Chamber Music Northwest Lincoln Recital Hall Portland State University Portland Oregon

Portland, protests, the theater of life

ArtsWatch Weekly: The theater of politics comes to town, and the city's center stage.


FRUSTRATED BECAUSE THERE’S NO THEATER TO SEE FOR THE CORONADURATION? Look around. The show’s running 24/7, and we’re in the middle of it – unlikely stars of the Show of the Moment, praised and panned for our performances, from the pages of The New York Times to the breathless patter of cable-television talking heads to the bombastic Twitter feeds of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Boffo! A bomb! Lurid, violent spectacle! A bracing warning for us all! Shocking demolition of the fourth wall! Strains credibility! Nonstop action! Predictable performances in a shoddy script! Oughtta be in jail!

Everybody’s a critic in the Theater of Real Life. In the past week Portland’s been getting more national and international attention than it’s had since the heyday of Portlandia jokes (no, you put a bird on it!), and it’s hard to tell whether this new show – let’s call it “The Siege of Portland!” – is tragedy, documentary, or farce. However it all plays out, we’re like a city full of Beckett characters, caught in a world far bigger than we can comprehend, stumbling through the confusion toward a conclusion that we can’t predict.

You know the basic plot. It begins, after a preamble that traces a complex but necessary 400-year backstory, with the deaths at police hands of a seemingly endless string of Black Americans: George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Philando Castile, Eric Garner, Michael Brown – the list goes on and on. This is the moral heart of the story, the unshakable truth that cannot be denied. Add a pandemic, an economic calamity, a historic shift of wealth from bottom to top, two months of nightly protests, a profusion of graffiti and torn-down fences (“Shocking!” “Criminal!” “Not to be believed!”), a trip-wired political standoff, a president with diving poll numbers in an election year, a steady supply of tear gas, “non-lethal” bullets, smashed heads, and broken bones – who’s writing this script? The guy who wrote the Book of Job? Then add an invading force of militarized mystery federal police, upping the ante on everything, bullying into a story where they weren’t invited and are not wanted. Tighten the tension with a Wall of Moms, some Leaf Blower Dads, and an explosion of new and angry protesters filling the stage like essential extras in a spectacle about the French Revolution.

Besides presenting a united front and sometimes being tear-gassed, flash-banged, roughed up, and arrested, the “Wall of Moms” at the re-energized protests in downtown Portland have shown a flair for the moment, making theatrical counter-statements of their own. Photo: Deborah Dombrowski

Here’s where we find ourselves as the climax of the First Act nears – not quite sure whether we’re the audience, or the actors, or both. We’re in the surrealistic situation of knowing that the stage the world is watching is a very small one, created to tell diametrically competing stories, and consisting of a few blocks of downtown Portland while the rest of the city essentially carries on as pandemically normal. (No, Aunt June in Lake Placid, the surging storm troopers and wild anarchists aren’t tearing apart our neighborhoods. That’s the comic book version of the tale.) And yet we’re also, in some essential way, in the midst of the action, key figures in a moral drama as ancient as the Greek theater. At least for the duration we’re Athens, or Troy, or the Paris of the early 19th century. Imagine buying a ticket to see Les Misérables and then discovering that instead of getting a seat in the theater you’ve been hurled into the middle of the action, for real, with real consequences, a fanatical Javert ruthlessly on your tail. It’s rattling. Theater that turns real can also give you PTSD, as Portland journalist Karina Brown suggests in her Courthouse News Service essay I Know How To Cover a Portland Protest. So Why Am I Shaking? 

A few evenings ago I watched the released-for-television movie version of Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s epic sweep of American revolutionary history, with its competing egos and fragile coalitions and fateful decisions and mistakes. The play’s first act is overstuffed with incident and explanation, a rattle of activity with no breaks to pace the thing or catch a breath. It’s a frenetic jangle: too much. After intermission, as the characters take definition and the play homes in on emotional relationships, it all begins to deepen and come more clear. What’s political is personal; what’s personal is political. And I thought, maybe this is a crucial play for our times. We’re overwhelmed by the whirl of the world around us. We have to figure out what it means for us both practically and emotionally. And we’re shaping it as it’s shaping us.

The marriage of politics and theater in the United States is far from new. It stretches back at least as far as the Federal Theatre Project and Living Newspaper shows of the Depression era, and was especially strong during the deeply divided years of the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War, when groups such as Bread and Puppet Theater, the San Francisco Mime Troupe, and El Teatro Campesino melded radical politics with popular, usually low-cost, often take-it-to-the-streets theatricality. 

