Portland improv

Revolutionary theater at Deep End

With "Raising Coen," Domeka Parker’s Buckman neighborhood theater company is pushing the limitations of what Improv can be.

By CHRISTOPHER GONZALEZ

From new dramatic forms, to teaching philosophy, to administrative structure and beyond, Deep End Theater is revolutionary theater in all aspects. Led by the indomitable Domeka Parker, this Portland ensemble is changing the perception of what improv is capable of.

Raising Coen is Deep End’s newest improvised play, based on the Coen Brothers’ movies. It is a remarkable piece of long form improv that triumphantly traverses the realm of what we normally think of as Theater with a capital T.  After all, aren’t we tired of going to comedy clubs and laughing halfheartedly at impatient displays of wit and cheap punchlines? We don’t often feel irrefutable pathos, genuine suspense, or palpable horror, do we?

Well, Deep End Theater, which opened in May 2017 in Southeast Portland’s Buckman neighborhood, is no comedy club.

At Deep End, comedy and improv move beyond jokes. Photo: Ken Bryan

Raising Coen elevates the form of improv by inviting us to lean in and explore the integrity of a character’s core values. The dramatic investigation of core values is pertinent now more than ever, as the ethical integrity of our country is so deeply in question. There are so many people on the right and the left politically that are locked to their core values and we thought about how interesting that is,” Parker says. “And then we thought, the Coen brothers write characters like that. Characters that believe so strongly in values like honesty that it drives everything they do and gets them into all kinds of messes.”

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Improv meets ASL

Jay Flewelling and Blake Wales want to unite deaf and hearing audiences

When actor Blake Wales first watched a performance by the improv comedy group J Names, he was deeply impressed. There was just one problem. He wished that his father, who is deaf, could have the opportunity to enjoy the show.

“I remember thinking, ‘This would be amazing if my dad could laugh with a hearing audience,’” Wales says. “That’s something a lot of deaf people don’t get to do.”

Now they can. Since last year, Wales has been working with J Names—and the group’s founder, Jay Flewelling—as an ASL interpreter. It’s a challenging and rewarding job that takes all of Wales’ skills as both an ASL speaker and an improv performer (as play-goers who attend the group’s Friday show at Curious Comedy Theater can see).

“’This is amazing. Why aren’t more people doing it? When are you doing it again?’ Those are the questions that I get after I do a show with J Names,” Wales says. “Hearing that need just made me more inspired to respond to it.”

The J Names Group. Photo: Andy Batt

J Names is one of the best-known improv groups in Portland, and Flewelling—who has also worked with Wales at Oregon Children’s Theater—jumped at the chance to expand their audience. “No one has been as excited about this as Jay has,” Wales says.

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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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