By CHRISTOPHER GONZALEZ
From new dramatic forms, to teaching philosophy, to administrative structure and beyond, Deep End Theater is revolutionary theater in all aspects. Led by the indomitable Domeka Parker, this Portland ensemble is changing the perception of what improv is capable of.
Raising Coen is Deep End’s newest improvised play, based on the Coen Brothers’ movies. It is a remarkable piece of long form improv that triumphantly traverses the realm of what we normally think of as Theater with a capital T. After all, aren’t we tired of going to comedy clubs and laughing halfheartedly at impatient displays of wit and cheap punchlines? We don’t often feel irrefutable pathos, genuine suspense, or palpable horror, do we?
Well, Deep End Theater, which opened in May 2017 in Southeast Portland’s Buckman neighborhood, is no comedy club.
Raising Coen elevates the form of improv by inviting us to lean in and explore the integrity of a character’s core values. The dramatic investigation of core values is pertinent now more than ever, as the ethical integrity of our country is so deeply in question. “There are so many people on the right and the left politically that are locked to their core values and we thought about how interesting that is,” Parker says. “And then we thought, the Coen brothers write characters like that. Characters that believe so strongly in values like honesty that it drives everything they do and gets them into all kinds of messes.”
The concept of Raising Coen almost runs the risk of seeming like simply a “genre show.” Yet when I saw it last week it was clear there is nothing simple about what this ensemble achieves with their olympian performances. They succeed not only in highly detailed characterizations over the course of an evening, but also in juggling the narration of improvised Coen Brothers-esque stage directions and cinematography. This synchronous ensemble is able to recreate the magic of film and the poetry of a script all while listening and responding to each other so closely it’s chilling.
Deep End Theater’s training method, known as “SOUND Improv” (as in structurally sound), doesn’t limit the performers under the title of “improvisers.” As Parker puts it, “We train actors who specialize in improvisation.” These actors are not trained to tell you jokes (thank god); they are trained to discover, to be curious, to trust in failure, and to trust the moment. It is not surprising that they came in third in Willamette Week’s recent Best Theater in Portland poll. It will not be surprising if they come in first.
Both behind the scenes and on the stage, Deep End is treading new ground. This is a company that has united with Canadian companies Paper Street Theatre, The Kinkonauts, and BullSkit Comedy to commit to mutual accountability, sharing of resources, Codes of Conduct, and HR policies. “We must support each other even in cases of holding each other accountable,” Parker says. “If I’m at the top of the food chain at Deep End, who’s watching me? Who’s making sure that I’m being held accountable?”
This isn’t one of those companies that offer a leveled training system, where you pay to play until you’ve thrown enough money at the illusion of growth that you finally make it into the ensemble. At Deep End, the most experienced and longstanding members train with newcomers. “The best improviser in the world isn’t the best because they can do a show with the other best and make it good,” Parker says. “The best improvisers can do a show with anybody and make them look good.” SOUND Improv classes are offered free every seven weeks.
This is a company that provides a wheelchair-accessible space for those who need it. A company that acknowledges at the end of each show that they know they are on Chinook land. A company that pays for their performers’ babysitters, and offers pay-what-you-will ticketing.
Hell, they even offer programming led by and made for people of color. Damn, this place is almost too good to be true.
You can still see Raising Coen before it closes after two shows this weekend. I will certainly be at both shows, for a second and third time, because unlike so many nonprofit theaters that, on the count of good grant-writing parlance, claim to be about change and dialogue, Deep End Theater (a for-profit theater, owned by artistic director Parker and business manager Ken Bryan) doesn’t have to pretend. They truly are about building community, and the integrity of their mission resonates through their performances, their space, and their programming. Deep End Theater is walking the walk both onstage and off.
At long and dear last, this is the real deal, folks.
Raising Coen concludes with performances at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, July 13-14, at Deep End Theater, 211 S.E. 11th Ave., Portland. Ticket information here.