andrea stolowitz

DramaWatch: Uncommon Ground

Fresh voices and surprising ideas emerge through the annual Fertile Ground festival of new work, and the theater week stays busy elsewhere, too.

The time has come again for Portland’s annual mid-winter performance bloom. Fertile Ground, “a city-wide festival of new works,” marks its 11th year and features 11 days of world premiere plays, play readings, workshop productions of works in-progress, dance, puppet shows and so forth. Dozens of shows in dozens of places around town, some ticketed, some free, almost all accessible with a $70 festival pass — that “almost” caveat necessary because many shows sell out or at least producers of popular shows fill up the reservations set aside for pass-holders.
In any case, it’s a great time to take time to race around (obeying all traffic codes and etiquette, mind you) and indulge in the cold-weather cornucopia. 

In addition to the basic concept outlined above, you’ll want to consult the 2020 festival guide or its online equivalent to help make choices about what to see. It’s a lot to take in and even after — perhaps especially after — perusing the 24-page guide you’ll have questions. I did. So I called festival director Nicole Lane.

“Who the heck are all these people??”

Well, actually I tried to make the question sound more professionally journalistic than that. I mentioned that in the festival’s early years it featured major productions by big companies such as Portland Center Stage and Artists Rep, but that’s no longer the case. And that projects seems less likely these days to come from the ranks of theater artists and writers whose work we see the rest of the year. But I was really asking who are all these writers and directors and producers I’ve not heard of before.

Fertile Ground festival director Nicole Lane. Photo: courtesy of Fertile Ground.

“Fertile Ground has evolved in terms of meeting the needs of Portland artists,” Lane replied. “It was founded upon a very open, non-adjudicated process.”

In the beginning — not coincidentally, she pointed out, when she and festival founder Trisha Mead were working for some of those big theater companies — the big producers were paying attention to the opportunity the fest presented and scheduling new works in conjunction with it. But the overlapping complications of new-play development and season planning make it difficult to keep getting brand new plays produced and also make sure they get staged at such a particular spot on the calendar.
Lane points out that the large companies are “finding ways to be supportive without putting shows in,” such as the panel discussion on IDEA (inclusion, diversity, equity and accessibility) that PCS is hosting on the festival’s final day, Feb. 9.

As for the folks who are in the festival, Lane was kind enough not to point out that the fact that I haven’t heard of them probably says more about me than about the artists in question. Instead, she gently reminded me that, ““one of the major tenets of Fertile Ground is producer education and opportunity — developing a new crop of producers alongside the new crop of works and ideas.”

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DramaWatch: Standing on a Rock

What was and what is, from Sacagawea to Standing Rock, in Mary Kathryn Nagle's time-traveling tale "Crossing Mnisose"

A bit of banter between a couple of young indigenous protesters at Standing Rock drills down wryly and comically on one of the key issues in Mary Kathryn Nagle’s new time-hopping play Crossing Mnisose: the way that many white people either venerate or underestimate nonwhite people, falling back on shopworn assumptions rather than taking the time to listen and learn and simply respect.

Carey (Nathalie Standingcloud), a young woman from nearby Bismark, and Travis (Robert I. Mesa), a key student activist in the 2016 fight to stop the Dakota Access oil pipeline that poses a threat to reservation land and burial sites, break into an impromptu comedy routine about the ways that white New Agers approach them as embodiments of mystical indigenous powers. The mimicry’s spot-on, and only a little exaggerated, which makes it all the funnier, in a shoulder-shrugging, with-friends-like-this sort of way. It’s almost a courtship dance, tough and affectionate and satiric and seductive all at once.

Robert I. Mesa and Nathalie Standingcloud, flirtatious at Standing Rock. Photo by Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv/Courtesy of Portland Center Stage at The Armory

Time warps in Nagle’s plays, or rather, overlaps. The past is prologue to the present, an enduring chord within a freshly written song, the sins of the fathers visiting generations to come. Nagle’s play Manahatta, which premiered last season at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and opens next month in New York, bounces between the stories of a Lenape woman in the 1600s, when Dutch settlers began to take over Manhattan, and a modern-day Lenape woman who is a high-powered securities trader on Wall Street, which sits on land from which her ancestors were evicted.

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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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The inner quest for Utopia

Hand2Mouth's "Psychic Utopia," about Oregon utopian movements, brings the search for a "beautiful and bold life" to the audience

A Hand2Mouth ensemble member is kneeling onstage a few feet away from me and makes eye contact. “What have you done to live a more beautiful and bold life?” she asks. I knew this question was coming but I still feel a sense of panic when the fourth wall breaks down. I tell her, and the audience around me, “I allowed myself to be vulnerable.” I don’t elaborate on what that means. She smiles beatifically, repeats my answer, and turns to someone else and asks the same question. This question is at the heart of Hand2Mouth’s new devised show Psychic Utopia.

