IT WAS A LONG TREK THROUGH ICE AND SNOW in January 2018 when Magellanica, Oregon playwright E.M. Lewis’s saga about a scientific expedition to Antarctica in 1986, premiered at Artists Repertory Theatre – a five-and-a-half hour trek, as TJ Acena reported in his review for ArtsWatch, including three intermissions and a dinner break. As Acena put it: “The question you’re probably asking is, ‘Does the payoff justify its length?’ The answer is a definite yes.”
At least partly because of its audacious stretch of time, Magellanica became a Big Event in Portland theater, along the lines of ART’s 2010 co-production with Australia’s Sydney Theatre Company of Long Day’s Journey Into Night with William Hurt as family patriarch James Tyrone and Australian legend Robyn Nevin as drug-addled matriarch Mary; or Storefront Theatre’s audacious 1989 production of The Cuchulain Cycle, all five plays in William Butler Yeats’s dramatic saga about the mythic Irish hero, performed one after the other on the same program, each play with its own director, cast, designers, and approach.
For all of its continent-wide structure, Magellanica has a setup as familiar as an Agatha Christie trapped-in-a-mansion whodunit or a William Inge stuck-at-a-Bus Stop play: A group of mismatched people (in this case, from different and often competing nations) find themselves stuck in a mutual pressure cooker and have to hope the lid doesn’t blow off.
The play “follows five scientists, one cartographer, and two crew members to an international research station at the South Pole, the most inhospitable place on the surface of the earth,” Acena writes. “Some of them are there to study the newly discovered hole in the ozone layer. Some are there to escape their own pasts. Some are doing both at the same time. Eight people, spending eight months in the coldest, darkest, and most remote place on the planet: It’s a little like Real World meets a David Attenborough nature documentary. People stop being polite and start getting real. But with a lot more science.”
Then Acena adds a paragraph that could prove key to Magellanica‘s newest, Covid-age persona, as a five-part audio drama that you can stream from home: “Lewis’s script feels a lot like television, or rather Netflix, which is where much of the best TV writing is happening now. The show is episodic: Each act ends in both a resolution and a cliffhanger, but always in service to a larger arc. Despite the long run time each act also feels tantalizingly short, hooking the audience in for the next.” That structure could prove a boon for the new format, which kicks off with a pre-release party Sunday afternoon, Sept. 27 (check the link above for details), and with tickets to stream available beginning Monday, Sept. 28.
Bobby Bermea, in his pre-opening interview for ArtsWatch with Lewis in 2018, quotes her saying something that could easily come from today’s ever-churning news cycle: “When I started writing this play it was less topical than it is right now because we are globally in such a precarious place. And Russia has resurged in the news and nuclear dangers are once again at the forefront of a lot of our minds. The polarity of where we are in the United States but also of other countries, too. It feels like we are at such a place of crisis and far from each other. How precarious that makes us when we’re facing a global threat.”
As Acena summarizes in his stage review: “Nit-pickings aside, Magellanica ends with a sense of wonder and resolve. That the world is bigger, more complicated, more beautiful, and more terrifying than we can comprehend. But we shouldn’t be afraid of how big it is. We still have agency. Not just scientists and politicians. All of us. And we depend on each other to make it through the darkness.”
It’s a sentiment, perhaps, all the more applicable in the strange and brittle cultural deep freeze of 2020.
ART: LOOPING CHAINS AND THE FIRES THIS TIME
MORE THAN A SUM OF PARTS. “With remarkable ingenuity and endearing charm, Rose Dickson explores affairs of the heart,” Sue Taylor writes about Dickson’s exhibition Giantess, continuing through this weekend at Melanie Flood Projects. Working in watercolors, metals, ceramics, and wool rugs, and employing “a set of abstract symbols … like letters of a private alphabet,” Dixon “draw(s) us into her meditation on emotional connectedness.” Much of of her created language speaks in loops and chains, repeating patterns: “Eight of the nineteen recent works on view are delicate chains of hammered silver, suspended from the gallery’s ten-foot ceiling and reaching to the floor. … entwined in harmonious intricacy.”
