American Revolutions

For the past decade, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s American Revolutions program has commissioned playwrights to examine turning points in U.S. history. Playwright Idris Goodwin has heeded the call with his new play, The Way the Mountain Moved, a revisionist look at a supposedly well-known piece of American history: how the West was won.

Not your typical white cowboy heroes, Julian Remulia (from left), Maddy Flemming, Sara Bruner and Al Espinosa represent other figures of the American West in “The Way the Mountain Moved” at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Photo: Jenny Graham.

Specifically, The Way the Mountain Moved — which continues through October 28 — is set in Utah in the 1850s. The cast of characters is made up primarily of people who have long been ignored by the American Western: There are African-American Mormons (yes, they exist), Mexican immigrants, single women and their daughters, Native Americans. With this play, Goodwin, OSF, and director May Adrales point out the hypocrisy inherent in American Westerns (not to mention in this country, in general), with their singular focus on the white cowboy as hero, when we all know the white cowboy character (and, in fact, our country) were built upon the backs of people of color and women, so long and largely ignored.

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DramaWatch: Can’t pay? Must pay.

The issue of salaries vs. contracts in a typically underpaid profession sweeps the theater scene. Plus, openings from Ashland to Hillsboro.

“To all professional theatre companies and their donors and sponsors, Susan and I will no longer donate to organizations paying less than minimum wage.”

On July 6, that simple message was posted to the Facebook page of Leonard Magazine, who, along with his wife, Susan, is surely among the most devoted of Portland-area theater fans. The pair attend multiple shows each week, and donate widely. Over the next few days, 106 comments on the message were posted by some of the Magazines’ many Facebook friends, many of them theater artists. Many comments engendered their own lengthy sub-threads of replies and exchanges.

In some regards, it’s a complicated issue. The Facebook comments raised questions about the distinctions between hourly pay, salaries and stipends; about the differing treatment of actors, designers, and running crews; about distinctions in union contracts and the demands of state labor law; about whether more stringent pay requirements may cause some professional companies to instead operate as community theaters, or at least lead to seasons full of two-handers because larger casts will be unaffordable. A recurring theme in the comments was appreciation for Don Horn’s Triangle Productions, which has made a commitment to following state wage law and has hosted discussions between theater community members and labor-law specialists.

Dale Johannes in Triangle Productions’ recent “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.” Triangle has been praised for its adherence to employment laws. Photo: Henry Liu

So much to digest. That the Magazines have made such a decision about their support of theaters and made a public declaration of principle is perhaps not as consequential as if the same move had been made by such a major arts donor as, say, Ronni Lacroute. But as an example of passionate theater supporters taking a tough-love stance around an issue that doesn’t usually get major attention, that single sentence on Facebook might create a meaningful ripple in the city’s arts ecosystem. Certainly the Magazines intend it as a spur to discussion and action, among donors and administrators alike.

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A little money for the arts

Amid a precarious political battle in Congress over the federal budget, Oregon artists and groups get both state and national grants

Government funding for the arts continues to be a political hot potato in the American cultural kitchen – and it continues to survive, if on a considerably leaner diet than is common in European nations, where the arts tend to thought of as a considerably more integral part of the larger culture. If the American fiscal water tap isn’t exactly open full blast, at least it’s still running. And this week, amid a flurry of moves and countermoves on the national budget, it’s filled a couple of pots.

On Wednesday the National Endowment for the Arts announced its latest round of project grants – $25 million nationally, including $412,500 in Oregon and $915,500 in Washington state. And on Thursday, the Oregon Arts Commission, which gets a significant amount of funding from the NEA, announced $59,000 in visual arts fellowships – small but key grants to encourage and develop new work.

That the work of the federal endowment in particular continues to be done is a small victory. Almost immediately after taking office a little more than a year ago President Trump set his sights on the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities, as well as funding for public television, vowing to eliminate all federal funding for them. But he and Congress have had other fish to fry, and both endowments have had enough bipartisan support to continue, with the NEA’s at a relatively tiny but important $149.9 million.

Wednesday’s tough-fought spending agreement in the Senate, which bumps the federal government’s nonmilitary spending limit upward by $63 million and $68 million in the next two years, suggests that the endowment budgets will survive again, although a budget battle still looms in the House.

[Bulletin: Sen. Rand Paul’s stand against the increased spending in the budget bill caused the Senate to adjourn late Thursday night without an agreement, forcing at least a short-term government shutdown. The Senate is expected to re-adjourn for a series of votes beginning at 1 a.m. Friday. But this is Washington, D.C., in 2018: anything might happen.]

[Friday morning update: The Senate broke its impasse, the House approved the new spending bill, and the president signed it in the early morning hours, ensuring (among many other things) the arts and humanities endowments’ future for at least two years.]

Lynn Nottage’s play “Sweat,” with Jack Willis, Carlo Albán, and K.T. Vogt, was part of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s “American Revolutions” project, which has just received a $70,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

It’s unlikely but not impossible that the endowments, which have been targets of the fiscal and social right almost since they were created in 1965, could end up on the chopping block again. They are pawns in a much larger game, and increasingly, powerful political players are unafraid to sacrifice their pawns in search of bigger victories on the board.

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