Live theater’s back in town

ArtsWatch Weekly: In a pandemic era first, Triangle opens a show indoors. Plus: Art in the Pearl, Venice & elsewhere, virtually and "real."

“WE HAVE TO MOVE FORWARD,” Don Horn, who founded Portland’s Triangle Productions more than 30 years ago, said on the phone. “I would rather have the house used than vacant. I think spaces die if they’re not used.”

Somebody had to be first. And in Portland theater, when Triangle opens a 10-performance run of Rick Cleveland’s solo play My Buddy Bill next Thursday, Sept. 10, it’ll be the first time since Covid-19 restrictions shut down theater spaces almost half a year ago that anyone in the greater metro area’s put on a show inside an actual theater space, with a paying audience in the seats. (At least a couple of other companies in Oregon have done live shows, too: Medford’s Collaborative Theatre Projects has been doing indoor radio plays with paying audiences, and Ashland’s Oregon Cabaret Theatre has been doing The Odd Couple.)

Grocery stores, hardwares, and big box stores are open. Restaurants are open, for sidewalk and some indoor seating. Zoos and gardens and aquariums are open. Beaches and hiking trails and camping sites are open, at least many of them, and you can book rooms at motels and vacation getaways. A little bit of outdoor theater and concertizing’s happened. Museums and art galleries have reopened, with restrictions. But live theater, dance, and music have lagged behind, mostly because of strict limits on audience size and spacing inside performance halls, the cost of running shows for the resulting relatively tiny audiences, and the tougher logistics of making tight theater spaces safe enough to use.

Buddy and buddy in the Oval Office. Photo: Barbara Kinney/White House/1997

Triangle’s auditorium, inside The Sanctuary at Sandy Plaza on close-in Northeast Sandy Boulevard, ordinarily seats 154 people. Because of a state restriction of 25 people in such a space at a time, the audience for My Buddy Bill will be limited to 23, leaving room for one actor (Joe Healy, playing Rick, the playwright) and one tech person. The bigger the cast and crew, the smaller the allowable audience. In the meantime, Horn and crew are busily getting everything ready so the space can meet multiple safety requirements. “I’ll be spending Friday cleaning everything out of the lobby so we can shampoo,” he said. 

The Sanctuary’s better set up to meet restrictions than a lot of other theater spaces. It has both a front and a back entrance, and four possible entrances to the auditorium. Seating has no risers, and fans out with easy access. Other procedures – temperature screening, face masks, available hand sanitizer, strict distancing, etc. – also reduce risk. And the show is one single, 65-minute act, which eliminates intermission mingling and cuts down on bathroom visits. “We know 23 people walking in the door will be easier to handle than 150,” Horn said. “I started talking about how to do this when we were closing down, thinking, how are we going to reopen?”
Inevitably, with its small audience and limited run, the show’s going to cost more than it makes. But Triangle’s paying rent, anyway, Horn points out, and other expenses, including salaries: “Everybody gets an hourly wage. The actor gets to work, so he gets paid. So we’re spending money. But it’s money worth spending. You get to see that spark.”

And just what is this play that marks the return of live indoor theater in Oregon? My Buddy Bill is something of an autobiographical ramble. Healy plays Rick Cleveland, the playwright, who was a writer for The West Wing television show and who stumbled into the story on a visit to the White House, where he discovered Buddy, Bill Clinton’s young Black Lab, piddling on the carpet. Cleveland scolded the pup, just as Clinton was walking onto the scene, and from that unlikely beginning a friendship between writer and politician – and dog – sprang up. The play takes its downturns, but basically it’s an upbeat piece. That’s what Horn and his board wanted, to provide a break from stressful times – “a lighter show. Uplifting. Funny.” The decision isn’t unlike the Berkshire Theater Group’s choice of the musical Godspellwhich it opened last month in a tent set up in the Massachusetts company’s parking lot,to be the first Equity-approved musical production in the U.S. since the shutdowns.