In Portland, the old Storefront Theatre scrambled into existence out of protests at Portland State University sparked by the Kent State massacre of 1970. The company’s first production was a raw, rude, in-your-face version of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, the ancient satire in which the women of the Greek city-states embark on a mission to end the Peloponnesian War by going on a sex strike. “The men strutted about with enormous, red-white-and-blue private parts strapped around their waists,” I wrote in The Oregonian 21 years later, when the company called it quits. “A woman representing Peace wandered through the show wearing nothing but a dove perched on her outstretched finger.” The show played a rock festival, and a college gig, and was banned in Portland after one performance at The Old Church. But federal forces weren’t called in, and no one was tear-gassed or tossed in jail.

As theater has used politics, politics has always used theater, from the pomp of European courts to the Fireside Chats of FDR to the dramatic posturings of the likes of Joseph McCarthy and George Wallace and the actual Hollywood-honed geniality of Ronald Reagan. And the evidence of something both highly theatrical and politically extraordinary – of a skilled and cynical manipulation of the methodology, if not the essence, of art – has been before us from the beginning of Donald Trump’s ascendancy to political power, a rise that is very much at the root of the real-life theater that is taking place in Portland today. This is from my essay The poisoned art of Donald Trump, published in ArtsWatch on Jan. 18, 2016, two days before his inauguration as the nation’s 45th president:

“In brief, Trump has stolen the story, and we are in his tale now, a ceaseless and addictive barrage of adrenaline-pumping nerve-bruisings that seems to take its cues from teen slasher movies. More, more, more. Slash, slash, slash. We hate it, and yet we can’t take our eyes away. Love him or loathe him, we are in Trump’s thrall. … And as story is the heartbeat of art, Trump has become the most significant artist of the day. Never mind that his art is sham. He’s very good at it, and it’s sucked up all the air. It’s a religious reimagining, in essence, and a new religion is a difficult thing to fight.”

Coming up: Act Two. Don’t bother to buy a ticket. You’re in the show.


Polka dots mark the spot: Artist Bill Will’s installation “Polka Dot Courthouse Square” brightens downtown Portland’s “living room” as it establishes social distancing and serves as a potential launching pad for performances. Photo:Horatio Hung-Yan Law

BEEN TO DOWNTOWN PORTLAND LATELY? SPOTTED ANYTHING NEW in Pioneer Courthouse Square? Bill Will, the veteran Oregon artist, has. He’s spotted all sorts of spots (or, more accurately, dots). What’s more, they’re his dots. Will’s installation Polka Dot Courthouse Square, which will be in the Square through summer, consists of a series of 40 vividly colored, 12-foot vinyl dots, spaced 10 feet apart for safe spacing in the Age of Covid-19. Portland artist Horatio Hung-Yan Law, who’s on the Square’s programming committee, is pumped about the dots. “Bill’s installation is like a breath of fresh air, as well as serving a function of encouraging social distancing,” he says. “We are hoping other arts organizations will collaborate with the installation to create programs that address the time we are in – not just dealing with COVID-19, but also racial justice as well.” Among the groups and events the Square hopes to put on the spot – or dot: Piano.Push.Play., Andisheh Center, BodyVox dance, Pan-African Festival, Chinese Festival, BRAVO Youth Orchestras, ARCO PDX. Friendly hint: If you toss in a buck or 20 (details in the link above) all of the money will go directly to the artists.


Who’s the stars of the show? We’re the stars of the show! Who else?

AH, BUT THE PIROUETTES AND PROWLINGS OF THE FELINE SET! – in these nerve-wracking and dangerous times, who can blame anyone for an occasional escape into the fabulous furry world of cat videos? In Cat videos to the rescueArtsWatch’s Bennett Campbell Ferguson tells the tale of Brian Mendelssohn, a filmmaker and movie theater owner in Pittsburgh who’s given us what we all need: a full-length movie of cat videos. “Mendelssohn’s fascination with cats is felt in every frame of the Quarantine Cat Film Fest, an 84-minute movie he directed that features cat videos from across America,” Ferguson writes. “The film is filled with feasting, lounging and adventuring cats—and it’s raising money for independent theatres affected by the pandemic (including several in Oregon). “‘Funny’ and ‘cute’—those things that we need during a pandemic,” Mendelssohn says. “We just needed a boost right now.”


