Profile Theatre

No news like good news

ArtsWatch Weekly: I Am MORE, Broadway Rose's 'Story of My Life,' PDX Jazz Fest, art around Oregon.

A COUPLE OF DAYS AGO MY FRIEND (AND OCCASIONAL ARTSWATCH CONTRIBUTOR) STEPHEN RUTLEDGE, who writes the Born This Day column and other stories for The WOW Report, sent along a YouTube link to an old clip of Sam Cooke singing Good News on American Bandstand. Along with the link he sent high praise for the recent movie One Night in Miami, a fictional imagining of an actual meeting in a Miami hotel in 1964 of Cooke, Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, and football star Jim Brown to celebrate Ali’s heavyweight-championship victory over Sonny Liston. Rutledge’s note reminded me that, yes, even in traumatic times there is good news, it’s worth singing about, and its triumphs so often are the result of hard creative work and leaps of the imagination.
 

S. Renee Mitchell (left) and, from left, Jeanette Mmunga, Justice English and Johana Amani of I Am MORE.

In Building Resiliency with the Arts, the latest chapter in our occasional series The Art of Learning, Brett Campbell relates another story of Good News, one with deep Portland roots. The poet, activist, and former Oregonian newspaper columnist S. Renee Mitchell, he writes, “had been recruited to Roosevelt High School to teach journalism. But she also helped mentor students with their personal issues; brought in fruit, day-old bagels and cream cheese; revived the Black Student Union; created a Black Girl Magic Club, and invited in community members to perform, speak, encourage and share their wisdom with the school’s low-income students.”

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Theater for the Ears

Stop. Listen. What's that sound? In the pandemic’s wake, Portland theater companies turn to audio drama.

“Radio is something that has to be believed to be seen.”

That line from an old Twilight Zone episode explains the appeal of not just radio drama, but any theater meant to be heard instead of viewed. And now there’s more to believe in.

Since the pandemic shut down live theater, our screens have filled with streaming videos of previous productions or new creations, many created via Zoom, with actors recording parts from their homes. But even though we’ve been said to be living in a visual age for generations now, maybe screen fatigue has finally pushed us to giving our overtaxed eyes a break. Because another form of streaming theater is enjoying a resurgence — audio dramas.

Vin Shambry records his lines in the audio version of Artists
Repertory Theatre’s Magellanica. Photo: Kathleen Kelly.

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Claudia: Love in the age of virus

Profile Theatre's surprising and uneven audio play follows a globe-trotting pangolin as it spreads viral-like havoc across nine scenes

The pangolin is a small scaled mammal (the only scaled mammal, to be exact) native to Africa and Asia. Scientists in China have been looking into this creature as the link that spread COVID-19 to humans. Pangolins’ scales are valued by traditional Chinese medicine, and the trade in these animals may have brought them into contact with humans at the Huanan Market in Wuhan. A pangolin is also the titular character for Profile Theatre’s first audio play, Claudia, A Viral Love Story.

Based on a playwriting prompt from Paula Vogel, Profile commissioned nine writers to craft a story using a list of prompts that spans the globe. At a time when theater everywhere is on hold, it’s both a bold and risky move: How can a company reproduce the feeling of live theater when people can’t gather together? What tools do they have available that they can use? And how can they deliver it to their audience? Audio drama, delivered via streaming, seems a viable option.

How has the experiment worked out? Profile has released all five episodes now (you can listen to or download them here), so you can see the show in full. The shows are free, but Profile is urging donations to help Cascade AIDS Project. From Wuhan, to Tehran, to Mar-A-Lago and onward, each writer builds off the last’s work and takes the story in a new direction. Split into five 20-ish minute episodes, the exquisite corpse structure means Claudia, A Viral Love Story is both surprising and uneven.

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Oregon arts news: Covid-19 updates

Literary Arts has an emergency fund for writers, BodyVox is drawing blood, Shakespeare festival goes digital, more!

All arts news these days is Covid-19 news, at least in part. But then I suppose that extends to every central sector of the society. Arts organizations in Oregon are trying to raise enough money to keep enough staff on board to keep planning for their eventual return. Oh, and enough money to stage or hang the art they’re involved with when audiences can finally gather safely.

