Daniel Pollack-Pelzner

Oscars, books, and strange things

ArtsWatch Weekly: Oscarmania, Oregon Book Awards, strange tales and a stranger firing, opera's triumph, carving stories, photo stories

ON SUNDAY HOLLYWOOD THREW ITS BIG BACCHANALIA, the 93rd such annual fling, and even in its pandemic-year virtual tuxedo it was an obsessively overproduced wingding that was, at heart, a gigantic sales pitch for the movie industry. Nomadland (based on a book by Jessica Bruder, a former reporter for The Oregonian) won, the late Chadwick Boseman did not, and television viewership numbers took another tumble. Marc Mohan wraps things up smartly in his new “Streamers” column. Most refreshingly, he notes, the studios pushed their big fall and winter releases back to this summer, a move that “allowed greater recognition for films that didn’t conform to Hollywood ‘Oscar-bait’ formulas. As a result, the Academy took a few more halting, belated steps towards racial, gender, and aesthetic diversity.” 

A doff of the ArtsWatch cap also to Portland filmmaker Skye Fitzgerald, who scored his second Oscar nomination for his short documentary Hunger Ward, about the war-caused famine in Yemen and the struggle of two women to feed the devastated nation’s children and infants. Colette, about a former French Resistance member who travels to Germany for the first time in 74 years, won that category, but that takes nothing from Fitzgerald’s achievement. Mohan, ArtsWatch’s movie columnist, talked with Fitzgerald a week before the ceremony, and the resuting interview is worth a second read.

And now, back to our previously scheduled coverage.



WRITE A BOOK. MAKE IT GOOD. SEND IT INTO THE WORLD.



Left: Joe Wilkins, author of “Thieve.” Right: Ann Vileisis, author of “Abalone.”
 

THE OREGON BOOK AWARDS ARE COMING UP SUNDAY, and although they’re much less high-profile than Sunday’s Academy Awards blowout was, a lot of talent and a lot of prestige will be in the virtual room when this year’s winners are announced. That’ll be at 7 p.m. Sunday, May 2, on a special episode of OPB Radio’s The Archive Project, a co-production of OPB and Literary Arts, which also sponsors the annual book awards. (You can see the list of nominees here.)

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Theater: 5 years, 1 mural, 1 wag

Broadway Rose streams "The Last Five Years," Daren Todd paints a James Baldwin mural for Center Stage; the Bard endures the Plague

For decades Portland has been a hotbed of musical theater, with eager performers and enthusiastic audiences flocking to such centers of the great American popular art form as the old Portland Civic Theatre and The Musical Company, and suburban companies such as Lakewood and Clackamas Rep. Portland Opera hasn’t been immune to the pleasures and box-office jingle of a good musical, and during Chris Coleman’s long tenure as artistic director, large-scale musicals became eagerly anticipated annual events at Portland Center Stage, the city’s biggest theater company. Other theaters in town have dipped into the musical waters, too, and musicals, many of them original, have been regular visitors to the stages of the city’s two biggest children’s theaters, Northwest Children’s Theatre and Oregon Children’s Theatre.

But sometime in the almost 30 years since Broadway Rose set up shop, the center of Portland’s musical-theater gravity shifted a few miles south to the close-in suburb of Tigard, where the company founded by New York refugees Sharon Maroney and Dan Murphy produces musicals, musicals, and nothing but musicals. Some hit the sweet spot, a few miss the mark, but big or small, shows almost always have high production values, a selling point for its loyal audiences.

Jeff Rosick and Kailey Rhodes in rehearsal for “The Last Five Years.” Photo: Broadway Rose Theatre Company

Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years, Broadway Rose’s current show – it streams through May 16 – is no exception. Like a few other productions since pandemic shutdowns began, it was taped under careful conditions on Broadway Rose’s stage, and its staging is simple but effective, with shifting cameras and effective lighting providing at least a semblance of live-theater vérité on your home screen. With just two performers, it’s a smart choice for video adaptation in socially distanced times – and with just two performers, it also lacks some of the kick-up-your-heels exuberance that’s one of the golden-age American musical’s biggest attractions.

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The race is on. Ready for live events?

ArtsWatch Weekly: Ready or not, things are opening. Plus Lillian Pitt & Friends, opera breaks the mold, movie time, poetry all over

THE RACE IS ON, as George Jones famously crooned, and if it’s not pride up the backstretch and heartaches goin’ to the inside, as the song’s lyrics breathlessly declare, the stakes may be higher: Can we get the nation and world successfully vaccinated before relaxed safety standards and unchecked viral variants send us back to the starting gate? As warmer months approach, and vaccination rates improve, and people become more restless after more than a year in shutdown, the urge to get out and do things grows stronger – but is it jumping the gun? This week the state reclassified Multnomah and Clackamas counties, with a combined population of more than 1.2 million, from “moderate” to “high risk” for coronavirus. (Washington County, with a population of almost 600,000, maintained its “moderate” status.) The question is vital and controversial, and it goes beyond schools and workplaces and houses of worship and even a weekend at the coast. It has a deep and direct impact on cultural life, too.

