DramaWatch: Musings on behavior, blackness, and what shows to see

Some thoughts on theater etiquette, on ideas about race and cultural preference, and on what shows to see this week in Portland.

Ben Cameron is a former executive director of Theatre Communications Group and program director for the arts at the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, and when he was in those roles  I had the pleasure of hearing him speak about a variety of arts issues. One of the memorable observations he would make, a decade or two ago, was that the audience for the arts in America was made up predominantly of the kind of people who had been good at school in the 1950s and ‘60s — that is, well-educated, well-to-do, often white, with mainstream sensibilities and manners. The reason, he suggested, wasn’t just that these were the folks with the money to attend art events, but that they were the folks comfortable at art events, that art events operate by the same sorts of rules and conventions they’d thrived in before at school: “You come in, you sit over there. No, not up there on the stage — that’s for somebody else. You sit there, pay attention and be quiet. They get to talk, you don’t. You respond when we tell you to.” And so forth.

His point being, the arts — perhaps theater in particular — are presented in a context that carries behavioral expectations, and those aren’t the expectations that everyone is used to. So, if more people are to engage in the arts, the question then becomes about who has to adjust, the arts or the audience. 

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Angus Bowmer Theatre can feel like a sanctified space, as in this 2019 production of As You Like It, directed by Rosa Joshi. Some folks like it quiet and full of rapt attention. Photo: Kim Budd.

Cameron was addressing broad and ongoing issues about cultural engagement and growth, but his observation came to mind recently in a narrower context: theater etiquette.

Complaints about a decline in theater etiquette are evergreen. My apologies for burdening you with yet another. I just seem to be encountering the topic from all angles these days.


For one thing, on my most recent trip to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, I was stunned to observe something I don’t think I’d ever seen before in what is, to me, a kind of sanctified place: in the August Bowmer Theatre, just two seats away from me, someone eating during a performance! Yes, lobby concession stands sell snacks, and I don’t know the theater policy about bringing food into the auditorium itself; I just hadn’t imagined someone breaking the spell of that place in particular in such a way.

And to the woman in the row behind me at the Armory during opening night of Redwood last weekend: The line that you missed — and loudly told your companion that you’d not heard — was, “Did you really just use your stepmom to Love, Actually-stoop-scene me?”


You’re welcome. But is that you didn’t hear a line sufficient reason to keep those around you from hearing the next one? I believe it isn’t. Instead, try to hold the details of the moment in your mind until intermission or curtain and then ask your friend, “By the way, did you catch what she said when…”

As exasperated as I can get by such moments, I’m always aware that I’m in that audience as a matter of privilege, usually by the grace of complimentary press tickets. If I’d paid $40, $80 or $100 for my seat, I might feel freer telling fellow audience members that they’re disturbing my experience of the show (waiting until intermission, of course). Then again, if I’d made such an investment, maybe I’d feel more entitled to chat or eat or otherwise enjoy myself. (Well, I wouldn’t, but maybe that’s why others do.) 

Those instances fresh in my mind, I came across a short piece in The New Yorker about a 10-year-old’s Ten Commandments of theater etiquette going viral on Twitter this summer. That led me to an article in Town and Country Magazine by the aforementioned young theater fan’s uncle, a New York publicist named Seth Fradkoff, who apparently gets more exasperated than I do:

“I am, admittedly, more of a stickler than most,” he writes. “I recently found myself at Tootsie: The Comedy Musical for a second time. I love this show, but I only made it as far as the second number before the staff of the Marquis Theater asked me to leave. Why? The woman in Row B of the mezzanine crinkling her Twizzlers after inhaling a bag of pretzels during the overture was the last straw! After an usher declined to assist me, I walked to her row, reached across the man seated on the aisle, and grabbed the Twizzlers. I threw them into the aisle, and went back to my seat—for about a minute, until I was asked to leave.”

