An Octoroon

ArtsWatch year in theater 2017

From "Astoria" to "The Humans" with a whole lot in between, a month-by-month stroll with ArtsWatch through the year in Oregon theater

From Portland Center Stage’s Astoria: Part I (Part II is streaming around the bend in January, along with an encore run for Part I) to Artists Rep’s The Humans and a slew of holiday shows, it’s been a busy, busy year in Oregon theater.

In Ashland, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival rolled out another season blending contemporary and classic with a wide-angle world view. And the fine actor G. Valmont Thomas, after spending a season playing Falstaff in all three plays in which the great character appears, died in December from bone cancer, at age 58.

In Hillsboro, Bag&Baggage, which had been temporarily homeless, opened a spiffy new home in a renovated downtown former bank building.

In Portland, the sprawling Fertile Ground festival introduced dozens of new works (and, like Astoria, is gearing up for a fresh new run in January). Chris Coleman, Center Stage’s artistic director for 17 years, announced he would be leaving at the end of this season to take over the theater at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. TCG, the influential Theatre Communications Group, held its annual conference in Portland. And theater companies large and small produced more plays than The Count could count in a dozen seasons of Sesame Street.

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Profiles & Conversations 2017

From poets to painters to dancers to actors to musicians, 21 tales from ArtsWatch on the people who make the art and why they do it

Art is a whole lot of things, but at its core it’s about people, and how they see life, and how they make a life, and how they get along or struggle with the mysteries of existence. That includes, of course, the artists themselves, whose stories and skills are central to the premise. In 2017 ArtsWatch’s writers have sat down with a lot of artists – painters, actors, dancers and choreographers, poets, music-makers – and listened as they spun out their tales.

We’ve been able to tell their stories because of support from you and people like you. Oregon ArtsWatch is a nonprofit cultural journalism organization, and your gifts help pay for the stories we produce. It’s easy to become a member and make a donation. Just click on the “donate today” button below:

Here are 21 stories from 2017 about Oregon artists and artists who’ve come here to do their work:

 


 

Erik Skinner. Photo: Michael Shay

Eric Skinner’s happy landing

Jan. 18: “On the afternoon that Snowpocalypse struck Portland, Eric Skinner walked into the lobby at BodyVox Dance Center after a morning in the studio and settled easily onto one of the long couches in the corner. As always he looked trim and taut: small but strong and tough, with a body fat index down somewhere around absolute zero. If anyone looks like a dancer, Skinner does. Even in repose he seems all about movement: you get the sense he might spring up suddenly like a Jumping Jack on those long lean muscles and bounce somewhere, anywhere, just for the sake of bouncing.” In January, after 30 years on Portland stages, Skinner was getting ready to retire from BodyVox – but not from dance, he told Bob Hicks.

 


 

Les Watanabe in ‘Sojourn’ by Donald McKayle, Inner City Repertory Company. Photographed by Martha Swope in New York. 1972. Photo courtesy of Les Watanabe

Les Watanabe on Alvin Ailey, Lar Lubovich, Donald McKayle and his life in dance

Jan. 20: In a wide-ranging Q&A interview, Jamuna Chiarini hears a lot of modern-dance history from Watanabe, who was in the thick of it and now teaches at Western Oregon University:

“During Alvin Ailey’s CBS rehearsals, Lar Lubovitch was teaching in the next studio. I ran into him at the drinking fountain. While living in L.A., I had read articles about him in Dance Magazine. So while he was stooped over drinking, I exclaimed, ‘Lar Lubovitch! I’ve read all about you!’

“At that point he stood up facing me wiping his mouth and looking incredulous like, ‘Who is this guy?’ I then asked, ‘Do you ever have auditions? I would love to dance with you.’

“’Are you dancing now?’ he asked.

“’Yes, with Alvin Ailey next door, but it is only for five weeks.’

“’Where do you take class?’ Lar asked. ‘At Maggie Black’s,’ I answered. ‘Good. Let’s meet at her first class. Then you can rush back to rehearsal. See you next week.’”

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ArtsWatch’s hit parade 2017

Readers' choice: From a musical fracas to rising stars to a book paradise, a look back on our most read and shared stories of the year

Here at ArtsWatch, it’s flashback time. It’s been a wild year, and the 15 stories that rose to the top level of our most-read list in 2017 aren’t the half of it, by a long shot: In this calendar year alone we’ve published more than 500 stories.

