Lewis & Clark College

Resourcefulness and resilience: Local thesis shows in a global pandemic

Graduating art students pivot from in-person thesis shows to an array of virtual offerings

By BRIANA MILLER

There is a lot going on in the world right now, and in the midst of it, a newly minted class of fine art and craft students is setting out into the world. The timing couldn’t be better – we need their hope, creativity, resiliency, and ingenuity now more than ever. Equally, the timing couldn’t be worse – nearly all of their final in-person thesis shows were cancelled because of Covid-19 related closures. But art and artists are attuned to change, and as the pandemic forced colleges and universities across the Portland Metro area to close their campuses, their art departments moved swiftly to adjust expectations and find meaningful ways to culminate their degree programs. 

“Our role was to be responsive to the moment and work with the circumstances and not despite them,” said Jess Perlitz, who teaches sculpture at Lewis & Clark College and is the co-chair of its Department of Art. “Something about the arts is to be prepared and resourceful and resilient. We got to model that.”

For many schools, delaying or postponing the thesis exhibition wasn’t an option. Students left as campuses closed in mid-March, and because they were graduating, any plans to return were uncertain. As a result, institutions pivoted to thinking of the final exhibitions as virtual, building new online galleries or substantially enhancing existing web pages. 

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DramaWatch: A family history in black and white

Romance, race and genealogy clash in "Redwood," a world premiere at Portland Center Stage; plus tips for the week in Portland theater.

For the past several years, something called the Kilroy’s List has attempted to shine a light on “un- and underproduced new plays by woman, trans, and non-binary authors” by polling hundreds of professionals in the play-development field. It has proven to be a rich resource. The 2017 list, for example, included Larissa FastHorse’s The Thanksgiving Play (which Artists Rep staged in 2018), Christina Anderson’s How to Catch Creation (part of the most recent Oregon Shakespeare Festival season) and Lauren Yee’s Cambodian Rock Band (also at OSF this year and coming to Portland Center Stage in the spring).

Chip Miller recalls looking at the 2017 list and noticing the play Redwood by Brittany K. Allen. “I thought, ‘I went to school with someone named Brittany Allen. I wonder if it’s the same person.’”

Brittany K. Allen and Nick Ferrucci in the world premiere of Redwood at Portland Center Stage. Photo: Kate Szrom/Courtesy of Portland Center Stage at The Armory.

Miller grew up in Kansas City, then studied theater at NYU. Deciding against doing “the New York thing” after school, Miller began to look for regional-theater opportunities and quickly landed back home at Kansas City Rep, soon serving as casting director for the play-development department led by Marissa Wolf.
Allen, it turned out, was the same person that Miller had known in New York, and Wolf and Miller soon slotted Redwood into a reading series at KC Rep. Several months later, Wolf headed West to become artistic director at Portland Center Stage — eventually bringing both Miller and Redwood along as well. 

Miller, who joined PCS in April with the title associate producer, directs the world premiere of Redwood, opening Friday on the Armory mainstage. Among the actors: Brittany K. Allen.  

Redwood examines the fallout from modern genealogical testing in the life of an inter-racial couple. Meg Wilson and Drew Tatum have recently moved in together when they find out their relationship goes back further than they’d thought. Undertaking a deep dive into family history, Meg’s uncle Steve Durbin finds the descendants of the family that owned the Durbins during slavery. And yep — it’s the Tatums. Complications ensue. 

It’s a rich premise, providing entry to a host of relevant issues about the growth of DNA testing and online genealogical research, the ongoing legacy of slavery in American life, potential complications in mixed-race relationships, and so on. 

“I think it’s about how the history of oppression would affect a modern-day couple, and how ancient power dynamics…influence the present,” Allen said in a 2017 interview promoting a developmental reading at the Lark in New York. 

However pertinent the play’s social themes, Allen isn’t about to get bogged down in self-seriousness. “I get excited about plays that move and shake and have a lot of glitter and nonsense in them,” she said in that same interview. Sprinkled amid the fraught conversations and family dynamics are hip-hop dance classes, direct address from characters to audience, and even some ancestors appearing out of the ether. 

Chip Miller, associate producer at Portland Center Stage and director of Redwood. Photo: Kate Szrom/Courtesy of Portland Center Stage at The Armory.

“She’s found this landscape where the most theatrical moments are when we go inside the minds of the characters,” Miller says, talking in a conference room at the Armory earlier this week.

