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Theater for the Ears

Stop. Listen. What's that sound? In the pandemic’s wake, Portland theater companies turn to audio drama.

“Radio is something that has to be believed to be seen.”

That line from an old Twilight Zone episode explains the appeal of not just radio drama, but any theater meant to be heard instead of viewed. And now there’s more to believe in.

Since the pandemic shut down live theater, our screens have filled with streaming videos of previous productions or new creations, many created via Zoom, with actors recording parts from their homes. But even though we’ve been said to be living in a visual age for generations now, maybe screen fatigue has finally pushed us to giving our overtaxed eyes a break. Because another form of streaming theater is enjoying a resurgence — audio dramas.

Vin Shambry records his lines in the audio version of Artists
Repertory Theatre’s Magellanica. Photo: Kathleen Kelly.


Roll on, Columbia, roll on

ArtsWatch Weekly: An expansive exhibit looks at the lives and issues along the great river. Plus: Splendid music, home cinema, comics, more

RIVERS RUN THROUGH US. We all have our list. I’ve lived by or near the Nooksack, Chenango, Susquehanna, Danvers, Cowlitz, Willamette, and Columbia, and had my dealings with many others, among them the Skagit, Mackenzie, Siletz, Hood, Sol Duc, Russian, Rogue. The attraction is complex and simple. We’re liquid creatures, made up of roughly 60 percent water, and we require water, for survival and sustenance. Water feeds us, transports us, gives us trade routes and energy, and for many of us, simply feels like home.

In the Pacific Northwest, the greatest of these rivers is the Columbia, a 1,243-mile behemoth that begins in British Columbia and runs through Washington and along the Oregon border until it tumbles into the Pacific Ocean. For 10,000 years or more of human history the river and its tributaries have been the region’s source of life – and for just as long, a source of cultural and artistic inspiration. It’s also the focus of a large group exhibit, Knowing the Columbia, continuing through Sept. 20 in the Elisabeth Jones Art Center, on the western edge of Portland’s Pearl District. 

The exhibition began with a series of prints by Erik Sandgren and expanded from there into a broad exploration of “the river that shaped the Northwest,” says Inga Hazen, the art center’s director of exhibitions and the show’s curator, with center director John Teply. It includes a crackerjack collection of artists: Sandgren, Lillian Pitt, Sara Siestreem, Jonnel Covault, video artist Genevieve Robertson, and the team of Fred Wah, Rita Wong, Nick Conbere, Santigie Fofana-Dura, and Sapata Fofana-Dura. Together they’ve created an expansive look at the history, cultures, economy, and challenges of the great river. As Hazen and Teply put it in their exhibition statement: “The artwork in this show aims to celebrate the beauty, abundance, and cultural significance of the Columbia River, as well as to document the effects of industrialization on the ecology and the culture of the surrounding region.”

Elisabeth Jones opened a little over two years ago with The Condor and the Eagle, a nationally significant exhibit of art that grew out of the Standing Rock protests against the Dakota Access oil pipeline, and a little like that show, Knowing the Columbia represents a couple of the art center’s core goals: representing art that addresses environmental and human-rights issues. It also follows last summer’s extraordinary Exquisite Gorge group project by Maryhill Museum of Art that culminated in the creation of a 66-foot-long steamrolled print representing a 220-mile stretch of the Columbia, a project that Friderike Heuer documented in an 11-part series for ArtsWatch. The river creates a lasting and ever-evolving mythology of its own.

The Elisabeth Jones Art Center reopened early this month, under strict distancing precautions, giving Knowing the Columbia a chance to be seen (it had originally been scheduled to open in the spring, right about the time that Covid-19 shut most places down). If you’re not ready to reenter public spaces – a lot of people aren’t – the art center is working on providing a fuller virtual experience of its exhibitions on its web site. In the meantime, the web site includes a lot of images from the show. And here’s a selection from the exhibition, with commentary mostly from the arists themselves:

Lillian Pitt, “Sturgeon Design,” monotype. Pitt, a revered Northwest artist, was born and raised on the Warm Springs Reservation, and her ancestors, she says, have lived “in and near the Columbia River Gorge for over 10,000 years.” Her prints and tapestries follow the tradition of “thousands upon thousands of pictographs and petroglyphs up and down the Big River. Most of them are underwater now, on account of the dams that were built, but many of them are still visible today.”


Arts notes: Jewish Museum to open

Plus: The 2020 Governor's Arts Awards, and what isn't playing at the Roxy (but is coming your way via Portland theater companies)

IT’S BEEN A LONG HAUL for the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education, which like so many other destinations has been shut down for months by the Covid-19 crisis. But things are looking up: The museum has announced it’ll reopen to visitors next Thursday, Aug. 6, on a limited schedule and with restrictions. The Portland museum joins several others – among them the Portland Art Museum, Oregon Historical Society museum, Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, and the Architectural Heritage Museum (which reopened last weekend with the exhibition Darcelle XV at Home, photographs by Tom Cook of the famous female impersonator and his richly decorated 1896 Queen Anne style house) in Portland; Bend’s High Desert Museum, and the Schneider Museum of Art, in Ashland – that have ventured into open hours again.

