Matt Haynes

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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ArtsWatch Weekly: full-tilt boogie

Imago tilts the action in a topsy-turvy Greek classic, Brett Campbell's best music bets, "Jersey Boys" croons into town, new theater & dance

The question echoes down the centuries from the Greek myths and Euripides’ play, which was first set on stage in 431 B.C. and just keeps coming back: was Medea balancing the scales of justice when she murdered her husband’s new wife and her own children, or was she falling off her rocker? People have been arguing the point ever since (Medea shocked its original audience, coming in dead last in that year’s City of Dionysia festival), and the question of teetering out of control remains foremost, right down to Ben Powers’ recent adaptation of Medea for the National Theatre in London.

The ups and downs of rehearsal: Imago’s tilting stage for “Medea.” Imago Theatre photo.

Enter Jerry Mouawad of Imago Theatre, whose own theories of balance reach back to his mentor Jacques Lecoq, the French mime and movement master who advocated a “balance of the stage.” In 1998 Mouawad and Imago took the advice literally, creating a large movable stage, suspended three feet above the floor, that tips and leans as the actors shift position on it. They used it for an acclaimed production of Sartre’s No Exit, in which the constantly shifting balances became a metaphor for the play itself. The show was revived several times and traveled to theaters across the country.

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Matt Haynes explains The Pulp Stage

Since 2010, The Pulp Stage has been serving up sci-fi and suspense scripts á la carte at small venues. Their founder sheds light on their process and vision.

Be forewarned: This Thursday (April 20), if you find yourself in O’Connor’s Bar on Capitol Highway, you might lose yourself in a bizarre parallel universe. The Pulp Stage—a scrappy cadre of theater nerds deeply devoted to sci-fi, fantasy and suspense—will present a reading of Francesca Piantadosi’s Galaxy Blink, the story of a woman attempting to manage two men’s cosmic delusions while sometimes wondering if she’s actually the crazy one.

The Pulp Stage has been a blip on Arts Watch’s radar for some time, but we were curious to learn more. We asked founder and artistic director Matt Haynes to explain.

How long has The Pulp Stage been going, and what first got you started?

We did our first showing in Winter of 2010. I was inspired by a lewd, ultra-violent story that my brother had written for a music magazine. [Adam Haynes has a credit as screenwriter for the film The Pleasure Drivers, which features Meat Loaf and Billy Zane among others.] I thought his story could be really easily adapted into dialogue and narration. The Fertile Ground Festival of New Work gave me the perfect platform by which to mount my first production. I’d only worked as an actor and teacher previously.

Francesca Piantadosi’s “Galaxy Blink” on The Pulp Stage, April 20.

Where’s the biggest or most public, and the smallest or most private, place Pulp has performed?

Biggest public… so far, I would say Hipbone Studio with an audience of up to 60. Smallest, most private? A small living room.

Is theater etiquette different in a bar than in a playhouse space? What are pros and cons of each?

The big pro of a show in a bar is that you’re essentially conjuring the trip together. People are hanging out, drinking, munching and listening, and before you know it, everybody is transported. That’s the raw magic of theater right there. Plus, you usually get great deals on rentals, since you’re bringing in bucks for the bar.

Cons? With our shows, the audience needs to be hyper-focused on the words or they’re going to lose the story. And when you’re in a bar … well … sometimes patrons can treat the performance like music where you can move around, chat, drift in and out of listening (which I’m sure many musicians don’t like either). So our ideal venue has a bar feel, but a playhouse focus. The Vault at O’Connor’s—the location of our next show—really works that way. And we do modify our pieces to fit venues. With bars or public spaces like libraries, you usually want to go for the the broad and funny pieces. If the audience is repeatedly laughing, they’re repeatedly sending focus to the performers and the story. Galaxy Blink is funny, but it also has a lot of realism. We can do a “quieter” piece like that in the Vault at O’Connor’s.

How would you describe Pulp’s vision and repertoire? Has it changed over time?

