artists repertory theatre

Tim Stapleton: A good man passes on

After a diagnosis that at first sounded like a death sentence, the Portland theater designer decided to live without fear—and return to painting

Tim Stapleton, the Portland set designer, visual artist, and occasional actor, died at a hospice care center on Monday morning, Sept. 7,  from the effects of ALS, “Lou Gehrig’s Disease.” Details were not immediately available. He leaves legions of friends and admirers, and an enormous hole in Portland’s artistic community. “The last time I visited the tangerine window [at his care center] he said he was getting more and more curious and excited about what lay ahead for him on the other side,” one good friend commented Monday morning. ArtsWatch is republishing this profile of Stapleton by Marty Hughley, which originally was published on June 13, 2018, under the headline “Tim Stapleton: Call and response with paint.” 

***

Tim Stapleton lives these days in a little house set back below an out-of-the-way Portland residential street not far from the Columbia Slough. Despite the years worth of blackberry vine overgrowth he’s hacked away, he’s still surrounded by vegetation, and the tiny runnel a few yards from the front door just adds to the sense of being in the country. He refers to the place only half-jokingly as “the holler.”

That nickname is a fitting reminder of his upbringing in southeastern Kentucky, in a hamlet known to the locals as Haymond. It also underscores how far he’s come in a lifetime, from one holler to another: In the 1950s and ‘60s, he was one of seven children in a coal miner’s family, poor, gay, and at a certain point, sexually abused. Now, he’s one of Portland’s most respected and beloved theater artists—best known as a scenic designer of what might be termed poetic efficiency, but also liable to show up as actor, writer or teacher—the recipient of a 2017 Drammy Award for Lifetime Achievement for decades of work with the historic Storefront Theatre, Artists Repertory Theatre, Profile Theatre and countless other companies and projects.

Tim Stapleton’s set designs have been evolved into spare but intense distillations of their plays/Photo by Gary Norman

However richly deserved that award, its timing owed something to an unwelcome development. In March of 2017, Stapleton was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, the motor neuron disease that leads to progressive weakening of the muscles and loss of body control. Near the end of a particularly busy 2016, he’d noticed some difficulties working on a set for a production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. A bit later, he was at the home of his friend, the photographer Owen Carey, when another bad sign appeared. “Owen and I often trade Negronis [gin, Campari, and sweet vermouth] for painting. So I was over there, up on a ladder doing some texture work or something, and I couldn’t raise my arm up.”

“I went from diagnosis to acceptance immediately,” he said in April of last year, sitting in his cozy holler home. “I refuse to live for the end. I refuse to live in fear.”

Instead, Stapleton has continued to live for, or at least through, his art. He continues his theater work, including the scenic design for Artists Rep’s current production of Lauren Gunderson’s I & You. Perhaps more importantly, he’s rededicated himself to his first love: Painting.

Continues…

DramaWatch: Your no-show of shows

The coronavirus crisis makes a dramatic impact on Portland theater, causing numerous postponements and cancellations.

“The show must go on…unless it shouldn’t.”

That’s the aphoristic take from American Theatre magazine in an assessment of the industry’s response to the current public health crisis. But then, the article headlined “Theatres Stay Open but Make Backup Plans Amid COVID-19 Concerns” was published on Tuesday, March 10. Since then, the NBA has suspended all its games, and the concert companies Live Nation and AEG have suspended tours nationwide. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will not hold any public gatherings around the world until further notice. Disneyland is being closed.

The situation is changing fast.

On Wednesday, Oregon governor Kate Brown  announced a temporary ban on gatherings of more than 250 people. Accordingly, Oregon Shakespeare Festival and Portland Center Stage have canceled all performances through April 8, and Artists Rep has canceled its fundraising gala, which had been scheduled for this Saturday. Also on Thursday, Hand2Mouth Theatre announced that director Stepan Simek’s production Danse Macabre: The Testament of Francois Villon — which was to have been the featured subject for this column — has been postponed, and tentatively is being rescheduled for June. 

The past grows more distant: Because of social distancing recommended to slow the coronavirus pandemic, theater fans will have to wait until June to see Jean-Luc Boucherot in Danse Macabre: The Testament of Francois Villon. Boucherot and director Štěpán Šimek collaborated on the show about the late-medieval French poet. Photo: Sarah Marguier.

Continues…

A neoclassical stage? Or a theater off-kilter?

Will Paula Vogel’s "Indecent" do justice to Sholem Asch’s "God of Vengeance"?

