Summer’s post-Labor Day stretch run can be an especially thrilling time on the Portland arts scene.
At least that most certainly was how I saw it a decade or so ago, as I looked forward each year to both the start of the traditional fall-through-spring seasons of the mainstream theater companies plus the flurry of experimental activity in the annual Time Based Art Festival. With the weather still warm, the days still reasonably long, and the options for quality performances overabundant, I’d find myself criss-crossing the city taking in the cornucopia of art and the buzzing social interactions that came with it.
A primary program of the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art, the festival, commonly called just TBA, is on again this year from Sept. 8 to 18 (and I know that math isn’t traditionally a strong suit for journalists, but it’s still shocking to see various publications repeatedly call that a “10-day” festival). This will be TBA’s 20th annual installment, and, as always, one should expect a wild mix of performances, installations and hybridized works by artists from around the world. Some of it likely will be intriguing, some inscrutable, some indigestible. Your results, of course, may vary.
There might well be magic in store once again, but over the years I’ve grown estranged from my early avid enthusiasm for TBA. Rather than presenting a deep analysis of its programming or some high-minded aesthetic manifesto, though, I can explain my shift in outlook only by reference to my own experience with the festival, which I must admit was not like that of an average arts consumer or patron.
One of the things that distinguishes a large, multifaceted arts festival – especially one emphasizing avant-garde and often interdisciplinary approaches – is a high degree of variability, in both character and quality. So I always found that the greatest value in TBA wasn’t in individual shows, whatever their quality as discrete events, but in a conversational aspect. That is, seeing several shows creates a phenomenon in which many factors – subject matter, performance style, approach to form, attitude, energy, and so on – engender comparisons, suggest connections or highlight contrasts. And amid the social parts of the fest, whether just waiting in a line or gathering for late-night drinks, chatter among audience members and sometimes the artists themselves grew more connections: What have you seen? What did you think? Oh, if you liked that, you should check out…
The more you immersed yourself in this sort of full-throated festival experience, the richer everything became. Even if you looked back and realized that no show was a revelation or stole your heart, the festival experience as a whole was both engaging and enlightening. And, really, the more you saw and talked and reflected, the more attuned you seemed to become, the more open to both enjoyment and revelation.
Ah, but here’s where it gets tricky. That high-intake/high-flow approach requires time and money. In the event’s early years, I had it easy. At that time, I was an arts writer on the staff of The Oregonian, and PICA, eager for coverage, was generous with access. I’d plot out ahead of time which shows looked interesting, but I could add to or adjust my schedule based on word-of-mouth as the festival went along. Greater intake, greater flow, greater experience.
As years passed, however, several developments combined to change my sense of TBA. One was that, as the event became more popular, PICA had to create a more tightly controlled ticketing system. This meant less confusion about what tickets were or weren’t available, but for pesky, privileged journalists it meant we no longer could get into as many shows or shift our schedules around based on the buzz. This, in turn, left us more at the mercy of publicity materials. Describing innovative and emergent performance forms isn’t always an easy task, but for many years the descriptions of TBA shows often roared past the pretensions of ordinary arts writing into opaque realms thick with academic jargon and unintentionally comic levels of abstraction.
(Perusing the TBA site this year, I find the language comparatively down-to-earth: “Our liminality is flesh and our flesh is liminal. Our knowledges are wounds and our wounds are knowledge. Ancestral time and Indigenous futurity—ancestral futurity—is our mode of engagement with the interstitial possibilities of gathering and envisioning together.
“Because our futures are enactments of Indigenous praxis, queer, and two-spirit conjurings, our praxis is embodied but not limited to the body. Our bodies are sovereign and co-corporeal. In co-corporeality we gather and thus name our ethical commitments to each other, our fleshly joinings.” Trust me, that’s much more comprehensible than many blurbs of old.)
Perhaps the availability of online clips has improved enough by now that one can more easily get a sense of some of the shows on offer. But the difficulty of choosing shows based on gobbledygook was part of what began to dim my view of TBA. Perhaps that’s because, over these same years, I made a professional transition from writing mostly about popular music to writing about theater and dance. Increasingly, I appreciated the solid pleasures of a well-written, if conventional, play; conversely, I grew impatient with chasing the intermittent thrills of more venturesome, but usually less cohesive, performance art.