As George Thorn says, “We can’t wait to be in a room together with artists.”

There are two themes for this edition of News and Notes, and all subsequent ones, I expect. The first is the happier one: creative initiatives that artists and arts groups are coming up with to keep their connections with us possible, even though we’re isolated from each other.

Give blood then go to BloodyVox/Photo by Blaine Covert

The second includes funds that have been established to help artists in need and pleas for immediate help from groups in trouble. Two Portland venues, The Old Church and the Alberta Rose Theatre, are in that latter category. You know them, you love them, and if you can, this is a great time to support them.

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Writers need to eat, too, not to mention pay the rent, and they are rarely tethered to corporate support systems. To help them out, Literary Arts has designated money from its Brian Booth Writers’ Fund to create the Booth Emergency Fund for Writers, designed to provide meaningful financial relief to Oregon’s writers, including cartoonists, spoken word poets, and playwrights. Grants of $1,000 each will go to 100 eligible writers, and if more money shows up, a second round of applications will open in June.

The deadline to apply for Round One is May 13. Literary Arts is prioritizing money for writers identifying as Black, Indigenous, and/or People of Color. 

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival has launched O!, a digital content platform the company has had in the works since Nataki Garrett became artistic director. With the theater closed, O! becomes a primary outlet until its stages are filled again, but the company intends to keep working on the site, even when we’re back in the theater again.

Right now, you can hear audio from a 1951 version of Twelfth Night, with founder Angus Bowmer himself as Sir Toby Belch. Or download an audiobook version of 2015’s Pericles, with recordings of King Lear (2013, directed by Bill Rauch), Romeo and Juliet (2012, dir. Laird Williamson), and Julius Caesar (2017, dir. Shana Cooper) soon to come. And there are documentaries and classes to sift through, too. For now, it’s all free. Click here to get started.

Profile Theatre’s eNewsletter this week brought two excellent pieces of news, and believe me, excellent news has been hard to come by lately. They are so excellent that I don’t know which to feature first. 

We’ll start with the money. The company’s Be a Light fundraiser brought in $100,193, exceeding the $75,000 Profile needed to keep operations going, move community engagement programming online, and prepare for a return to the stage when the pandemic has subsided enough for audiences to return. The key word: EXCEEDING. Cash contributions reached $82,861 by the April 24 deadline, and donations of previously purchased tickets totaled $17,332. (If you have tickets for performances of any sort, please consider donating them to the issuing organization, if at all possible.)

Profile artistic director Josh Hecht and Paula Vogel/Courtesy Profile Theatre

And now to the art! Profile’s featured writer this year, Paula Vogel, has been teaching playwriting for 30 years, using her“playwriting bake-off’ idea—a method for creating new work quickly with a recipe of “ingredients,” including characters, settings, props, and source material. Earlier this month she established a “Covid Bake-Off,” using the structure of Arthur Schnitzler’s La Ronde, with its 10 pairs of lovers, and characters from around the globe from Wuhan to Milan and beyond. 

Profile has enlisted playwrights Hilary Betis, Philip Dawkins, Hansol Jung, EM Lewis, Dan Kitrosser, Harrison Rivers, EM Lewis, Christopher Oscar Peña and Anna Ziegler to collaborate with Vogel in this special Bake-Off. Their creation will be recorded as an audio-play and released as a podcast. We’ll keep you apprised here at ArtsWatch.

The Alberta Rose Theatre is seeking support now that Covid-19 has wiped out its concerts and events. Portland doesn’t have nearly enough arts facilities as it is, so if you’re able and inclined, you can help keep this Alberta street institution going.

The theater’s online streaming fundraiser has already begun, but you can still hook-up to hear a long roster of Portland musicians perform. Tonight, for example, singer-songwriter Colin Hogan performs. You can buy a single ticket, a 10-concert flex package, or a full-access package. Well, they aren’t actually “tickets,” but the more you buy, the cheaper they are. The 20-concerts-for-$100 is still the best deal overall, even though a few have already taken place. You can get sorted out at the website.