At first, it’s a little hard to tell what kind of show Psychic Utopia, which is created by the company with collaborating writer Andrea Stolowitz, is going to be. You’re offered warm hand towels on entry and invited to take your shoes off. During the preshow the actors mingle with audience members. I imagine it’s like going to a spiritual retreat.

In search of Utopia, in search of self. Photo: Chelsea Petrakis

The beginning of the performance is signaled by the ensemble gathering around a glowing cube and exhaling one long harmonic note together. The actual significance of the preshow and this ritual isn’t as important as what they are doing: Setting the tone for the show. Inviting the audience to engage actively with what they are about to experience.

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ArtsWatch Weekly: full-tilt boogie

Imago tilts the action in a topsy-turvy Greek classic, Brett Campbell's best music bets, "Jersey Boys" croons into town, new theater & dance

The question echoes down the centuries from the Greek myths and Euripides’ play, which was first set on stage in 431 B.C. and just keeps coming back: was Medea balancing the scales of justice when she murdered her husband’s new wife and her own children, or was she falling off her rocker? People have been arguing the point ever since (Medea shocked its original audience, coming in dead last in that year’s City of Dionysia festival), and the question of teetering out of control remains foremost, right down to Ben Powers’ recent adaptation of Medea for the National Theatre in London.

The ups and downs of rehearsal: Imago’s tilting stage for “Medea.” Imago Theatre photo.

Enter Jerry Mouawad of Imago Theatre, whose own theories of balance reach back to his mentor Jacques Lecoq, the French mime and movement master who advocated a “balance of the stage.” In 1998 Mouawad and Imago took the advice literally, creating a large movable stage, suspended three feet above the floor, that tips and leans as the actors shift position on it. They used it for an acclaimed production of Sartre’s No Exit, in which the constantly shifting balances became a metaphor for the play itself. The show was revived several times and traveled to theaters across the country.

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Berlin Diary: chasing ghosts

Andrea Stolowitz's play about family history and the continuing shadow of the Holocaust is funny, smart, and haunting

Berlin Diary, Andrea Stolowitz’s engrossing and surprisingly funny theatrical detective story that opened Saturday at CoHo Theatre, is a play about memory and loss and the force of history, and about the limitations and possibilities of the theater itself. A deep delve into the Portland playwright’s family history and its intersection with traumatic events in public life, it’s prompted by the discovery in the U.S. National Holocaust Museum archives of a diary her Jewish great-grandfather, Dr. Max Cohnreich, kept in 1939, three years after he had escaped with his immediate family to New York as part of the larger family’s own mini-diaspora, leaving Berlin for Argentina, America, and elsewhere while the getting was still good.

After ignoring this evidence of a possibly altered reality for several years, Stolowitz decided to follow it into its murky past. She spent eight months in Berlin, running down clues hinted at in the diary, trying to understand what happened to her extended family, which lore insisted had been fortunate – everyone got out alive – and trying to discover, in the process, why her family seemed so distant and disassociated from one another, not at all the close happy bosom of a family that Stolowitz wished so fervently it were.

Erin Leddy and Damon Kupper, history detectives. Photo: Owen Carey

What she discovered through many often frustrating interviews and a mass of new information lodged free from city archives shook Stolowitz’s sense of what she thought she knew. It also shook her sense of what others might want to know. “I suppose what’s gone is gone,” an aunt sighs at one point, and yet Stolowitz’s growing conviction is that that’s not true: what’s past is crucial to the present and future; time moves and shapes itself in successive and coexisting tidal waves. Forgetting or denying is an evasion, a burial of the communal self, that broods and bruises.

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ArtsWatch Weekly: Berlin stories

Andrea Stolowitz's "Berlin Diaries," world premiere at the ballet, new on stage, Brett Campbell's music picks, lots of links

The corner of culture, art, and politics is a busy intersection these days, when suddenly each seems to have something significant to say about the others, and so Andrea Stolowitz’s new play Berlin Diary, although it deals with events three-quarters of a century ago, also seems very much of the current moment.

Stolowitz, the Portland playwright and Oregon Book Award winner, spent a year in Berlin on a Fulbright scholarship retracing the steps of her “lost” Jewish family, those stuck in the archives after her German Jewish great grandfather escaped to New York City in the late 1930s. Shortly after, he began to keep a journal to pass along to his descendants, and it’s that family book that prompted Stolowitz’s sojourn in Berlin and the construction of this play.

Playwright Andrea Stolowitz, creator of “Berlin Diary.”

The past comes forward in recurring waves, touching futures as they unfold. “It’s not easy to get a Berlin audience to laugh at jokes about the Holocaust,” Lily Kelting of NPR Berlin wrote when Berlin Diary premiered there last October. “But American playwright Andrea Stolowitz manages to do just that in her latest premiere at the English Theater Berlin.” Kelting continues: “She says that writing the play has helped her realize that the guilt of surviving the Holocaust was a secret that ultimately tore her family in the States apart — even generations later.”

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