Oregon Children’s Theatre

Ross McKeen, beloved arts leader, dies

McKeen, who helped lead Oregon Children's Theatre to national prominence and helped launch the Oregon Cultural Trust, dies of pancreatic cancer

THE PORTLAND ARTS SCENE LOST A MAJOR CONTRIBUTOR AND A GREAT FRIEND on Tuesday when Ross McKeen, the longtime managing director of Oregon Children’s Theatre, died. “My beloved husband and best friend, Ross McKeen, passed away yesterday morning, six months after receiving a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer,” his wife, Robin Remmick, wrote Wednesday on Facebook. “He was a cherished son, father, brother, and uncle, and he was the kindest, gentlest, smartest and funniest person I have ever known. I can’t even begin to fathom how much I will miss him. He died with his best dog Kid by his side, with a serene and full heart.”

Ross McKeen, who died Tuesday of cancer. Photo: Rebekah Johnson, via Facebook

McKeen, in partnership with recently retired artistic director Stan Foote, built OCT to national prominence, and was known in Oregon arts circles as a smart and capable administrator, an excellent and generous mentor, and a man of keen humor. Before joining OCT in 2008 he had spent several years as a grant writer and fundraising consultant for several Portland arts organizations, served a year as the first manager of the Oregon Cultural Trust, and spent three years as general manager of Portland Center Stage. Ross understood the artistic side of the business (he was also a musician in a “swell cowboy band” called Bourbon Jockey), which helped him greatly as an administrator. He was a writer of great wit and erudition, as he revealed a dozen or so years ago, during the heyday of blogging, on the sites Mighty Toy Cannon and Culture Shock. McKeen and Oregon Children’s Theatre controversially parted ways last November. The company has not announced a replacement for him.

2020 in review: At last, over & out

2020? Perish the thought. The ups, downs, disasters, trends, outrages, and occasional triumphs of Oregon's arts & culture in a tortuous year.

2020? Perish the thought. Good riddance to bad rubbish: We’re gonna wash that year right out of our hair. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out. Or, as the old curse has it, “may you live in interesting times” – but not quite this interesting, thank you very much.

The Year That Should Not Speak Its Name led pretty much everyone, including all of us here at Oregon ArtsWatch, on a frantic and astonishing chase. It was discombobulating, because for the most part we were chasing in isolation inside the confines of our own homes, like cats in a cardboard box desperately racing after our own tails. Oh, sure, there were those fair-weather walks through the neighborhood, and the masked-up trips to the grocery store. But, really: Things might’ve been new, but they were far from normal.


LOOKING BACK: 2020 IN THE REAR VIEW MIRROR


Normality, of course, is how the year began. Even optimism. On Jan. 1, 2020, a year ago today, ArtsWatch strode brashly into the Brave New Year with the first dispatch in Vision 2020, an ambitious series of 20 interviews over 20 days with a cross-section of Oregon arts figures who agreed to talk with us about how things looked from their corners of the cultural world, and what they hoped to see in the coming year and decade. They had some terrific insights and ideas, and the series makes for some fascinating reading: From Rachel Barreras-Kleeman’s tale of why she teaches dance to low-income kids on the Coast, to Dañel Malan’s vision of creating bilingual arts through Teatro Milagro, to 18 compelling stories in between, you can find all 20 interviews here. But nobody – least of all those of us at ArtsWatch Central, in our eager editorial innocence – anticipated what was lurking just around the corner.

In January Maya Vivas and Leila Haile talked with Martha Daghlian for ArtsWatch’s “Vision 2020” series about the joys and challenges of running an adventurous art gallery on North Mississippi Avenue featuring work from a wide range of artists who identify as QTPoC (Queer Trans People of Color). Because of the Covid-19 crisis, their Ori Gallery has since shifted to an online presence. Photo courtesy Ori Gallery

And how could any of us have? Yes, news reports buried on the inside pages of the newspapers alerted us to some new virus very far away, but it didn’t seem like much to get alarmed about. Then things began to build, until, come March, the virus was all very real, and all over the place, and in spite of a determined right-wing campaign to persuade people that it was all fake news and the disease was a hoax, the world began to shut down.

