Deep End Theater

Speed-dating at Fertile Ground

As the new-works festival gets ready for its tenth annual run, a horde of writers and performers check out the media (and vice versa)

And lo, on the third day of the New Year, a great clamor fell upon the multitude, and the dread Pealing of the Four Minutes rang out, and the people scurried from line to line, taking their spots in the sun, pitching their pitches, eager to be heard. And a mighty clatter and confusion arose, accompanied by press releases and business cards, and then the next wave burst, and the pieces shuffled yet again. And the creator of it all smiled, and said, “That’s good!”

It’s true. On January 3, in the upstairs lobby of Artists Repertory Theatre, producers, performers, directors, and writers of shows in Portland’s 10th annual Fertile Ground festival of new works met with members of the press, pressing them, as it were, with quick-hit details on their shows and why the media members should really, truly see and publicize them. Once again Fertile Ground director Nicole Lane was stage-managing this frenzy of what she calls “media speed-dating,” cracking the whip – or, more accurately, blowing a harmonica – to keep things moving swiftly along. What sometimes seemed like bedlam actually had a drill-sergeant efficiency: Line up in front of a press member sitting at a table. Take your turn. Make your pitch. You get four minutes. The mouth harp shrieks. You move on to another line, and someone takes your place.

The Fertile Ground speed-dating crowd. ArtsWatch’s contingent is tucked discreetly toward the back, hidden behind more dashing daters. Photo courtesy Fertile Ground

This year, ArtsWatch’s contingency in the hot seats consisted of me and Marty Hughley, our theater editor and chief theater columnist. We made a deal beforehand. Marty would get the lay of the land, find out what’s out there, use his brief talks to help strategize our coverage, including which full productions to review. I would do my best to simply report the evening as it occurred from my table. And Bobby Bermea, who wasn’t at date night (sensible man), would tackle the festival from the inside, talking about the stages of some of the shows, and talking with artists about the process of creation. 

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Revolutionary theater at Deep End

With "Raising Coen," Domeka Parker’s Buckman neighborhood theater company is pushing the limitations of what Improv can be.

By CHRISTOPHER GONZALEZ

From new dramatic forms, to teaching philosophy, to administrative structure and beyond, Deep End Theater is revolutionary theater in all aspects. Led by the indomitable Domeka Parker, this Portland ensemble is changing the perception of what improv is capable of.

Raising Coen is Deep End’s newest improvised play, based on the Coen Brothers’ movies. It is a remarkable piece of long form improv that triumphantly traverses the realm of what we normally think of as Theater with a capital T.  After all, aren’t we tired of going to comedy clubs and laughing halfheartedly at impatient displays of wit and cheap punchlines? We don’t often feel irrefutable pathos, genuine suspense, or palpable horror, do we?

Well, Deep End Theater, which opened in May 2017 in Southeast Portland’s Buckman neighborhood, is no comedy club.

At Deep End, comedy and improv move beyond jokes. Photo: Ken Bryan

Raising Coen elevates the form of improv by inviting us to lean in and explore the integrity of a character’s core values. The dramatic investigation of core values is pertinent now more than ever, as the ethical integrity of our country is so deeply in question. There are so many people on the right and the left politically that are locked to their core values and we thought about how interesting that is,” Parker says. “And then we thought, the Coen brothers write characters like that. Characters that believe so strongly in values like honesty that it drives everything they do and gets them into all kinds of messes.”

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DramaWatch: Two pair and a kicker

In the cards on Portland stages this week: a pair of plays by Native American writers, Chekhov in New Jersey, improv off the Deep End

Sometimes as shows and curtains open and close, a writer flounders for a framing device. I know: Let’s play poker. “Two pair is a poker hand containing two cards of the same rank, two cards of another rank and one card of a third rank (the kicker).” This week in Portland theater deals us just such a hand.

Let’s start (as never) with two comedy-improv-mixed-use-spaces of seemingly equal rank: Siren and Deep End. Siren’s showing Rosie Rose Productions’ The Three Sisters of Weehawken, Deborah Zoe Laufer’s Chekhov adaptation plucked from Russia and plopped into a New Jersey town that we can only assume contrasts to Moscow at least as starkly as Chekhov intended when he observed: “In Moscow, you can sit in an enormous restaurant where you don’t know anybody and where nobody knows you, and you don’t feel, all the same, that you’re a stranger. And here, you know everybody and everybody knows you, and you’re a stranger … and a lonely stranger.”

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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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What are you up to this week? Any family coming to town? What do you eat and not eat these days? And what theater might you and your familial crew wish to see?

At The Armory this weekend, Mojada closes and the holiday spirit gets crackling between A Christmas Memory and Winter Song, a double header that would seem the sentimental alternative to the barn-burning Scrooge-buster Twist Your Dickens. A Christmas Memory revives a Truman Capote short story about a young boy with an unlikely best friend, an elderly female cousin who matches his emotional maturity and assists him in his games and schemes, including their darling caper of secretly making presents for their other relatives. (Say it with me: “Awwwwwww!”)

“Winter Song” at The Armory: Mont Chris Hubbard (left), Merideth Kaye Clark, and Leif Norby. Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye, courtesy Portland Center Stage at The Armory

Winter Song is a warmhearted holiday song revue performed by Portland’s premier Joni Mitchell cover artist Meredith Kaye Clarke (Snuggle in and go “Ahhhh.”) This show gets a head start on Dickens, but once both get going, ushers might as well leave signs in the lobby to sort attendees: “Humbugs, main house; saps downstairs.”

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ArtsWatch Weekly: Eugene shocker

The Oregon Bach Fest fires its musical leader. Plus: arts for kids, the symphony at the zoo, peoples' art show in Milwaukie, skinny dipping.

The Oregon Bach Festival dropped a bombshell on Sunday, announcing a complete shakeup that includes the firing of Matthew Halls, its young and extremely talented artistic director. Journalist Bob Keefer broke the news for the Eugene Weekly, and it spread quickly throughout the classical music world, met by varying expressions of shock, dismay, and anger, with a smattering of cautious praise.

Matthew Halls: Out in Eugene.

The Oregon Bach Festival is one of the state’s premiere artistic institutions, with an international following. It was founded by the German conductor Helmuth Rilling, who led it and set its tone for decades before retiring in 2013 and being replaced by Hall. It’s always difficult following a legend – as Rilling was, at least in Oregon – and Halls’s position in Eugene and among festival followers was made more complicated by his turn toward historically informed performance, an extreme, if historically more accurate, switch from the big Romantic rafter-rattling sound that Rilling espoused.

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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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