grief spiral. What will we do?


OREGON IN SHUTDOWN: VOICES FROM THE FRONT


Well, theater is made of scrappy, communicative, creative people. We collaborate. We design. We dream. We build things that no one has ever heard of before — from scratch — and we work together to make it happen.

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, Oregon playwright.

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DramaWatch: A new stage of “Otherness”

Unit Souzou turns to live streaming to present part of its performance project "The Constant State of Otherness." Plus: what isn't happening in local theater.

It’s lonely out there.

You might have that sense these days merely from looking outside. As Americans and others around the world practice — to unfortunately varying degrees — the newly ascendant and essential principles of social distancing, our streets appear emptier and therefore lonelier, and it’s not a big step to imagine that many folks sheltering in place (odd use of “sheltering,” as though the novel coronavirus were falling like acid rain) alone are sheltered in a lonely place.

Michelle Fujii has a different sense of it. She has long felt the loneliness of the outsider.

Michelle Fujii and Toru Watanabe, co-directors of Portland-based taiko-theater company Unit Souzou. Photo: Intisar Abioto and New Expressive Works.

An artist who has forged a career out of representations and explorations of her cultural identity, formerly as artistic director of Portland Taiko and for the past several years as co-director of Unit Souzou, Fujii has lately been digging into what her company’s current performance project calls The Constant State of Otherness.

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Fertile Ground 4: The one-act itch

In his final look back on Portland's new-works festival, Jae Carlsson scratches an "Itch" and dives into one-acts and other rabbit holes

(In Fertile Ground 2020, Portland’s 11th annual festival of new performance, Jae Carlsson witnessed four standout productions: “Vortex 1,” “Dorothy’s Dictionary,” “How to Really, Really? Really! Love a Woman,” and “Itch.” In four parts Carlsson has discussed each of these four theater pieces at length, as well as other works in the Festival dealing with similar issues.)

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One-act plays are the bastard child of serious theater. All playwrights write them.

But these tend to be throwaway, one-idea plays – usually comedies – which no one is expected to take all that seriously. Least of all their playwright.

At Fertile Ground 2020, this is clearly the case with The Portland Mini-Musical Festival, which you discuss in Part 1 of this series. Lots of entertaining song and dance, but each one-act is built upon a single thin idea through which to maintain audience attention – plus maybe a little ah-ha twist at denouement, good for a slightly more self-aware laugh from you just before applause at curtain.

But you are a fan of one-acts, when they are done right. Accomplished either by finding a means to very quickly give them depth and force. Or accomplished by stringing several one-acts together – connecting them thematically as in Itch or in Osho Returns, or as a discontinuous narrative as in Hannah and Other Stories or Dearly Departed. But what is it that permits such one-acts to work so well? And to work, sometimes, more effectively than even very good full-length plays? . . .

On the Cusp of the Absurd

When you try to stretch the single idea of a one-idea play to 90 minutes, people often whisper that the author should have whittled it down and made a one-act play out of it.

At pre-festival press “speed-dating” night, Fertile Ground director Nicole Lane keeps her mouth on the harmonica and her eye on the clock: Four minutes, and the mouth harp sounds. Photo courtesy Fertile Ground

The Ghost of David Balasco, written and directed by Cynthia Whitcomb, is a case in point. This festival piece is a mostly-staged full-length play performed at Lakewood Theatre, and it turns on one very clever idea. Four characters enter an old, rundown theater, speaking in period and foreign accents. They wish to do a seance, in order to exorcise a ghost from the theater, so they can clean up the space and produce a new play here – without all the freaky “mishaps” that closed up the theater years before, after a death in the building.

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DramaWatch: Your no-show of shows

The coronavirus crisis makes a dramatic impact on Portland theater, causing numerous postponements and cancellations.

“The show must go on…unless it shouldn’t.”

That’s the aphoristic take from American Theatre magazine in an assessment of the industry’s response to the current public health crisis. But then, the article headlined “Theatres Stay Open but Make Backup Plans Amid COVID-19 Concerns” was published on Tuesday, March 10. Since then, the NBA has suspended all its games, and the concert companies Live Nation and AEG have suspended tours nationwide. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will not hold any public gatherings around the world until further notice. Disneyland is being closed.

The situation is changing fast.

On Wednesday, Oregon governor Kate Brown  announced a temporary ban on gatherings of more than 250 people. Accordingly, Oregon Shakespeare Festival and Portland Center Stage have canceled all performances through April 8, and Artists Rep has canceled its fundraising gala, which had been scheduled for this Saturday. Also on Thursday, Hand2Mouth Theatre announced that director Stepan Simek’s production Danse Macabre: The Testament of Francois Villon — which was to have been the featured subject for this column — has been postponed, and tentatively is being rescheduled for June. 

