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DramaWatch: Dámaso Rodriguez moves to Seattle Rep; Center Stage’s JAW Festival kicks off

The former Artists Rep artistic leader is the new artistic director of Seattle's much larger flagship theater, and JAW keeps faith with the theatrical tradition of the new.

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A highlight of Dámaso Rodriguez’ nine-year stint as artistic director of Portland’s Artists Repertory Theatre was the world premiere production of Larissa FastHorse’s ” The Thanksgiving Play” in 2018. A production of FastHorse’s play opened this spring on Broadway. Above: Sarah Lucht (left) and Claire Rigsby in the Artists Rep production. Photo: Russell J Young

Nineteen months after his departure from Portland’s Artists Repertory Theatre, Dámaso Rodríguez has accepted another position as artistic director, this time at Seattle Rep, one of the country’s leading regional companies. Rodríguez spent nine seasons in Portland but resigned in late 2021 to become a vice-president of  the Arts Consulting Group, a national agency that provides executive-search and strategic-planning services for arts and culture organizations.

At the time, Artists Rep was facing the heavy lifting of a major capital campaign and a few itinerant seasons during reconstruction of its headquarters in the Goose Hollow neighborhood. Wrote Bennett Campbell Ferguson for ArtsWatch: “While Rodriguez downplays the role that the renovation played in his decision, he sounds ready to be free of the burdens that come with being an artistic director. ‘Consistently, across … 20 years, I’ve had the next board meeting, the next grant deadline, the next crisis,’ he says. ‘You don’t end up doing what you hear that you need to do as an artist, which is just pause and think and be open to possibilities.’”

Dámaso Rodriguez: Seattle-bound. Photo: Lava Alapai

Perhaps the time as a consultant proved revivifying, or perhaps the chance to succeed Braden Abraham – who left in January for Chicago’s Writers Theatre after 20 years at Seattle Rep – was just too plump a plum to pass up. Seattle’s Misha Berson, an ArtsWatch contributor and the doyenne of Northwest theater critics, summed up the transition in an excellent article for American Theater magazine

“Seattle Rep is a larger showplace with a bigger budget (around $16 million, as compared to Artists Rep’s $2.4 million) and two venues to fill (the 678-seat Bagley Wright mainstage and the 282-seat Leo K. Theatre). The Rep’s national reputation includes a regional theater Tony, historic relationships with such playwrights as Wendy Wasserstein, Robert Schenkkan, and August Wilson, and many works it nurtured heading to Broadway.

‘It’s not just the size of the Rep that attracted me to the theater—it’s also the scope,’ Rodríguez said. ‘I want to do wide-armed, varying work—classic and contemporary work, intimate and large-scale productions in conversation with each other. I think that’s possible there. It’s what interests me, and it’s what is important now.’”

Rodríguez brings his own accomplishments to the party. His tenure at Artists Rep, where he arrived after several years in California as associate artistic director of Pasadena Playhouse and co-founder of L.A.’s Furious Theatre Company, included premieres that have gone on to higher profile productions, such as The Thanksgiving Play by Larissa FastHorse (which opened on Broadway this year), Hansol Jung’s Wolf Play, and Kareem Fahmy’s American Fast, as well as such artistically ambitious productions as E.M. Lewis’ Antarctic epic Magellanica, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ fluidly cast Everybody and the vibrant musical Cuba Libre.

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Building plays at the JAW Festival

New plays – at least nearly any and all good ones – aren’t merely written, they are developed. That is to say, they are written and rewritten, discussed, rehearsed, performed, and rewritten some more. Lather, rinse, repeat.

And among the more fruitful places for this process in American regional theater is JAW, the new-play festival that takes place each summer at Portland Center Stage. Over more than two decades, JAW has hosted such major writers as Itamar Moses, Craig Lucas, Adam Bock, Jordan Harrison, Naomi Iizuka, Will Eno and Kate Hamill.

It has been an incubator for such subsequent PCS mainstage shows as Hamill’s Ms. Holmes & Ms. Watson – Apt. 2B and Lauren Weedman’s The People’s Republic of Portland. Dan O’Brien’s The Body of An American, an emotionally powerfully, ethically complex story about war and journalism, workshopped at JAW in 2011 and went on to win such illustrious awards as the Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama and the Horton Foote Prize for Outstanding New American Play.

