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DramaWatch: CoHo opens the doors wide

“When theater becomes just about plays, only fans of plays come. We’re going to bring a variety-show mentality and challenge forms. And we’re going to be trying to incubate new forms.” 

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CoHo’s Spring 2022 mainstage show, “In the Name of Forgotten Women.” Photo: Ashley Walters

CoHo Productions recently announced the theater’s upcoming season of programming – its 27th. It’s a busy calendar – a dozen or so events between this weekend and next June,  including poetry, live-streamed content, and a singer-songwriter’s album-release party. And yes, there are still some plays, including Karen Polinsky’s Heart of Stone opening next week, and The Way You Made Me, by Lindsay Partain, scheduled for three weeks in December. But the emphasis appears to be shifting.

CoHo long was distinguished by a unique programming model among Portland theaters. Rather than having its own artistic staff choose and produce shows, it made its space and infrastructure available to independent local artists. Each year, interested artists would assemble projects (chosen script, key creative contributors, prospective budget, etc.) as proposals, and a board organized by CoHo would choose a few, which would then be scheduled for the season, with CoHo as co-producer. Those shows made up the heart of the traditional fall-through-spring season; then a variety of smaller-scale shows and workshops kept the place active during summer.

The upcoming schedule appears – at first glance, anyway – to be so different that I called Phil Johnson, CoHo’s program director, to get some context.  Is this a transitional/provisional season in response to the disruptions of the pandemic and the death of the company’s beloved artistic director Philip Cuomo last fall? Or is this the new model?

“It’s a bit of both,” Johnson began. “A lot of it began in conversations I had years ago with Philip. Even back in 2017 or so, CoHo started making a push toward equity and bringing in more diverse work, both in Summerfest and in the mainstage shows. Around 2018 or ‘19, Philip and I had long conversations about what we thought needed to happen to move that forward.

“What we were diagnosing was that a lot of theater was very straightforward and traditional. And CoHo has always wanted to be a little different.”

Karen Polinsky’s “Heart of Stone,” opening Sept. 9 at CoHo. Photo: Nadya Pynkina

The pivot that they envisioned was toward what Johnson calls “lightweight programming.”

He clearly doesn’t think of that term as a pejorative, though. 

The desire to make what the company presented accessible to a greater variety of audiences was one driver of the approach. Another was a desire to more effectively target resources to individual artists – and, again, a wider variety of artists.

In 2020, CoHo began giving grants to artists for what it calls its nightlife program. And it created a residency program to create work for the CoHo stage and online platforms, as well as to help artists develop skills and experience. “A lot of artists that go through that are able to use it to get other residencies, to help them get to the next level,” Johnson says.

With the implementation of these programs, and further conversations “about what truly is accessibility,” Johnson says, “we decided to update and evolve our co-production model.”

The former CoHo model was collaborative but curatorial. The new, evolving approach Johnson describes as more open. “Rather than having a hierarchical system of approval, it’s closer to first-come, first-served,” he notes. The artists and events need to be in alignment with CoHo’s values, Johnson says, and those involved have to have some production capabilities, but CoHo can provide assistance with technical matters, grant applications and the like. 

The democratizing of programming has a parallel development in the CoHo administrative structure. 

“When Philip passed it left a really big void – he handled so much of the day-to-day operations,” Johnson says. Faced with filling that void, he, operations manager Morgan Clark-Gaynor and communications director Laurel Wilde decided that it “felt regressive” to have so much in the hands and on the shoulders of one person. “We were having  a lot of conversations about how to create a structure where responsibility is more decentralized. We wanted to make accountability more equitable and still get things done.”

Mini Sharma-Ogle (Kali) and Eleanor Amorós (Guadalupe) in CoHo’s “In the Name of Forgotten Women.” Photo: Ashley Walters

Hence a new management approach built around equal pay, divided responsibilities, and committee work.

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Similarly, the “lightweight programming” emphasis seeks to make CoHo more things to more people.

“We’re very conscious to make sure that we’re reaching out to different demographics,” Johnson says. “As a Black man, when I go to see theater, often I can just feel that it’s not a space that we built for me. …I’m a pure code-switcher; I don’t feel uncomfortable or foreign in an all-white space. But I’m there to take notes for my people. It’s all part of my endeavor to make theater more comfortable for all audiences – Black people, queer people, disabled people.”

He talks of the excitement in the building at a recent All Boats PDX event, a kind of  multi-disciplinary invitational variety show organized by Julia Bray. “it was incredible. It was electric in there, to have so many young people in the building. …

“Music is responding to the current culture; it’s in dialogue with what’s happening right now. Whereas theater has a certain nostalgia to it. With young people, we have to teach them to watch theater again. 

“When theater becomes just about plays, only fans of plays come. We’re going to bring a variety-show mentality and challenge forms. And we’re going to be trying to incubate new forms.” 

The flattened stage

One of the fruits of CoHo’s residency program is a robust YouTube channel. There, you can find work by popular young Portland performers such as Andrea Vernae and Claire Rigsby, episodes of the Radical Listening podcast, excerpts from a few past stage productions, etc. But since we’re not entirely above a little self-promotion here at ArtsWatch, we’ll highlight the residency project of occasional contributor Chris Gonzalez: 

Opening

“Come and travel through a live performance installation to question our relationship to home, comfort, and safety.”

That sounds a bit like it could be an invitation to the standout late-summer offering from Northwest Classical Theatre Collaborative, Wallace Shawn’s The Fever – which, by the way, has performances at Mother Foucault’s Bookshop on Sept. 2 and 3 and back at the former Victoria’s Secret space in Lloyd Center on the 4th. Shawn’s view of that relationship is mostly that our comfort and safety is purchased with a blind eye to the political, economic and quite literal brutalization of those from far-off homes. The teaser quoted above is for a show – HOME/LAND – that, I’m guessing, will try to confront thorny social and ethical issues yet somehow bring us to a rosier outlook.

Another big difference: The Fever is a monologue, HOME/LAND is a walk. A collaboration between Portland’s Hand2Mouth Theatre, the multi-disciplinary New York group WaxFactory, and Begat Theatre of Gréoux-les-Bains, France, the show is presented across about ¾ of a mile in Portland’s South Waterfront district, which serves as the imagined space for a government-run village of temporary shelters occupied by, well, us, the audience.

“Audience members will move back and forth through time and witness stories about the singular place, Portland, and all those who have occupied and lived here,” says the Hand2Mouth website. “HOME/LAND asks audiences to question their own personal relationship to the place they call home and their hopes for what its future might hold.”

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North Portland’s Twilight Theatre stages a musical, The Mad Ones, by playwright/lyricist Kait Kerrigan and composer Brian Lowdermilk (which, incidentally, Oregon Children’s Theatre also will be staging at CoHo in February). The story involves a high-school girl’s relationships with her overbearing mother and a best friend whose death in a car accident frames the show’s present-tense in grief and its flashbacks in poignance. Directed by Chris Byrne.

The best line I read this week

“With the exception of being prideful and having empty dreams of being a superman, I am nothing.”

– – Halldór Laxness, Icelandic novelist, as quoted in The New Yorker.

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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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