I must admit, I’m with him on the matter of crinkly candy wrappers. Cell phones are capable of causing all manner of mischief during a performance, but something about the prolonged static crackle of someone slowly unwrapping a sweet or a cough drop, all the effort to be careful and unobtrusive backfiring horribly, really sets the teeth on edge.

In 2016, the Hollywood Reporter surveyed a few dozen Broadway performers about what audience behavior bothers them, and the most colorful response came from (no surprise) Harvey Fierstein: “In my 44 years of trodding the boards, I have witnessed everything from people passing a whole roast chicken up and down a row, to someone trying to take down the script in dictation, to folks videotaping the show through cameras taped inside their hats, to guys getting blowjobs. People, please — this ain’t the movies!” 

That’s a funny line, but there’s something crucial there, I think. At least to my mind, the rules are different in a movie theater than they are in what I’ll snobbishly call a real theater. Unless someone’s being truly obnoxious, I don’t much care about talking during a movie because I know I could come back and see it again; whatever I might have missed still will be there, unchanged. However precise a theatrical performance, part of its thrill is in the unreproducible moment.

Then again, there are viewpoints more snobbish than mine. Seeking some set of guidelines with a ring of authority, I came across a list from the Etiquette School of New York. I suppose attending a Broadway house isn’t the same as popping down to the Shoebox Theatre, but in either case I’m not on board with rule No. 1 on this list, to dress as for a special occasion. Casual attire is fine, but so is sloppy attire. It’s only stinky attire that should concern us. And I’ll choose how to show my appreciation, thank you; that I should stand to applaud a show just because others are (rule No. 16) strikes me as overbearing.

But that brings things back yet again to the question of who decides.

A 2018 article on the Folger Shakespeare Library website references a book by a British academic researcher named Dr. Kirsty Sedgman: “The Reasonable Audience: Theatre Etiquette, Behaviour Policing, and the Live Performance Experience… argues that theatre etiquette is bound up in sexist, racist, and ableist social norms, designed specifically to produce separations between elite and ‘mass’ audiences…As Dr. Sedgman explains, when we talk about theatre etiquette now (she prefers the term ‘behavior policing’), we need to acknowledge both its notable and suspect aspects: That it’s a way to reinforce a shared vision of socially-acceptable behavior that makes public space better for all, and also a morally suspect act that is disproportionately wielded against people of color, the working class, etc.”

That sounds reasonable. Except that, unless there’s verifiable, quantifiable data (and perhaps Sedgman has some), isn’t this in itself a racist/classist presumption — that those falling afoul of the rules of etiquette must be those of certain social strata, that such strata somehow determine our behavior?

Maybe we’re left to rely on the great spiritual insight from Monty Python’s Life of Brian: “You’ve all got to figure it out for yourself.” I like the theater to be almost like a holy place, a place of engagement and absorption, where the moment onstage lets me know what’s appropriate, whether that’s raucous laughter or silent, rapt attention. Maybe you like theater to be someplace to forget the strictures of everyday life, a place to feel spontaneous and free, Twizzlers included. But we each have to be cognizant of each other when we’re sharing the theater space, and negotiate, in a manner of speaking, accordingly.

So…see you at the theater! …but please don’t pass me the chicken.

Best line(s) I read this week (annotated)

The epiphany that sets in motion that plot to Redwood, the world premiere currently at Portland Center Stage, takes place in a hip-hop dance class: “I was grooving away…when a great and powerful love overtook me. Love for the beautiful black bodies in that room, the beautiful, black, tunes. And I thought: history!” Later on in the play, another character responds to her mother’s claims about the family’s hard work and success by asserting that her family had denied and hated their blackness and instead “moved mostly in white spaces at great cost to our sense of ‘heritage.’”

Charles Grant leads the hip-hop dance element in Redwood at The Armory. Photo: Russell J. Young.

The White Bird dance series show at Lincoln Hall this weekend, Power by Reggie Wilson/Fist and Heel Performance Group, is a kind of choreographic thought experiment about the African-American legacy within the spiritual expressions of the Shakers. More history, more black bodies moving in (presumed) white spaces.