Speaking of crucial performance venues, one of the city’s very best, The Old Church, is under pressure, too. “We are working around the clock to find funding to stay afloat for what is feeling like it will be an extended closure,” the organization announced. “Without funding we will be out of cash by mid-July.”

The nonprofit has been working on a campaign to ensure that some of the federal money that has gone to states will trickle down to the arts, including venues like The Old Church. They are hoping you will write the Oregon legislators from their district and advocate for arts funding and The Old Church: Rep.AkashaLawrenceSpence@oregonlegislature.gov and  Sen.GinnyBurdick@oregonlegislature.gov

The Old Church has also started a Better Together campaign, which features online benefit performances to support the work they do and the building they have renovated so well. 

If Portland reopens without The Old Church, we’ll always regret it.

One of the many things that BodyVox is known for (along with its great dance films, comic stylings, fine dancing, etc.) is its Halloween send-up BloodyVox. So, it makes sense (at least to me) that the dance company would host a community blood drive with the American Red Cross. The drive runs from 9 am to 2:30 pm on May 7 at the BodyVox Dance Center, 1201 NW 17th Ave., in  Portland.

Speaking of BloodyVox, it kicks off the company’s 2020-21 season. Full details are available on the website.

BodyVox’s penchant for film and video is evident in its fifth annual Contact Dance Film Festival, available to stream starting April 30. The four-day festival features three different programs, showcasing award-winning collaborations between filmmakers, dancers, and choreographers from around the world. Maybe watch some dance and then give some blood?

Love & loss in the time of coronavirus

With stages shut down, the work's stopped cold. Bobby Bermea asks his fellow performance artists: Can the fire be relighted post-pandemic?

It’s weird when you wake up one day and realize that everything is different. 

For me, just how different hasn’t fully hit me yet, not even more than a month later. I still feel insulated, like I’m in a bubble where time has become elastic, amorphous. It takes an enormous effort just to intentionally shape the course of a given day. How many times already have I eaten at 11 at night or woken up at 11 in the morning? As violinist Michelle Alany puts it, the struggle is “trying to find some kind of rhythm and structure so I don’t lose the art and creativity.” 

In thirty years as a professional theater artist, I had never rehearsed a show for four weeks only to have it cancelled right before we opened. PassinArt’s Seven Guitars, which was scheduled to open in March, was the first. By that time, I think we’d all seen the handwriting on the wall. I remember the morning the call came that it was over: It felt like I’d woken up in another dimension. It wasn’t the last time I was going to feel that way. 

Since that day I have heard innumerous people describe this moment in history as “crazy” or “surreal” or “like science fiction.” Except, it’s not like science fiction. Face masks. Rubber gloves. Zoom. Science fiction is now real life.


OREGON IN SHUTDOWN: VOICES FROM THE FRONT


As I write this, about 37,000 people have died of COVID-19 in the United States, about 420 a day since the first confirmed U.S. case on Jan. 21 (the first known U.S. death came five weeks later, on Feb. 28). That might not seem like much, considering that about 8,000 people die every day in the U.S. But the numbers are rapidly escalating. On April 16 alone, nearly 4,600 people in the U.S. died from coronavirus. That feels different. 

I have one friend who came down with COVID-19. She’s 70 years old and was my first harmonica teacher when I was working on Seven Guitars. She spent two weeks in the hospital. She has nothing but great things to say about the medical professionals who took care of her. But the disease is no joke, and she felt like hell most of the time she was there. While she was in the hospital we stayed in contact via text (talking took too much out of her). One of the times I checked in to see how she was doing, she texted back, “Feeling shitty! Everything pisses me off!” I suspect that anger helped get her through it. She’s home now. A nurse visits her three times a week. Only today she was told that she can go outside if she wears a mask and practices social distancing. It’s an incredible victory. 

Author Bobby Bermea in CoHo Theatre/Beirut Wedding World Theatre Projects’ “Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train”: “If the actor cannot exist in the same physical space with the audience, then theater doesn’t exist.” Photo: Owen Carey/2019

When the proverbial feces came into contact with the rotating blades of the proverbial air circulation device, I called my parents and offered to come down to where they live in Southern California. I could do my job at Profile Theatre remotely, and I could help them by buying their groceries and taking care of whatever other needs they might have that took place outside of the house. My parents declined my offer, saying they were perfectly okay. 

