Imago Theatre

Spaces: Artists make room for the arts

Our series on artist spaces continues as artists try to figure out where to make art during the pandemic

Thirty years ago Ken Unkeles first began renting space in his family’s collection of riverfront warehouses to artists, starting with the Carton Service Studios on Northwest Front Avenue. 

Completed in 1911, the building was initially home to the world’s largest prune-processing plant, then during World War II it served in the U.S. Navy as a ship-building complex, and from the 1960s it was a Standard Steel warehouse. The Unkeles family took their Carton Service cardboard-box-recycling business to the space in 1984, and in 1990 began renting unused upstairs spaces to artists Dana Lynn Louis, David Airhart, and Kathryn Hathaway. Though the Unkles family sold the Carton Service company in 2006, they retained the building, and today all three original artist-tenants are still there.

Today, Unkeles rents studios in three more converted warehouses: the North Coast Seed building, River Street Studios and NW Marine Artworks, the last of which is expanding. Building 5, currently under construction, will be home to an artist and maker space anchored by the nonprofit FLOCK dance group when it is completed next spring. “It’s going to be a sensational situation,” Unkles says. “It’s going to be momentous, I think: something positive. That’s kind of our attitude: ‘Let’s do something positive.’”

Ken Unkeles will add Building 5 to the NW Marine Artworks studios in spring 2021./ Photo courtesy Dana Lynn Louis

Unkeles strikes an optimistic tone, but he’s never seen anything like 2020. “It’s quiet, that’s for sure,” he says, but amidst the pandemic “the studios are getting used, because they’re the perfect environment for distancing,” he says. “Everything is really spread out. Some people have caught on to that. They’re using it as a refuge and a way to hunker down. But some people are really struggling.”

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ArtsWatch Weekly: Keeping the beat going

It's end-of-the-year donation time. Help us keep the arts & culture clock ticking. Also: Whole lotta holiday-season shows goin' on.

AS THE HOLIDAY SEASON GETS INTO SWING and the end of the calendar year approaches, I’m turning over the top of this week’s column to Laura Grimes, ArtsWatch’s talented executive director, who says this better than I can:

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I’m incredibly proud of the phenomenal work my colleagues publish every day on ArtsWatch. We never sleep. And I mean that. I wake up in the morning and new stories are up, as if elves have been working in the night. 

I work with the best editors, the best writers, the best photographers. It’s a giant labor of love to bring you quality independent arts journalism – the criticism, news, profiles, and heart-warming essays that are hard to find anywhere else as traditional news outlets continue to shrink dramatically.

Donations from you make all that possible. We’ve doubled in size in three years, and we still find it hard to keep up. This is what you can look forward to in the coming months: 

– In January we are running 20 interviews for our Vision 2020 project, which evaluates the arts scene and forecasts how it might change in the years to come. Some of the stories are already in, and they’re as telling and insightful as you might expect. We’re pretty excited to share them with you.

– We’ll have expanded Visual Arts coverage in 2020, thanks to a generous grant from the Ford Family Foundation.

– We have more deeply reported stories in the works in our occasional series about the Art of Learning – how do art and education impact each other? – and the Art of Space: In an escalating real estate market, how and where do artists and arts groups find places to make and show their work?

As I said, we never sleep. Every penny of your donations pays for stories. Please join us as we prepare for another year of essential arts journalism and donate today.

My heartfelt thanks to you,
Laura Grimes
Executive Director
 

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‘Well’ & ‘Pebble’: over the edge

Welcome to the well-made play? Profile and Imago go beyond the stylistic borders in new shows by Lisa Kron and Carol Triffle

A good play ought to grab its audience from the very top and take it for a ride. The way it grabs an audience can be as varied as a cowboy crooning from the wings about a beautiful morning (Oklahoma!) or a vengeful ghost skulking around a castle (Hamlet).

Well, Lisa Kron’s quasi-comic onstage argument from Profile Theatre at Portland Playhouse, opens in a well of silence with actor Vana O’Brien snoozing, or pretending to snooze, on a recliner flopped way back to sleeping position – not an action but the anticipation of an action, the tension of action’s absence.

Pebble, Carol Triffle’s new existential riff on melodrama at Imago Theatre, opens with an apocalyptic crash and boom of thunder and lightning, an absurdist clatter thrusting a mental institution, and the audience, into mind-altering darkness.

