Storefront Theatre

Portland, protests, the theater of life

ArtsWatch Weekly: The theater of politics comes to town, and the city's center stage. Plus: polka-dot square, Black & classical, a big gift.

FRUSTRATED BECAUSE THERE’S NO THEATER TO SEE FOR THE CORONADURATION? Look around. The show’s running 24/7, and we’re in the middle of it – unlikely stars of the Show of the Moment, praised and panned for our performances, from the pages of The New York Times to the breathless patter of cable-television talking heads to the bombastic Twitter feeds of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Boffo! A bomb! Lurid, violent spectacle! A bracing warning for us all! Shocking demolition of the fourth wall! Strains credibility! Nonstop action! Predictable performances in a shoddy script! Oughtta be in jail!

Everybody’s a critic in the Theater of Real Life. In the past week Portland’s been getting more national and international attention than it’s had since the heyday of Portlandia jokes (no, you put a bird on it!), and it’s hard to tell whether this new show – let’s call it “The Siege of Portland!” – is tragedy, documentary, or farce. However it all plays out, we’re like a city full of Beckett characters, caught in a world far bigger than we can comprehend, stumbling through the confusion toward a conclusion that we can’t predict.

You know the basic plot. It begins, after a preamble that traces a complex but necessary 400-year backstory, with the deaths at police hands of a seemingly endless string of Black Americans: George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Philando Castile, Eric Garner, Michael Brown – the list goes on and on. This is the moral heart of the story, the unshakable truth that cannot be denied. Add a pandemic, an economic calamity, a historic shift of wealth from bottom to top, two months of nightly protests, a profusion of graffiti and torn-down fences (“Shocking!” “Criminal!” “Not to be believed!”), a trip-wired political standoff, a president with diving poll numbers in an election year, a steady supply of tear gas, “non-lethal” bullets, smashed heads, and broken bones – who’s writing this script? The guy who wrote the Book of Job? Then add an invading force of militarized mystery federal police, upping the ante on everything, bullying into a story where they weren’t invited and are not wanted. Tighten the tension with a Wall of Moms, some Leaf Blower Dads, and an explosion of new and angry protesters filling the stage like essential extras in a spectacle about the French Revolution.
 

Besides presenting a united front and sometimes being tear-gassed, flash-banged, roughed up, and arrested, the “Wall of Moms” at the re-energized protests in downtown Portland have shown a flair for the moment, making theatrical counter-statements of their own. Photo: Deborah Dombrowski

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ArtsWatch: Covering more with less

Oregon's cultural scene is stronger and more diverse than it's ever been. But who is telling the stories? ArtsWatch seeks to fill the gap.

On the last Saturday morning in January, as Portland was alight with the Fertile Ground Festival of New Plays and dozens of other significant cultural events, I gave a talk to a good-sized crowd at Terwilliger Plaza, titled “Portland Arts: Covering More With Less.” In it, I talked about the city’s growth in population and culture over the past four decades, the decline of mainstream media’s willingness and ability to reflect those radical changes, and the role that Oregon ArtsWatch plays in providing readers a context for the city and state’s vastly larger and more complex cultural scene. Here is the text of that talk.

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THE CULTURAL LIFE OF PORTLAND AND OREGON has never been stronger or more varied than it is today. And yet, surprisingly, this explosion of creativity sometimes seems to be taking place in a vacuum, with scant public notice, especially in the press. How has this seeming disconnection come about? I want to try to bring three threads together to help explain it, and to suggest a way to amplify the creative voices that are reshaping the city’s identity.

The first thread is Portland’s evolution from a big town to a small city, and the boom in arts and culture that’s gone along with that.

The second thread is the catastrophic weakening of traditional journalism, not just in Portland but across the country and beyond. Newspapers are dying a slow and painful death, or surviving on C-Rations as they try to figure out how to find their way in a digital world. Except for a few largely national publications such as the New York Times, cultural coverage has taken a huge hit in the process. It’s all but disappearing from many newspapers and continuing to be largely a non-starter on for-profit television, which has rarely found a way to cover arts and culture intelligently. So, just at the time when Portland’s cultural scene is undergoing something of a scrappy cultural renaissance, mainstream media coverage of the arts is lower than it’s been in decades.

The third thread is Oregon ArtsWatch, the online cultural site where I’m a writer and a senior editor. ArtsWatch has stepped into the void to provide smart reporting and commentary about everything from the art museum and opera to experimental dance and theater and the rich vein of Oregon contemporary composers. You can find us easily online. We are ORARTSWATCH.ORG.

Are we small? Almost every group we cover has a bigger budget, often ten or twenty or a hundred-fold.

Are we scrappy? Although a few of us work well more than full-time on this, everything we produce is done freelance, and almost every penny we raise goes directly to writers or editors. More money, more writers, more stories. It’s as simple as that.

Are we ambitious? We have plans to deepen and broaden our coverage, and to make the “Oregon” part of our title more of a reality than an aspiration. It’s a big state, and while we’ll always focus on the greater Portland area we want to explore all of Oregon’s cultural parts.

 

Railway worker Tom Stefopoulos and his outdoor art at the Lovejoy Columns.

 

I’m going to talk today less about specific stories ArtsWatch has written or even the specific arts movements and events we write about, and try instead to give you an idea of the more and the less of how the city and its culture grew to the point that ArtsWatch came into existence, and why I think it’s a good thing that we did. It’s going to take a bit of meandering to get there.

All of us at ArtsWatch come from different backgrounds and places, and I think that’s part of our strength.