Timberline Lodge, the 55,000-square-foot masterwork of Cascadian architecture completed in 1937 on a slope of Mount Hood, was Oregon’s most prominent monument to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. What might a new New Deal accomplish? Image: 

THE ARTS NEED A NEW DEAL TO SURVIVE THE PANDEMIC. “I have a proposal,” Misha Berson, the theater critic and occasional ArtsWatch correspondent from Seattle and New York, writes in Crosscut. “It boils down to jobs, jobs and more jobs. A massive national job program for industries devastated by the pandemic — in this case, the arts. A modern makeover of a Great Depression-era initiative providing living wage jobs for visual, literary, performing and media artists, funded largely by the federal government. A program that would dramatically change the way nonprofit arts institutions operate and reweave the cultural fiber of our society.” FDR’s plan put artists on the national payroll during and after the Great Depression, creating works we still enjoy. Covid-19 demands no less, Berson argues. But can such a plan find political champions in today’s fractured climate?

  • MEANWHILE, OREGON’S ARTS BAILOUT PLAN, which I wrote about last week, is taking a brief pause. The state Legislative Emergency Board approved paying out $50 million in federal coronavirus aid for arts and cultural support, and not quite half of that has been allotted. A proposal on who is to get the remaining $25.9 million was to have gone for approval to the board of the Oregon Cultural Trust today, July 23, but that Trust board meeting has been postponed until Thursday, Aug. 6. Details are still being worked out, Brian Rogers, executive director of the Cultural Trust and the Oregon Arts Commission, said Tuesday: “We are working hard to develop a plan that allocates the funds in an equitable, statewide manner.” By federal guideline, all of the money must be distributed by Sept. 15.


Michael Gibbons, “Autumn View in Salt River Canyon,” oil, 6 x 8 inches.

REMEMBERING A ‘POET WITH A PAINTBRUSH’. “Standing in the living room window which is up on a low rise above the city and above the river, I looked out and said, what’s the matter with you dummkopf, here you have this incredible world of beauty right out your front door,” the artist Michael Gibbons once described his settling-in. “What are you going abroad for and putting up with all that crap? So, we stayed on and decided to continue from here.” Lori Tobias remembers Gibbons, the father of the unlikely art colony in the little mill town of Toledo near the Oregon Coast, who was a legend along the Yaquina River, and who died this month at 76.



The historic Yale Union Building at 800 S.E. 10th Ave. in Portland: Thanks to a transfer of ownership from the contemporary art center Yale Union, it’ll be the new home of the national Native Arts and Cultures Foundation.  

A NEW HOME FOR THE NATIVE ARTS AND CULTURES FOUNDATION. While the uninvited incursion of Department of Homeland Security forces has been focusing the nation’s attention on a small stretch of downtown Portland, another piece of real estate on the other side of the river has been the site of a much more welcome story. In a deal that’s been quietly in the works for two years, the contemporary art center Yale Union announced late last week that it’s transferring its historic Southeast Portland building and land to the national Native Arts and Cultures Foundation, which is now headquartered in Vancouver, Wash. It’s an extraordinary gift from Yale Union, which plans to go out of business at the end of next year. “I was stunned into silence,” T. Lulani Arquette, president and CEO of the arts and cultures foundation, told Robert Ham for ArtsWatch. “I was shocked. Pleasingly shocked. This has been a really amazing experience and very profound for all of us that are involved.” It’s a big step for the Native foundation, which works with American Indian, Native Hawaiian, and Alaska Native artists and communities on projects ranging from mentorships to exhibitions. Joy Harjo, poet laureate of the United States, is the foundation’s board chair. Next step: a $15 million (or more) capital campaign to make the building fit the foundation’s needs.


The Museum at Warm Springs in Central Oregon, which had reopened July 7, has closed its doors again. It’s set to open again on Aug. 4. Photo courtesy Museum at Warm Springs

WHILE THE MUSEUM WORLD HAS BEEN MAKING A CAUTIOUS COMEBACK from the Covid-19 pandemic, the coronavirus isn’t playing by anyone else’s rules. On Wednesday the Museum at Warm Springs, the tribal art and cultural center on the Warm Springs Reservation in Central Oregon, announced that it’s shutting down again for two weeks, until Aug. 4. The museum had reopened July 7 after having been closed since mid-March. The new museum closure is part of a general reservation quarantine ordered by the Tribal Council. “I believe the idea is, just to flatten our curve again,” Elizabeth Woody, the museum’s executive director, said via telephone on Wednesday. The number of infection cases on the reservation, which has a population of about 5,000, is relatively high, and Pitt noted that a large percentage of cases is among people ages 29 and younger. In addition, the reservation is dealing with severe problems in its water system; residents have been under advisory for several weeks to boil their water. The quarantine could be extended if necessary, according to Tribal leadership. “We will get through this together and are looking forward to once again opening our Museum’s doors but only when it is absolutely safe to do so,” Woody said in a press statement.

