Domeka Parker

Tattoo you: art in the flesh

Gallery 114's "InkBodySkinPaint+Fire," with paintings by David Slader and photos by Owen Carey, looks at and below the surfaces of self

A week ago Wednesday evening, the night before the official First Thursday opening at Gallery 114 of the artist-run gallery’s March show, InkBodySkinPaint+Fire, the basement space at Northwest Glisan Street and 11th Avenue was hopping. It was the pre-opening opening, insiders’ night, and the place was packed. Actor and longtime theater teacher Bob McGranahan was outside at the corner, an early bird just flying off after checking the scene. At the stairway entrance a vendor for the weekly homeless-advocate publication Street Roots, which had a cover story by Emily Moore on the exhibition, was offering papers for sale.

Rusty Tennant: jump for joy. Photo: Owen Carey

Down the stairs to the landing a photograph of actor/director/producer/tech whiz Rusty Tennant hangs like a vivid greeter or bouncer at the door, tattooed as ornately as the stage set for a Victorian drawing-room comedy with a tree-earth mother gracing his brawny upper arm. Inside, a congenial and varied mob of theater people, art people, and friends of the artists was milling around, chatting, sipping wine, taking in the work of the two artists: painter David Slader, a gallery member (he also has a large long sculpture in the show), and his invited guest artist, photographer Owen Carey.

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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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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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Script Tease: acting without the net

In Brody's improv series, even the playwright doesn't know what's going to happen next

Artists and writers are familiar with this swimming-around-in-the-dark thing, the murky sensation of uncertainty that lurks almost unavoidably in the brutal and enthralling sea of creativity. It’s the part of the process that artists ordinarily don’t want you to see. For good reason, they prefer to present you with something only after it’s achieved clarity. Even a writer like Harold Pinter, infamous for his open-ended meanings, presents his plays in a finely honed verbal and structural precision.

Domeka Parker: think quick and charge on.

Domeka Parker: think quick and charge on.

And then there’s “Script Tease,” the improv series at the Brody Theater that insists swimming blind is the fun part. Judging by the packed house for Saturday night’s edition, a lot of people agree. And although I wouldn’t want to watch it every night of the week, I’m inclined to concur. Improv is big internationally (director Domeka Parker got the idea for “Script Tease” when she saw something similar in Amsterdam) but it seems especially suited to Portland, where so much of the city’s creative life is played out in a petri dish of experiment and improvisation. The observation that Portland political life is besotted with process is equally true of its artistic life. We’re a city of creative tinkerers, and occasional finishers.

Here’s the setup: Hire a writer. (On Saturday, it was the provocative and talented Steve Patterson, author of “The Centering,” “Lost Wavelengths,” “Altered States of America,” and many others.) Have him or her write just six pages of dialogue, introducing the characters and providing a barebones setup. Then let the actors wing it. Without a safety net. Nobody – not the actors, or writer, or director, or audience – knows where the thing’s going or how it’s going to get there. As Parker said before the show, it could turn out great, or “it could be really bad.”

Patterson

Patterson

Patterson’s mini-script, “Urbex,” was appropriately slim and suggestive. Three teenagers – self-styled “urban explorers” – break into an abandoned hospital, mainly because it’s there. Inside, they meet and clash with three squatters who claim the territory as their own. The end – of the written stuff. What evolved from there was a hectic mash of ghost story, escape-and-capture, Charlie Manson-style pack mentality, and a couple of recurring jokes. It was far from a polished play, but that wasn’t the point. The thrill came from watching a half-dozen actors hang over a cliff and somehow scramble clumsily to safety.

As Patterson noted approvingly afterwards, what the improv actors created was a lot like the process a writer goes through in creating characters and a storyline. Something’s unleashed. Surprises abounded. One actor was shocked to learn that Patterson had conceived of her character as God. And Patterson was tickled by where the improvisers took his rough concept: “I walked in not knowing what to expect and walked out with a possible new play idea.”

It works that way sometimes with improv, Parker says: playwrights facing a block will have some improv actors pick up from where they’re stuck, and see where they can take it. Most of the time what comes out of the exercise doesn’t “solve” the problem in terms of providing fresh dialogue or a particular plot turn. Instead, it unblocks the ideas and helps the writer move ahead.

Pulling something like this off requires actors who are comfortable in both traditional theater and improvisation. The Brody team of Adrienne Flagg, Beau Brusseau, Brett Wilson, Chris Williams, Parker, Jess Lee, Kerry Leek, Nicole Virginia Accuardi and Tom Johnson is adept at thinking on its collective feet, and unafraid of occasionally falling on its face – absolutely necessary attributes of successful improvisational theater. Sara Jean Accuardi is the script curator, choosing which pieces the “Script Tease” squad will do, and deciding on whether they’ll be one-act or full-length pieces. She’s the only person besides the authors themselves who sees the six-page scripts in advance. Complicating matters further, the audiences decide on the spot which actors should play which characters. Saturday night’s crowd was very much into gender-bending, an added complication that slipped the actors’ minds only occasionally.

A show like this also requires a playwright who’s willing and eager to be flexible. Unlike the famously dictatorial Lillian Hellman, who hated actors or directors changing anything once she’d written it (she once quoted Dashiell Hammett saying to her, “The truth is you don’t like the theater except the times when you’re in a room by yourself, putting the play on paper”) Patterson seems to love the what-ifs. Theater is, after all, a collaborative process. It begins with the script, which maintains primacy. But a good script, like a good song, can have many interpretations, and the idea of improvisation – of balancing and rebalancing and shifting rhythms and design elements and even ideas – is crucial to the assembly of any production.

Daredevil diver (or not): theater namesake Steve Brodie. Library of Congress/1896/Wikimedia Commons

Daredevil diver (or not): theater namesake Steve Brodie. Library of Congress/1896/Wikimedia Commons

“Script Tease” just strips the script out of the process, like a prestidigitator whipping a tablecloth out from under a loaded dinner table. As I walked out of the theater Saturday night, I noticed a sign on the window explaining what “Brody” means:

  1. A suicidal daredevil leap; wild dive; to do a brody from a high ledge.
  2. A severe vehicular skid.

Origin:

After Steve Brody, who claimed that he jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge in 1886.

I looked it up. Nobody’s sure the self-promoting Brody (or Brodie, as many sources have it) actually made the leap. But if he did, he survived.

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The next edition of “Script Tease” is at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, November 23, at Brody Theater, 16 N.W. Broadway, Portland. Ticket info here.

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