Lynn Nottage

Love & loss in the time of coronavirus

With stages shut down, the work's stopped cold. Bobby Bermea asks his fellow performance artists: Can the fire be relighted post-pandemic?

It’s weird when you wake up one day and realize that everything is different. 

For me, just how different hasn’t fully hit me yet, not even more than a month later. I still feel insulated, like I’m in a bubble where time has become elastic, amorphous. It takes an enormous effort just to intentionally shape the course of a given day. How many times already have I eaten at 11 at night or woken up at 11 in the morning? As violinist Michelle Alany puts it, the struggle is “trying to find some kind of rhythm and structure so I don’t lose the art and creativity.” 

In thirty years as a professional theater artist, I had never rehearsed a show for four weeks only to have it cancelled right before we opened. PassinArt’s Seven Guitars, which was scheduled to open in March, was the first. By that time, I think we’d all seen the handwriting on the wall. I remember the morning the call came that it was over: It felt like I’d woken up in another dimension. It wasn’t the last time I was going to feel that way. 

Since that day I have heard innumerous people describe this moment in history as “crazy” or “surreal” or “like science fiction.” Except, it’s not like science fiction. Face masks. Rubber gloves. Zoom. Science fiction is now real life.


OREGON IN SHUTDOWN: VOICES FROM THE FRONT


As I write this, about 37,000 people have died of COVID-19 in the United States, about 420 a day since the first confirmed U.S. case on Jan. 21 (the first known U.S. death came five weeks later, on Feb. 28). That might not seem like much, considering that about 8,000 people die every day in the U.S. But the numbers are rapidly escalating. On April 16 alone, nearly 4,600 people in the U.S. died from coronavirus. That feels different. 

I have one friend who came down with COVID-19. She’s 70 years old and was my first harmonica teacher when I was working on Seven Guitars. She spent two weeks in the hospital. She has nothing but great things to say about the medical professionals who took care of her. But the disease is no joke, and she felt like hell most of the time she was there. While she was in the hospital we stayed in contact via text (talking took too much out of her). One of the times I checked in to see how she was doing, she texted back, “Feeling shitty! Everything pisses me off!” I suspect that anger helped get her through it. She’s home now. A nurse visits her three times a week. Only today she was told that she can go outside if she wears a mask and practices social distancing. It’s an incredible victory. 

Author Bobby Bermea in CoHo Theatre/Beirut Wedding World Theatre Projects’ “Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train”: “If the actor cannot exist in the same physical space with the audience, then theater doesn’t exist.” Photo: Owen Carey/2019

When the proverbial feces came into contact with the rotating blades of the proverbial air circulation device, I called my parents and offered to come down to where they live in Southern California. I could do my job at Profile Theatre remotely, and I could help them by buying their groceries and taking care of whatever other needs they might have that took place outside of the house. My parents declined my offer, saying they were perfectly okay. 

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ArtsWatch Weekly: Confronting the great divides

America's battle with itself comes alive in a pair of plays, a book on the working-class tightrope, and a photo show about the persistent South

AS YOU MAY HAVE NOTICED DURING OUR RECENT IMPEACHMENT SPAT and other real or manufactured public outrages, we are living in deeply divided times. One of the roles of art is to look into such abysses and give them shape that either clarifies the issues or reveals them to be more confusing and complex than we believe. In times like these art is not simply decoration: It also can be, and likely should be, a relentless and unwaveringly human mirror. 

Jason Glick and Andrea White, caught in a Blind. Photo: Lindberg Media

Art often looks back to look forward. While watching Lynn Nottage’s brilliant play Sweat in its recently closed, knockout production by Profile Theatre, I felt the lurking presence of the late, great Arthur Miller in the hall. Nottage’s play, which deals with the economic crumbling of the American working class and the way such stresses also can reveal racial and other fault lines, suggests some of the underpinnings of populism’s hard turn to the right and left. It also feels like an updating and almost a reverse image of Miller’s 20th century social realism in the likes of All My Sons, a play that looks at the effects of economic skullduggery from the vantage of the owners, while Sweat considers its brutalizing effect on the workers.

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DramaWatch: Uncommon Ground

Fresh voices and surprising ideas emerge through the annual Fertile Ground festival of new work, and the theater week stays busy elsewhere, too.

