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DramaWatch: Another minor skirmish in the etiquette wars

How should audience members act and react in the theater? Who gets to decide? As the Oregon Shakespeare Festival reopens, the questions rise anew.

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The musical “Once on This Island,” above, and the drama “unseen” have opened the Oregon Shakespeare Festival 2022 season in Ashland. Photo: Jenny Graham

On April 13, The Oregonian published an opinion piece under the headline “Creating a new, more welcoming model for American theater.” Written by Nataki Garrett, the artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the article appeared at an apt time, a few days before the opening of the festival’s 2022 season, its first full slate of shows since the Covid pandemic shut theaters two years ago just as Garrett’s first full season at the helm was getting under way.

It was just the right time for Garrett to reintroduce herself to The Oregonian’s broad (if dwindling) readership, to welcome potential visitors back to Ashland, to remind folks what a cultural jewel we have in the festival – one of the largest and most accomplished theatrical companies in the country, tucked amid small-town charm and natural beauty in Southern Oregon.

So I began reading, expecting a variation on a familiar theme, the case for OSF’s importance to the region’s economy and – especially in times as fraught as these – to what we might consider its civic soul.

What Garrett delivered instead was, to my reading, a woolly statement about inclusivity and audience engagement that feinted toward theater-industry mea culpa, swerved into a scolding of traditional theater audiences, then touted a few admirable but unremarkable changes to the festival’s practices. It felt less like an invitation to friends old and new than like a muddled complaint about how everyone else does things.

Garrett grounds her comments, early in the piece, in an eminently reasonable statement: “As with many aspects of our lives, we are rethinking the norms we engaged in before the pandemic, and how theaters engage theatergoers is one of those areas worth reexamining.’

Nataki Garrett in 2020, when she became artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Photo: Kim Budd

In part, Garrett’s article is another salvo in what I think of as the etiquette wars, discussions about the norms of audience behavior that are or ought to be encouraged at performances. I’ve addressed the matter from time to time in this column, and I tend toward the conservative view: Shut up, pay attention, applaud at the end. Garrett argues for a more laissez faire approach. Would that she had argued a bit more scrupulously.

“When visiting most theater company websites, you can often find a section on what audience members can expect during the show or suggested rules of etiquette for attendees(:) what to wear, when to stay quiet and when you should clap or not clap,” she writes.

I’m willing to concede that an industry professional such as Garrett may have visited many more theater websites than I have, but I’ve never known such content being either common or prominent. So I looked. On the websites of Portland theaters, it’s necessary to rummage deep into content menus (did anyone else know Triangle Productions’ site has a whole page dedicated to selling Fiestaware?) to find anything like what Garrett describes, and in most cases there’s nothing at all about audience etiquette. 

The closest thing is on the Portland Center Stage website, and it’s hardly Draconian: “There is no one right way to engage with live theater, and we ask that you honor each person’s experience around you. If a disturbance arises during the performance that you feel requires intervention, rather than taking action by shushing, touching, or scolding other patrons yourself, we ask that you alert our House Management staff to the issue in the lobby.” (Fat lot of good that’ll do you in the middle of the act!) Under the heading “Patron Considerations,” Broadway Rose lists such requests as “Please refrain from wearing strong perfume and cologne” and “Please do not talk, hum, and sing during the performance.” A few sites have brief notes about dress codes – or rather, stressing the lack thereof. And you might find standard info about late seating, prohibitions on photography during performances, etc.

Maybe she’s thinking about something like this, from the Denver Center Theater Company’s “First Timers Guide”: “In most theatres, we ask that everyone turn their phones off (or activate airplane mode), wrap up any conversations and put away crinkly wrappers or bags. Theatre is its most magical when everyone on stage and in the audience can focus without distractions.”

Hmmm. Doesn’t sound all that restrictive.  

So if it’s not the theaters themselves bullying the newbies, it must be those priggish Miss Manners types in the next row. 