Shakespeare’s Hamlet is an artistic failure.

What?

Yeah. This is what T.S. Eliot says in his infamous essay “Hamlet and His Problems,” claiming that Coriolanus is instead Shakespeare’s most artistically solid piece of theater.

This perhaps says more about T.S. Eliot’s neoclassical leanings, his love of Roman “revenge tragedies,” than it does about the actual esthetics of theater.

Hamlet: a too, too solid self-obsession? Edwin Booth in the title role, ca. 1870. Photo: J. Gurney & Son, N.Y. /Wikimedia Commons

But maybe we should give his theory a test-drive first, before dismissing it outright.

Maybe it is actually a mirror we’d prefer to not look too deeply into . . .

Continues…

Spaces: Arts groups and the Portland real estate game

Artists Repertory Theatre and other performing arts organizations seek space and stability in an era of boom, bust and scarcity 

It’s a rainy evening outside the Tiffany Center, a circa-1928 Art Deco building in Goose Hollow that was first constructed for the Neighbors of Woodcraft fraternal organization. Inside, an elegant ballroom has been transformed by Artists Repertory Theatre, which has long been located across the street but will be itinerant for the next two-plus years while seeking to rebuild its theater building. 

For the play about to begin, The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, there are no rows of audience chairs facing the stage. The ballroom is instead configured for dinner, with perhaps 25 circular tables and a no-host bar. While caterers serve a choice of fish & chips, Reuben sandwiches or corned beef and cabbage on paper plates, cast members are mingling with the attendees, remaining in character enough to retain Prudencia’s called-for Scottish accents, but not so Method as to refuse questions from munching ticket-buyers.

For the next few years, Artists Repertory Theatre will be on a tour of performing arts spaces in the city, including the Tiffany Center for The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, as it works on building a new theater headquarters./Photo by Kathleen Kelly


“My prom was here,” an actress visiting my table confesses. But she’s really there to instruct us: We must tear our paper napkins into shreds and, when cued a few minutes later, toss them into the air, simulating falling snow for a scene set in a blizzard.

Dinner theater is not Artists Rep’s stock in trade, but a play masquerading a theater as a pub is perhaps fitting for a theater company using this 92-year-old ballroom and various other locations around town. That’s to say nothing of Artists Rep’s offices, which also have temporarily relocated, in this case to the former Zidell Marine Company building in South Waterfront, as has the group of 11 fellow nonprofit arts organizations renting office space from Artists Rep as part of what’s called the ArtsHub; four of those have relocated here too, including the Portland Actors Conservatory, Staged!, the Portland Area Theater Alliance and the August Wilson Red Door Project, and Boom Arts recently moved in, too. (The actress at my table, a non-speaking member of the cast, was a Portland Actors Conservatory student.) Seven others have had to seek temporary space elsewhere.

Continues…

DramaWatch: Linda Alper’s place at the table

A staged reading of the veteran actor/writer's "The Best Worst Place" highlights this weekend's Proscenium Live showcase of new plays

“God is closest to those with broken hearts.”

— from The Best Worst Place, by Linda Alper

A decade ago, an American actor named Joseph Graves, artistic director of Peking University’s Institute of World Theatre and Film, hired some actors from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to teach workshops in Beijing, Hong Kong, and Taipei. A year or so later, one of those actors, Linda Alper, her appetite whetted to return to Asia, landed a Fulbright grant, allowing her to spend a year in Taiwan teaching Shakespeare at Soochow University and National Taiwan University.

Though her students mostly were fluent in English, the metaphor and symbolism of Shakespeare, she said, were a big challenge. Among the ways she made things clear?

I’d put signs on things.”

Signs and symbols and China all loom large in Alper’s new play, The Best Worst Place, a fascinating blend of coming-of-age story and historical fiction, with a dash of espionage thriller. Being developed as part of Artists Repertory Theatre’s Table|Room|Stage new-play program, The Best Worst Place gets a staged reading this weekend in PSU’s Lincoln Hall as part of Proscenium Live, presented by Portland Shakespeare Project and Proscenium Journal.