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DramaWatch: A vintage Storm

Ten years after, Storm Large's short-run revival of "Crazy Enough" blows even stronger. Plus: Drammys Monday, openings, summer tips.

Around 2002 or 2003, not long after Storm Large had moved to Portland and started to establish herself as a local cultural phenom, several friends told me I had to go to the Old Town nightclub Dante’s to hear this amazing rock singer. During those days, I was the staff pop-music critic for The Oregonian, so I dutifully went to see what the buzz was about. Within a couple of minutes I could tell what had people talking: a tall, good-looking woman with a commanding stage presence and a voice as big and pliant as her attitude was bold and defiant.

Yet I wasn’t won over. Her vocal talent and charisma were undeniable. But the brash, bawdy Amazon-sex-goddess persona that had folks howling her praise? Meh, not interested.

Storm Large performs with (L to R) Greg Eklund (Drums) and Matthew Brown (Bass) in Crazy Enough. Photo: Kate Szrom/Courtesy of Portland Center Stage at The Armory

A few years later, in the fall of 2007, she starred in a Portland Center Stage production of Cabaret and I began to take a larger view, you might say. Her vocal chops extended beyond rock’n’roll belting, and she could convey emotional shades that weren’t evident in the bluster of Storm and the Balls. 

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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: Aliens in rom-coms

Corrib's "How To Keep an Alien" in review, "Jesus Takes the 'A' Train' and "Crossing Mnisose" opening, children's theater, new seasons

Irish playwright Sonya Kelly’s How To Keep an Alien, which took the best-production award when it premiered at the Tiger Dublin Fringe in 2014 and is now enjoying its West Coast premiere from Corrib, Portland’s all-Irish theater company, isn’t about flying saucers and little green men. It’s about that other kind of alien – the foreign-born kind, the kind who faces political and sometimes actual walls when trying to move from one nation to another, and who must overcome not only bureaucratic obstacles but also personal ones, the sort we often erect between our desires and our fears.

It’s intriguing, often appealing, and whimsically constructed, like a shifting tower leaning sharply to one side: an odd duck of a play, and I mean it no disrespect when I say it’s a contemporary rom-com, the sort of story that might make a good Hallmark movie if Hallmark movies ever were to recognize the actual and ordinary existence in the world of homosexuality (or, for that matter, the desirability of non-white characters filling any role in a romantic comedy larger than supportive sidekick). I happen to like a good rom-com, and this one has the enormous advantage of being about two lesbians falling in love, but approaching their affair altogether naturally, with no flashing lights of cultural or political importance: just two people going through what people of all sorts all over the world go through every day. The decision to not make a big deal out of the lovers’ gender – to treat it matter-of-factly, as just the way this story goes – is in fact a bigger deal than making a big deal would be.

Amy Katrina Bryan (left) and Sara Hennessy in Corrib Theatre’s “How To Keep an Alien.” Photo: Adam Liberman

In this case the two people overtaken by emotional attraction are Sonia, an Irish actor starring in a historical costume drama that she finds ridiculous, and Kate, the show’s Australian stage manager, who is also, in a meta sort of way, the onstage stage manager of How To Keep an Alien, batting back and forth between the reality of the story and the reality of the production. If this sounds confusing, it sometimes is, but usually isn’t.

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Dressed for success at Oregon Children’s Theatre

Mo Willems' "Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed: the Rock Experience" puts some pep in the step of a popular kids' story about individuality and courage.

On the surface, the naked mole rat doesn’t seem like a creature with a lot to teach us. But popular children’s author Mo Willems knew better when he wrote the book Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed, and then adapted it into a stage musical with music by by Deborah Wicks La Puma. Oregon Children’s Theatre’s production of “Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed” plays through February 17 at the Newmark Theatre, directed by OCT Artistic Director Stan Foote.

In Willem’s musical, Wilbur (Martin Hernandez), the naked mole rat of the title, discovers he’s a little different. He wants to wear clothes, you see, which is frowned upon in a community (or underground system of tunnels) where no one has ever done that before.