The time has come again for Portland’s annual mid-winter performance bloom. Fertile Ground, “a city-wide festival of new works,” marks its 11th year and features 11 days of world premiere plays, play readings, workshop productions of works in-progress, dance, puppet shows and so forth. Dozens of shows in dozens of places around town, some ticketed, some free, almost all accessible with a $70 festival pass — that “almost” caveat necessary because many shows sell out or at least producers of popular shows fill up the reservations set aside for pass-holders.
In any case, it’s a great time to take time to race around (obeying all traffic codes and etiquette, mind you) and indulge in the cold-weather cornucopia. 

In addition to the basic concept outlined above, you’ll want to consult the 2020 festival guide or its online equivalent to help make choices about what to see. It’s a lot to take in and even after — perhaps especially after — perusing the 24-page guide you’ll have questions. I did. So I called festival director Nicole Lane.

“Who the heck are all these people??”

Well, actually I tried to make the question sound more professionally journalistic than that. I mentioned that in the festival’s early years it featured major productions by big companies such as Portland Center Stage and Artists Rep, but that’s no longer the case. And that projects seems less likely these days to come from the ranks of theater artists and writers whose work we see the rest of the year. But I was really asking who are all these writers and directors and producers I’ve not heard of before.

Fertile Ground festival director Nicole Lane. Photo: courtesy of Fertile Ground.

“Fertile Ground has evolved in terms of meeting the needs of Portland artists,” Lane replied. “It was founded upon a very open, non-adjudicated process.”

In the beginning — not coincidentally, she pointed out, when she and festival founder Trisha Mead were working for some of those big theater companies — the big producers were paying attention to the opportunity the fest presented and scheduling new works in conjunction with it. But the overlapping complications of new-play development and season planning make it difficult to keep getting brand new plays produced and also make sure they get staged at such a particular spot on the calendar.
Lane points out that the large companies are “finding ways to be supportive without putting shows in,” such as the panel discussion on IDEA (inclusion, diversity, equity and accessibility) that PCS is hosting on the festival’s final day, Feb. 9.

As for the folks who are in the festival, Lane was kind enough not to point out that the fact that I haven’t heard of them probably says more about me than about the artists in question. Instead, she gently reminded me that, ““one of the major tenets of Fertile Ground is producer education and opportunity — developing a new crop of producers alongside the new crop of works and ideas.”

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‘Caught up in the riptide’: ‘Sweat’ at Linfield Theatre

Lynn Nottage's drama of working-class life is difficult and ambitious -- and Linfield College is putting on a production that leaves the audience gobsmacked

You might be forgiven lowered expectations when a college theater launches a production of a work as ambitious and difficult as Lynn Nottage’s Sweat, which opened last week at Linfield College in McMinnville and continues this weekend. Actors lack the experience generally seen on a professional stage; some may not have had theater training beyond the rehearsals. Young people who perhaps haven’t even thought of having children play parents, etc. It’s not ideal.

All that said, Linfield’s Sweat, which I saw on opening night, is a triumph and reminder that local theater can leave you as gobsmacked as anything you might see in Portland or Ashland. After the heartbreaking final scene, there were tears in the audience. During a talkback session, one audience member quietly noted that she couldn’t talk about it; she needed some time. One man said, “I’ve lived that.” I saw the play in 2015 at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, so I knew how it ends. And I was gobsmacked all over again.

I found myself sitting almost dead center, next to Ronni LaCroute, whose sponsorship helped make the production — and the hiring of guest director Adleane Hunter — possible. Behind me was Miles Davis, the college’s president. He’d brought with him a young man from McMinnville High School who had, apparently, never seen a play before. I can’t even. Talk about setting the bar high! Who knows what seed that experience planted? All told, it was a memorable evening.

Nicole Tigner (left) plays Jessie and Elise Martin plays Tracey in a scene from Lynn Nottage's Pulitzer Prize-winning “Sweat,” which continues its run at Linfield College Theater in McMinnville 7 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. Photo courtesy: Linfield College Theatre
Nicole Tigner (left) plays Jessie and Elise Martin plays Tracey in a scene from Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Sweat,” which continues at 7 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at Linfield College Theatre. Photo courtesy: Linfield College Theatre

Sweat opens with two tense exchanges. A parole officer (Linfield junior Robert Santos, lending solid credibility to the play’s smallest role) interviews two parolees: Jason (Sam Hannigan, a junior from Hood River) is an angry young man sporting white supremacist tattoos who seems coiled to strike at any moment, and Chris, a young black man (played by Isaiah Alexander, one of three guest artists featured in the cast) who is more subdued and defeated. We learn that they’ve been in prison several years and recently met for the first time since an incident that got them locked up. Yes, the audience eventually sees what the incident was, and yes, it’s horrible.