Young blues phenom Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, from Clarksdale, Mississippi, had the crowd roaring at the 2019 Waterfront Blues Festival. The festival, a Portland July 4 Weekend tradition, was canceled in 2020 because of coronavirus restrictions but will return in July 2021 at the new Lot at Zidell Yards, south of its usual sprawling location on the downtown waterfront. This year’s acts have not yet been announced, and crowd size will be controlled. Photo: Joe Cantrell

Things are stirring. Restaurants have opened for indoor dining. Even theater, beyond the Covid-special videotaped virtual version, is taking tentative steps. Portland’s Triangle Productions has just gone into rehearsal for Joe DiPietro’s four-performer throwback comedy Clever Little Lies, with plans to open to a live audience on May 6, and it could be just the sort of nostalgic escapism that cooped-up audiences will be craving. Movie theaters are reopening (see Marc Mohan’s “Streamers” column, linked below). A consortium of Oregon large-event venues, meanwhile, has written Gov. Kate Brown pushing for guidelines and permission to reopen, arguing that they know how to control crowds and should be part of the decision-making process. The letter includes about fifty signees, ranging from the Pendleton Round-Up to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the Sisters Folk Festival, and the Portland and Eugene symphonic orchestras.

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Connecting in a time of isolation

ArtsWatch Weekly: As the world turns, will real reality replace virtual reality? Plus: The mountain blows its top – this time, virtually.

EVEN AS OREGON BEGINS TO MOVE CAUTIOUSLY TOWARD REOPENING its social and commercial activities – today Gov. Kate Brown announced a loosening of restrictions in 28 of the state’s 36 counties, though not in the greater Portland metropolitan area – the new reality of social isolation remains with us. This holds true in the cultural world in particular: The reopening of theaters, concert halls, museums, and cultural centers is likely months in the future, and for many people the experience of the past two months has prompted a rethinking about the importance of art and what, in fact, “art” means.

In the Pacific Northwest in particular, art has long had a deeply rooted connection with the land itself, from the days of Indigenous stone paintings and carvings to the place-inspired work of contemporary artists and, presumably, the work of future artists grappling with the stark realities of environmental crisis and climate change. You can feel it even in the work of Oregon giants of abstract art, such as Lucinda Parker and the late Carl Morris and Mark Rothko, all of whose paintings are intellectual yet also deeply, unashamedly physical. At a time when the long lockdown and the world’s resulting switch to virtual reality have people yearning for a reconnection with real reality, the region’s stubborn insistence on connecting to the land seems suddenly to put it ahead of the game.
 

Aleksandra Apocalisse, “Grow” (2015). 11 x 14 inches. Watercolor and pen on paper. Image courtesy of the artist. 

Oregonians also have long been open to the idea of outsiderism, in a positive sense: Where you come from or who you trained with seem less important than what you do. And in a time of deep economic and structural insecurity the rigors of the academic and deep-pocket Wall Street pipelines don’t dominate the region’s artistic hierarchy the way they do in more heavily populated art centers. Here, if you Just Do It, as one local corporate juggernaut likes to put it, you stand a fair chance of being seen.

In Oregon, an artist might arrive from anywhere. That’s the case, for instance, with Aleksandra Apocalisse, who, as Shannon M. Lieberman writes for ArtsWatch in Celebrating connection in many forms, “started painting on a whim when she was 21.” Apocalisse’s interests, Lieberman continues, were both broad and focused: “After a series of unusual jobs, including farming, teaching children circus arts, and a stint as a camp science instructor, Apocalisse reached a turning point while interviewing for graduate programs in neuroscience. Unable to stop thinking about how she would balance the demands of graduate work with her desire to make art, Apocalisse realized that her hobby had become her passion–but could she turn it into a career?”

Yes, she could – and her route was not art school but the deeply populist, and popular, Portland Saturday Market, a grand communal gathering of all sorts of people with all sorts of interests. It was connecting at street level, taking art to the people in a way similar to the WPA art projects of the 1930s, except on an individual basis, not government-run. “It has been a good fit for Apocalisse, who thrives on talking to people,” Lieberman writes. “… In her explorations of connection, Aleksandra Apocalisse’s work does not call for change per se. Yet it powerfully implies that we all have tremendous power to forge the kinds of connections we want to see in the world.  Maybe we’re already making them. And if not, what are we waiting for?”