The past grows more distant: Because of social distancing recommended to slow the coronavirus pandemic, theater fans will have to wait until June to see Jean-Luc Boucherot in Danse Macabre: The Testament of Francois Villon. Boucherot and director Štěpán Šimek collaborated on the show about the late-medieval French poet. Photo: Sarah Marguier.

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At PCS, a season for all sorts.

From "Hair" to "Hedwig" to "Emma" and August Wilson's "Gem," a broad range of stories populates Portland Center Stage's 2020-'21 season.

As is the case with pretty much every large theater company in America, Portland Center Stage is trying to broaden the variety of people whose stories are presented in the plays it produces. For the 2020-2021 season, that variety will include long-haired hippies, passionate painters, Latino wrestlers, German rock singers, ancient African-American healers, Asian-American immigrants, bayou brothers, small-town young lovers, and plenty of whatever you want to call Jane Austen’s characters.

PCS recently announced its programming for next season, and there’s something for, well, perhaps not everyone, but for many sorts of folks.

Portland Center Stage will again celebrate the holidays Austen-tatiously with “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley.” Photo: Russell J Young

Looked at another way, the ten productions that will be on offer range from musicals to satires, cultural commentaries to intimate glimpses into history, to whatever you want to call light-hearted adaptations of Jane Austen stories.

Season-ticket renewal is open now, and new season tickets become available Friday, March 13. So here’s a quick look at what’s coming (Note: The dates listed likely refer to the full slate of public performances. Official opening of each production may occur later than the first date indicated here.)

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Nataki Garrett on OSF’s jubilant future

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival artistic director talks about her first full season at the helm, expanding a legacy of inclusion.

“I’ve never been to a theater where people move to a city to be closer to the theater!”

The strange magic of Ashland, Oregon is starting to work itself on Nataki Garrett. Of course, as the artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival since last August — only the sixth in the festival’s long history — Garrett herself moved to Ashland to be closer to the theater. But she’s talking about the passion and dedication of the festival’s nationwide audience, and about inheriting the leadership of a company that can inspire fans to not just buy tickets but rent U-Hauls.

I’ll just say that I’m excited that this is my first official season at OSF,” Garrett says, talking recently by phone. “I’m really taking the opportunity to learn about this community, this amazing company, this audience. I’m really happy to be here.”

New Oregon Shakespeare Festival artistic director Nataki Garrett: Photo: Kim Budd.

Garrett’s hiring, last March, was the result of a nearly year-long search to replace Bill Rauch, who was OSF artistic director from 2007 until leaving last year to help start the new Ronald O. Perelman Performing Arts Center at New York’s World Trade Center. Before coming to Ashland, Garrett, who’s a graduate and former staff member of California Institute of the Arts (CalArts),  spent 18 months as acting artistic director at Denver Center for the Performing Arts, where former Portland Center Stage leader Chris Coleman eventually took the reins. 

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DramaWatch: Cause for celebration at OSF

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival opens its 85th anniversary season; plus new shows open across Portland, "West Side Story" gets too dark a makeover, and more.

In a way it feels odd to refer to something that goes on eight months of each year as a festival. And yet, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival — originally launched in 1935 as a two-play, three-evening event, now grown into one of the largest, busiest theater companies in the country — still feels celebratory.

The 2020 season, which opens Friday and continues through Nov. 1, has more than usual to celebrate, or at the very least to consider noteworthy. It is the festival’s 85th anniversary season, of course, an impressive achievement for any American arts organization, especially one in a small Northwestern town. This season also is the first under the full-time leadership of Nataki Garrett, who last August became the festival’s sixth artistic director, replacing Bill Rauch, now the inaugural artistic director of the Ronald O. Perelman Performing Arts Center at the World Trade Center in New York. (Garrett recently spoke with ArtsWatch for an interview published separately.)

The current festival leadership also includes interim associate artistic director Evren Odcikin (currently in Portland directing Portland Center Stage’s upcoming production of Nine Parts of Desire) and acting executive director Paul Christy, a retired U.S. government economist.

And in addition to being an anniversary and a celebration in its own right, this festival season is a part of the Jubilee

The Wars of the Roses are seeded in Bring Down the House, a new adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry VI. Photo: Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

In the works since 2015, the Jubilee is, as the program’s website describes it, “a yearlong, nationwide theatre festival featuring work generated by those who have historically been excluded — including but not limited to artists of color, Native American and Indigenous and First Nations artists, women, non-binary and gender non-conforming artists, LGBTQIA2+ artists, Deaf artists, and artists with disabilities.” Providing a clear, tangible goal to help along the cause of diversity and inclusion, the Jubilee involves a commitment from numerous theater producers across the country — from professional companies to high schools — to put previously marginalized voices at the center of their programming for the 2020-2021 season. In addition to OSF, participating Oregon companies include Portland Center Stage, Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble and Corrib Theatre.

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