Meanwhile, after admiring the curatorial instincts of PICA’s early artistic leaders – founder Kristy Edmunds, followed by Mark Russell and then Cathy Edwards – I related less to the work brought in when Angela Mattox took over about a decade ago (and, frankly, I’ve only rarely ever been able to stand PICA tastes in music). To be fair, since the festival switched to a triple-artistic-director model several years ago – curator of visual art, Kristan Kennedy, curator of performance, Erin Boberg Doughton, and curator of public engagement, Roya Amirsoleymani), my TBA familiarity has dropped nearly to nothing.
Operating on the fringes of the field as we are here, what’s in store are not performers or texts boasting mainstream familiarity. The only act I personally can recommend this year is Portland’s own Carla Rossi, the sharp-tongued and devilishly insightful drag/clown persona of Anthony Hudson, premiering a new work called Clown Down 2: Clown Out of Water. Beyond that, I’m sorry to have to admit that your guess (or interest, or inclination) is as good as mine.
All the same, as I’ve said, magic might well be in store.
As briefly mentioned at the outset of this column, this is a time of increased activity among theater companies, as evidenced by eight (by my count) plays opening this weekend.
At Imago Theatre, co-founder Jerry Mouawad continues to create intriguing new works at a furious pace. As alluded to above, experiments aren’t always successes – for example, earlier this summer, Julia’s Place, a loose comic riff on Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, was served undercooked. But just a month later, Voiceover, a philosophically minded movement-theater piece that nodded to the proto-existentialism of Luigi Pirandello, abounded with thought-provoking invention. Now comes Lumen Odyssey, ”a metaphysical sci-fi adventure” that stars Imago’s other great creator, Carol Triffle, in a story that takes the drama of mother/daughter relationships into the stratosphere.
Triangle Productions begins its 33rd season with a farce, The (One-Act) Play That Goes Wrong, boasting a promising cast that includes, among others, the too-seldom-seen Melissa Whitney, once a principal player with Northwest Classical Theatre Company.
Movement theater dances into view again at CoHo Theatre, with Heart of Stone, a coming-of-age story about Russian choreographer Alisher Khasanov, written by Karen Polinsky.
As a lifelong fungiphobe, I consider mushrooms mold trying to be meat. But I consider a new devised piece from Fuse Theatre Ensemble worth digging into, so SHROOM SHOW: A Foraging Tour, which the company describes as “part variety show, part educational guided tour, part treasure hunt, part opera, part forest-hike, part day-trip, part hero’s journey,” looks appetizing.
At Clackamas Rep, The Book Club Play, a Karen Zacarias comedy about group dynamics altered by the presence of a documentary crew, should benefit from the presence of such reliably engaging actors as Tom Walton and Tom Mounsey.
Director David Sikking conjures the enduring Noel Coward comedy Blithe Spirit for Lakewood Theatre.
At Milwaukie’s Chapel Theatre, Theatre Berk enlivens our late summer with A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
And further south, at Eugene’s Shedd Institute, it’s time for 1950s musical-comedy in The Pajama Game.
After traveling around a bit to bookshops and private homes, Northwest Classical Theatre Collaborative’s top-notch production of The Fever, a Wallace Shawn monologue that takes a winding rhetorical path as it cuts to the bone of First World privilege and hypocrisy, returns to the fitting backdrop of a former Victoria’s Secret store amid the many shuttered shops of the Lloyd Center, for one final show Friday evening.
The flattened stage
The onset this week of a new season for the National Football League brings to mind this winning play from the satirical superteam of Colbert & Key & Peele: “He was a theater major at Clemson, before that acting injury forced him into football.”
The best line I read this week
“Artists risk everything in everything they do. Risk is what separates the artist from the artisan. Art is not a career, it is a vocation, an inclination, a response to a summons.”
That’s all I have for now. I’ll try to do better the next time.