Bruce Conkle, “Quarantine,” 2020. Image courtesy of the artist.

More established Oregon artists are taking a turn in their work during the shutdown, too. As Martha Daghlian writes in Artist Bruce Conkle: Isolation as meditation time, Conkle has been doing a series of drawings inspired by the great turn of events taking place beneath our noses – or at least by the headlines and news feeds of a world turned upside down. At the same time, Conkle says, in a strange way the shutdown fits right in: “Artists in general thrive having a lot of time alone, to be inside their own head, so I think in a way we are getting through this house arrest a lot easier than people who constantly need external stimuli. The creative mental state is a type of meditation—one loses track of time, of place, and of self. I draw mandalas as meditations on a certain subject. After a few minutes (of drawing) you become unaware of the subject itself.”


WATCHING MOUNT ST. HELENS BLOW HER TOP


Lucinda Parker, “Magma opus,” July 1980. Mixed media on paper. Collection of Stephen McCarthy, L2019.69.1. Image courtesy Portland Art Museum

SPEAKING OF PHYSICAL REALITIES: Monday, May 18, will be the fortieth anniversary of the big blow that shook the Pacific Northwest to its foundations and sent clouds of ash from the Mount St. Helens eruption scurrying around the globe. And Volcano! Mount St. Helens in Art, the sprawling exhibition at the Portland Art Museum that opened with a bang in February and was packing ’em in until the museum’s forced shutdown in March, was scheduled to close on Sunday the 17th. The museum, of course, is already closed for an undetermined time. But you still stand a decent chance of seeing Volcano! in the flesh. “After much work with cooperative lenders, we can now confirm that we expect Volcano! to reopen when the museum does (whenever that may be),” museum spokesman Ian Gillingham said in an email exchange on Tuesday. “We expect it to run through sometime in January.”

Now you can get about as good a virtual experience of the exhibition as is possible. The museum staff has assembled and made available online a virtual tour of the exhibition, beginning in prehistory and continuing through early European American paintings, images of the explosion itself, and paintings and photographs from the aftermath. There are even a few examples of ceramics made of Mount St. Helens ash, which for several years formed the basis of a vibrant souvenir cottage industry.

This week’s edition of Willamette Week features a very good, lavishly illustrated guide to the exhibition, We Brought a Piece of Mount St. Helens to You, that’s well worth your time.

And at 3:30 p.m. Sunday – the day before the anniversary – museum curator Dawson Carr, who brought the exhibit to fruition, will host an online event, Mount St. Helens: A Landscape Across Time, with several guests discussing aspects of the show: Seattle artist Barbara Noah, whose excellent painting Tag III is featured in the exhibit; Nathan Roberts, an ecologist and interim director of cultural resources for the Cowlitz Indian Tribe; and director Ray Yurkewycz and science education manager Sonja Melander of the Mount St. Helens Institute.

Barbara Noah, “Tag III,” 1981. Oil on photolinen. Collection of the artist, Seattle, ©1981 Barbara Noah, for changes and additions to a Mount St. Helens image courtesy of USGS, L2019.93.1.


IN TOUCH: KEEPING A LINE ON WHAT’S ONLINE


Elizabeth Woody, part of May 20’s “Who Gets To Be an American?” online conversation in the Vanport Mosaic 2020 Virtual Festival. Photo courtesy Oregon Cultural Trust

IF YOU HAVE A KEYBOARD AND A CONNECTION (and if you’re reading this, you do) the world’s at your fingertips. All right, not the real world: These days it’s prety much all virtual, all the time. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot of good stuff to plug into. Here’s just a sampler:

VANPORT MOSAIC 2020 VIRTUAL FESTIVAL. We wrote about this vigorous and positively provocative festival in last week’s ArtsWatch Weekly, and the online attractions just keep coming through May 30, the 72nd anniversary of the Memorial Day flood in 1948 that wiped the city of Vanport off the map, killing 15 people and leaving 17,500 homeless. Among the upcoming attractions (check the full schedule in the link above): taiko artist Michelle Fujii in conversation with Douglas Detrick on “the constant state of otherness,” Friday, May 15; a conversation with Sankar Raman of The Immigrant Story and writer Ramiza Koya about “becoming American,” Sunday, May 17; a Confluence Conversation among Patricia Whitefoot (Yakama Nation), former Oregon poet laureate Elizabeth Woody (Warm Springs) and Chuck Sams (Umatilla) about “who gets to be an American,” Wednesday, May 20.

