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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ArtsWatch Weekly: hail & farewell

Dance and dancers on the move, jazz in Cathedral Park, women composers, taiko and Bach, Mozart's spicy little sex opera

Last Thursday at Lincoln Performance Hall, the line to pick up tickets for Éowyn Emerald & Dancers’ performance ran across the lobby, down a partial stairwell and up the other side, like a restless snake shifting and stretching in the midday sun. Eventually the crowd slithered into the theater’s 450-plus seats, packing the place with people eager to see the company’s final show of contemporary dance in Portland and give it one last cheer before Emerald & Co. move to Scotland, where they’ve scored enthusiastically reviewed successes during two recent appearances at the annual Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

Emerald, on top of the world in Edinburgh for the 2014 Fringe Festival.

As it happens, the first piece I wrote for ArtsWatch, back in January 2012, was about Emerald’s first show in town as a choreographer, at BodyVox, where she’d been dancing with BodyVox-2. Now here I was again, with a lot of other people, to witness her farewell gig in town. An eagerness bubbled in the crowd, a sense that a fresh contemporary voice was moving on to new things, and ought not be let to slip away without a warm farewell.

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ArtsWatch Weekly: thinking about Orlando, and the impact of art

A look at the week that was in Oregon arts. A glimpse ahead at the week that's going to be.

ANOTHER DAY, ANOTHER MASSACRE. The latest one, unless another sneaks in before deadline, came in the wee hours Sunday morning at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, where a U.S.-born gunman carrying an assault rifle and claiming allegiance to ISIS opened fire, killing forty-nine people, wounding fifty-three, and then being slain himself in a shootout with police. He may or may not have been gay; several people reported that he was a semi-regular at the club. He was certainly homophobic. He may or may not have been a radical jihadist: initial indications are that he was acting as a lone wolf. Orlando’s is being called the worst mass shooting in United States history, at least by a lone gunman, and who knows how long that record will stand? (Other massacres have been more deadly, but not as quick or efficient: the Wounded Knee Massacre carried out in 1890 by U.S. Cavalry troops on the Lakota Pine Ridge Indian Reservation left at least three times as many dead.)

We’ve been here before, over and over, from Sandy Hook to Columbine to Virginia Tech to Reynolds High School in suburban Portland to Umpqua Community College in southern Oregon, and on and on and on and on, world without end, amen, amen.

Portland Gay Men's Chorus performs Saturday at Schnitzer Hall. 2010 photo

Portland Gay Men’s Chorus performs Saturday at Schnitzer Hall. 2010 photo

It’s difficult to rank these atrocities – impossible, really – because whatever the body count, people are killed, survivors are shattered, worlds are torn apart. This one comes with an increasing sense of futility, a belief that the nation lacks the political and moral will to do anything about it. Here at ArtsWatch we won’t get into the political arguments of what can or can’t be done: those arguments are all around us, and by this point you know where you stand and how you will respond. I will say that some form of rational control on the sale of firearms, and a civilian ban on the sale and possession of assault weapons, are necessary in a civilized society. And I will note that this latest massacre hits cultural communities hard, because so much of the arts world has been invigorated and often led by GLBTQ artists and the creativity they’ve brought to dance, theater, music, the movies, literature, and visual art. So many gay people have been drawn to the arts, partly, because for all of its ordinary human quirks and bickering and biases and self-indulgences and jealousies and backbiting and exaggerations, the arts world is also open and generous and welcoming to talent wherever it rises. In that sense, we are all gay. We stand as one.

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ArtsWatch Weekly: Moby-Dick, Golden Boy, in the galleries

A look at the week that was in Oregon arts. A glimpse ahead at the week that's going to be.

Neither snow nor ice shall keep ArtsWatch from its appointed rounds, which on this frigid and slushy morning include a virtual tour of what’s coming up in the Portland arts world in this, the first full week of 2016. We’ll also take a gander back at that creakity old-timer 2015, but fresh things first.

Sometimes what’s new is old, or built on what’s old, and that’s the case with [or, the whale], Juli Crockett’s new play for Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble, opening Friday at Reed College. PETE’s been spending the season reexamining the events and implications of the great Moby-Dick (Barry Johnson reviewed Drowned Horse Tavern, the project’s opening chapter, here), and this newest chapter, the PETEsters say, “will dive into the mind of the old sea-salt sea captain of the one leg.” Right now, we’re imagining a voyage through icy seas.

"[or, the whale]": drama on the high seas. Photo: PETE

“[or, the whale]”: drama on the high seas. Photo: PETE

Also this weekend, Ty Boice slaps on the gloves at Lakewood Theatre and takes a punch at Golden Boy, Clifford Odets’ earnest cautionary drama about American ambition. Boice, who recently left Post5, the company he helped found, to seek further adventures in the northlands of Washington state, seems excellent casting for Joe Bonaparte, the sensitive violinist who stumbles into the fight racket in search of fortune and fame. Three guesses how that turns out – and Odets didn’t even know about the massive long-term dangers of repeated concussions.