“An experience that is meant to be fun and light can suddenly turn heavy and negative,” Garrett writes. “I have witnessed first-hand occasions of people being rudely shushed and barked at for daring to make a peep or laughing because someone else felt they should be silent. Art is meant to move us, to make us think and react—and yet we are expected to show no emotion.”

So, why is the shushing rude, but the intrusive sound that precipitates it isn’t? In my book, laughing – or other visceral reactions such as gasping or a burst of clapping – usually are fine. But carrying on a back-channel conversation during, say, a tense family drama is another matter altogether. And the claim that “we are expected to show no emotion” is hyperbole; showing emotion and having it spill all over the room ain’t the same thing.

Or perhaps, Garrett suggests, the issue is a matter of race and culture.

“A few years ago, I attended Tina: The Tina Turner Musical, written by the incredible Olivier Award-winning and two-time Tony-nominated Memphis-native Katori Hall,” she writes. “Katori is an African- American playwright who writes her pieces with a call and response storytelling element that reflects her background and upbringing. She very much wants her audiences to engage, laugh, clap and talk back at her material. Unfortunately, while at the show, I watched white audience goers [sic] shush other audience goers because they felt it was their place, and they knew more about attending a performance and the expected behavior than the next attendee.”

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She seems to have gone out of her way here to upbraid the sort of audiences that long have been Ashland’s bread and butter. I find her presumption about what some theatergoers “felt” and the specifying of them as “white” both to be unseemly: They need not have thought themselves superior, perhaps they merely wanted fewer distractions; and if I had been there (although unlikely, as I’m the one person in America who’s never liked Tina Turner) Garrett might have had to watch a Black person shushing right along with them.

It’s a telling anecdote all the same, but what it should tell us isn’t necessarily that traditional (read: white, privileged) theater audiences are mean and snobbish. Instead, it should help us recognize that “expected behavior” might best be predicated less on who’s in the seats than on what’s on the stage. An atmosphere conducive to a Tina Turner musical isn’t necessarily conducive to, say, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, and vice-versa.

The real lesson in her Tina anecdote might be that theater makers and presenters should pay greater, more careful attention to crafting the experience that their patrons will have, creating atmospheres and interactions that signal what mode of behaviors and responses fit the mood and the moment.

Cycerli Ash (right) and Aevah Gardner in Portland Playhouse’s recent “A Christmas Carol”: A curtain speech does the trick. Photo: Shawnte Sims

We have an example of this locally in Portland Playhouse. At recent shows such as A Christmas Carol and Titus Andronicus, an enthusiastic and personable curtain speech explicitly encouraged folks to respond freely. But perhaps more importantly, the speech segued smoothly into the action of the play; performers delivered lines from amid the seats from time to time or interacted with audience members in an easy, relaxed manner. Even bits of audience participation (something I normally dread) felt warmly invited, not conscripted.

Conversely, the apotheosis of the kind of theater experience I personally prefer is the kind that’s traditionally been offered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. I love shows in the Angus Bowmer Theater particularly, not because the audiences there demand quiet, but because the dimensions and character of the room, as well as the customarily deep engagement of the audience, reward a rapt, almost reverent attention. 

It would be churlish, of course, to argue with the essential premise of Garrett’s piece: 

“No one should be made to feel as if they do not belong … The need for theaters to embrace all audiences and make inclusion a top priority is long overdue.” Eventually she mentions a few steps toward inclusion that OSF is making: live American Sign Language translation and other services for the hearing impaired, more BIPOC performers and stories onstage, “simplified ticketing pricing” …

Here’s hoping all that helps draw new audiences to the festival, which can be one of the greatest cultural experiences available. As for longtime festivalgoers, I guess it’s just our turn to be told how not to behave.

Opening

JASON ROBERT BROWN’S 1995 revue Songs for a New World is a song cycle that presents various characters in trying moments, before they’re able to make a breakthrough – the “new world” serving as a catch-all metaphor, a dream of yearnings fulfilled. But it’s no longer 1995, and Siri Vik, who’s directing the production at Lane Community College in Eugene, is leaning into the idea of recontextualizing the show.