And so all this has your humble DramaWatcher — whose black body grew up in the decidedly white space of Portland’s Laurelhurst neighborhood — pondering what “blackness” means, culturally speaking. (I mean, I just looked up at my TV screen and saw Tyler Perry’s face — beneath ludicrous Madea wig and make-up — followed by the words “stream black culture.” If I hate that, am I hating blackness, or just hating the commercial promulgation of some of its lesser traits? Or am I just, justifiably, hating Tyler Perry??)

All of this leads me back to the files to find a favorite old clip from, oddly enough, exactly 25 years ago:

“Lately I’ve realized my idea of what’s ‘Black enough’ now extends to whatever gets me open. For example, my Top 10 list of albums for this year will be dominated by white-boy singer-songwriters—Nirvana, Soundgarden, Nine Inch Nails, Richard Thompson, Jeff Buckley, Chris Whitley, Bryan Ferry—because they’re making music out of the sorts of emotional scar issues my 37-year-old soul scrapes up against on the daily….Moreover, when I think of my favorite artists of ’94, I think of them as my niggas. Neil Young? That’s my nigga. Bryan Ferry? He my nigga too.

…I’ll be a Black chauvinist for life, but what makes that chauvinism so chewy and gooey are the contradictions. These pop up whenever anybody tries to nail Blackness in a coffin. At that [Organization of Black Designers] conference in Chicago, [cinematographer] Arthur Jaffa talked about how ‘My Favorite Things’ is dope more because of John Coltrane than Rodgers and Hammerstein, and I thought, maybe to you, my brother. I treasure the Julie Andrews and the Coltrane renditions of the song equally. And cherish even more Betty Carter’s version because Carter feasts on Andrews’ spritely but manic reading of the lyrics and Trane’s arabesques to arrive at something even more bugged out, Black and beautiful. I dig work that flips the script on our received notions of Black and white. I also dig things that are so Black even most Black folks don’t know what to do with them.”

—The great music/cultural critic Greg Tate in a November 8, 1994 column in the Village Voice.

Opening

Among the various tragedies occurring along the southern border of the U.S. has been the disappearance of hundreds of young women from around Ciudad Juarez — women often last seen on the route home from factory jobs, and presumed murdered or kidnapped into sex trafficking. La Ruta, which premiered last year at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre, shines a light on this dark history, focusing on two mothers desperately hoping for their daughters’ return. Playwright Isaac Gomez—a native of El Paso, just across the border from Juarez—calls it both “a play about a group of women living in the wake of unspeakable loss” and “an interpersonal journey of healing, of growth, of resilience and of empowerment.” Dámaso Rodríguez directs for Artists Repertory Theatre, which is staging the show at the Southeast Portland headquarters of Portland Opera.

La Ruta tells a tale of loss and resilience along the U.S.-Mexico border. Photo: Kathleen Kelly.

For years, Tony Fuemmeler’s mask and puppetry work has contributed to shows by Artists Rep, Oregon Children’s Theatre and others, so Portland theater fans should be a natural part of the audience for a two-decade retrospective of his masks, Reveal/Conceal, that’s just gone up in the Parrish Gallery of the Chehalem Cultural Center in Newberg. But—theater being a collaborative art form—Fuemmeler also brings other artists into play with the companion exhibit A Universal Feeling. After fashioning unpainted papier-mâché masks for a set of emotions (fear, joy, surprise, anger, sadness and disgust) Fuemmeler shipped them off to 62 other artists around the world, inviting them to complete the pieces. Collaborators including local theater makers such as Cristi Miles, Jamie M. Rea and Damaris Webb, but cover a gamut of artistic disciplines, ages, genders and so forth. Friday’s opening reception looks like a good time to catch these exhibits, but they’ll continue until just after the New Year.

Tony Fuemmeler in his mask-making studio. Photo: Dennis Galloway.