Cascadia Composers Music Concert Portland State University Lincoln Hall Portland Oregon


Imani Winds bassoonist Monica Ellis (left) talking and performing in the Portland Art Museum’s Whitsell Auditorium in 2017. Imani is a longtime favorite at Chamber Music Northwest, where it’s been a resident ensemble. Photo: Kimmie Fadem 

BLACK ARTISTS ON HOW TO CHANGE CLASSICAL MUSIC. Black musicians make up less than 2 percent of members in the nation’s classical orchestras. In its 137-year history, a Black director has led only one production at the Metropolitan Opera. In that same span, The Met has produced zero operas by Black composers. (That will change soon, with Terence Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones due in the coming season.) In an illuminating package of stories, New York Times writers talk with Blanchard and eight other prominent Black musicians and composers, including bassoonist Monica Ellis of Chamber Music Northwest favorites Imani Winds, about how to change that structure. Also in the package, The Times’ chief classical critic, Anthony Tommasini, argues that to reflect their communities, orchestras should end blind auditions. And critic Joshua Barone declares that Opera Can No Longer Ignore Its Race Problem.

Tommasini’s call to end blind auditions has sparked controversy among musicians, many of whom see the practice as key to both fairness and artistic quality. Jonathan S. Tobin responds to Tommasini with his essay The Awokening Comes for American Classical Music in the National Review.


Audio for Oregon ears, from left: Lou Harrison’s “Young Caesar,” Portland State Chamber Choir’s “Translations,” Cappella Romana’s “Venice in the East.”

SAFE DISTANCE SOUNDS 3: OREGON VOICES. So you’re not going out to live concerts these days – and especially not choral performances, which, as Brett Campbell notes in his hearing of recommended recordings of music with Oregon roots, “involves a lot of breath and its hangers-on droplets around the stage.” “And yet,” he adds, “choral music is to many of us the most life-giving music.” Oregon, as it happens, is a hotbed for great choral music. Campbell knows it inside and out. Check out what he’s checked out for you. Then lend it an ear


Everything’s going Zoomingly in online dance & movement classes: With studio spaces shut down by Covid-19, Rose City Rhythmics student Yueyue practices her oversplits at home. 

PANDEMIC ED: DANCING REMOTELY AND WELL. Dance class? How you gonna do that? Like so many other things, ArtsWatch’s Elizabeth Whelan discovers, it’s possible long-distance, as long as you have a little floor space you can commandeer at home. In the latest episode of ArtsWatch’s “The Art of Learning” series, Whelan checks in with studios all around town, in a variety of dance disciplines, and learns to her surprise that creative adaptation and a Zoom account can keep students engaged. “I was certain that in interviewing kids, teachers, and adult students about their thoughts on Zoom class for this article, I’d be putting a nail in the coffin of online dance,” Whelan writes. “I was expecting this article to end up being an ode to the beloved practice of dancing together in studios and how much the community is struggling without it. Well, I was wrong. Thanks to a dose of creativity, there’s been a lot of progress made in training via Zoom. Those coffin nails are back in their boxes and the dancers are moving about the world just fine.”

  • A PORTLAND PANDEMIC DANCE SURVEY. Meanwhile, dance writer Jamuna Chiarini has been talking with Oregon’s dancemakers, too, from bigger groups like Oregon Ballet Theatre and BodyVox, to independent choreographers like Shaun Keylock, to important small-space operators like Linda Austin and Subashini Ganesan, to Black arts local legend Bobby Fouther, and many more. In brief, most everyone’s feeling a money crunch. “The good news is that Oregon’s dancers are still dancing,” Chiarini writes. “The bad news is that their situation doesn’t look like it’s getting better any time soon.”

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Bob Hicks has been covering arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest since 1978, including 25 years at The Oregonian. Among his art books are Kazuyuki Ohtsu; James B. Thompson: Fragments in Time; and Beth Van Hoesen: Fauna and Flora. His work has appeared in American Theatre, Biblio, Professional Artist, Northwest Passage, Art Scatter, and elsewhere. He also writes the daily art-history series "Today I Am."

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