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ArtsWatch Weekly: One for the books

Portland Book Fest turns the page, downtown gets a new museum, music and theater light up the stage, it's beginning to feel a lot like ...

WORDSTOCK IS DEAD. LONG LIVE THE PORTLAND BOOK FESTIVAL. And the city’s big blowout of a book festival, by any other name, is just around the corner: Saturday’s the day. Portland’s South Park Blocks is the site, centering on the Portland Art Museum but sprawling like free verse across the territory. “A circus is a good analogy for Portland’s big annual book event, with its 100+ authors appearing on nine stages all in one dense, delirious, daylong literary orgy,” Katie Taylor writes in her aptly titled ArtsWatch preview, Portland Book Festival: Sometimes too much is a good thing. “It’s intentional FOMO,” or Fear of Missing Out, festival director Amanda Bullock told Taylor. “There’s always something happening, a new event starting every 15 minutes. Even if one thing is full, there’s always something else to check out.”

Checking the goods at 2018’s Portland Book Festival. Photo courtesy Literary Arts

Among this year’s headliners will be the big-idea journalist Malcolm Gladwell and former Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice. As always, the party will be overflowing with authors, readers, speeches, workshops, browsers and impromptu discoveries – a blossoming of language for a book-besotted town. As for that name change, the beloved Wordstock rebranded itself last year, trading in its smart, snappy, cheeky, and memorable monicker for something that sounds a little more boardroom drab. On its web site, the festival explains the change. I’m not convinced. Then again, open book, open mind: Maybe I’m just reading too much into it. 

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This is America: Linfield stages working-class epic ‘Sweat’

Adleane Hunter of California directs a cast of students and others in Lynn Nottage's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama of identity, economics, and race

Lynn Nottage’s 2017 Pulitzer Prize-winning play Sweat brilliantly, humanely, and powerfully depicts what the playwright terms “spaces that are under-illuminated” — those spaces occupied by millions of working-class Americans whose lives are a daily struggle even if they have a job.

I saw it at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2015, and of all the plays I’ve seen there since the early 2000s, it ranks high in my top ten. The final exchange of dialogue and, particularly, the last line, is one of the most powerful I’ve heard in an American play.

This month in McMinnville, Linfield College’s theater department tackles the play, led by guest director and producer Adleane Hunter, who has been doing theater in Southern California and elsewhere since the 1980s. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, Nov. 7-9 and 14-16, and 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 10. A series of special events, including an opening night talkback, accompanies the production.

I sat down with Hunter, who first visited Linfield a couple of years ago because her granddaughter is a student there. She’s familiar with Nottage, one of the best playwrights in American theater today. I asked her about that last line — and don’t worry, I won’t spoil it for you.  

“I was so moved by it, I actually felt manipulated, because I didn’t see it coming,” she laughed as we had coffee at the campus Starbucks. Unlike many playgoers, Hunter strives for as spoiler-free an experience as possible. She does not read reviews or even the program notes before the lights go down. Even so, Hunter says, she can usually chart a play’s trajectory early on.

Adleane Hunter has come from Southern California to be guest director of Linfield College's production of "Sweat." Photo by: David Bates
Adleane Hunter of Southern California is guest director of Linfield College’s production of “Sweat.” Photo courtesy: Linfield College

Not with Sweat.

“I was drawn into this play in a way that I wasn’t projecting what was going to happen,” she said. “Often I’ll see plays and I can pretty much guess how it’s going to end, but I couldn’t with this play. I was very emotional. It’s so humanistic, it’s so profound. But it’s real, it’s organic.” 

Sweat explores the world of eight characters of various ages, genders, and ethnicities whose lives are bound up with a factory in Reading, Pa. Nottage was drawn to Reading — literally so; she spent more than a year there doing research — because she saw in the 2010 Census that it had the highest share of citizens living in poverty in the nation. According to notes for the show compiled by OSF, Reading’s unemployment in May 2010 was 14.7 percent. By way of comparison, Yamhill County’s hovers around 4 percent. The writing is exquisite, both in terms of plotting and dialogue. Yet, despite the poetry and emotional content of the piece, it functions not only as art but also (it seems to me) as an act of journalism. Bearing witness to life in the United States.

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