“After their last show ends in a disastrous theater fire, two vaudevillians wake up to discover that they may not have survived.” But if they wake up, then that means they must have…oh…right…it’s just a story. In which case, I suppose there’s your key metaphysical conflict right there. Duo Doppio’s Fabrizio & Cabriolet In: The Afterlife features the aforementioned vaudevillian buffoons in a life-and-death comedy that draws on the circus, puppetry and improv backgrounds of creators Ari Rapkin and Summer Olsson. As the show’s press release says of the two: “They are clowns. Unless you are afraid of clowns. Then they are physical comedians.”


Ah, here’s a show I won’t be caught dead anywhere near: FLASH AH-AHHH!!,  StageWorks Ink’s parody of the campy 1980s Flash Gordon flick. You? Go ahead and give it a try, you might enjoy it, it’s been popular enough to be celebrating this Clinton Street Theater engagement as its “fifth anniversary and finale run.” Me? It features the music of ‘70s/’80s rock band Queen, and I hate Queen more than you want to know, so, I’ll pass.


Billed as a “a 21st century TRANSlation” of the rock musical Hair, the cleverly titled Wig updates the story from 1968 New York City to the experimental drag scene of contemporary Portland’s eastside, from which the cast is drawn.


Gresham’s Eastside Theater Company presents Frozen Jr., a stage adaptation of the paradoxically hot Disney film musical, tailored for child and teen performers.

One night only!

Even amid the generally agreeable members of Portland’s theater community, Matt Zrebski presents an especially sweet-natured disposition. But behind that soft-spoken facade, dark forces must be roiling. Zrebski’s writing returns over and over again to quasi-apocalyptic  fantasies and luridly nightmarish scenarios, high dives into a subconscious cloudy with fears. 

His new play In the Darkest Hallway is based on a true-crime mystery known by the grim name of the “Boy in the Box.” Zrebski has approached the story with his characteristic formal invention, crafting a four-character play for one actor that dribbles out details from differing perspectives across time, distilling a potent atmosphere of dread and yearning. 

The terrific Sharonlee Mclean performs the play in a Sunday-night reading at Milagro, directed by Casey McFeron. 


Playwright Milta Ortiz’ Judge Torres premiered in January at Milagro and ArtsWatcher Bennett Campbell Ferguson judged it “a loving, entertaining and—most of all—imaginative tribute” to Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge Xiomara Torres, who immigrated to the U.S. in 1980 as an undocumented nine-year-old. That production was directed by Mandana Khoshnevisan, who is bringing it back for one performance at The Vault Theater in Hillsboro, home to Bag & Baggage, where Khoshnevisan is an associate artist. The show will be followed by a talk-back discussion with the cast and director, facilitated by Pacific University Assistant Professor of English, Elizabeth Tavares.


Live renditions of radio drama hardly count as a rare thing, nor do performances of spooky tales. But performing by candlelight and presenting it all along with food and wine? Sounds like a promising package deal, called Lights Out! A Night of Radio Horror, on offer from Seven Sails Vineyard on Northwest Germantown Road. 


Larissa FastHorse’s The Thanksgiving Play, an hilarious yet socio-politically astute satire about American history and liberal guilt, was a hit at Artists Rep in the spring of 2018. So, if you missed it or would like seasonal refresher, Readers Theatre Gresham presents a reading. 

Closing 

“At once profoundly soulful and gloriously silly,” wrote ArtsWatcher Bennett Campbell Ferguson, “Amor Añejo’s fullness of spirit makes it an unmissable play.” But if you’re not to miss the latest Dia de Muertos celebration at Milagro, this weekend is your chance. 


With Women of Will, an astute explication of the feminine in Shakespeare by renowned actor/director Tina Packer, the time has passed to catch the engaging overview that Bob Hicks reviewed for ArtsWatch. But some of Packer’s deeper dives into particular periods of the Bard’s development are on tap at Portland Playhouse this weekend.


And should you want to take in the touring Broadway production of Miss Saigon at the Keller Auditorium, performances continue through Sunday.

The flattened stage

OK, so the pay-off is a bit late in arriving with this clip, but…all the same…“No soggy bottoms here!”


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

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