WHOSE STORIES GET TOLD? WHY? HOW? The writer Isabel Wilkerson, in a “By the Book” interview in last Sunday’s New York Times Book Review, was among the latest of many to take a stab at what the answer is, and what it should be. “I wish we could see more books about the inner lives of everyday people from marginalized groups in our country – not the extremes of either celebrity or pathology, but just regular folks who make up, for instance, the great bulk of African Americans,” she said. “People just going about their days and getting through the challenges of ordinary life do not get anywhere near the attention they deserve in the popular imagination. And their invisibility leads to distortions in how an entire group is seen, gives the impression that people from across the racial divide are more fundamentally different than we actually are.”
WHERE DO OUR SELDOM-TOLD STORIES come from? In Portland, a lot pop up in the annual Fertile Ground festival of new works, a kind of organized free-for-all of new stageworks scattered across the metropolitan region. For eleven years it’s been something of a pub crawl of the mind, leading adventurous audiences from traditional stages to makeshift studios to temporary theater spaces and back to the bigger stages again on a pell-mell tour of theater, dance, musicals, comedy, solo acts, animation, and the occasional category-defying hybrid. It’s been a come-one come-all festival, and part of its charm has been that you rarely knew quite what you were getting in for. This year’s festival, in late January and early February, had 75 programs, several with multiple offerings, totaling 123 “acts of creation,” as festival director Nicole Lane puts it.
This week, faced with uncertainties about the Covid-19 pandemic and the possibility that public gatherings will still be banned, Fertile Ground announced a seismic shift for the 2021 festival, which will run Jan. 28-Feb. 7: It’ll be virtual. And it’ll be curated. “At this point I think the writing’s on the wall pretty clearly,” Lane said during a telephone conversation on Tuesday.
The shift from live performance to events streamed on Facebook and YouTube arrives with a second and at least equally important shift: a stronger focus on presenting the stories of underrepresented communities, from racial to gender to developmental to physical. It’s a move that’s been in the works for months and that Lane and festival managing director Dre Slaman wanted to formalize. That means not just blending inclusive stories into the mix when their creators apply to the festival, but more actively seeking them out.
The process of becoming more welcoming and diverse, Lane said, was given a boost from an Arts Access and Equity grant from the Regional Arts and Culture Council that’s allowed Fertile Ground to create five GROW Awards of $500 each to help producers realize their projects. And it’s meant a lot of talking with people of color and listening and gathering ideas. At the end of June, Fertile Ground created a survey and sent it out. Should they have a festival in 2021? Are people working on projects they’d submit? Should the festival go virtual? “The affirmatives were at 96 percent,” Lane said.
The survey questions went into more detail for diverse groups. How can we do this better? “We got back extraordinary, well-thought-out responses,” Lane said. Then she started talking to people individually. “I just had these extraordinary conversations. I spent, like, six hours a day on the phone for weeks.”
In one of them, she talked with the Costa Rican-American director and choreographer Roy Arauz. In a festival structure, where you have to have slots, how do you assure access? she asked him. “Roy said, ‘Nicole, the festival’s got to be curated.’ That hadn’t even crossed my mind. And I thought, ‘You know? You’re right’.”
It’s a dramatic shift for a festival that’s essentially been a giant umbrella for anyone who wants in. Two essential focuses remain. As always, Fertile Ground will continue to be a new-works festival. And as always, the people doing the work will be local. But with the Covid-imposed switch to virtual events, the decision to curate made sense. The 2021 festival will release 36 videos, roughly half of last year’s number of events. That’ll include the five Grow Award projects and some others that have been in the works, leaving about 25 open slots. In addition, there might be some sub-programs curated by festival regulars and presented under the Fertile Ground umbrella. (Information on submitting proposals is here.)
What does a curated festival mean, and who does the curating? “The only way to do this is to have a panel. And the panel has to be representative. So the community can look at it, and see themselves represented,” Lane said. She and Slaman had just finalized the makeup of a 20-member panel, which will choose the five Grow Award winners before the end of August and will curate the festival, making its choices by the end of September.
Unlike, for instance, the judges for a film festival, the panel will be making its choices based on proposals rather than finished projects – in essence, on the studio pitch, not the final edit. Among things the panel will consider will be the artistic value and the timeliness of a proposal.
“Is it interesting? Is it culturally relevant right now?” Lane said. “Given the very diverse representation of mostly artists on the panel, their decision-making will likely favor typically underrepresented artists who have an innovative artistic plan and who are thinking about the audience’s virtual viewing of their work. For example, a white middle-age man who plans to do a script reading on Zoom about his WWI play would likely be of less interest to the curation panel. Conversely, a 23-year-old Haitian American woman who plans to offer her spoken word poetry about her lived experiences in a multimedia format featuring her brother’s visual art would be far more appealing. The WWI play might be a really well-written and a beautifully told story, but it is just likely not the work we are making space for this year – I say likely because really those decisions are up to the panel, not me.”
And, particularly for artists used to creating work to be performed in real space and real time in front of a live audience, does the project suit the film or video platform? “Writing something specifically for the medium,” as Lane puts it. “Being creative. Not thinking inside the box. The box is blown open, people. Being adaptable is the name of the game.”