Linda Alper with Michael Mendelson in Artists Repertory Theatre’s 2013 production of Ten Chimneys. Photo: Owen Carey

This will be the fifth year for Proscenium Live, and as usual it draws on a wealth of Portland theater talent. The Best Worst Place, Saturday evening’s reading directed by Jane Unger, will feature Claire Rigsby, Jason Glick, Foss Curtis, Barbie Wu and Joshua J. Weinstein. On Sunday afternoon, Portland Shakes co-founder Michael Mendelson directs Kelly Godell, Agatha Olsen, Murri Lazaroff-Babin, Sharonlee McLean, Lolly Ward and Proscenium Journal editor-in-chief Steve Rathje in Water From Fire, Sue Mach’s extension of the story of Hermione from The Winter’s Tale. That evening, Seattle playwright Carl Sanders’ Mercer Island Misalliance, which transposes George Bernard Shaw’s pointed political template to the 2016 Presidential election, fairly overflows with Portland stage favorites: Sharonlee McLean, Olivia Weiss, La’Tevin Alexander Ellis, Kelly Godell, Bobby Bermea, Dave Bodin, Jim Vadala and David Sikking, with Mendelson again directing.

All that sounds promising. But I’m most excited for Alper’s play.

The Best Worst Place takes place in the shadow — and in the dark, world-wide wake — of World War II and the Holocaust. The story’s central character is Eva, a Jewish teen whose family flees from their small German town before the war. Refused entry to the United States and many other countries, they join a teeming, tumultuous international refugee community in Shanghai, where occupying Japanese authorities soon force them into a fetid ghetto. There, Eva struggles  — with the cramped conditions, with her attempts to learn Chinese, to maintain friendships, to understand her parents and herself and an increasingly chaotic world. Some of Alper’s most resonant writing in the play relates the uses and deciphering of signs and symbols, whether they be anti-Jewish restrictions posted around Germany, clues to meaning in the strokes of logographic Chinese characters, the coded communications of resistance networks, or even the behaviorial hints of romantic interest.

“It can’t just be like a newsreel,” Alper says, in a video above from the Artists Rep website. It’s also about what “any young person goes through growing up in those years of their life and becoming an adult, in all the ways that we all do. And so how is that different in an extraordinary circumstance? And how is it the same? There’s a lot of information that people left, that people wrote about.”

That Alper, too, has written about it is a sign of good things.


FILE UNDER: BITTERSWEET



OPENING


Now 70 years old and still a marvelous model of the American musical,  South Pacific, the Rodgers & Hammerstein classic about Americans stationed overseas during World War II, delivers romance, trenchant social commentary and a treasure trove of memorable songs such as “Some Enchanted Evening,” “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair,” and “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught.” Sad to say, its theme of the poisonous effects of racial prejudice remains painfully pertinent. Clackamas Repertory Theatre stages the sturdy crowd-pleaser, directed by  Jayne Stevens and Wesley Robert Hanson. 

*

The highest goal of human freedom and justice is the ability of teenagers to go dancing. Well, at least that notion appears to be the dramatic engine moving this stage-musical adaptation of the hit 1980s movie Footloose. Peggy Tapthorn directs a cast featuring the marvelous Malia Tippets, as Broadway Rose helps you “kick off the Sunday shoes.” 

*

Though set in a forest (mostly), As You Like It should work fine at a vineyard. Portland Actors Ensemble in collaboration with Willamette Shakespeare Company presents Shakespeare’s comedy — directed by Sara Fay Goldman with an extra emphasis on the fluidity of gender roles — at Stoller Family Estate in Dayton. After its initial weekend, the production moves to other area wineries and to Reed College.

*

“Now I lays me down to sleep

 I prays de Lord me soul to keep

 And if de cop should find me — den

 I prays he’ll leave me be. Amen.”

That “newsboy’s prayer” from the late 1890s gives a glimpse of the meager life and street-urchin argot of the youngsters who peddled penny newspapers around the big cities of the era. However humble their circumstances, their 1899 strike against millionaire publishers Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst  eventually inspired a Broadway musical by Harvey Fierstein (based on a dud Disney movie). Plucky little guys bravely defy injustice! Plus: dancing!

Newsies gets a community-theater production by Journey Theater in Vancouver.

*

The Oregon Coast boasts plenty of attractions to lure folks on a summer weekend. But why don’t we add theater to that list. Red Octopus Theatre Company in Newport has On Golden Pond on the boards right now and a variety of intriguing selections for the coming months.


CLOSING


Director Brenda Hubbard’s The Comedy of Errors, which started a few weeks ago at the West Side Shakespeare Festival in Beaverton, concludes its run at Torii Mor Winery in Dundee.