The openings could scarcely be more different. Yet Well and Pebble are both meta-theatrical shows, self-referential experiences stretching the idea of what dramatic storytelling can be. They’re plunges into pure style and the ways in which we invent ourselves, tugging at the fragile veil between fact and fiction, as we go along.


PEBBLE at IMAGO THEATRE


Triffle’s Pebble, the final play in Imago’s three-show Next Wave Festival (following Jerry Mouawad’s Leonard Cohen Is Dead and a revival of Mouawad’s lyrical fantasia To Fly Again) is both familiar and fresh, a vigorous new exploration of territory Triffle’s shown us before. It’s a place so simple and ordinary that it takes on extra-ordinary dimensions, mundanity transforming like Kafka’s unfortunate Gregor Samsa into a new reality of darkly comic horror and thwarted passion at loose ends.

Kyle Delamarter and Danielle Vermette in Carol Triffle’s Pebble: all in the family. Photo courtesy Imago Theatre

The bursts of thunder and lightning at the beginning set the stylistic tone: Everything’s big, bold, broadly gestural, almost a parody of melodrama and American stage realism – the shell accentuated and the stuffing ripped out. Over decades Triffle and Mouawad have built a theater of seductive spectacle at Imago, most obviously in the company’s glorious costume-and-movement shows like Frogz, in which spoken language is either nonexistent or an afterthought, but also in the individual shows the two have created that use language extensively but usually in a disjointed manner – shards of familiarity broken off and scattered across a landscape that is altered as in an odd and perplexing dream, or a painting by Dalí or Bosch.

In Pebble, the skewed landscape is the interior of a mental institution where an emotionally unkempt woman named Pebble (Danielle Vermette) seems something like a live-in guest at an odd and slightly menacing hotel. A partly finished jigsaw puzzle sits on one table, a deck of cards at another. An easel sits to one side, with a painting of two horses propped on it. Sometimes Pebble dons a smock and picks up a brush. More often she’s making obsessive scrawls on the walls, which are covered with them. Toward the back is a reception area, the domain of Nurse Megan (Megan Skye Hale), who sometimes barks instructions into a microphone and often casts speculative glances at a medical orderly (Jon Farley), who is also the object of advances from Pebble, who’d dearly love to get her itch scratched and doesn’t trust Nurse Megan one bit. Little blue pills are passed from character to character, caretakers and inmates alike – Pebble ended up here because of an unfortunate overdose problem – and everyone prowls around like tigers in a cage. It’s all very homey, in a clinical, creepy way. Then a newcomer shows up: Nick (Kyle Delamarter), who might be Pebble’s brother (he probably is), and might be sane or as loony as everyone else, and whose arrival upsets an already unbalanced apple cart.

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DramaWatch: the naked and the nude

The first two weeks in May bring Portland stages a bundle of shows straddling the territory between the real and the ideal

This Saturday, as it turns out, is World Naked Gardening Day, and don’t worry, neighbors, I’m not taking part: I’m not really much of a gardener. The revelation, however, makes me think of another spot of news I got a few days ago from my friend Gerald Stiebel, in his weekly column Missives From the Art World. Gerald was writing about Monumental, the new show of nude paintings by the 20th and 21st century master Lucian Freud, at Acquavella Gallery in New York, and in it he discusses the fine line between nudity and nakedness:

“The renowned British art historian, Sir Kenneth Clark, in his 1956 book, The Nude: A Study of Ideal Art, made a distinction between the Naked and the Nude, considering the nude as an ideal representation of the naked body. By Clark’s definition Freud’s works are not nudes but might be called naked portraits.

An intimate theater in the flesh: Lucian Freud, “Benefits Supervisor Sleeping,” 1995, private collection, at Acquavella Gallery.

“Freud himself wrote, ‘Being naked has to do with making a more complete portrait; a naked body is somehow more permanent, more factual … when someone is naked there is in effect nothing to be hidden. Not everyone wants to be that honest about themselves; that means I feel an obligation to be equally honest in how I represent them. It is a matter of responsibility. In a way I don’t want the painting to come from me, I want it to come from them. It can be extraordinary how much you can learn from someone by looking very carefully at them without judgment.’”

Hardly anyone would call Freud’s often massive portraits ideals of the human form. They can seem grotesque: hills and vales and fissures and folds of flesh; fantastic landscapes of skin. And yet they hide nothing, at least visually: They exude humility, openness, a sense of natural animal humanness, vulnerable and unguarded.