After all, when we are first introduced to the naked mole rat society at the beginning of the show, they are singing the “Naked Rules!” — which includes the lyrics: “Part mole, part rat, totally NAKED!” So, by the time Wilbur belts out “Time to Get Dressed” the show’s second musical number (in which he questions who he is and whether it is okay to be who he wants to be), we all know the rules — and the implication is that Wilbur should too.

Wilbur (Martin Hernandez, at right) is well-suited to defy naked mole rat social norms. Photo: Owen Carey

The themes here are heavy and important, but done in a fun way so that kids get the message — “It’s okay to be different” — without feeling lectured.

All the characters in this show are “naked” mole rats, but don’t worry: It’s all kid-safe fun! They are fully clothed, but in clever costumes (kudos to costume designer Sydney Dufka, wardrobe manager Emily Horton and costume design apprentice Zyla Zody) that let them somehow pass as naked mole rats.

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DramaWatch: Giving you Moor of what you’re funkin’ for

Portland Actors Conservatory's raps "Othello: the Remix"; Oregon Children's Theatre makes teens "Shiver"; plus more shows set to open or close.

“Othello’s rich, but she keeps me poor

And now it’s time to settle the score

She never lets me get my foot in the door

And this is why I hate the Moor!”

OK, so it ain’t exactly Shakespeare. But of course, that’s the point.

That snatch of rhyme comes from a show called Othello: the Remix, which opens this weekend in a production starring students of Portland Actors Conservatory, directed by Artists Rep resident artist Vin Shambry. It shares something with Shakespeare’s great tragedy Othello, in which one of the plausible reasons for the villain Iago’s enmity toward Othello is a promotion that hasn’t gone Iago’s way. But that’s no iambic pentameter, and instead of a higher rank in the Venetian army, the prize that has eluded Iago is higher billing amid the pecking order of a touring hip-hop crew overseen by Othello as star and mogul.

Julet Lindo stars in the title role of “Othello: the Remix,” as a woman on a precarious perch atop the hip-hop game. Photo montage: Owen Carey

“Now I know what I should be.

I know what I’m worth,

But Othello just ignores me and says “Cassio’s first.”

Yo! Battle after battle after battle with this crew:

I murder mad MCs, but what’s Othello do?

He deals the freshman a fresh hand,

And he makes him his best man,

And lessens my chances by makin’ me Yes Man.”

This rather liberal modern adaptation was created by Chicagoans Gregory and Jeffery Ameen Qaiyum (GQ and JQ), who work under the name the Q Brothers. They’ve been at the hip-hop-theater thing (or “add-RAP-tation,” as they call their approach) for quite awhile, having scored an Off-Broadway hit back in 1999 with the wittily titled The Bomb-itty of Errors, and toured extensively since, including a 2015 appearance at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Green Show. Othello: the Remix was commissioned by the Globe Theatre as part of 2012’s London Olympic Games Cultural Olympiad.

Gettin’ in your ear: In the Portland Actors Conservatory production of “Othello: the Remix,” Xzavier Wolfie Beacham’s Iago (left) insinuates; Julet Lindo’s Othello implodes. Photo: Owen Carey.

For the Actors Conservatory version, Shambry has changed things up in a few additional ways. One of the points of tension in Shakespeare’s play, famously, is that Othello is black (“the Moor”), hence an outsider, an other, in Venice despite his high status. Shambry realigns that conflict: “I made Othello a strong black woman and Iago a black man.”

He credits that shift to the actors at his disposal, especially Julet Lindo, who’ll play the title role. “She blew me out the water,” Shambry says. “I came in thinking that Othello, as this rap mogul, has to be hard, masculine. What I didn’t see at first was the vulnerability. But I saw all of that in her.” Meanwhile, in Xzavier Wolfie Beacham, Shambry found a suitably compelling, mercurial Iago, in this case not the dissatisfied army ensign but instead “a better MC who doesn’t get the limelight.”

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