The Jewish Museum will reopen its first-floor galleries and gift shop, continuing through Sept. 5 with the exhibit Southern Rites, photographer Gillian Laub’s pictorial profile of racial progress and regression in Montgomery County, Georgia – including the integration of previously segregated high school proms, and then the murder by a white man of an unarmed young black man. Laub spent a decade documenting the tensions in the community. Friderike Heuer wrote in ArtsWatch about the exhibition in February, before the museum shut down, calling Laub’s work “beautiful.” She added: “It is not the beauty that matters here, though. It is the package of three elements that make this not just an artful, but an important exhibition: a longitudinal project executed with skill and courage in the light of tremendous obstacles, for one. Secondly, a slew of smart curatorial decisions on how to present that project, equally important for creating a narrative. And finally, the flexibility of a Jewish museum bent on going beyond the traditional role of keeper of memory, whether Holocaust-related or preserving the history of the local community.”

“Amber and Reggie, Mount Vernon, Georgia,” 2011, © Gillian Laub, Courtesy of Benrubi Gallery. Included in Laub’s photographic exhibition “Southern Rites,” reopening Aug. 6 at the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education.


‘A world of uncertainty’

Voices from the front: Arts philanthropist Ronni Lacroute says COVID-19 is forcing arts groups to think in new ways. Her role? “I just calm people down a lot.”

If you’ve attended plays or concerts in Portland or visited the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland with any regularity over the past decade, chances are good you owe at least one afternoon or evening of cultural enrichment to philanthropist Ronni Lacroute.

Lacroute lives in Yamhill County, where in 1991 she co-founded a vineyard and world-class winery on property that had been a cattle farm. As co-owner with her former husband of WillaKenzie Estate, she immersed herself in the wine business for a quarter century, until the winery was sold in 2016.

Lacroute, whose father was in the foreign service, had traveled extensively abroad in her youth. She studied romance languages and literature and has degrees from Cornell University, the University of Michigan, and both the licence ès lettres and the maîtrise ès lettres in North American literature from the Paris-Sorbonne University. She was a college professor and taught French language and culture in high school in Massachusetts in the 1970s and 1980s.


Along the way, she became a patron of the arts and for years has given widely to a variety of Oregon arts organizations. She’s a generous donor to arts programs at Linfield College in McMinnville, where she’s a member of the Board of Trustees. (From the Department of Full Disclosure: She’s also a donor to Oregon ArtsWatch, and earlier this year I appeared in a play at Gallery Theater in McMinnville that she sponsored.)

Ronni Lacroute says arts organizations hardest hit by the coronavirus shutdown are those locked into a venue, like a symphony hall or a theater that doesn’t allow flexible spacing. Smaller, project-based companies are better able to look at alternatives. Photo by: Carolyn Wells-Kramer
Ronni Lacroute says smaller and project-based arts organizations that have flexibility in terms of venue are coming up with creative alternative ways of connecting with audiences. Photo by: Carolyn Wells-Kramer

She now is involved full time in individual philanthropy, holding nonstop meetings with the nonprofit community. She’s particularly interested in artistic projects and groups that promote important conversations across social, economic, and political divides and that effect social change.

Because Lacroute is so connected with the region’s artistic life, we thought it would be enlightening to find out what she’s hearing in the wake of COVID-19. A lot, it turns out. And she was more than happy to share. The following interview was conducted via Facetime and has been edited for length and clarity.

Tell me what it was like for you, when this really hit, as far as your meetings and contacts.

Lacroute: Well really, the only thing in my life that’s changed is no live meetings. I used to have people here every single day for meetings. The structure of my work life was to meet live and spend a couple of hours brainstorming ideas. It’s really hard to do that when you just have a phone call. You don’t do that for two hours. We exchange ideas, but how much can you put into an email or a 10-minute phone conversation? I’m missing the depth of exploration that we had before, where people were expecting that we’re going to hang out until we have some plans.

How did those conversations change once everyone really understood what was happening?


Fertile Ground 4: The one-act itch

In his final look back on Portland's new-works festival, Jae Carlsson scratches an "Itch" and dives into one-acts and other rabbit holes

(In Fertile Ground 2020, Portland’s 11th annual festival of new performance, Jae Carlsson witnessed four standout productions: “Vortex 1,” “Dorothy’s Dictionary,” “How to Really, Really? Really! Love a Woman,” and “Itch.” In four parts Carlsson has discussed each of these four theater pieces at length, as well as other works in the Festival dealing with similar issues.)


One-act plays are the bastard child of serious theater. All playwrights write them.

But these tend to be throwaway, one-idea plays – usually comedies – which no one is expected to take all that seriously. Least of all their playwright.

At Fertile Ground 2020, this is clearly the case with The Portland Mini-Musical Festival, which you discuss in Part 1 of this series. Lots of entertaining song and dance, but each one-act is built upon a single thin idea through which to maintain audience attention – plus maybe a little ah-ha twist at denouement, good for a slightly more self-aware laugh from you just before applause at curtain.