At a time when the United States remains the international hot spot for Covid-19 infections and deaths, Triangle’s move to live production is a gamble, although a calculated one. How will it work? Will it work? What if, as in professional baseball and basketball, infections happen in spite of all the safeguards? Pretty much every theater company, dance company, and music-auditorium manager in the United States is pondering such questions, at least in private.

As theater spaces continue to sit idle, will any other companies follow Triangle’s suit soon? At least one company, Tigard’s Broadway Rose Theatre, is tiptoeing toward similar territory: On Tuesday it began rehearsals for a new production of the musical Daddy Long Legs, which will star Malia Tippets and Joe Thiessen, a couple in real life. Strict social distancing and other precautions are being taken on the set, and plans are to stream the show in October. What next? A lot of theater companies, and potential audiences, are waiting to see.


A WEALTH OF VISUAL ART, VIRTUAL & OTHERWISE


Nicario Jimenez, “The Flower Market” (detail), 3D mixed media, in Art in the Pearl’s virtual show and marketplace Labor Day Weekend. 

FOR ALMOST A QUARTER-CENTURY ART IN THE PEARL has been a mainstay of Portland’s urban-summer calendar, sprawling across the city’s North Park Blocks every Labor Day Weekend in a series of booths and tables jammed with paintings and drawings and sometimes whimsical sculptures and ceramics and prints and fiber and glass and woodworking and metalworks and jewelry and photography and what-you-will (including food vendors), along with the artists and artisans, many of them dropping into town as the next stop on a summer circuit of festivals and fairs. It’s a Saturday Market/Oregon Country Fair/pop-up art show sort of vibe, where people-watching and elbow-jostling and treasure-hunting are part of the attraction. 2020, of course, has its own ideas about that. And Art in the Pearl, in return, has its own ideas about that: The party will go on Saturday through Monday, but it’ll be online. You might have to make your own gyros or tamales. But you can still browse the booths, virtually, and you can still buy a piece that catches your eye. You can even link to virtual music performances created for the virtual fest. Click the link above for details, and check the list of artists here

SEEING WITH A “BACKWARDS BRAIN.” Lori Tobias talks with Oregon painter Michael Orwick, who says his dyslexia helped him become an artist: “I was able to put disparate things together to make something really creative. I just had a different way of seeing things.”

Geralyn Shukwit, “Zelita e Niños,” 2017 (from the September Blue Sky exhibition “O Tempo Não Para”). Image courtesy Blue Sky Gallery

WEATHERING THE STORM. The past six months have been difficult at best for art galleries and other art centers, which like most small businesses have seen their sales and other interactions plummet while their costs continue to pile up. How do they survive, if they survive? It’s partly a matter of vision, practicality, and adaptability, Pat Rose writes, quoting Winston Churchill from his book The Gathering Storm: “The veils of the future are lifted one by one, and mortals must act from day to day.” Rose debriefs with one Portland gallery – the nonprofit Blue Sky Oregon Center for the Photographic Arts – which “has been in the vanguard of local galleries that have adapted successfully to the demands of the pandemic.” Blue Sky’s Molly Newgard, Amanda Clem, and Zemie Barr talk with Rose about what’s worked, what’s been tough, and what fresh opportunities for engagement they’ve discovered.

AS AUTUMN APPROACHES, ART FINDS A WAY. In Yamhill County, the heart of Oregon Wine Country, Covid-19 pretty much put the kibosh on the ordinarily overflowing summer harvest of gatherings, festivals, concerts, and art openings. But as autumn peeks around the corner, David Bates reports, things are coming to, well, fruition. Things like poetry readings at the library, a slew of gallery shows, socially distanced concerts in McMinnville’s Granary District, a big-deal Fiber Arts Show, and a stream of attractions at Newberg’s ever-busy Chehalem Cultural Center.