THE TURN OF THE SCREW. The Beaverton-based Experience Theatre Project is offering an encore performance of its live-screened production of Jeffrey Hatcher’s two-actor adaptation of Henry James’s classic ghost story on Friday, May 16. The original screening on May 1 played to a stay-at-home audience of 7,000. You need to register to get your virtual seat; click on the link above.

BROADWAY ROSE AT HOME. The Tigard theater company, which is the metro area’s most prominent home for musical theater, is going virtual with its new series Midday Cabaret, at 1 p.m. every Wednesday. It’s just what it sounds like: livestreamed cabaret shows, hosted by Broadway Rose’s Dan Murphy and featuring stars from past company shows. Right now, performances by David Saffert and Benjamin Tissell are available, with more on the way.

MOMENTARY JOYS, WITH HENK PANDER AND BRUCE GUENTHER. Two lions of the Oregon art world – painter Pander and curator Guenther – talk in a webinar sponsored by the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education about how, in the museum’s words, “bad times can produce great art. Dadaism grew from the tragedy of the First World War; the Depression sparked a social realist movement and Jews created art in ghettos, concentration camps, and in hiding during the Second World War. … Momentary joys, if you will, that help us get through confinement.” Noon Wednesday, May 20, and you need to register: Once again, click on the link above.


ISOLATIONISTS ARE LOOKING FOR A FEW GOOD READS


Alison Dennis is executive director for Sitka Center for Art and Ecology near Otis.
Alison Dennis, executive director of the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology, on the Oregon Coast, says in “I am Still here … it still is a time for singing” that she feels both more isolated and more connected than ever.

‘I AM STILL HERE … IT STILL IS A TIME FOR SINGING.’ In the latest in our “Oregon in Shutdown: Voices from the Front” series, Lori Tobias, ArtsWatch’s Oregon Coast columnist, talks with five key coastal arts figures about how the pandemic has changed what they do and think. It’s not all bad news.

MY APPETITES: ON EATING AND COPING MECHANISMS, CHILDHOOD AND SELF-CONTROL, CRITICISM, LOVE, CANCER, AND PANDEMICS. Jerry Saltz, the Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic for New York Magazine who is married to Roberta Smith, art critic for The New York Times (imagine their conversations over coffee), writes a beautiful, searing, and sometimes heartbreaking personal essay about the accumulations of experience and realities we carry with us into the time of plague.

SAFE DISTANCE SOUNDS, PART 2: CHAMBER TERROIR. “With live performances temporarily out of the picture, I’ve been fulfilling my jones for homegrown sounds by listening to recent releases from Oregon-based or -born musicians that caught my ear,” Brett Campbell writes. This compilation, which features ambient and other contemporary sounds (including Kenji Bunch’s fresh score for Eugene Ballet’s The Snow Queen) follows his first Safe Distance Sounds, a roundup of recent Oregon jazz recordings.

INTERVIEW IN A TIME OF SEQUESTRATION. Alone with his camera and his keyboard, photographer and frequent ArtsWatch contributor K.B. Dixon resorts to desperate measures: He interviews himself. His resulting essay in Q&A form (which is illustrated with several of his portraits of Portland arts figures) is both illuminating and amusing. Think the mysteries of shadows, and native soil, and “that much revered Southern snake-charmer, William Faulkner.” 

WHAT SHAKESPEARE ACTUALLY DID DURING THE PLAGUE. Daniel Pollack-Pelzner, who teaches at Linfield College and is an occasional ArtsWatch contributor, manages two difficult tasks with aplomb in this short humor piece for The New Yorker: He makes light of Shakespeare and of the Plague Times that Shakespeare lived through, and makes us laugh at both. “Day 13: You’ve been wearing the same doublet and hose for two weeks.” 

OZZIE GONZÁLEZ: STAGING A RACE. The theaters have shut down for the duration. But Portland actor González has moved onto a much bigger stage, as a serious candidate to become mayor of Portland. Bobby Bermea talks with him about why he’s running, what his goals for the city are, and how the world of theater and the arts is good preparation for politics.

MUSEUM CURATOR GRACE KOOK-ANDERSON: FIGURING IT OUT. Martha Daghlian talks with the Portland Art Museum’s curator of Northwest art about working from home, the economic impact of the pandemic, and how things are changing: “There’s a huge emphasis on the extreme local right now that I think is really interesting. … The DIY culture that is celebrated here is evident in many art spaces, and I see that reflected in the ways they are adapting to this situation.”