 


 

Final call. A couple of big museum shows close up shop this weekend: Seeing Nature, the exhibition of paintings from the Paul Allen collection, on Sunday at the Portland Art Museum; and Alien She, built around the artistic provocations of the Riot Grrrls, on Saturday at the Museum of Contemporary Craft.

Jim Lommasson, from "What We Carried: Fragments from the Cradle of Civilization," at Blue Sky. image © Jim Lommasson

Jim Lommasson, from “What We Carried: Fragments from the Cradle of Civilization,” at Blue Sky. Image © Jim Lommasson

First call. This week also brings the first First Thursday of the year in the galleries, and because New Year’s Day arrived last Friday, the Second Friday gallery hop arrives the following day, bringing lots and lots of new exhibits to town. A few shows to keep in mind:

  • Photographer Jim Lommasson is an investigator of trauma and survival, looking for shards of hope amid upheaval. At Blue Sky Gallery, his new series What We Carried: Fragments from the Cradle of Civilization documents the stories of refugees fleeing the Iraqi war, and the things they brought with them. Also on view will be works from his earlier series Exit Wounds, about the aftermath for American soldiers of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Meantime, at the Nine Gallery inside Blue Sky, you can see some convincing, new works by ArtsWatch correspondent Patrick Collier.
  • Charles Siegfried’s Boom, at Blackfish, also looks at the effects and aftereffects of war: it’s based on a declassified Department of Defense document detailing a communications surveillance system designed to create a “virtual fence” between North and South Vietnam.
  • Sublime Crush, a new show of dreamlike and intensely stylized landscapes by Kendra Larson, is at Augen.
  • On Friday Portland’s longtime Attic Gallery, a downtown fixture since 1973, opens its first show in its new home across the Columbia River, at 421 N.E. Cedar Street in Camas, Washington. Artists include Bill Baily, Brenda Boylan, and Mike Smith.
  • In addition to new abstract works by the always interesting Portland veteran G. Lewis Clevenger, Laura Russo Gallery will feature Looking Back: Northwest Icons, work by pioneers including Louis Bunce, William Givler, Martina Gangle Curl, Kenneth Callahan, Sally Haley, Carl & Hilda Morris, Amanda Snyder, the Runquist brothers, and others.
Louis Bunce, "Study for Fleet Mural," c. 1960, oil and mixed media on paper mounted on masonite, 25 x 41 inches. In "Looking Back: Northwest Icons" at Laura Russo.

Louis Bunce, “Study for Fleet Mural,” c. 1960, oil and mixed media on paper mounted on masonite, 25 x 41 inches. In “Looking Back: Northwest Icons” at Laura Russo.

 


 

Three things, meanwhile, stand out on the close-but-not-quite-here, start-making-plans horizon:

  • Fertile Ground 2016 runs January 21-31, bringing dozens of new theater and dance works to stages across the city, from first readings to staged readings to full productions. From the Brothers Grimm to a Box of Clowns to a Frankenstein cabaret, the possibilities are multitudinous.
  • CMNW Winter Festival: Chamber Music Northwest, far better known for its summer series of concerts, offers this concentrated winter series of reimagined masterworks – six shows and a free rehearsal January 27-February 1.
  • Biamp Portland Jazz Festival. This year’s fest runs February 18-28, and is built around a celebration of John Coltrane’s 90th birthday. Charles Lloyd, Dianne Reeves, Sonny Fortune, Gary Peacock, Elvin Jones, Bobby Torres, much more.

 


 

 

ArtsWatch links

 

Vana O'Brien and Joshua Weinstein in "4000 Miles" at Artists Rep in May, one of the Big 100 of 2015. Photo: Owen Carey

Vana O’Brien and Joshua Weinstein in “4000 Miles” at Artists Rep in May, one of the Big 100 of 2015. Photo: Owen Carey

The Big 100 of 2015. ArtsWatch’s writers and editors put their heads together and came up with 100 stories that helped define the arts in Oregon in 2015 – a kind of cultural road map of the year. From Miz Kitty’s Parlour in January to a farewell to ZooZoo in December, we sampled the distinct cultural flavors of the year.

Christmas at Coffee Creek. Just before Christmas, a group of musicians from the Oregon Symphony brought a special gift to inmates at the Coffee Creek correctional facility for women: a casual, free-wheeling holiday concert. It turned out to be a happy affair for everyone. Photographer Benji Vuong went along, and filed this photo essay for ArtsWatch.

Happy musicians, happy audience: the Oregon Symphony at Coffee Creek. Photo: Benji Vuong

Happy musicians, happy audience: the Oregon Symphony at Coffee Creek. Photo: Benji Vuong

 


 

 

About ArtsWatch Weekly

We send a letter like this every Tuesday to a select group of email subscribers, and also post it weekly on the ArtsWatch home page. In ArtsWatch Weekly, we take a look at stories we’ve covered in the previous week, give early warning of events coming up, and sometimes head off on little arts rambles we don’t include anywhere else. You can read this report here. Or, you can get it delivered weekly to your email inbox, and get a quick look at all the stories you might have missed (we have links galore) and the events you want to add to your calendar. It’s easy to sign up. Just click here, and leave us your name and e-address.

 


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