DramaWatch: Fuse relights its fire

Portland's LGBTQ theater ensemble gets a new home, a new season, and a new way of thinking about how it does business.

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Jane Comer stands boldly and looks up into the light, ready for an important, if difficult, conversation.

“Hey God!,” she calls out. “Yeah, you in the dress! I think we can both agree there’s a problem here. … Fix me. Please fix me.”

A pause. “You’re not going to do anything?!”

Well, of course God’s not going to do anything. It’s in the script. And because this is a technical rehearsal, there still are adjustments to be made to God’s performance as a beam of light (or vice-versa). 

“And Jane, don’t wait for a light cue that isn’t there,” instructs director Sara Fay Goldman. “God will not go anywhere, God will just not respond.”

Jane Comer. Photo: Greg Parkinson

Despite the childhood plea recalled in that solo piece, I Am an Actress: a Passion Play, Comer learned long ago not to rely on supernatural assistance and instead to simply make things happen. As the title suggests, being an actress always has been central to Comer’s identity. Yet others couldn’t understand. “Don’t you mean an actor?,” was the common reply.

“We mustn’t let the world decide who we are,” Comer says in the play. “They always get it wrong.”

I Am an Actress is part of a triptych of works by Comer brought together under the apt title Becoming Understood, opening this weekend and playing in repertory as the kickoff to a new season from Fuse Theatre Ensemble

In some ways, this represents a continuation of what Fuse has done for years, foregrounding LGBTQ+ perspectives while creating inclusive, accessible and often exciting theater. “As far as I can tell, we’re the only company in the country producing two trans women playwrights in the same season,” Fuse artistic director Rusty Tennant says during a break in the rehearsal. “That was going to be our focus for the OUTwright festival in 2020. So now it’s a focus of this season instead.”

Comer, performing in “I Am an Actress.” Photo: Rusty Tennant

Which brings up the ways in which Fuse is not just continuing its usual work but taking a very different tack as a company, post-pandemic. Instead of producing just a few site-specific shows — such as the 2018 Cabaret at Funhouse Lounge that hauled in a whopping seven Drammy Awards —  Fuse is taking on a new home base and a new programming model, presenting six shows over the next eight months, all in the Back Door Theatre on Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard.

Sponsor

The Back Door (so named because it occupies a space in the rear of a Common Grounds coffeehouse) was in recent years home to Defunkt Theater. But with several of that company’s members scattered by the pandemic and other circumstances, “they contacted us and asked if we were interested in taking over the space,” Tennant says.
For Fuse it represented a big decision. “The reason we’re still around after all these years is that we haven’t had the overhead of a permanent space,” Tennant says. “But the social-justice warriors in us didn’t want to see another small theater space go away.”

From those first conversations in late July, things moved quickly. By September 1, Fuse had leased the space. Within a couple of weeks, they’d moved in and begun rebuilding the raw space into a viable performance venue, hanging a new lighting grid and so forth. And with overhead came the need for shows.


“Things that take six months we had to do in a matter of weeks,” Tennant says. “We had no plan to have a season. And we’re really consensus-based as a company, so we talk to everyone  before we make a decision.”    

The 2021-22 Fuse season starts with the two aforementioned trans playwrights, Comer and Mikki Gillette, whose The Queers (Jan. 7 to Feb. 6) Fuse calls “the first trans ensemble drama by a trans writer” to have a Portland-area production. Other intriguing selections include what they call “Queering the Classics” with a version of Our Town, and a new musical by Ernie Lejoi, who starred in the last pre-pandemic Fuse show, a production of Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge. 

Fuse also is rethinking how it does business, both in its internal and public-facing operations.

“Our new ticketing method is called ‘GAY AF’ — the acronym is for ‘Give as you are able, friends.’” The idea is to make reservations available online but to leave other options open for when, how and how much an audience member might pay. With the use of QR codes and other means, folks can use Venmo, PayPal, cards, checks or cash, and pay after or even during a performance.


Goldman points out that it’s not quite the typical “pay-what-you-will” model either. “We don’t want to say ‘price our show for us,’ because it’s not about that.”


“The idea is that it’s not the first thing we’re hitting you with,” adds Tennant. “We’re not meeting you at the door and asking for $20 and then giving you what we think is $20 worth.”

Alec Cameron Lugo as Clifford and Gwendolyn Duffy as Sally Bowles in Fuse’s multiple Drammy-winning 2018 production of “Cabaret.” Photo: Fuse Theatre Ensemble

More than just shifting the ground of commercial exchange, Fuse says it wants to rethink some of the basic priorities of theater work. As Goldman puts it, “‘The show must go on’ is pretty passe.”


“Covid has made us aware of the ways we’re really hard on one another,” Tennant says. “I’m less and less concerned with what the product is. The audience is no longer what I’m most concerned with caring about; the people that I hire are my top concern — that they have a good process.

“And if we create a good process for these folks, we will have a good show.” 

Opening

Holiday entertaining often rides a fine line, between the comforts of familiarity and ritual on one hand and the rut of the same-old same-old on the other. In a new seasonal offering called 

Merry Happy Everything, Oregon Children’s Theatre aims for the right side of that line with what we might think of as a buffet approach, spiced up (or sweetened, if that’s your palate) by daily specials.