*

Summer is for Shakespeare in parks. But Shakespeare in a cemetery has its place as well. Portland Actors Ensemble’s The Tragedie of King Lear, directed by Patrick Walsh, winds up its residence in the fitting setting of Southeast Portland’s Lone Fir Cemetery, with Jim Butterfield as the aging king and such terrific supporting actors as Paige McKinney (Goneril), Jill Westerby (Regan) and Gary Powell (Gloucester). 


THE FLATTENED STAGE (A LITTLE SCREEN TIME)


in the late 1990s I had the privilege of spending a year on a National Arts Journalism Fellowship, a program funded by the Pew Charitable Trust. At one point, all the participating arts critics and associated academics gathered for a few days in New York City for a round of meetings, museum tours, performances and such. This was a group of folks accustomed to speaking with famous people, to artists and civic leaders (a different fellowship gathering included a tour of Pixar Studios, at which we were greeted by none other than Steve Jobs himself). And being culture mavens in NYC, we spotted a lot of celebrities that weekend. No big deal.

There was one moment, though, where I saw a ripple of nervous excitement go through our ranks, the uncontrolled thrill that comes with the sudden combination of hero worship and physical proximity. Several of our ranks went to see a Broadway production of The Little Foxes, and as we made our way from the lobby into the auditorium, there he was — not onstage, but among us, just a few feet away, another member of the audience, yet so much more: Wallace Shawn!

The play was excellent, but what we talked about afterward was that we’d seen Wallace Shawn!!

This is a column about theater, about art on the stage; but the screen has its virtues. One of which is that we can watch, repeatedly, something such as this, Shawn as Uncle Vanya, in Louis Malle’s film version Vanya on 42nd Street:


BEST LINE I READ THIS WEEK


“Music is a moment. But life’s a long time. In that moment, when it’s good, when you really swinging — then you joined to everything, to everybody, to skies and stars and every living thing. But music ain’t kissing. Kissing’s what you want to do. Music’s what you got to do, if you got to do it. Question is how long you can keep up with the music when you ain’t got nobody to kiss.”


— James Baldwin, from “The Amen Corner”

*

That’s all I have for now. I’ll try to do better the next time.

Theater news: Artists Rep prepares for another leap

Artists Rep has big plans for keeping its theater space in downtown Portland in downtown Portland—a two-theater complex with room for its ArtsHub partners.

Artists Repertory Theatre hired J.S. May to be its executive director less than six months ago, and he and his board are already about to make a big move—a $10 million-plus capital campaign that will redesign and renovate its building on Southwest Morrison Street.

Just looking at the recent financial history of the company, that qualifies as “jaw-dropping.” Since November 2017, the company has: 1) incurred a $309,000 lien from the IRS on unpaid payroll taxes, 2) parted ways with previous executive director Sarah Horton, 3) announced the sale of half its property at 1515 SW Morrison St. to a Texas-based real estate company, which will develop it into a 22-story residential tower (the sale closes on June 1, May says), 4) received an anonymous donation worth $7.1 million, and 5) notched another $500,000 donation that it needed to help shore up the half of the property the company will retain, a requirement of the sale.

The building concept by Lever Architecture for the proposed renovation of Artists Repertory Theatre/Courtesy Artists Repertory Theatre

The influx of money resolved the IRS problem, paid off the mortgage on the building, and covered some substantial bills and debts the company had accrued. Did it also tap out the company’s likeliest donors for the capital campaign? May seemed pretty confident about raising the money Artists Rep needs last week when we went over the company’s plans, primarily because of the value proposition: For $10-11 million Artists Rep will be able to build a theater complex worth more than $30-35 million, May said, if you had to buy the land, too. The proceeds of the sale of the half-block has already jump-started the process.

Continues…

2018: A roller-coaster arts ride

Baby 2019's raring to get rolling. But first, a stroll down memory lane with Old Man 2018 and his slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

Well, that was the year that was, wasn’t it? Old Man 2018 limps out of the limelight with a thousand scars, a thousand accomplishments, and a whole lot of who-knows-what. The new kid on the block, Baby 2019, arrives fit and sassy, eager to get rolling and make her mark. She’s got big plans, and the ballgame’s hers to win, lose, or draw.

New kid on the block: 2019 rolls into the picture, fit and sassy and ready to start fresh. (Claude Monet, “Jean Monet on His Hobby Horse,” 1872, oil on canvas, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.)

On the Oregon arts and cultural scene, 2018 entered the game with similar high hopes and then handled a lot of unexpected disruption, holding his ground and even making a few gains even as his hair grew thin and gray. He can retire with his head held high, if he’s not too busy shaking it from side to side over the things he’s seen.

Continues…