Miller, 29, speaks of the production and the issues that inform it with an easy fluency. I mention my own cynicism about the value of genealogical DNA testing, about the muddling of biology, culture and personality that its marketing suggests, and the director’s response encapsulates the play’s core question in an intriguing way: “What does this information change? Does a deeper understanding of heritage affect the performance of identity on a daily basis?

“We’re always looking for narrative, always looking for meaning,” Miller adds. “This DNA stuff is just a device to tell a different, newer/older story.”

Opening

Halloween is behind us once again, but how’s this for horror: “…from the creators of Les Misérables…”?
OK, I’ll grant you that for many folks that counts as an invitation more than a warning, and in any case the musical Miss Saigon has quite enough of a track record on its own. An updating of the Madame Butterfly template to 1970s Vietnam, the show was a smash in the West End and on Broadway in the 1990s. Now it’s back in a touring version for Broadway Across America, coming to the Keller. 


Earlier this year, when he opened a small performance studio called the 2509 in the daylight basement of his Northeast Portland home, Lewis & Clark College theater professor Stepan Simek established boundaries. “Everything is allowed,” he said with a wry smile, “except amplified music and Bible study.”
And yet now here he is directing a play called The Christians that addresses doctrinal disputes within the community of a suburban megachurch, and reportedly is not satirical but, according to an article in The New York Times, “true to life” and “liturgically precise.” Sounds like a project that might call for a little…Bible study?
Simek describes the Lucas Hnath play, which won the 2016 Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding New Off-Broadway Play, as “sort of a ‘chamber play’ (albeit backed by a twenty-five-member church choir).” And while DramaWatch usually doesn’t track school productions, Simek’s track record and his enthusiasm merit an exception. “There are some remarkable student actors’ performances, the choir is rocking, and the play is excellent, really excellent,” he wrote in an email. “It MAKES YOU THINK.” 


Much about the life and genius of William Shakespeare remains mysterious, yet we do know that he didn’t base the plot of “Romeo and Juliet” on personal experience. But so what?  Lakewood Theatre presents Shakespeare in Love, adapted from the 1998 film, which imagines romance as creative  inspiration — and why the Bard isn’t remembered for writing “Romeo and Ethel.” David Sikking directs a cast led by the terrific Murri Lazaroff-Babin as Shakespeare.

The flattened stage

While we might not really know so much about Shakespeare’s love life, Shakespeare’s lovers — that is, the ones he created on the page — we know. And we know they sometimes took some rather odd advice from those around them. Would that more modern psychotherapy been available to them! Perhaps something like this:

Quick hits

Among the questions that face us when contemplating Follies: The Unofficially Best Ever Variety Show, Stephano Iaboni’s recurring physical-comedy showcase: Who or what could make it official? Sid Caesar?

In any case, Iaboni’s guests for the latest installment include Michael O’Neill, who recently toured Palestine as part of Clowns Without Borders.

Kevin meets TED

TEDx Mt. Hood, a localized baby brother of the famed TED talks, takes over the theater at Roosevelt High this Saturday. The hook for theater lovers? Kevin Jones, actor, director and co-founder of the August Wilson Red Door Project, will be among the speakers.  

Closing

Bakkhai at Shaking the Tree. Photo: Meg Nanna.

Bakkhai, a version of the Euripides tragedy adapted and directed here by Shaking the Tree’s Samantha Van Der Merwe, is, in the words of ArtsWatcher Bob Hicks, “a neatly contrived roller-coaster of a show, a smooth and sometimes scary fun ride that starts where it starts and carries on, with no breaks, to its bitter and propulsive end.” With just a few more chances to catch it this weekend, that end feels more bitter still.


Penning a tragi-comedy about something called Acquired Toilet Disease might seem an odd response to the AIDS-related death of a loved one, but for a writer as skilled as Paula Vogel, it worked, with The Baltimore Waltz. Of Profile Theatre’s soon-to-close production, Broadway World’s Krista Garver said “this bizarre, extravagant fantasy was the only fitting way to deal with a grief too deep to bear.”

Best line I read this week

“The poorer practitioners of any craft are often, like clumsy magicians or awkward liars, more revealing than their betters. Even more than the masterpiece, the worst art serves as a crucible in which a period’s superficial veneer is melted away to reveal the bald assumptions, the prevalent ideologies, the crassest commonplaces of the times. Shakespeare is universal; it is with a Thomas Kyd or a Cyril Tourneur that we encounter a true Elizabethan.”