CLIFFORD GLEASON: EARLY OREGON MODERNIST. “If you go to see the Clifford Gleason retrospective at Hallie Ford Museum of Art at Willamette University in Salem,” Paul Sutinen writes in his insightful ArtsWatch essay, “you will be rewarded if you enjoy impressive abstract painting and traveling through an artist’s career. It is ironic that Gleason’s big show, now 42 years after his death, occurs when people hesitate to even leave home. Gleason (1913-1978) was not one of the big names of mid-century Oregon art—just a well-respected painter. This exhibition demonstrates why he was well-respected and why he should be newly remembered.” The Hallie Ford show, curated and with a catalog by Roger Hull, provides Sutinen, who’s been tracking art in Oregon for decades, a lot to write about, which he does handsomely, going back to an essay he wrote about a Gleason exhibition 45 years ago and lacing this essay with telling detail: “In the ’60s the paintings often grow from the edges inward—central fields of interesting paint are flanked by small shapes just nudging their way into the canvas.” As Labor Day approaches, Sutinen also talks about the importance of just doing it, rigorously and consistently. “Painting is hard work,” he quotes Gleason. “It’s work, sure it’s work. When you are using all your faculties for one thing—standing in front of an easel—you don’t realize it because it is inspiring, but you are exhausted at the end of the day, you are bound to be, because you are using everything.” 

Clifford Gleason, “Blue Passage,” 1973, oil on canvas, 68 x 38 inches. Collection of Dorothy and Brooks Cofield. Photo: Aaron Johanson

21ST CENTURY MUSIC: LOOKING FOR A MEDICI


Benozzo Gozzoli, “Procession of the Youngest King,” 1459-62, fresco; Capella dei Magi, Palazzo Medici-Riccardi, Florence. Gozzoli, no lone operator he, worked for, among others, two popes and the Medici dynasty. All in all, it was a pretty good living.

MUSICWATCH WEEKLY: THE LIVING. That’s as in “the opposite of ‘the dead’,” Music Editor Matthew Neil Andrews writes, “by which we mean living music, the ‘quick,’ the good stuff we’re always going on about – that is, the importance of paying living performers, promoting living composers, and being responsive to living audiences.” In addition to keeping alive the great music of the past, he adds, we keep music alive by “making it serve the living. We are the ones spending our flesh and blood creating it, consuming it, buying it, selling it, cherishing it, and conserving it. We are the music’s body, and the body has to eat. … This is where little things like ‘money’ and ‘jobs’ come in, and it takes us back to where we started: the problem of making a living.” Who’ll pay the pipers? Who are these new Medici? “Our opinion: the best system for all artists would be a guaranteed basic income type of plan,” Andrews declares. “What if … we were to start by ensuring that all musicians earned a living wage and then started trying to sell their music? … All we’re talking about here is subsidizing an essential industry and its essential workers – nothing particularly radical about that.”

NOW HEAR THIS: SEPTEMBER EDITION. In his monthly scouring of the pages of the music distributor Bandcamp, looking for work by Oregon artists that would make good additions to your digital library, Robert Ham comes up with some winners from Pete Krebs, PDX Pop Now!, Death Parade, Erica dal Bassa, rapper Jordan Fletcher, some ambient STRFKR, Emily Warden’s Pleasure, and more.

ABSENTEE MALLETS. We can’t let the week go by without mentioning this streamed concert from 45th Parallel Universe’s Portland Social Distance Ensemble, a series of Friday evening virtual concerts by musicians eager to just get their music out there during the shutdown, for crying out loud. This Friday, Sept. 4, it’s a little Bach, Mysior, and Reich via a pair of distanced marimba players – the Oregon Symphony’s Michael Roberts and Omaha Symphony’s Robert O’Brien. We happen to like marimbas a lot. And we love the wordplay of “absentee mallets.” Go, team. Cast your votes.

Third Angle New Music’s “The Candle Project,” in MusicWatch Weekly: with headphones, candles, and Zoom, creating “a soundtrack for our time.”