For those who value the tried-and-true, each show includes “a musical cabaret of beloved carols.” Meanwhile, variety and surprise are served two ways: holiday-themed improv comedy by OCT’s Young Professionals, and a different guest storyteller for each show, sharing holiday memories. Among the notable guests scheduled: Back Fence PDX founder B. Frayn Masters (Dec. 3), Portland hip-hop titan Mic Crenshaw (Dec. 12), and the ferociously funny actor and clown Emily Newton (Nov. 20). 

Closing

Along with raising some meaty, sticky questions about theatrical representation, race, culture, language, etc., the Portland Playhouse production of Robert O’Hara’s Barbecue serves up some tasty performances by an impressive cast of Portland actors including Diane Kondrat, Darius Pierce, Ithica Tell, Andrea White and Treasure Lunan. Grab some before it gets cold.

Cycerli Ash (left) and Dana Green in “Barbecue” at Portland Playhouse. Photo: Shawnte Sims

The sound or sight of crows or even pigeons gets my attention lately in ways it normally doesn’t. Imago’s production of The Birds, a fine Conor McPherson play that borrows the same short-story inspiration (though not the same story) as the famous Alfred Hitchcock film of the same name, ultimately is more incisive in what it says about the Earth’s most dangerous species: humans. But the anxiety-laced atmosphere the show creates around its avian-attack premise, thanks in part to Myrrh Larsen’s finely honed sound design, sticks with you.

Just one more aspect of the “new normal” for the theater world is the need to postpone performances because of Covid-19 cases or exposures. Family, a darkly compelling tragi-comedy at Shaking the Tree, had its run interrupted and its dates extended beyond the original Nov. 6 closing. So, on the positive side, that means three more chances to catch it (er…the play, not the virus!) this weekend.

Danse across the water?

For Portland in November, the weather was pleasantly warm last Sunday evening. So as I darted off to catch a show, I wore just a light jacket and left the raincoat it’s sometimes felt like I’ve been living in of late. Then, there came another aspect of that “new normal.” As I approached the door of the venue, I focused on my phone, trying to find the email confirming my ticket. “Oh, we don’t need that,” I was told. “We just need your last name and your vaccination card.”

Jean-Luc Boucherot in “Dance Macabre.” Photo: Sarah Marguier

Oops. My vax card was in the other coat.

But even though I’d already seen the show — Danse Macabre: the Testament of Francois Villon — I rushed off to retrieve the required document, just barely getting back before the performance began (in fact, I had to stand forlornly outside the glass door for a minute until the director noticed and took pity on me).

Ah, but the rushing was worth it! The show, which I wrote about when it was staged in September at the Shoebox Theatre, was on the last night of a brief re-mount at the 2509, a tiny rehearsal/performance studio beneath director Stepan Simek’s Northeast Portland home. And it had improved so much in every respect — the energy and ease of Jean-Luc Boucherot’s performance as the titular poet, Briana Ratterman Trevithick’s alternately languid and spasmodic turn as a sort of beastly angel of death, the boisterous interactions and timelessly soulful playing of the medieval ensemble Musica Universalis — that however enthusiastic I’d already been, my third time seeing it felt charmed.

Its performances all had sold out, but all had been in very small spaces, with room for no more than a few dozen viewers at once. I kept thinking of all the friends I wished I had dragged to see it.

But the good news is that someone may have the chance to see it in the future. Simek said after the show that he’s been invited to bring the show to a festival next summer in the Czech Republic (Simek is a native of Prague). Simek’s wife, Esther Saulle, who plays woodwinds in Musica Universalis, is a native of Switzerland, so they’re looking into performance options there, too. No doubt such overseas touring for a troupe of seven performers will take some fundraising and planning. We’ll try to keep you updated on the developments. 

This just in!

Luan Schooler. Photo courtesy Artists Repertory Theatre

As this column was being completed, an email arrived announcing that Artists Rep has named Luan Schooler as interim artistic director, part of the transition at the theater brought on by the upcoming departure of Dámaso Rodríquez.

Schooler has been with the company for several years as director of new play development and dramaturgy, and has directed some of the strongest productions of the Rodríguez era, such as The Thanksgiving Play and The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart.

The virtual stage

Not long ago, if you’d asked me what “extended reality” was, I probably would have guessed it was some fancy-pants euphemism for living longer. Turns out that these days, though, it’s a fancy-pants term for what I suppose actually is partial reality; that is, the overlaying or blending of immersive digital technology with things that are, y’now, really happening. 

In any case, the expansion of such technological means into the world of theater gets a boost with Quills Fest, a two-day virtual conference presented by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in partnership with Artizen and Museum of Other Realities. Designed to be experienced either online or through VR headsets, the fest includes newly commissioned virtual-reality productions, moderated discussions, and sessions of virtual mingling with artists.

Over on YouTube, a fall Reading Series featuring productions by Blk Girls Luv the Bard of new adaptations commissioned by Play On Shakespeare concludes Thursday the 18th with Romeo and Juliet, in a modern-verse translation by Hansol Jung.

The flattened stage

“And now” — especially for those of you busy planning a grand holiday meal — “a word from our sponsor.”

The best line I read this week

“Art must invent new beauty, not play with what has already been made, religion must invent God and never rest.”

— from A Word Child by Iris Murdoch

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

About the author
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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