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DramaWatch: Imago flies again

Plus: New boss in Ashland, Ferguson comes to Center Stage, Portland Playhouse's Crowning glory, a rolling "Jump," Just play "No," and more

What’s up at the theater? Funny you should ask.

Last May a wonderfully peculiar vision flew onto the Portland theater scene, and far too quickly, before all but a few people had had a chance to see it, flew off again. Well, spring’s arrived, and To Fly Again, Jerry Mouawad’s dancerly swan of a play, has landed at Imago Theatre again. It opens Friday for another brief run as part of Imago’s Next Wave Festival, and you should try to catch it before it flies the coop yet again on April 6.

The dusty dancers in Imago’s “To Fly Again.” Photo: Jubel Brosseau

I reviewed last year’s production, which had the same cast as the current one (you can read the full review here), and here’s what I wrote, in part:

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‘She never wanted to leave anyone out’: Bonnie Merrill, 1935-2019

Collaborators remember a Portland dance pioneer’s generous spirit

Generations of Portland dancers—with one conspicuous exception—turned out to see Minh Tran’s concert Anicca (Impermance) last weekend at Reed College. Tran’s work, inspired by the recent deaths of his parents, premiered just a week after one of his teachers, Bonnie Merrill, succumbed to leukemia on Valentine’s Day. Tran’s piece, already weighted with grief and memory, felt like a kind of elegy for Merrill, an influential Portland dancer, instructor, and choreographer, and a founding mother of the city’s contemporary dance scene.

Merrill's work We Gather was performed at the citywide Portland arts festival Artquake in 1994. Photographer unknown.

Bonnie Merrill dances a solo in Donald McKayle’s “Collage.” Photo courtesy of the Merrill family.

Merrill kept her Portland dance card full for close to 40 years. She worked with modern and ballet companies, public school students, and collegiate dancers from Portland State, Lewis and Clark, and Reed. She created more than 100 works that were performed on film, onstage, and in city streets. Along the way, she forged creative alliances with musicians and visual artists, and earned accolades including the only Oregon Governor’s Award for the Arts given to an individual dance artist.

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DramaWatch: a new place to play

Lewis & Clark prof Stepan Simek opens a small, flexible studio space. Plus: Openings around town and in Fertile Ground.

Stepan Simek is a professor of theater at Lewis & Clark College, a director, and an accomplished theatrical adapter and translator. Now he’s also a real estate developer.

Well, in a manner of speaking. Simek recently opened a small studio space for “actors, directors, musicians, singers, teachers, coaches, and anybody who may need a beautiful, affordable, flexible, and warm place to rehearse, teach classes, do small performances, concerts, readings, meetings, pop-ups, auditions, and whatever else may strike your creative need or fancy.” Or, as he put it during an open-house event earlier this month, “Everything is allowed, except amplified music and Bible study.”

The 2509 is a new studio space in Northeast Portland, open for rehearsals, performances and other creative uses. Photo: courtesy of Stepan Simek.

The place, a handsome 600-square-foot daylight basement, is named after its street address, 2509 NE Clackamas St., in a part of Portland known as Sullivan’s Gulch. Simek hopes it will help, in whatever small way, with the general space crunch afflicting so many Portland artists. But that wasn’t the project’s original purpose.

At first, Simek was setting out to repair his house’s crumbling foundation, which would require raising it on jacks. He and his wife Esther Saulle-Simek, a musician, decided to have a lower-level addition built as an apartment, or what’s known these days as an “accessory dwelling unit.” But the construction process turned out to be more than twice as long, and more than twice as expensive, as originally planned. Eventually they reasoned that they’d stand a better chance of recouping their costs with piecemeal rentals, even at low rates.

Still, though, the 2509 has a homey feel, with a gas stove along one wall opposite a small wet bar. It has a full bathroom and curtained-off area at the back that can be used as a bedroom for visiting artists. A grid attached to the middle of the ceiling holds a small LED lighting system, double-paned windows minimize sound for the surrounding residential neighborhood, and there’s room to seat an audience of 50 or so.

Already Hand2Mouth Theatre has used the 2509 for rehearsals, the renowned Portland actor Michael O’Connell has used it to teach classes, and Orchestra of the Moon — a band that includes Saulle-Simek and plays what it calls “early music for modern times” — performs there this Saturday night and Sunday afternoon.

Simek hopes the place will stay busy. (Reservations can be made by email: simek@lclark.edu) After repeating his line about it being open to everything but amplified music and Bible study, he says simply, “I want it to feel alive. I want life!”

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