TALES OF THE ORDINARY AND THE EXTRAORDINARY
AND WHAT ABOUT ISABEL WILKERSON’S LONGING for stories about “people just going about their days and getting through the challenges of ordinary life”? Wilkerson – whose new book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, about class, race, and social structure in the United States, has been getting lyrical reviews – makes an excellent point. Whose stories, indeed, and what shape do they take?
She cites two “gorgeous examples” of books that get it right: Toni Morrison’s Jazz and Rita Dove’s Thomas and Beulah, “both of which elevate the ordinary to the sublime.” There are many others, and not just novels or poetry but across artistic disciplines, but her question remains. Where are the everyday stories of a nation that at least purports to be of, by, and for the people? At a time of national crisis and economic disaster it’s not a bad idea to look back on the Great Depression of the 1930s and the art that came out of it through the WPA and other federal and state programs. Murals on the walls of post offices and government buildings and schools. Fresh dramas and comedies both on the stage and the radio. Music everywhere, including the gathering of folk and blues tunes that told the stories of particular groups of people in particular places.
Not everything was great. Not all of it has worn well. And it tended to concentrate excessively on the lives and values of white America. But a kind of idealism, a faith in the possibilities of ordinary people, drove much of what was created. In 1938 Thornton Wilder’s Our Town – still considered by many critics and theater people to be the classic American play – created a national ode to the joys and sorrows of everyday people and everyday life, focusing on the extraordinary qualities of things usually overlooked, and in a way responding to Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, an earlier national vision of ordinary small-town virtue as a fiction and a trap.
One way to trace American writing and other art is to follow the fault line between the ordinary and the out-of-the-ordinary – the tension between the two that seems a part of the national character. We tell tales of the stresses on ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances and times. People caught in the narrow straits of “normalcy” – the characters in the stories of, for instance, Sinclair Lewis, Raymond Carver, and Tobias Wolff – seek to throw off the shackles. Other stories, like the late, great Oregon novelist Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love, tell tales of people in extraordinary circumstances trying desperately to find an ordinary of their own. In still others, like the novels of Oregon writer Craig Lesley (Winterkill and more), the Native and white characters are ordinary people seeking a new kind of ordinary in the spaces between two cultures – which makes them, in a way, extraordinary. Lynn Nottage’s play Sweat, which premiered five years ago at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, is a beautiful and searing look at the pressures of working-class life and financial distress on ordinary people just trying to get by. Charles Burnett’s quietly devastating 1978 film Killer of Sheep tells the story of a man who works in a slaughterhouse in Watts, Los Angeles, to feed his family, not unlike the largely immigrant workers in the Covid-ravaged slaughterhouses of today’s Midwest. As in so much American art, the tension in Burnett’s film lies in the very definition of “ordinary” – in how certain ordinaries twist ordinariness into grotesque shape.
Some visions of the ordinary in America almost defiantly celebrate the pleasures of self-contained cultures. One of my favorite paintings at the Portland Art Museum is Isaka Shamsud-Din’s vibrant The Brothers Phree, a busy 10-foot-wide sprawl of character and action inside the Welcome Inn, a bar on Northeast Alberta Street that in 1990 was a haven of African American culture in Portland. It’s a place, and a painting, where ordinary people can shed the outside world and simply be. Shamsud-Din has been recording Black life in Portland for a good half-century, and The Brothers Phree was included in Rock of Ages, a recent exhibition at the Portland museum of his work.
WE ARE UNDERGOING A SHIFTING in the national concept of what “ordinary” means. A nation that has prided itself on welcoming newcomers – “give me your tired, your poor” – is at fierce battle with itself, as it turns out, when those newcomers are largely brown. We are fighting what we can only hope is a rear-guard battle over the supremacy of whiteness, a fear of being engulfed by “other” colors and cultures, a reckoning with our quasi-religious national proclamation that we are all created equal and our rarely stated but stubbornly clung-to opposing belief that, in George Orwell’s words, “some animals are more equal than others.” The evidence is everywhere in front of us, degradingly so in such atrocities as our separating and isolating of children and parents on our southern border, and our political and cultural demonizing of the DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, program and, by extension, the families caught up in the fight over it.
This is partly why I like so much the work of The Immigrant Story, which is centered in the greater Portland area and is devoted to telling the stories of newcomers to Oregon – immigrants from the many parts of Asia, Mexico and Central and South America, and elsewhere. Who are they? Why and how did they arrive here? What are their new communities? How are they changing Oregon, and how is Oregon changing them? In the process, what is the shifting variety of ordinaries, and how does “us and them” become “we”?