The action’s all over The Armory during JAW Fest: above, a lobby performance by Wes Guy and New Birth in the 2013 festival. Photo: Patrick Weishampel

The playwrights spend a week with directors, actors and dramaturgs, honing and reworking a play that’s been chosen through PCS’s extensive selection process. The fun part comes on the weekend, when audiences get to watch a bevy of fine performers deliver the plays in staged readings that let theater’s most vital elements – actors and words – carry the load.

This year’s festival features a smaller slate of plays than usual, but all three look promising: Jonathan Spector’s Best Available, which premiered at last fall’s Ashland New Plays Festival, mines comedy from the frequently fraught situation of a regional theater company navigating a time of change and the search for new leadership. Few things are as inherently frightening and funny simultaneously as adolescence, which is the dark, dank realm of In the Basement, Bailey Williams’ look into “the joy and messiness of how our identities are formed, gender is performed and how adulthood might just be a figment of our imaginations.” Safe Ride, Dorcas Sowunmi’s story of high-school student government officers, might start out in adjacent territory, but heads off toward dramatic social activism.

Regardless of the quality of the plays-in-progress, the involvement or such fine Portland actors as Linda Hayden, Gretchen Corbett, Darius Pierce, Leif Norby, Treasure Lunan and Rebby Yuer Foster should make the weekend worthwhile. And to make the most of the community vibe that comes out of the festival’s core mission, PCS also schedules a variety of cultural bells and whistles: singers, dancers, DJs, a portrait exhibit and – in a fitting nod to the developing future – a young playwrights showcase.

Opening

Summer may appear to be the quiet time for theater, but performances are happening all over. You just have to look in different places, to smaller companies, or to makeshift stages. For example: 

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A scene from “Ritual Treatment.” Photo courtesy Roots & All Theatre Ensemble.

Sophina Flores, artistic director of Roots & All Theatre Ensemble, uses the form of a “surreal dance-theater memory play” to examine abusive relationships. But instead of the usual dynamic of misogynistic bruisers and hetero female victims, Ritual Treatment focuses on “abuse in relationships among queer and trans non-white teens, and “the ways in which we can harm others and ourselves, even with best intentions.” She stages the show for three weekends in Portland State University’s Boiler Room Theatre, before taking it across town to Fuse Theatre’s Atelier Festival for further development.

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Part of the adventure in Oregon Adventure Theatre’s approach is to use campfires and lantern  lights, Commedia Dell’arte masks, and not just parks but backyard performance spaces. This summer’s performances of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar kick off Friday in West Linn, then move to Southeast Portland’s Laurelhurst Park on Saturday and Sunday. After two subsequent weekends outside Portland homes, the finale will be part of an overnight camp-out Aug. 19 at Milo McIver State Park in Estacada.

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Real Toads Theatre Co. was founded just last year, with the operating principle that – as we might glean from its website – “it’s possible to do theater without a whole lot of institutional support,” leaning instead on a “collaborative, minimalist” approach. Its three-day Real Toads Theatre Fest 2023 at the Skyline Grange in Portland features three performances of the meta-theatrical (or at least self-referential) musical [title of show] and one showcase of original short plays written and directed by youth artists with the company.

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Lovegood Performing Arts Company was started by some Beaverton-area families (some previously involved with Vancouver’s “Jesus-centered” Journelovegood performing arts company, y Theater) to provide safe youth activities. Now the group is launching its first full production for adults with the beloved musical Fiddler on the Roof. Which certainly isn’t Jesus-centered, but you could say it knows its family values.

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The flattened stage

Tradition, you say? Well, one venerable tradition is using musical-theater tunes as satirical readymades:

Where’s Will?

Those roving players of Portland’s Original Practice Shakespeare Festival bring their hit-and-run approach to the Bard to Irving Park for a succession of 7 p.m. performances: Taming of the Shrew (Thursday), King Lear (Friday), A Midsommer Nights Dreame (Saturday) and Henry VI, Part 1 (Sunday). Next week, they move on to Cully Park and to the Washington Park Amphitheatre.

Closing

The touring Tudors of the Broadway musical hit Six, the ill-fated wives of King Henry VIII as 21st-century pop-star apparitions will quit the Keller Auditorium after Sunday’s show and haunt another town. And Downward Facing, an ambitious work in Fuse Theatre Ensemble’s developmental Atelier Festival, prepares to cede the Backdoor Theatre space to other projects. 

The best line I read this week

“(N)o, you really don’t want to know the deep, burbling source of the blues. The kind of grief that urges you to song is inelegant, a hot devil nearly impossible to wrestle into form.”

– Vinson Cunningham, in The New Yorker, reviewing Zora Howard’s play Hang Time.

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

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Photo Joe Cantrell

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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