The original format was staged readings, where you had script in hand but also had some light blocking, costumes, light design, sound design et cetera. In 2013, after taking the full reigns as producer (my co-producer had been Brian Allard up to that point), I realized just how much work it took to mount these shows … most of which were only going to play for one night. So I stepped back and thought about the ultra-violent story that got us going for 2010 … the final draft was built to be this really, really simple form of readers’ theater. You wouldn’t want to stage it with any elaboration, it was storytelling … with dialogue. What if we built more and more scripts like that? Super easy to produce and super fun for audiences and performers? Sort of like A.R. Gurney’s Love Letters. So we took that path, and now we develop plays in the form that we call “Prime”: just the words.

It’s important to differentiate what we do from workshop readings (where usually someone sits on the sidelines and reads the stage directions out loud). Workshop readings can sometimes be even better than the fully staged show, but the audience will always be in a split-minded position: “I’m enjoying this reading, and at the same time I know this is not the full actualization of the piece.”

How do we make ours different? We take physical actions out of the scenes (like the Greek plays where the fight builds in a battle of words, followed by blood and guts flying all around offstage), or we keep the action and have that be deliberately narrated, storytelling-style (as opposed to actions being listed, as with stage directions). This way, the audience is in a position to fully enjoy the show for what it is, and what it was always intended to be: verbal storytelling.

What’s your process, and what are your criteria, for picking plays?

The story needs to be something that could qualify as science fiction, fantasy or suspense (and suspense’s  permutations, like mystery or horror). And the story needs to have characters who are trying to get something from each other in every scene, using their words to do so. So, for example, the stargate sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey would certainly qualify as great science fiction, but  there’s no dynamic tension between characters; Dave just goes on the ride. The revealing of other worlds can be a big part of pulp genres, but you have to have characters giving and taking … and the stakes need to be survival-based.

How do you choose readers/actors?

We regularly host test reads of new material. Actors come and read pieces then give their feedback afterwards. It’s a real win because we get to learn how effective the play is and at the same time we get to know how the actor reads and how they might fit into one of our later shows.

Our pillars for an effective actor are (in order of priority)

-Do they speak clearly and at a decent volume?

-Do they seem grounded in their bodies when standing and delivering a story?

-Do they seem “real”: Are they getting behind the character’s wants and pushing?

-Do they have range?  Not as vital but helpful when we do evenings of multiple plays.

Are your playwrights hoping to get their shows fully staged, or read in other cities/markets? How does Pulp facilitate that process?

When a play looks like a good fit, and once it has been through our formatting method, we’re able to put it up on the stage and do so very quickly. All we need to make our plays happen is a quiet, contained space, an audience, actors and scripts—usually loaded up onto digital tablets. When a piece works, we often stir it into other showcases that we tour around, almost like a band’s set list. So that helps get the word out about the play even more.

We can’t offer development toward full staging (or what I like to call “traditional staging” because, within what they are, our plays are fully staged) but often we can serve as an acid test for the dialogue: How clear is the story with just the words? How can the context and the stakes be clearer with just the words? All this is good muscle building if and when the play goes the other direction to the land of sets, props, costumes, etc.

What are your 366 Audition Monologues [published on The Pulp Stage Site] all about?

I’ve wanted to create a play that was made up of monologues. What a great tool that would be! Entertaining as a show, and useful fodder for auditions. I didn’t consider myself a playwright, so I decided that a good confidence-builder would be to write a monologue a day for a year—leap year in this case. So I just went ahead and did it, figuring I and readers didn’t have anything to lose. Some of the monologues work better than others, as I’ve found out in test reads, but they all have characters trying to get something from someone (as opposed to monologues that are reflective, and thus harder to act in isolation) and all are gender-flexible. And there’s a good helping of monologues that can work for under-served age groups: Teens and older adults.

What’s on your immediate itinerary and wish list for the next season of Pulp?

Gigs, gigs and more gigs. Gigs teach us so much about the effectiveness of our format and how to increase that effectiveness. The company dream is to have a thriving publishing wing for our kinds of plays. Wouldn’t it be great if small communities and schools had kick-ass shows that need only a little push to get rolling? So with the gigs, we serve our audiences, build our network of supporters and learn about how to produce scripts that are what we like to call “easy tools for delight.”

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See Pulp Stages present Galaxy Blink this Thursday, April 20, 7:30pm at the Vault of O’Connor’s, 7850 SW Capitol Highway.
“Suggested donation: Sliding scale up to $10. Patrons who wish to drink and dine are advised to arrive no later than 6:45.”