BALANCING THE BEAUTIFUL AND THE HORRIFIC. Amid smoke, fire, and the chaos of climate change, David Bates talks with artists Natalie Niblack and Ann Chadwick Reid about their show at Newberg’s Chehalem Cultural Center, On the Edge: Living the Anthropocene, and the temperature of the times. That temperature is, of course, rising, and the implications of this global shift are near the center of both artists’ work. “It is the duty of artists to ‘worry’ the public by reflecting back what we are and how we desire to be seen,” Reid tells Bates. Adds Niblack: “Fire or explosions are compelling, beautiful, and frightening. I choose this most dramatic representation of climate change because I want people to look.”
A FLOURISHING OF FILM FESTIVALS
STREAMING: FALL FILM FESTS FLOURISH FROM AFAR. The nation’s movie theaters may be echoing from emptiness amid coronavirus restrictions, but you can’t keep a good film festival down. The Toronto, San Sebastian, and Venice Film Festivals have all limited public screenings, Marc Mohan reports, but a trio of Portland festivals have figured out how to keep the images streaming. Mohan brings us up to date on the Portland International Film Festival – which was abruptly shut down by the pandemic in March, with several films still unseen – and its plans to pick up where it left off as PIFF 2.0. And he fills us in on the 2020 POW Film Fest (the Portland Oregon Women’s Film Festival) and the Portland Latin American Film Festival. Screen on!
SPACES, SPACES, WHO’S GOT THE ART SPACES?
SPACES: ARTISTS MAKE ROOM FOR THE ARTS. “Thirty years ago,” Brian Libby writes, “Ken Unkeles first began renting space in his family’s collection of riverfront warehouses to artists, starting with the Carton Service Studios on Northwest Front Avenue,” a building that began its life in 1911 as the world’s largest prune-processing plant. As real estate pressures and rising prices have created a shortage of affordable studio and performance spaces in Portland, and the Covid-19 emergency has created a crisis of its own, Unkeles and others have stepped in. In the newest installment of ArtsWatch’s occasional “Spaces” series, Libby talks with Unkeles, and Jerry Mouawad of Imago Theatre, and looks at the real-estate rollercoaster that the nonprofit Independent Publishing Resource Center has been riding, and considers what their experiences mean to the city’s creative life. He also looks at the Portland Area Artist Emergency Relief Fund that Portland Creative Laureate Subashini Ganesan and former Oregon Poet Laureate Kim Stafford launched in March: So far the fund has distributed $170,000 to more than 400 independent artists across the three-county Portland metropolitan area.
THE COLLEGE MERGER: WHAT ABOUT THE CRAFT COLLECTION?
THE MERGER AGREEMENT ANNOUNCED LAST WEEK between Willamette University in Salem and the Pacific Northwest College of Art in Portland raises a lot of questions, particularly because both schools will maintain their separate identities. Many details are nailed down. Others are likely to be more improvisational works in progress. That includes the role of Salem’s Hallie Ford Museum of Art, which comes under Willamette’s wing, and the collection of roughly 1,300 artworks from Portland’s Museum of Contemporary Craft that came under PNCA’s jurisdiction in 2009 when PNCA began oversight of MoCC, and then moved to the PNCA campus in 2016 when PNCA shut down the financially troubled craft museum. (The old MoCC space is now home to the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education.)
The agreement between the two schools stipulates that the craft collection, which is now at PNCA’s Center for Contemporary Art & Culture, will be administered by the Hallie Ford Museum, and in a lot of ways that makes sense. It’s been something of a stepchild at PNCA, although the art school has made use of it, including for an exhibition early this year called The Unknown Artist, which set works from the former MoCC collection alongside contemporary works. But the craft collection, whose roots go back to 1937 and cover the growth of the modern craft ethos both in the Northwest and internationally, seems a better fit in Salem, where the Hallie Ford has made a specialty of emphasizing both historical and contemporary Northwest artists. It’s not the same as having its own museum – and MoCC in its prime was recognized as one of the nation’s best craft museums – but that ship has sailed.
On Tuesday I asked John Olbrantz, director of the Salem museum, how things are likely to work out. The MoCC collection is historically significant, including something of an all-star list of artists, among them Robert Arneson, Linda and Joe Apodaca, Tom Hardy, Shoji Hamada, Lydia Herrick Hodge (who founded the Oregon Ceramic Studio that eventually became the craft museum), Peter Voulkos, Linda Hutchins, John Mason, Ken Shores, Gertrud and Otto Natzler, Betty Feves, Sam Maloof, Frank Boyden, Toshiku Tazeaku, Leroy Setziol, Kyoko Tokumaru, Judith Poxson Fawkes, Rick Bartow, and Hildur Bjarnadottir.
