Luisa Sermol

Antonio Sonera’s Badass Hospitality

As the city's new theater season swings into action, Portland's maverick director speaks out about why it's done, and who should have access

Antonio Sonera is the maverick of the Portland theater scene: a wild card, an enigma, complicated and controversial, undoubtedly gifted, knowledgeable and hard-working. He’s been a vital part of the Portland theater scene for 30-odd years, yet in many ways, he’s on the outside looking in. He hasn’t worked at Artists Rep in years. He’s never directed at Portland Center Stage. He’s never worked at Portland Playhouse or Profile or Defunkt. He’s on the Drammy Committee, yet, in those same three decades of doing good — and oftentimes great — work in this town, he’s yet to win a Drammy himself. If you look back over his career his record holds up against any local director you can name. El Paso Blue, References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot, El Grito Del Bronx, Boleros for the Disenchanted, Invasion!, Sans Merci, God of Carnage and his most recent piece World Builders all were among the most memorable productions of the seasons in which they appeared. A lot of accolades and awards are sprinkled throughout that small sampling of Sonera’s work — as well as a lot of risks being taken and buttons being pushed. When Sonera works these days, it’s primarily on projects he’s developed or produced.

Recently, I had a chance to sit down and talk with him about that hiatus; about his company, Badass Theatre; and about the state of theater in Portland. Anyone who knows Sonera already knows he had a lot to say. He’s a man of strong opinions and he’s not afraid to speak them. He’s also a thoughtful man, smart, experienced and perhaps most importantly, he gives a damn. You can agree with him or not, but you can’t deny his passion or commitment.

Antonio Sonera, up close and personal. Photo: Tim Krause

When World Builders rolled around this June Portland hadn’t heard from Badass in four years, which was too bad. Because when Badass had spoken, people had listened. Invasion!, Jonas Hassen Khamiri’s perception-shattering tornado of a play, was easily the most talked-about theater piece of its season. Sans Merci, Johnna Adams’ brutal exploration of love and grief, contained a trio of outstanding performances, headed by the amazing Luisa Sermol, ripping her soul to tatters and leaving it there on the stage for everybody to see. (Sermol won an award for her work, not her first by any means, and not her first under Sonera’s direction. She’d taken home another Drammy for her work in Boleros for the Disenchanted at Milagro in 2012.)

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Profiles & Conversations 2017

From poets to painters to dancers to actors to musicians, 21 tales from ArtsWatch on the people who make the art and why they do it

Art is a whole lot of things, but at its core it’s about people, and how they see life, and how they make a life, and how they get along or struggle with the mysteries of existence. That includes, of course, the artists themselves, whose stories and skills are central to the premise. In 2017 ArtsWatch’s writers have sat down with a lot of artists – painters, actors, dancers and choreographers, poets, music-makers – and listened as they spun out their tales.

We’ve been able to tell their stories because of support from you and people like you. Oregon ArtsWatch is a nonprofit cultural journalism organization, and your gifts help pay for the stories we produce. It’s easy to become a member and make a donation. Just click on the “donate today” button below:

Here are 21 stories from 2017 about Oregon artists and artists who’ve come here to do their work:

 


 

Erik Skinner. Photo: Michael Shay

Eric Skinner’s happy landing

Jan. 18: “On the afternoon that Snowpocalypse struck Portland, Eric Skinner walked into the lobby at BodyVox Dance Center after a morning in the studio and settled easily onto one of the long couches in the corner. As always he looked trim and taut: small but strong and tough, with a body fat index down somewhere around absolute zero. If anyone looks like a dancer, Skinner does. Even in repose he seems all about movement: you get the sense he might spring up suddenly like a Jumping Jack on those long lean muscles and bounce somewhere, anywhere, just for the sake of bouncing.” In January, after 30 years on Portland stages, Skinner was getting ready to retire from BodyVox – but not from dance, he told Bob Hicks.

 


 

Les Watanabe in ‘Sojourn’ by Donald McKayle, Inner City Repertory Company. Photographed by Martha Swope in New York. 1972. Photo courtesy of Les Watanabe

Les Watanabe on Alvin Ailey, Lar Lubovich, Donald McKayle and his life in dance

Jan. 20: In a wide-ranging Q&A interview, Jamuna Chiarini hears a lot of modern-dance history from Watanabe, who was in the thick of it and now teaches at Western Oregon University:

“During Alvin Ailey’s CBS rehearsals, Lar Lubovitch was teaching in the next studio. I ran into him at the drinking fountain. While living in L.A., I had read articles about him in Dance Magazine. So while he was stooped over drinking, I exclaimed, ‘Lar Lubovitch! I’ve read all about you!’