— from The Imperfect Art: Reflections on Jazz and Modern Culture, by Ted Gioia.


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

Exquisite Gorge 8 & 9: The Map Makers

As the Aug. 24 print date for Maryhill Museum's Columbia River project fast approaches, its artists think about the mix of maps and territory


STORY AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY FRIDERIKE HEUER


Cartography is the study and practice of making maps. Combining science, aesthetics, and technique, cartography builds on the premise that reality can be modeled in ways that communicate spatial information effectively. – Wikipedia

Maps. You know, those paper things that half of us can read and half of us cannot; they pointed the way to our destinations before the arrival of talking machines that tell us how to proceed – and then reroute. Maps that were, in theory, supposed to adhere to “the empiricist paradigm of cartography”—that cartography’s only ethic is to be accurate, precise, and complete. Of course, that’s not what many maps are about – instead they often serve as a tool for persuading us to accept a particular view of the world, and not just geographically.

Mapping the territory.

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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.

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Out & About: voices rising

A peek behind the scenes as choral rock star Jake Runestad rehearses Choral Arts Ensemble's singers for a concert of his own music

In 2016 I was commissioned by the North Coast Chorale to create piece-specific art to be projected in the concert hall during their performance of Karl Jenkin’s The Armed Man – A Mass for Peace – 13 montages in total, one for each movement. While working on them I listened to the choral work over and over until I practically knew it by heart. Even though it probably now counts as one of the war horses of choral music, it was a glorious experience.

This week I was invited to a different, equally exciting occasion: to listen to and photograph composer Jake Runestad, from Minnesota, directing his own choral work in preparation for a concert on Saturday, The Hope of Loving, with the Choral Arts Ensemble of Portland.

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Bill Will’s ‘Fun House’: The political cartoon meets the contraption

The longtime Portland tinkerer artist gets us up-to-date with his madcap political devices

The Thanksgiving leftovers are cleared out of the fridge and perhaps you’ve almost forgotten your awkward conversations with random relatives. Before the fog of holiday merrymaking fully settles in, take a dark December afternoon to contemplate the “state of the union” as presented in Bill Will’s exhibition Bill Will: Fun House at the Ronna and Eric Hoffman Gallery at Lewis & Clark College. The “fun” is short-lived, but the exhibition provides a clamoring commentary on the follies of contemporary American society.

Will is a long-time Portland artist. Though a painter by training, he is best known for his public art, sculpture, and installation work. Installations have allowed him to satisfy his attraction to small machines and contraptions. Sometimes they resemble Rube Goldberg-like devices, but Will’s often deliver a commentary on American life and times.

Bill Will, “War Machine”/Photo by Robert M. Reynolds

As suggested by the title, the exhibition is meant to hearken back to the tradition of the carnival attraction: an interactive exhibit in which the viewer activates the illusions. I’m not sure what it says about my upbringing, or me, but I’ve never been to a “funhouse.” I have an impression of distorted mirrors, menacing clowns, and squeaky mechanical projectiles. I associate the whole concept with a horror movie in which the (stupid) protagonist tries to escape a deranged killer by hiding in the carnival funhouse. Obviously, this ends with visions of knives and blood spatters. So perhaps I went into the exhibition with warped expectations.

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Music@Home: Desktops and devices are the new venues

Burgeoning availability of live streams gives Oregon contemporary and classical music lovers home access to concerts from around the world

Story and screenshots by GARY FERRINGTON

As I grow older, I find it more difficult to go out on those dark, wet and blustery Oregon evenings to enjoy a concert of classical or contemporary music. Although I’d prefer sitting in a venue enjoying a live performance, I know it won’t always be possible. So, it is with much personal pleasure that I’ve discovered Internet live-streaming and have spent the last couple of years exploring the availability of both statewide and worldwide concert performances.

Live From Beall: Otis Murphy (Saxophone) and Haruko Murphy (Piano) May 17, 2016.

Live From Beall: Otis Murphy (Saxophone) and Haruko Murphy (Piano) May 17, 2016.

With the click of a mouse or a tap on a trackpad or screen, music lovers can connect to streams of live music performances from most anywhere around the world on the internet. From major international festivals and concerts overseas to two Oregon colleges taking the lead in bringing live performances online, viewers and listeners who may seldom or never be able to experience distant concert events have the option to do so on their computers or mobile devices. The increasing availability of live streaming offers real benefits, beyond mere convenience, to composers, musicians, and music lovers in Oregon and beyond.

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