Those stories exist because of support from you and people like you. Oregon ArtsWatch is a nonprofit cultural journalism organization, and your gifts help pay for the stories we produce. It’s easy to become a member and make a donation.

Here, back for another look, is an all-star squad of stories that clicked big with our readers in the past 12 months:

 


 

Matthew Halls conducted Brahms’s ‘A German Requiem’ at the 2016 Oregon Bach Festival. Photo: Josh Green.

The Shrinking Oregon Bach Festival

In June Tom Manoff, for many years the classical music critic for National Public Radio’s All Things Considered, looked at the severe drop in attendance and cutbacks in programming at the premiere Eugene music festival. He summarized: “Thinking ahead, I ask: If this year’s schedule portends the future, can OBF retain its world-class level? My answer is no.” His essay, which got more hits than any other ArtsWatch story in 2017, got under a lot of people’s skin. But it was prescient, leading to …

Bach Fest: The $90,000 solution. This followup that had the year’s second-highest number of clicks: Bob Hicks’s look at the mess behind the surprise firing of Matthew Halls as the festival’s artistic leader and the University of Oregon’s secretive response to all questions about it.

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‘An Octoroon’ meta-review: theatrical therapy

Taking a playwright off the stage and putting him on the couch

by MARIA CHOBAN

Editor’s note: After watching Artists Repertory Theatre’s new production of An Octoroon, in which playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins begins with an imaginary conversation with his shrink, we wondered what it might have sounded like if the conversation between psychiatrist and playwright had continued. We imagine it might have gone something like this.

“THERAPIST”:
I think you lost your nerve.

“BJJ”:
Really? Why? Because I went all meta ?

“THERAPIST”:
Having  the playwright appear on stage and talk about writing his play is pretty meta.

“BJJ”:
It distances the audience from the story and allows them to protect themselves emotionally by reminding them that it’s all a fictional construct. I mean, it worked for the Oregon ArtsWatch reviewer.

“THERAPIST”:
And bringing in that tired old device of supplying exposition by having someone talk to a therapist.

“BJJ”:
Like we’re doing right now.

“THERAPIST”:
Yup. You think you were going meta by having a character named BJJ onstage in a play by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins? I’m gonna go meta on your meta! Now I’m putting both of us in quotes — in my 2017 story about your 2014 play about the original 1859 play (The Octoroon by Dion Boucicault) based on the original 1856 book (The Quadroon by Thomas Mayne Reid).

“BJJ”:
So you’re saying that going meta is OK?

“THERAPIST”:
Can be. It’s like any other dramatic or literary device. It depends on how well you do it. Whether or not it connects.

“BJJ”:
Well, did it?

“THERAPIST”:
Not really. But your opening monologue sure did.

Joseph Gibson as BJJ in Artists Repertory Theater’s ‘An Octoroon’
Photo: Russell J. Young.

“BJJ”:
You liked my monologue?

“THERAPIST”:
I liked how you, a black playwright, immediately made me, a white female, feel the low grade depression you were dealing with. You turned it into a universal that connected . . . At least with me.

 

THERAPIST:
What makes you happy?

BJJ:
I don’t know.

THERAPIST:
Really? Nothing makes you happy?

BJJ:
Not really.

THERAPIST:
What about work? Doesn’t the theater make you happy?

BJJ:
I mean . . . Some of it. Not all of it.

THERAPIST:
So you’re not excited about your work?

BJJ:
I mean I’m not not excited.

 

“THERAPIST”:
Too bad that —

“BJJ”:
What?

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DramaWatch Weekly: A test, a lull, lean prose

On Portland stages, it's a week for "Fun Home," Raymond Carver, catching up with "An Octoroon," and checking the horizon

Let there be more than one female character.

Let them talk to each other.

Let them have a conversation that’s less than 100 percent about men.

A.L. Adams

That’s The Bechdel Test, a set of guidelines Graphic Novelist Alison Bechdel sensibly suggested in 1985 as a way to vet narratives for basic fairness. In my theater reviews, I’ve used it—not because it’s a buzzword, I could give a rip—but because when I find myself already bothered by a 2-D plot, applying this test gives me an impartial reason why. #notallmen. See what I did there? Never mind.

