PETE

DramaWatch: Experiments in higher learning

Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble's "How to Learn" schools the college experience; plus Halloween treats and other appetizing shows.

The theater artist Robert Quillen Camp has taught at Brown, Santa Barbara and Lewis & Clark College. He has what he calls a “practical” graduate degree (an MFA from Brown) as well as a PhD (UC Santa Barbara). And PhDs are the norm for his parents and grandparents. “I think of it as the family business,” he says of academia.

Presumably all this has helped prepare him to write and direct How to Learn, the upcoming production from the determinedly boundary-pushing Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble (PETE), for which Camp wrote the script to 2016’s Procedures for Saying No.

A multilayered examination of “the relationship between education, privilege, and knowledge,” as the PETE website puts it, How to Learn takes the form of a meandering lecture by a humanities professor as part of the announcement of a “student-centered student center.” It was inspired by a set of lectures on education that Friedrich Nietzsche delivered in 1872 and its strange mixture of academic critique and surreal self-reflection is underscored by Camp’s elaborately composed sound design.

Jacob Coleman stars in Robert Quillen Camp’s “How to Learn” by Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble. Photo: Owen Carey.

A recent late-afternoon rehearsal at the Sunnyside Community House, however, sounds like it’s taking place not at an ivy-encrusted university but a boisterous grade school — in the next room over, separated by little more than a large curtain, a couple dozen small children take part in what might be a beginning capoeira class.

Unflappable amid the cacophony of chanting and drumming, Camp and PETE co-founder Jacob Coleman proceed with their scene work, going over a part of the lecture in which Coleman’s un-named lecturer, the play’s sole character, recalls a bizarre and tragic incident from his undergraduate years. Amid a drug-altered visit to a night garden, some students encounter a  professor/mentor who launches into an impromptu lecture of his own:

“I can teach you something you don’t know.

Because you know, the university is like a failed state, a ruin, a nothing. It’s a ghost. You can’t learn anything there.

Originally the university was designed to teach men to serve god. Then later, the nation. But now, we don’t believe in God and we don’t believe in country. So now it’s just like, serve yourself. And if you are just working for yourself, if you are only serving your little tiny ego, you can’t learn anything. The only way to learn is obedience.”

As slippery as it is engaging, How to Learn is by turns a jeremiad, a self-justification, an explication, an evasion…In one section, the lecturer questions the institution’s ideals and methods, in the next he regales us with tales of his own misadventures as a student, and soon these streams begin to merge in surprising ways. The talk is sprinkled with off-hand references to Dewey and Foucault and the like, but the overall effect keeps drifting from the intellectual and toward the comic and phantasmagoric.

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DramaWatch Weekly: story dance

Dancer Andrea Parson teams with story shaper Susan Banyas to tell tales at CoHo Summerfest; Chekhov rides again; a twist on "Shrew"

“I’ve always been interested in theater,” says Andrea Parson, “but I’ve always been on the outskirts of it, because I’m a ‘dancer,’ not an ‘actor.’”
You can practically hear the air quotes as she speaks, conscious of the arts-discipline silos that so often shape the perceptions others have of artists but not the visions they have of themselves. Then again, the emphasis hardly is misplaced: Parson well and truly is a dancer. Winner of the highly prestigious Princess Grace Award for Dance in 2010, she’s been a frequently featured company member with NW Dance Project for several years. But she hasn’t been content to stay at home in the “dancer” silo.

Andrea Parson, telling stories. Photo: Fuschia Lin

A few years ago, for instance, she studied clowning, in a workshop taught by CoHo Productions’ producing artistic director Philip Cuomo. Now, she’s bringing a show of her own to CoHo’s Summerfest 2018. Finding Soul: a Constellation of Stories is a dance-theater hybrid co-directed by Parson and Susan Banyas, featuring Parson, Megan Dawn and Stephanie Schaaf, each performing an amalgam of movement and text, image-making and emotional expression, personal memory and family history.

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Devising ‘Very Poorly Indeed’

Other than that, Mr. Donner, how'd you like the Party? Using devising techniques, a group from PETE creates a fresh take on a ghoulish tale.

It begins, as these things often do, at the nexus between worlds, the juncture, the crossroads of realities, with the audience and the performing area both in light and both in darkness. On the stage, just on the other side of a translucent membrane, a pagan entity (Myriel Meissner) approaches. Something stirs inside the audience, something akin to communal memory or a dream we all share that never quite fades away.

The entity steps through the veil and we see it has the body of a young woman and the head of a deer. It — she — is silent as she walks across the stage in a manner both strange and familiar, and we feel both welcomed and wary as this entity, this being, exists between reality and illusion, life and death, good and evil, God and human. Before long we will encounter snow and ice, want and fear, ghosts and madness, a Trickster/narrator, and a tree adorned with human flesh, like something out of a Cormac McCarthy novel. It’s visceral stuff, viscerally performed by Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble’s training program, the Institute for Contemporary Performance.

As through a scrim, darkly: “Very Poorly Indeed.” Photo: Jeremy Jeziorski

The piece, Very Poorly Indeed, is being presented at CoHo Theater this weekend by PETE and is the culmination of a year of hard work, training and exploration by ICP students Clifton Holznagel, Jonathan Lee, Meissner, Rose Proctor, and Myia Johnson. This is the third year the Institute has been in operation, and the students vary from those new to the stage to those with a wealth of experience. They’ve spent the past school year immersing themselves in a variety of disciplines, including Suzuki and Viewpoints (taught by Amber Whitehall and Jacob Coleman), Alexander Technique (taught by Cristi Miles), and Clown (taught by Philip Cuomo).

It isn’t easy.

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DramaWatch: Chekhov, Drammys

Tragic? Comic? Something else? A grand gathering looks at Chekhov in the 21st century. Plus: It's Drammy Awards time Monday at The Armory.

For eons, the theatrical arts, apparently lacking a good graphic designer, have been identified by the twinned masks of comedy and tragedy, the facial features mirthfully upturned in one, curdled in anguish in the other. But what’s the mask for the great plays of Anton Chekhov? What would be the simply rendered, universally recognized expressions for the simultaneously absurd and poignant, for naive hopes unfulfilled, for chronic indecision, for the silly or mundane moments of daily life, for madcap despair, for the noble decayed into the buffoonish, for the demise of an era and a way of life…?

Perhaps no other playwright save Shakespeare has been so enduringly intriguing, rewarding and confounding to audiences across the world as Chekhov, whose four major plays are considered masterpieces by innumerable people who cannot much agree on their nature or meaning. There’s been conflict right from the start, with the playwright insisting his works were comedies, while the director Konstantin Stanislavski brought them great renown as doleful dramas.

Osip Braz, “Portrait of Anton Pavlovich Chekhov,” 1898, oil on canvas, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow. Wikimedia Commons

And that was in Russia around the turn of the 20th century. What’s to be made of these plays in the here and now?

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