“I feel the piece comes from an America I grew up in, where all seemed so possible it was a given. …Privilege abounds, so, we’re free to obsess about our love lives, about our career decisions, our ennui amid so much abundance,” Vik explained in an email exchange. “I mean, I got into the score this Fall and was shocked, and even melancholy about the world of Songs compared to the world of 2022.”

Vik felt the show needed a radically new entry point to help a contemporary audience relate to it.

“We’re presenting Songs for a New World as if there were no world left, except an old warehouse surrounded by a dry earth, and as if the players in our cast had no exposure to the culture Songs refers to. The songs themselves we’re treating as found artifacts that, hopefully, the audience will see instead as the worlds that the characters have created in their minds, their inner lives – which contrast pretty sharply against their apparent ‘real’ life: (as) assembly line workers at a factory, for a boss they’ve never met, for some unknown purpose. 

“So, the ‘moment of decision’ that has often been cited as a dominant theme of Songs, in this no-world environment is the decision to change one’s mind, or one’s heart, or perhaps, the choice to create and believe in change, when all seems so endlessly, existentially the same, and such a dead end.”

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Taylore Mahogany Scott on the set of PassinArt’s “Neat.” Photo: Naim Hasan Photography

THE PUBLISHER DRAMATIC PLAY SERVICE describes the play as a “compelling, personal portrait of a young woman’s coming of age, …t he story of an urban African-American girl bursting into adulthood, experiencing first love, and embracing both black-pride and feminism.” That sounds a lot like the fabulous Queens Girl in Africa (nearing the end of its run at Clackamas Rep), but instead refers to Charlayne Woodard’s Neat. In a production for PassinArt, Taylore Mahogany Scott takes the Woodard role, recounting a formative relationship with her disabled Aunt Beneatha, and what Broadway World called “an excursion from entrenched prejudice in the South to racial violence in the North, with side trips to teenage fashions, hairdos and pop music, family relations, friendship and religion.” 

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“CELEBRATING OUR ZANY COMMUNITY” suggests a block party catered by Chuck E. Cheese more than it does an adventurous arts festival, but what the heck, the website isn’t the event. The Oregon Fringe Festival returns to Southern Oregon University starting April 27 with five days of “theater/movement/spoken word” and music performances as well as visual art exhibits and educational programs. 

One act at a time

HOW OFTEN ARE YOU ABLE to see nine plays in just two days?! (Portland theater insider joke: Kay Olsen is gonna LOVE this!)

Portland Actors Conservatory presents a short-form feast with The One Act Festival, coming up Monday and Tuesday (taking advantage of dark days amid the run of Artists Rep’s The Children) in the Armory’s basement Ellyn Bye Studio. The plays are by such greats as Tennessee Williams, Lanford Wilson, Christopher Durang, David Ives and Neil LaBute, with two by Oregon’s own E.M. Lewis, directed, variously, by Chris Harder, Sarah Lucht, Andrea White and PAC founder Beth Harper. The works are divided into two programs, each of which will receive two performances.

Closing

FOLKS WHO’VE SEEN Queens Girl in Africa at Clackamas Rep are apt to tell you it’s a must-see show because of the dazzling, multi-faceted performance by Lauren Steele. But make sure not to overlook the scrupulous work by director Damaris Webb and her crew of designers, and of course pay attention to the subtle layers of emotional depth and political consciousness in Caleen Sinette Jennings’ writing. Here’s hoping Clackamas Rep plans to present the third installment in Jennings’ Queens Girl trilogy before too long. 

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ALSO CLOSING SHOP this weekend are The Steep and Thorny Way to Heaven’s queer adaptation of The Comedy of Errors, and Oregon Children’s Theatre’s kid-friendly creature feature The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show.

An(other) Oregon Shakespeare festival

ONE OF OREGON’S GREAT summer traditions, of course, is to hit the road and dive head first into a big, refreshing body of classical theater. This year, though, the road could be one heading east. The Elgin Opera House – in Elgin (of course), near Pendleton in the state’s Northeast corner – Has announced the 2022 Opera House Shakespeare Festival, set for June 17-26.