But you are a fan of one-acts, when they are done right. Accomplished either by finding a means to very quickly give them depth and force. Or accomplished by stringing several one-acts together – connecting them thematically as in Itch or in Osho Returns, or as a discontinuous narrative as in Hannah and Other Stories or Dearly Departed. But what is it that permits such one-acts to work so well? And to work, sometimes, more effectively than even very good full-length plays? . . .

On the Cusp of the Absurd

When you try to stretch the single idea of a one-idea play to 90 minutes, people often whisper that the author should have whittled it down and made a one-act play out of it.

At pre-festival press “speed-dating” night, Fertile Ground director Nicole Lane keeps her mouth on the harmonica and her eye on the clock: Four minutes, and the mouth harp sounds. Photo courtesy Fertile Ground

The Ghost of David Balasco, written and directed by Cynthia Whitcomb, is a case in point. This festival piece is a mostly-staged full-length play performed at Lakewood Theatre, and it turns on one very clever idea. Four characters enter an old, rundown theater, speaking in period and foreign accents. They wish to do a seance, in order to exorcise a ghost from the theater, so they can clean up the space and produce a new play here – without all the freaky “mishaps” that closed up the theater years before, after a death in the building.


Fertile Ground 2: ‘Dorothy’s Dictionary,’ etc.

In E.M. Lewis's newest play and several others at Portland's new-works festival, the key question is "talking it thru."

(In Fertile Ground 2020, Portland’s 11th annual festival of new performance, Jae Carlsson witnessed four standout productions: “Vortex 1,” “Dorothy’s Dictionary,” “How to Really, Really? Really! Love a Woman,” and “Itch.” In four parts Carlsson will discuss each theater piece at length, as well as other works in the Festival dealing with similar issues.)

Talking it Thru

Is there anything unique and compelling about the Portland theater scene? Or is it just a colonial outpost of the New York or London or Chicago or Los Angeles theater scene?

Are the stageworks sprouting from Portland stages invasive, non-native species? Foreign species of theater, transplanted to Oregon soil but emotionally native to some faraway physical and social ecology? Evidencing a very different affective ecology from how most Oregonians actually feel about things?

Or is it just the case that . . . things today are so entirely globalized that no emotionally unique ecosystems any longer exist? That “an Oregon voice” is 100-percent irrelevant?


E.M. Lewis’s “Dorothy’s Dictionary,” from LineStorm Playwrights. Design: Holly Richards

Dorothy’s Dictionary by E.M. Lewis (directed by Dan Kitrosser) is a remarkably tight and precise two-person play. You’ve seen it read at Lakewood Center in Lake Oswego last May, and now again during LineStorm’s noon readings at Fertile Ground.


Fertile Ground 1: ‘Vortex’ and more

A musical about Tom McCall and his rock festival is a highlight of Portland's new-works fest. The Roosevelts and MLK Jr. show up, too.

(In Fertile Ground 2020, Portland’s 11th annual festival of new performance, Jae Carlsson witnessed four standout productions: “Vortex 1,” “Itch,” “How to Really, Really? Really! Love a Woman,” and “Dorothy’s Dictionary.” In four parts Carlsson will discuss each theater piece at length, as well as other works in the Festival dealing with similar issues.)


You would like to float the idea that the Fertile Ground performance festival, which ended February 9, is not just a way of taking “the pulse of Portland” – of feeling out what is currently on the minds of its creative individuals – but that, more significantly, the festival at its best is a telescope for doing some serious thinking about the future.

It is easy to think of Oregon as always having been a hotbed of environmental concerns & the fight for “sustainability.” Unless your memory travels as far back as the 1960s.

In 1962 there is this reporter doing commentary at KGW radio & TV on issues of the day. One series, titled “Pollution in Paradise,” particularly catches the public’s attention, about the open sewer running right through Portland called the Willamette River.

The name of this reporter is Tom McCall. Four years later he is elected governor of Oregon and uses the office as a bully pulpit: to clean up the WIllamette, to make all Oregon beaches public property, to institute a “bottle bill” to clean up litter and put in place a controlled-growth land-use plan, promote energy conservation instead of more dams, and on. He famously said to tourists something like:

“Please visit Oregon. It’s a beautiful place. But then go home. Don’t move here.”

McCall is the first major state figure to talk about “sustainability,” wanting to protect the livability of your cities and towns, and farm-country and forests. He preached it so passionately and so vociferously that people listened, and it started to become part of the way that Oregonians think about life – right up till the present. Without Tom McCall, Oregon today would be a very different state.

One of McCall’s most significant but most bizarre achievements as governor was the public sponsoring of the 1970 rock festival “Vortex 1: a festival of life” at McIver Park in Estacada. One of the outstanding works at this year’s Fertile Ground festival is the musical Vortex 1, celebrating this event. Book & lyrics by Sue Mach, music by Bill Wadhams, arranged by Reece Marshburn, directed by Allen Nause, and exquisitely acted and sung by the cast of twelve, this play not merely celebrates this unusual public event but analyzes it too, with acuity and no small degree of earned emotion.