QUOTABLE (THE NEW BROADWAY VERSION)


Corey Brunish, the Broadway and Portland theater producer who we wrote about last week, was challenged online a few days ago to develop some ideas for updated musicals to fit our shutdown times. He came up with a few:


The Pajama Game All Day Long
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to 2021 
Into the Woods for a Walk
Bye Bye Income
Annie Get Your Face Mask
How To Succeed in Business by Washing Your Hands
HAIRcut

– Your turn. Create a Broadway Quotable of your own!


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DramaWatch: A new stage of “Otherness”

Unit Souzou turns to live streaming to present part of its performance project "The Constant State of Otherness." Plus: what isn't happening in local theater.

It’s lonely out there.

You might have that sense these days merely from looking outside. As Americans and others around the world practice — to unfortunately varying degrees — the newly ascendant and essential principles of social distancing, our streets appear emptier and therefore lonelier, and it’s not a big step to imagine that many folks sheltering in place (odd use of “sheltering,” as though the novel coronavirus were falling like acid rain) alone are sheltered in a lonely place.

Michelle Fujii has a different sense of it. She has long felt the loneliness of the outsider.

Michelle Fujii and Toru Watanabe, co-directors of Portland-based taiko-theater company Unit Souzou. Photo: Intisar Abioto and New Expressive Works.

An artist who has forged a career out of representations and explorations of her cultural identity, formerly as artistic director of Portland Taiko and for the past several years as co-director of Unit Souzou, Fujii has lately been digging into what her company’s current performance project calls The Constant State of Otherness.

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DramaWatch: Cause for celebration at OSF

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival opens its 85th anniversary season; plus new shows open across Portland, "West Side Story" gets too dark a makeover, and more.

In a way it feels odd to refer to something that goes on eight months of each year as a festival. And yet, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival — originally launched in 1935 as a two-play, three-evening event, now grown into one of the largest, busiest theater companies in the country — still feels celebratory.

The 2020 season, which opens Friday and continues through Nov. 1, has more than usual to celebrate, or at the very least to consider noteworthy. It is the festival’s 85th anniversary season, of course, an impressive achievement for any American arts organization, especially one in a small Northwestern town. This season also is the first under the full-time leadership of Nataki Garrett, who last August became the festival’s sixth artistic director, replacing Bill Rauch, now the inaugural artistic director of the Ronald O. Perelman Performing Arts Center at the World Trade Center in New York. (Garrett recently spoke with ArtsWatch for an interview published separately.)

The current festival leadership also includes interim associate artistic director Evren Odcikin (currently in Portland directing Portland Center Stage’s upcoming production of Nine Parts of Desire) and acting executive director Paul Christy, a retired U.S. government economist.

And in addition to being an anniversary and a celebration in its own right, this festival season is a part of the Jubilee

The Wars of the Roses are seeded in Bring Down the House, a new adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry VI. Photo: Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

In the works since 2015, the Jubilee is, as the program’s website describes it, “a yearlong, nationwide theatre festival featuring work generated by those who have historically been excluded — including but not limited to artists of color, Native American and Indigenous and First Nations artists, women, non-binary and gender non-conforming artists, LGBTQIA2+ artists, Deaf artists, and artists with disabilities.” Providing a clear, tangible goal to help along the cause of diversity and inclusion, the Jubilee involves a commitment from numerous theater producers across the country — from professional companies to high schools — to put previously marginalized voices at the center of their programming for the 2020-2021 season. In addition to OSF, participating Oregon companies include Portland Center Stage, Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble and Corrib Theatre.

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Sketching ‘Volcano!’ at the museum

ArtsWatch Weekly: Big crowds & small artists take in the Portland Art Museum's big boom, March's new art & dance, a fresh film fest

ON SATURDAY I DROPPED BY THE PORTLAND ART MUSEUM to spend a little quality time with Volcano!, the sprawling exhibit designed to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the eruption of Mt. St. Helens. (The mountaintop blasted sky-high on May 18, 1980; the museum’s show closes on May 17, a day before the anniversary.) On a rainy afternoon the place was packed with curious or nostalgic visitors. Some came to revisit their experiences of one of the most memorable days in modern Pacific Northwest history. Some came eager to learn a little more about a cataclysmic event they didn’t live through themselves but knew was a Really Big Deal. And most seemed engaged: The crowd wasn’t just walking through quickly with a glance here and a glance there – people were studying the paintings and photographs, sometimes doubling back to take a closer look at something they’d already seen. One way or another, this show seemed a part of their lives.

Lucinda Parker, “The Seething Saint,” 2019, acrylic on canvas, in the exhibition “Volcano!” at the Portland Art Museum. Courtesy Lucinda Parker and Russo Lee Gallery

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