The programming bears the mark of someone familiar to Portland theater fans, former Northwest Classical Theatre Company head Grant Turner, now associate artistic director for the Opera House. In addition to productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Two Gentlemen of Verona, the festival will feature Portland stalwart (and esteemed ArtsWatch contributor) Bobby Bermea in the title role of Othello. The festival’s production of The Merchant of Venice will be the U.S. premiere of a six-character adaptation by Bill Alexander, an Olivier Award-winning director who spent 15 years with the Royal Shakespeare Company and who Turner previously coaxed out to Oregon to direct a 2012 Othello for NW Classical. 

Happy birthday, Bill

Let the partying begin! William Blake, “Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing,” ca. 1786, from Shakespeare’s great comic hit “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Watercolor and graphite on paper, 18.7 x 26.5 inches, Tate Britain/Wikimedia Commons.

I RECENTLY ATTENDED A DINNER PARTY following a weekend matinee of Portland Playhouse’s production of Titus Andronicus. (Yes, the entree was pie, but the filling was lobster, not ground Goth.) As the guests discussed the play over dessert (pie again – cherry), one gentleman, for no reason I can recall, expressed his view that the play hadn’t been written by William Shakespeare. Others pushed back, gently, but he was adamant that such elevated works couldn’t have been penned by someone with such a rudimentary education as that rube from Stratford-upon-Avon. He seemed to believe that much of the literature we call Shakespeare was the work of Kit Marlowe. (He also claimed to know which author wrote which work because one of his previous lives had been as a 16th-century London match girl. Which, um, pretty much ended all debate.) 

But of course there’s a clear, final answer to the Shakespearean authorship question: “Who cares?!”
After all, we have the information that really matters – in the plays themselves.

Still, absent definitive evidence to the contrary, we might as well celebrate William Shakespeare as, y’know, William Shakespeare. And as April 23 is the anniversary of his death and perhaps of his birth as well (his exact birth date went unrecorded but he was baptized on April 26), this weekend seems as good a time as any. 

The Folger Shakespeare Library is ready to help, with an online “Shakespeare’s Birthday at Home” kit of handy online resources.  

The flattened stage

AND WHILE WE’RE on a Shakespeare jag…

Second-hand news

THEATRICAL TITAN turned reactionary nutjob David Mamet is back in the spotlight, for both good – an “electric revival” of American Buffalo on Broadway – and (mentally?) ill. Not only has Mamet recently accused teachers of being inclined to pedophilia, but in his latest book he suggested that there was an “attempted coup” in 2020 by the American left. Pressed on the point, by talk-show host Bill Maher, Mamet relented, admitting that he “mis-spoke.” 

Didn’t his publisher let him see the galleys??

Triangulation

TRIANGLE PRODUCTIONS has announced its 2022-23 season. Though the info, as of this writing, has yet to be posted to the company’s website, the info is available in YouTube form.

Best line I read this week

“In almost every major literature there are works that make you love being human, and make you love and revere the humanity of other people. That is the great potential of any art.”

— the novelist Marilynne Robinson, in The New York Times Book Review

That’s all I have for now. I’ll try to do better the next time.

Editor

Marty Hughley is a Portland journalist who writes about theater, dance, music and culture. His honors have included a National Arts Journalism Program fellowship at the University of Georgia, a fellowship at the NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Theater and Musical Theater at the University of Southern California, and first-place awards for arts reporting in the Society of Professional Journalists Pacific Northwest Excellence in Journalism Competitions. In 2013 he was inducted into the Oregon Music Hall of Fame for his contributions to the industry. A Portland native, Hughley studied history at Portland State University, worked at the alternative newsweekly Willamette Week in the late 1980s as pop music critic and arts editor, then spent nearly a quarter century at The Oregonian as a reporter, feature writer and critic. His recent freelance work has appeared in Oregon ArtsWatch, Artslandia and the Oregon Humanities magazine. He lives with his cat, and dies a little with each new setback to the Trail Blazers.

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