Here’s something extraordinary: Alison Bechdel has an autobiographical musical, Fun Home.

What’s more, it’s won a Tony, and I bet it passes the Test. It opens this week at Portland Center Stage at The Armory.

Aida Valentine (left), Karsten George (center), and Theo Curl in “Fun Home.” Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv

Think-piece brinksmen on Bechdel’s level, those whose theories have become common knowledge, rarely produce their own art. Malcolm Gladwell, for instance, rode “The Tipping Point” to the edge, but not to Broadway. Richard Florida, who championed and later renounced “The Creative Class,” never made a musical about it (arguably, The Music Man scooped him). Yet here comes Alison Bechdel—the mind behind the pen that’s pinpointed exactly what was wrong with so many others’ stories—striding into the spotlight* to answer a dare critics-who-are-also-artists hear daily: “Let’s see you try it.”

Okay. Bam. Tony.

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‘An Octoroon’: a punch and a gasp

Review: Whiteface, blackface, redface, a slap in the face: Artists Rep's season opener enters the race wars and laughs at the unlaughable

At the top of Act 4 in An Octoroon the show breaks down. Literally. Playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, who has written himself into this satirical melodrama, turns to the audience and says, “So I think I fucked up.” Metatheatrical shows, especially shows where the playwright is a character, can come across as clumsy and self-indulgent. But Artist’s Repertory Theatre’s production completely embraces the Jacobs-Jenkins script, starting off the company’s season with a smart show that packs a lot of punch.

An Octoroon is a satire of the classic 19th century show The Octoroon, written in 1859 by Dion Boucicault, and follows the original plot closely. Boucicault’s script follows star-crossed lovers George and Zoe in the antebellum South. Zoe is one-eighth black, and so their love can never be. At the time of its production The Octoroon provoked a national discussion around slavery. But unless you’ve studied theater you’ve probably never heard of it, because there is no way a company could get away with producing this show today. The plot is overly contrived. Zoe is the classic “tragic woman of color” who has no future because a white artist cannot imagine a future for her, and George is a “benevolent slaveholder.”

Joseph Gibson, in whiteface, lamenting cruel fate as a “benevolent” slaveowner in love with a octoroon (Alex Ramirez de Cruz, background). Photo: Russell J Young

It’s a story prime for satire.

Also, no one who owned slaves was benevolent.

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ArtsWatch Weekly: Fire, TBA

Natural disasters, TBA springs to life, new theater season kicks into gear, Brett Campbell's musical picks, links

Bam. Just like that, it’s September. And just like that, we’re living in a disaster area. Across the metropolitan area the skies are thick with smoke, and ash is drifting like some late-summer demon snow. Fire has engulfed the Columbia Gorge, swept across Warm Springs and southern Oregon (the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland has canceled several outdoor performances), crept to the urban edges. Much of the rest of the West, from Houston to L.A., has been smacked as hard or harder.

James Lavadour, “This Good Land,” suite of two four-color lithographs. Paper size each: 30 x 39.5″; total image size: 60 x 39.5″. Edition of 20. Crow’s Shadow Institute of the Arts

We tend to think of art as something that engages our minds and our emotions, but here in the West we live in constant proximity to the physical, too, and somehow our art needs to engage that as well. I’m thinking of painters like James Lavadour, whose work seems hewn from the geology of the dry inland, and Michael Brophy’s scenes of human incursions into the wild, and the unromanticized gritty vistas of Sally Cleveland and Roll Hardy, and the elemental art of Sara Siestreem and Lillian Pitt and the late Betty Feves and Morris Graves, and so many others. Their refusal to abandon the idea of the physical is not caution but a recognition that we live in Place, and can’t live outside of it. Call them regionalists if you want. We are all regional, all physical, and our best artists show us how the physical, the intellectual, and the emotional are interwoven. Floods mean something. Fire means something. Wasted waters mean something. We can see it, through the smoke and mirrors of denial. Our storytellers can’t live simply inside their heads. Engage. Engage with the world. Including the physical world that is part of us, and we of it.

*

Meanwhile, the cultural season’s steaming down the track like a freight train that’s behind schedule and racing to catch up. Lots and lots going on this week, so let’s just do a quick stop, look, and listen.

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