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DramaWatch: Cause for celebration at OSF

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival opens its 85th anniversary season; plus new shows open across Portland, "West Side Story" gets too dark a makeover, and more.

In a way it feels odd to refer to something that goes on eight months of each year as a festival. And yet, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival — originally launched in 1935 as a two-play, three-evening event, now grown into one of the largest, busiest theater companies in the country — still feels celebratory.

The 2020 season, which opens Friday and continues through Nov. 1, has more than usual to celebrate, or at the very least to consider noteworthy. It is the festival’s 85th anniversary season, of course, an impressive achievement for any American arts organization, especially one in a small Northwestern town. This season also is the first under the full-time leadership of Nataki Garrett, who last August became the festival’s sixth artistic director, replacing Bill Rauch, now the inaugural artistic director of the Ronald O. Perelman Performing Arts Center at the World Trade Center in New York. (Garrett recently spoke with ArtsWatch for an interview published separately.)

The current festival leadership also includes interim associate artistic director Evren Odcikin (currently in Portland directing Portland Center Stage’s upcoming production of Nine Parts of Desire) and acting executive director Paul Christy, a retired U.S. government economist.

And in addition to being an anniversary and a celebration in its own right, this festival season is a part of the Jubilee

The Wars of the Roses are seeded in Bring Down the House, a new adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry VI. Photo: Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

In the works since 2015, the Jubilee is, as the program’s website describes it, “a yearlong, nationwide theatre festival featuring work generated by those who have historically been excluded — including but not limited to artists of color, Native American and Indigenous and First Nations artists, women, non-binary and gender non-conforming artists, LGBTQIA2+ artists, Deaf artists, and artists with disabilities.” Providing a clear, tangible goal to help along the cause of diversity and inclusion, the Jubilee involves a commitment from numerous theater producers across the country — from professional companies to high schools — to put previously marginalized voices at the center of their programming for the 2020-2021 season. In addition to OSF, participating Oregon companies include Portland Center Stage, Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble and Corrib Theatre.

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DramaWatch: “Indecent” proposal

Artists Rep and Profile stage Paula Vogel's play about an infamous episode in theater history. Plus: other openings, closings and theatrical miscellany.

Two women, in love — kissing even! That was controversial stuff a century ago when the Sholem Asch play “God of Vengeance” made its English-language premiere on Broadway. Paula Vogel’s 2017 Tony nominated play Indecent tells the tale of Asch’s iconoclastic approach to the stage, his (originally Yiddish) play’s worldwide success, and the tragic consequences of its travails in America.

A staged reading of God of Vengeance presented last month by Readers Theatre Rep showed how potent its characters and themes remain, as well as what an important step it was in the development of a more modern kind of theater. A recent essay for ArtWatch by Jae Carlsson lauded God of Vengeance, raising it up as an example of a theater aesthetic that’s  “off-kilter,” “naked,” “raw…real…slightly out-of-control,” while posing questions about how Indecent may or may not honor this inspiration. Despite a persistently skeptical tone toward it, Carlsson doesn’t give much indication of having seen the latter play. And though it might well ascribe to the more scrupulously organized psychological approach that Carlsson casually dismisses as “neoclassical,” Indecent is a powerful work in its own right.

Paula Vogel’s Indecent, in a joint production by Artists Rep and Profile Theatre, at Lincoln Hall. Photo: Kathleen Kelly.

Co-commissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s “American Revolutions” history-play program (along with Yale Repertory Theatre, where it premiered in 2015), Indecent was staged in Ashland last season, in a production by Shana Cooper that I found both captivating and heartbreaking. The remarkable Linda Alper, a veteran of OSF and Artists Rep, was in that production and serves as a kind of bridge to the Artists Rep/Profile Theatre co-production opening at Lincoln Hall. Here, Alper joins a veritable Portland all-star team, with the likes of Michael Mendelson, Gavin Hoffman, Jamie M. Rea, Joshua Weinstein and David Meyers.

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