“At that point he stood up facing me wiping his mouth and looking incredulous like, ‘Who is this guy?’ I then asked, ‘Do you ever have auditions? I would love to dance with you.’

“’Are you dancing now?’ he asked.

“’Yes, with Alvin Ailey next door, but it is only for five weeks.’

“’Where do you take class?’ Lar asked. ‘At Maggie Black’s,’ I answered. ‘Good. Let’s meet at her first class. Then you can rush back to rehearsal. See you next week.’”

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Good morning. Happy holidays. Here’s something of particular interest to all-ages aficionados and puppet-heads:

A.L. Adams

This year’s Revels show features “life-sized puppets,” and combines the legends of Gryla and the Finnish folkloric fox figure. (Say that five times fast!) Like a modern jerk, I have YouTube-searched both for our general edification. Gryla is a Krampus-like Christmas ghoul who eats naughty children. She’s got 13 merry bearded sons (suspiciously similar to the 7 dwarves) whose names denote their idiosyncracies. “Pot-Licker” and “Window-Peeper” are two of the cohort.

Into the woods with the Christmas Revels.

The Finnish fox figure—or Fire Fox—yes, like the browser—moves so fast that its fur sparks static and forms into the Northern lights. Do you want to see this notorious child-chomper and this sparkling vulpine wonder singing and dancing on stage? I kinda do. Revels. Be there or be eaten.

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Our grande dame takes a bow

Spotlight on: Luisa Sermol, Part 2 of 2. As she completes "The Humans" and prepares a wedding, a Portland icon gets ready for a big move

In the year 1996, Bill Clinton became the first Democratic president elected to a second term in 40 years. The English Patient won the Oscar for Best Picture. Deep Blue became the first computer to beat a world champion, defeating Gary Kasparov. The Dallas Cowboys won their last Super Bowl. And Luisa Sermol returned from New York to her adopted home, Portland, Oregon.

“We lived in my parents’ basement again — they’re kind of my transitional housing (laughs)– until Rick found some work.” A year or so after she and her then-husband, Rick Waldron, arrived from New York, her daughter, Isabella, was born. In addition to being a new mom, Sermol started looking around and doing outreach work: the Haven Project, pairing underserved teens with professional actors, directors, and writers; Artists Rep’s Actors-to-Go; her continuing work with Portland Actors Conservatory, the training ground for new professional actors. Through this work she started to meet other theater artists in town, such as Lorraine Bahr and Haven founder Gretchen Corbett. Corbett subsequently cast Sermol in her production of The Taming of the Shrew.

Another relationship also facilitated her re-integration into the Portland theater scene, superseding all the others and becoming not just one of Sermol’s most productive artistic partnerships but also among her most enduring friendships: Louanne Moldovan. They had met when Sermol was in town doing Midsummer.

“Oh, I know! Hairdresser!” remembers Moldovan, “That’s how we knew each other. Because I went to the same hairdresser as her, Valerium, unbeknownst to each other. I was in there one day bringing a flyer to one of my shows as I always did, and he said, “Oh my gosh, you have to meet Luisa. She’s an actress and was in New York.”

Sermol concurs. “Louanne pops in and Valerium had wanted me to meet her. She’s handing out all these flyers for The Wild Party and you know Louanne. There’s all this energy.” Moldovan picks up the story: “You know me, I’m like, “Tell me all about yourself! What are you doing! Blah blah blah! And that’s how we first met, was through the hairdresser.”

Luisa Sermol: The grande dame. Photo: Owen Carey

When Sermol returned to Portland, opportunities for an Equity actress in town were not what they are today. But she remembered that Cygnet, a literary theater company, specialized in stage readings, which opened up possibilities. She re-established contact with Moldovan, who ran the company and was all over the idea. “She did the John Sayles piece about the truck drivers that Teddy Roisum was in. That was what we did first. Then we did a holiday show that was a hoot. Lot of funny material and singing and everything.” And the two became fast friends, cemented by going through pregnancy at the same time. “We went through pre-natal yoga together,” says Moldovan. “We went to Ringside and had big steaks together when we were craving protein.” That friendship — and creative partnership — continues to this day. (The day after Sermol’s current show, Artists Rep’s The Humans, closes, Cygnet will do a reading of The Holiday Show, which will feature Sermol, at Tabor Bread.)

