Portland theater’s little ‘Black Box’

Gary Cole's online play based on his backstage novel about life, love, and revenge on the theater scene scratches an itch in Covid-19 time

“Theater people are strangely compelled to perform their art… regardless of the obstacles placed in their path, by the empty bank accounts, oppressive landlords, and unflattering critics,” the character Ned Prince observes halfway through the opening scene of CoHo Productions’ online play Black Box: Page to Stage.

I nominate pernicious viruses to be added to Ned’s list of obstacles.

But I suppose that would be a bit of an anachronism, since Black Box – written by CoHo co-founder Gary D. Cole and based on his novel of the same name – isn’t set in 2020. Instead, the virtual work looks back, with a rightful amount of nostalgia, to Portland’s past: a portrait of a theater community in an age when people could actually go to the theater.

Critic and board member, setting the scene: James Luster and Marcella Lasch in “Black Box: Page to Stage.” Photo courtesy CoHo Theatre

Black Box is inspired in part by Cole’s time as a theater producer in Portland. “CoHo Theatre is the center of the novel,” Cole says, although the novel’s plot and characters are mainly fictitious.

The book is centered on the activities of one Ned Prince (played onstage and online by James Luster), a young writer and heir to a sizable fortune. Following the death of his father, Ned arrives in Portland as the new theater critic for The Columbian (a thinly veiled Willamette Week), succeeding the merciless and widely loathed critic Milson.

Ned’s good intentions as the-new-guy-in-town are muddled after he becomes involved with Karin Bergren (Marcella Laasch), a board member of a local theater and wife of the nefarious business tycoon Jerry Bergren. Their friendship kick-starts the novel’s action, which has nods to Hamlet, A Doll’s House, and page-turning detective fiction.

“The book is obviously highly theatrical,” Cole says. “In all respects.”

The adaptation, Black Box: Page to Stage, is a chimera of a project: one part novel, one part play, encapsulated by the nebulous form that is virtual theater. The project takes four scenes between Ned and Karin from the book and puts them onstage. CoHo filmed the scenes at the theater, and they are being released sequentially online.

CoHo’s artistic director, Philip Cuomo, says that Black Box was originally going to be used to support the theater’s 25 years of work, a benchmark the company passed this year. “It was sort of a perfect opportunity,” says Cuomo. “A novel inspired by CoHo Theatre to celebrate its 25th anniversary.”

Then Covid hit, and CoHo had to shift gears. Cole’s initial question for the book, “How can we deploy Black Box to help CoHo?” now turned outward to the rest of the Portland community.

“(Cole) came up with this idea for a virtual run,” says Cuomo. Patrons receive links to the scenes, a copy of Cole’s novel, and an invitation to an online talkback, Cuomo says. Funds generated from sales are going to direct relief to artists and art institutions impacted by Covid-19.

While the switch from stage to screen has proven a challenge for many theaters, the virtual run is a return to familiar territory for CoHo. Back in 2000, before virtual theater was a gleam in Portland’s eye, Cole founded a company called Stage Direct.

“The idea was to capture theater on digital video and market it over the internet,” says Cole.

The company – which ran its operation out of CoHo – recorded a number of fringe theater shows in Portland, Seattle, and Chicago; some of these recordings are still available on Amazon Prime. The content of the avant-garde plays was often provocative. So much that Cole’s work with Stage Direct, he says, led to his 2003 appointment by the Bush administration to run the annual grants program at the National Endowment for the Arts to be revoked. It was a difficult period in Cole’s life, and the NEA episode became the subject of his first book, Artless.

After a few years, Stage Direct ran its course.

“We were about five or six years ahead of our time,” says Cole. “Remember, this was well before YouTube came along.”

Twenty years later, the time for virtual theater has finally arrived.

Luster and Laasch, dressing for success as the show goes on. Photo courtesy CoHo Theatre

Cuomo thinks of Stage to Page as one step in a year-long experiment with new theater technologies. The theater has received some grant funding to invest in high-end video equipment, and CoHo will be able to live stream content for years to come. “Everyone is innovating in some way in continuing to create their artistry,” Cuomo says. 

And although Cuomo is excited about the ways theater will be different after the pandemic is over, “In the end,” he believes, “it’s going to come back to ‘the empty space,’ Peter Brooks’ thing, and what the Greeks did.”

This thought could serve as a thesis for Black Box, as the book’s title indicates. “Theater had the power to move mountains,” Cole says.

Black Box: Page to Stage is nearly finished with its run, which ends September 4. Readers of Cole’s novel, however, will not be pressed for time.

Nor will they need it. Cole’s book is action-packed, teeming with scandal and suspense. If viewers enjoy the banter between Ned and Karin onscreen, they’ll appreciate the novel’s full cast of characters and the play-within-a-play near the end.

I hope people who watch Page to Stage also read the book. Black Box imagines a theater scene in Portland that does move mountains. During this never-ending quarantine, that imagination is a welcome escape.

In the meantime, Cole says, theater lovers shouldn’t lose hope: “When the theaters in Portland went dark, it created a canvas. There are opportunities that will make the art better, stronger, and more fulfilling.”

“Theater is not going away.”

***

  • Black Box: Page to Stage runs online through September 4. A ticket purchase will provide patrons with links to all four scenes, a copy of the novel, and an invitation to an online talkback on Sunday, August 30. Seventy-five percent of the proceeds will be donated to the Oregon Arts and Culture Recovery Program as direct relief to artists and institutions impacted by Covid-19.

  • Max Tapogna is an actor and writer who graduated with a BA in Theatre Arts from the University of Puget Sound in the spring of 2020. His fiction and poetry have appeared in the literary journal Crosscurrents. Max is a 2020-21 Acting Apprentice at Portland Playhouse.

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