Back in January the museum of the Oregon Historical Society opened DREAMs Deferred, a collaborative exhibition between The Immigrant Story and photographer Jim Lommasson that told in photographs and brief written summaries the stories of several Oregon newcomers. Lommasson’s contribution was to photograph and relay the stories of a few of the things the immigrants carried with them from their old existence to their new. The Immigrant Story’s Sankar Raman photographed the newcomers, many of whom were on hand for the exhibit opening. Together they form a moving and hopeful exhibition, which Friderike Heuer wrote about in ArtsWatch after the opening: The subhead on that story, “As the U.S. cracks down on ‘Dreamers,’ a new show at the Oregon Historical Society digs deep into the journey stories of new Americans,” suggests the depth and breadth of the exhibit’s conversation. In mid-run the Historical Society shut down because of the coronavirus crisis. It’s recently reopened, and DREAMs Deferred is once again on view. Even in times of turmoil, you can’t keep a good ordinary down.
DANCING AND DREAMING IN THE AUGUST SUN
MERRILY WE STREAM ALONG. Think because we’re all in isolation (sort of) and the performance halls and dance studios are shut down, nobody’s dancing? Think again. “The dancers are still here and they are dancing!” Jamuna Chiarini declares in Oregon DanceWatch: Streaming right along. “I know, I know, watching virtual dance performances isn’t the same as watching live performances, but who cares?” Get comfy, grab a cold drink and some good food, and settle in for the virtual parade, she advises. Several good shows have come and gone, but many more – a stream on August 15 of previously recorded performances from India Day Portland, for instance – are yet to come. Go ahead: Kick up your virtual heels.
ART HOUSE MOVIE THEATERS: YES, WE CAN
PORTLAND’S ARTHOUSE MOVIE THEATERS HAVEN’T GIVEN UP. In a mutating media landscape, Bennett Campbell Ferguson writes, the Hollywood Theatre, Clinton St. Theater, and NW Film Center are finding creative ways to carry on. Their strategies include puppets, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and – yes – suitably distanced drive-in movies. Grab your popcorn and settle in.
THE ART OF ASTROLOGY, AND OTHER VISUAL WONDERS
EYES WIDE OPEN: We’ve got things for you to look at, and things for you to think about. Dispatches from the ArtsWatch visual arts front:
- THE ART OF ASTROLOGY. Renee Sills, founder of Embodied Astrology, talks with Hannah Krafcik about Sills’s astrology practice, which “draws on artistic interests—which include dance and social practice.” “With the psychic upheaval this tumultuous year has brought us,” Krafcik writes, “it seems fitting to turn to the cosmos for guidance.”
- HOME IS WHERE THE ART IS. Two beach towns, two galleries, one pandemic, one big choice: When the Covid-19 crisis forced the owners of Brumfield Gallery to pick between two locations, Lori Tobias writes, they chose their hometown of Astoria.
- ARTS NOTES: JEWISH MUSEUM TO OPEN. Our roundup carries the good news that the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education has reopened following its pandemic shutdown, with the exhibit Southern Rites – photographer Gillian Laub’s pictorial profile of racial progress and regression in Montgomery County, Georgia – once again on view. Plus, the 2020 Oregon Governor’s Arts Award winners (congrats to Darrell Grant, Roberta Joy Kirk, Toni Pimble, John Laursen, and the Portland Gay Men’s Choir), and a handful of theater news.
MUSIC: SOUR GRAPES AND VINTAGE GRAPES
MUSICWATCH MONTHLY: SOUR GRAPES. “Let’s talk about the part of the music industry most directly impacted by The Troubles: the shuttered venues where we no longer gather and share musical ecstasy,” Matthew Neil Andrews writes. “It cuts across all genres, and it’s excruciatingly visible to those of us who don’t drink alcohol. Classical, jazz, rock, punk, metal, and so on–they all depend on performance spaces that either make ample serving room for booze or are inherently built around selling it.” Then he gets into the More Serious Stuff.
CHAMBER MUSIC AND A VIRTUAL TOAST. On the other hand, the Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival – which has built its following on a combination of fine playing, creative contemporary composers, and performances inside some of Oregon’s finest wineries – is back and raising its glass, although virtually. Angela Allen sets the table for this year’s live-streamed fest. Listen in, and have a glass at home.
AND FINALLY … IT WAS A DARK AND STORMY NIGHT
THE 2020 WINNERS OF THE BULWER LYTTON FICTION CONTEST (“Where ‘www’ means ‘wretched writers welcome'”) have been announced, and while the coveted Grand Panjandrum’s Special Award has gone to some fellow from Texas for an unlikely tale about a private eye and a trenchcoat and a day-old tortilla, a pair of disreputable Oregon writers have brought home a rasher of bacon each – both, interestingly, in the highly competitive Vile Puns category. The BLs, as you may recall, are named in honor of the “minor Victorian novelist” Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, believed (erroneously, as it turns out) to have been the first author to use that immortal line, “It was a dark and stormy night.” They honor purposely purple prose, as opposed to the accidental sort, of which there is no small amount.
But enough background. Oregon’s winners are … (1) Aaron Cabe of Hillsboro, the actual Vile Puns category winner for his linkage of a series of deaths and the Rolling Stones; and (2) actual humorist/author Bart King (Dad Jokes: That’s How Eye Roll; The Big Book of Gross Stuff, etc.) of Portland, who scored a Dishonorable Mention for a terse tale about a mob of angry poets on the National Mall. Click the link, read ’em, and weep. Or laugh. Or groan. Or resolve to make up your own for 2021.
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