IT’S SO 2020: A VIRTUAL CHAT ABOUT VIRTUAL REALITY


Still image from “Baba Yaga” (2020). Image courtesy of the Venice Biennale.

WHAT’S THIS? VIRTUAL REALITY MEETS THE ART WORLD? Yes – and not just in the form of exhibitions posted online. In 2016 the Venice Biennale, one of the art world’s premiere shop-and-set-trends events, embraced the future by adding virtual reality as a competition-worthy art form. It’s exploring VR again this pandemic summer, fittingly from a virtual distance, and the Portland Art Museum is the only venue in the United States to hook into its offerings and offer it to its patrons. In It’s so 2020: A virtual conversation about Virtual Reality, ArtsWatch’s Laurel Reed Pavic and Marc Mohan strap on the headsets, dive into the brave new virtual world, and chat about what they saw, felt, and thought – including fiddling with the technology that’s second nature to gamers but maybe not to a lot of museum hounds.


TALKING BACK TO THE DARKNESS


Sitka Center writing workshop leaders Kim Stafford and Nancy Linnon.

LORI TOBIAS GOT IN TOUCH WITH A COUPLE OF prominent Oregon writers, Nancy Linnon and Kim Stafford, to talk about tough current times and ask about “writing your way out of darkness and how to defeat the demons that hold people back.” Linnon is a longtime journalist and teacher. Stafford is an essayist and recent Oregon poet laureate who’s just retired after a four-decade career of teaching at Lewis & Clark College, where he was founder of the Northwest Writing Institute. As it happens, both will be leading writing workshops soon through the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology, so the question seemed timely. Linnon, Tobias writes in Talking back to the darkness, “thinks of writing as a tool, not just to express what is there, but to discover what you didn’t know was there.” Stafford, Tobias writes, notes that “you don’t have to write a book to experience the writing process. Even a note to a friend, a few lines in a journal, can offer the benefit of creating.” Both have concrete suggestions on how to get it down on paper, or screen.


ONSTAGE: POPPING UP & STREAMING, TOO


What’s popping up? A-WOL Dance Collective, in a pop-up performance Sept. 12 in a West Linn park. DanceWatch Monthly has details. Photo courtesy A-WOL Dance Collective

DANCEWATCH: LET’S DO THE SOCIAL-DISTANCE DANCE. And, as it turns out, a little pop-up-in-the-park dance, too. “Even amidst the chaos in our world right now, artists are getting creative and finding ways to perform for you,” Jamuna Chiarini writes in her newest DanceWatch column. “September’s performances are a combination of live, live-streamed, and recorded performances.” Chiarini’s guide includes early info on PICA’s 21-day TBA Festival Sept. 10-30 – “a mind-altering, opinion-changing, heart-opening extravaganza of the senses” that’ll include “a mix of virtual and in-person programs.”

PORTLAND SHAKES’S THE WINTER’S TALE. All right, it’s still summer. Never mind: It’s also time for the Portland Shakespeare Project’s live-streamed reading of Shakespeare’s late romance, in a modern verse version written by Tracy Young for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Play On! Project. The virtual reading’s at noon Saturday, Sept. 12, but you can also sign on to watch rehearsal workshops next Wenesday through Friday. Click the link for details. 

PORTLAND THEATER’S LITTLE ‘BLACK BOX’. So, there’s this new theater critic in town at the city weekly, see, and this moneyed theater board member, and maybe a few sparks, and positively a lot of sly allusions to the Portland theater scene of days gone by. The online play Black Box: Page to Stage is based on CoHo Productions cofounder Gary Cole’s backstage novel about, as Max Tapogna puts it for ArtsWatch, “a theater community in an age when people could actually go to the theater.” Tapogna talks with Cole and CoHo Artistic Director Philip Cuomo about the show, which concludes its virtual run on Friday, and gives Cole the last word: “Theater is not going away.”

James Luster and Marcella Lasch in “Black Box: Page to Stage.” Photo courtesy CoHo Productions

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