Space, Olbrantz replied via email, is a big concern. “I do know that the MCC craft collection will become our responsibility,” he wrote. “My sense is we’ll keep it in Portland for the foreseeable future. We don’t have storage space down here to store it; our storage vaults are bursting at the seams. If the MCC craft collection hasn’t been cataloged yet, we’ll need to catalog and photograph it and enter it into our database, which could take some time. … Once the collection has been cataloged and/or migrated and photographed, we could begin to incorporate selected works into our permanent galleries and mine the collection for small exhibitions in our Study Gallery until such time as we have a designated gallery space to show a larger portion of the collection. We might want to make the collection accessible to scholars and students online as we’ve done with other collections in the past, and we would certainly entertain loans from the collection if other museums and galleries were interested in borrowing from it for special exhibitions.” He needs more time, he added, to think the process through.
One of the big appeals of the Museum of Contemporary Craft under its former curator and director Namita Gupta Wiggers was its creative programming, beyond simply showing the collection. I always had the sense that what happened there mattered. Can that sense of cultural urgency be revived? Keep watching.
AND NOW, FOR A LITTLE CORONAVIRUS RELIEF …
WEDNESDAY WAS A GOOD DAY FOR CULTURAL ORGANIZATIONS ACROSS OREGON: The Oregon Cultural Trust announced $25.7 million in coronavirus relief awards to 621 organizations. The awards complete a $50 million relief package approved in July by the Oregon Legislature’s Emergency Board, which recognized the severe economic strain Covid-19 shutdowns have had on arts and cultural groups. The first round of awards, totaling a little more than $24 million, was announced July 13. It included, in addition to many smaller awards, $4.71 million to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland and $4.1 million to Metro, which operates the five theaters of Portland’5 Centers for the Arts.
Here’s the complete list of grantees, arranged by county, for the final round of awards. Larger grants tended to go to organizations that have the high costs of maintaining buildings or grounds. The highest award this time around was $1.4 million, to the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry in Portland. The average award was $41,458. The Portland Art Museum, which was passed over in the first round of awards, won a total of $1,370,137 in two grants, one for the Northwest Film Center; and the Japanese Garden Society of Oregon, in Portland, got $1.25 million. A sampling of others around the state: Columbia River Maritime Museum, Astoria, $127,460; Crossroads Creative and Performing Art Center, Baker City, $80,188; Artula Institute for Art and Environmental Education, Bandon, $290,548; Sisters Folklife Festival, Sisters, $194,998; Museum at Warm Springs, $140,147; Friends of Myrtle Creek Library, $5.097; Juniper Arts Council, John Day, $5,924; Town Theatre Foundation, Bend, $269,881; Artists Repertory Theatre, Portland, $460,052; Children’s Museum of Klamath Falls, $7,326; Sherman County Historical Society, Moro, $3,830; In Mulieribus vocal ensemble, Portland, $6,049; Eugene Ballet Company, $264,699; Linn County Lamb and Wool Fair, Scio, $9,906. Oregon ArtsWatch was awarded $13,757.
Oregon’s Tribal Cultural Coalitions, which are ordinarily full partners in the state Cultural Trust, chose not to participate in this round because they’d received previous Covid-relief grants. No applications were received from Gilliam County. Washington County, which serves as the fiscal agent for the county’s Cultural Coalition, declined to participate. That leaves hanging 33 pending awards to groups in the county, totaling $1,638,592. The Trust is “working to identify potential solutions.”
TBA: A LITTLE LAUGHTER TO LIFT THE MOVEMENT
2020 TIME BASED ART FESTIVAL. TBA, the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art‘s annual fall fest of performing and visual art, is moving into its final week of mostly virtual programming. Its 25th season keeps at it through Sept. 30, and we’ve got our eye on A Movement for Black Laughs, a free, hour-long show streaming at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday the 29th. Presented by A Black Art Ecology of Portland and the NW Black Comedy Festival, it looks at the role of Black humor in political movements, and features comedians Debbie Wooten, Anthony Robinson, The Real Hyjinx, and Mx Dahlia Belle, with music from Lo Steele.
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