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Spotlight on: Luisa Sermol

Part 1 of 2: Birth of an Artist. As the grande dame of Portland theater prepares to move on, Bobby Bermea traces the beginnings of her career

There is a moment toward the beginning of Artist Rep’s The Humans, not too long after the parents have arrived at the children’s New York apartment, before much of the shenanigans, revelations and pandemonium have ensued, when Luisa Sermol comes to a moment of stillness at the top of the stairs. While a scene is happening on the floor below, she just stands there … and even so, it takes an act of will to tear your eyes away from her. Much of The Humans is artfully choreographed chaos — but not this. Sermol comes to a stop and time stops with her. Though you know next to nothing about this Deirdre Blake’s life, on a visceral level you feel everything that has brought this character to this moment. You feel the weight of her life, the joys long past, the choices made, the brokenness, the frustrations, the boundless love. It’s a moment that not all actors have in them. There is nothing to do. You just have to be. And few actors do that better than Luisa Sermol.

Luisa Sermol: The North Star. Photo: Owen Carey

She’s the North Star of the Portland theater community. She’s our grande dame, our standard-bearer. She’s been acting in Portland for twenty years. She graduated from Juilliard. She’s won five Drammys. She’s worked at almost every major house in Portland. She’s tackled everything in this town from Shakespeare to Johnna Adams and she’s done it with power, precision and vulnerability — and she’s made it look effortless (when, of course, it is anything but). Her hallmark is being able to dig down to the depths of her soul and leave it all on the stage. If Theatre Thanos came down in his spaceship, she would lead Portland’s team of Drama Avengers out to fight him. Tony Sonera, for whom Sermol gave two of her award-winning performances, put it this way: “When you have the big role, with big shoes, with big expectations, when it’s too difficult for you to figure out, you bring in Luisa Sermol.”

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Family fuss? It’s only human

In the comic drama "The Humans" at Artists Rep, Thanksgiving dinner with the Blakes just might knock the stuffing out of you

Maybe you missed it last year when that big musical about the Founding Fathers was the talk of the Tonys and just about anyplace else you turned. But while Hamilton was sweeping up most of the attention and a bunch of Tony Awards, including best new musical, a much smaller play was making its own mark: Stephen Karam’s family comedy-drama The Humans, which took the award for best new play, plus two more for best performers and one for best set design. If it never broke through as a pop-cultural phenomenon the way Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical hit has, The Humans has left its mark, and is likely to be produced many times for many years on many regional stages.

From left: Vana O’Brien (in wheelchair), Quinlan Fitzgerald (partially hidden), John San Nicolas, Luisa Sermol, Val Landrum (partially hidden), Robert Pescovitz. Photo: Russell J Young

On Saturday night it opened on Artists Repertory Theatre’s Morrison Stage after a week of preview performances, beating Hamilton to the Portland punch. (A few Portlanders got a first look at The Humans a little over a year ago, when The Reading Parlor performed an engaging and decidedly promising one-night staged reading of it in a little side room at Artists Rep.) The Hamilton road company will settle into Keller Auditorium for a run March 20-April 8 next year, and I can still hear the wails reverberating from frustrated potential ticket buyers who couldn’t get through on the phone lines when advance sales kicked off Nov. 17.

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ArtsWatch Weekly: Great Graham

Revisiting Martha Graham's potent power of the past; a Wanderlust Mother's Day; Michael Curry's "Perséphone" with the Symphony; Brett Campbell's music picks

Martha Graham created her legendary American modern dance company in 1926, and it’s difficult to imagine, more than 90 years later, just how earth-shattering her early works must have seemed. Graham carved legends out of time and space: intense, pristine, pared to the bone. She created a hyper-expressionist, essentially American style of dance, built on the works of Denishawn and other pioneers but reimagined in the movement possibilities and theatrical impulses of her own body.

She collaborated with many of the great composers and visual artists of her time, which was long and artistically fertile: born in 1894, she created her final dance in 1990, the year before she died at age 96. Her bold, emphatic approach to dance can seem overstated to contemporary audiences. Yet it carries the intensity and hyper-expressionism of the great silent movies, and if you just give it a chance, something of the pure rawness of her glory years comes through, as if it were new all over again.

Martha Graham in “Dark Meadow,” 1946. Reproduced with permission of Martha Graham Resources, a division of The Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance, www.marthagraham.org. Library of Congress.

No company built by a daringly original dancemaker – not Graham’s, or Balanchine’s, or Alvin Ailey’s, or José Limón’s – can survive on memories of its founder alone, and it can be a tricky business to balance the tradition of what was once radical with the need to remain in the contemporary swim of things. The Graham company, under current artistic director Janet Eilber, mixes things up boldly. When the company performs Wednesday evening in Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall as part of the White Bird dance season the program will include works by a couple of high-profile contemporary dancemakers: the Spanish choreographer Nacho Duato, who now runs the Berlin State Ballet, and the Belgian choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. But the core of the program will be two of Graham’s own works, 1948’s Diversion of Angels and Dark Meadow Suite, a distillation of an ambitious 1946 work that ran 50 minutes in its original form (the suite is much shorter).

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