I’m a native Northwesterner, born in Centralia, Washington, which happened to have the closest hospital to the little foothills farm where my parents had moved from the San Francisco Bay Area after my father had finished his four-year engagement with the Second World War. Farming proved better in the abstract than the actuality, and I grew up not as a farm kid but as a townie, in a very small town near the Canadian border and North Puget Sound, surrounded by Norwegians and Swedes and members of the Lummi nation, and many more churches than beer halls. It was a good place to grow up, and a good place to grow out of.

We were a working-class family, with seven kids, and although we were far from any cultural center, thinking and learning always came first. Everybody read. Libraries were our friends. We were free as children to read anything in our parents’ home library, which was small but well-selected. My mother had studied art history at San Francisco State College, and I pored over the books she’d kept, with all those magnificent paintings from places I’d never been. We had no television but took two daily newspapers, and also subscribed to the local weekly, where I began my journalism career as a sophomore in high school covering high school sports for two bucks a week. Minus taxes. College happened, and some bumming around, and I found myself in the newspaper racket, where in 1974, when I was working for a morning daily in Upstate New York, I got a call from the old Oregon Journal, Portland’s afternoon daily, offering me a job for twice what I was making. I said yes, packed up the Ford Pinto, and drove cross-country in February, back to the West Coast.

I was 26 years old, and I’ve been here since. I thought I’d spend a couple of years and then move on to Seattle or San Francisco. Portland seemed small and stifling in comparison. Instead I stuck around and grew up with the town. I might’ve left yet, if someone, in those first couple of years, hadn’t taken me down to the underbelly of old Northwest Portland, long before the Pearl District was a gleam in anyone’s eye, and showed me the Lovejoy Columns. The columns were hidden jewels beneath a viaduct near the Broadway Bridge, where the Greek-immigrant railway worker Tom Stefopoulos had created a universe in chalk of mythological and historical drawings.

It was sort of like the Sistine Chapel in reverse: Instead of high and open and famous, it was low and hidden and secret. It had dirt beneath its fingernails. I remember thinking something interesting was happening here, after all. This was a fascinating Portland I hadn’t known existed.

 

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Thread One: Big Town to Small City

 

WHEN I MOVED HERE Portland seemed like the kind of place that people from the small towns and countryside moved to, not because they wanted to be in a city, really, but because the small towns were drying up and this was where they could find a job. Once you got beneath things it was raw – genuinely raw, not cute keep-Portland-weird raw – with an underbelly that the city’s elite tried to hide under a tea towel, but it kept poking out. In 1970 the city’s population was 382,000 and the metropolitan area was barely over a million. Today the city has about 640,000 people, and the metro area’s pushing 2.5 million.

About a million of those people have been added just since 1990. To let that sink in, since 1970 the metro area’s grown almost 250 percent. Still small compared to the Bay Area or Greater Seattle or L.A., and yet a very different place from 40 years ago. And it is only going to get bigger, with all of the problems and opportunities that come with size.

Culturally, 40 years ago, most everything was West Side, and most of that downtown. Even inner east side Portland, where I’ve lived most of my years here, might as well have been Boise. The Portland Art Museum was here, and sort of stolid. The symphony was filled with part-time players. The opera stuck to the war horses. There were three or four good art-movie houses, one actually called The Movie House.

Chamber Music Northwest was a feisty little summer festival on the Reed campus, performing in the school cafeteria, which had no air conditioning. I remember one hot night, sitting cross-legged and sweaty on the cafeteria floor, when one of the visiting musicians, during a break in the program, suddenly started shouting to the crowd: “What are you doing sitting in here listening to us play? You’re living in Paradise! The mountains are right there! The ocean’s right there! That’s where the music is! Go out and be in them!”

I’m not sure whether he was invited back for the next summer’s festival.

 

Oregon Gov. Tom McCall giving his farewell speech to the Portland City Club in December 1974, at the end of his second and final term. Far more noted for his environmental accomplishments, McCall made his most memorable contribution to the arts with his free, state-sponsored rock festival “Vortex I: A Biodegradable Festival of Life,” which drew somewhere between 30,000 and 100,000 (estimates vary wildly) mostly young revelers to a state park near Estacada in 1970 in an effort to draw potential conflict away from a national American Legion convention and mass march in downtown Portland. Photo: Oregon Historical Society

 

There were a few small amateur or semiprofessional theater companies, which sometimes did terrific work, and a small and underfunded dance scene. Some interesting things were taking place, like the legendary PCVA, the Portland Center for the Visual Arts. From 1972 to 1987 it provided a vital link between Portland’s contemporary arts scene and what was happening in New York and beyond. The city’s parks department operated a series of little neighborhood centers that nurtured small-scale theater and dance and visual art, and lots of arts classes for kids and adults. Artists liked living here because it was cheap and you could try things out.

Portland was a town to begin things, and often a town to reinvent the wheel. It felt like an unfinished place, certainly not a polished place. But it had that grit. And it had a lot of room to grow.

The town DID grow. So did its art scene, which became broader and deeper and much more varied. The city still thrives on a kind of alt-culture sensibility, with big organizations but also a lot of small companies and individual artists striking out on their own. Small is very, very big in Portland.

But the art scene is both vastly larger and much more complex than it was in the 1970s. It reflects the city and the nation better than it did when the town was more ingrown. African American and Hispanic and Asian American and Native American artists are prominent. Women artists have a much stronger impact. And people are much more aware of the work these artists are doing.

When I started writing about theater in Portland, a few people were doing original shows. Ric Young and others were creating new works, some of them quite splendid, at Storefront Theatre. Charles Deemer was writing interesting, usually Oregon-set plays for a variety of companies. Sam Shepard was still in San Francisco, and people here were producing his vivid new American plays almost as soon as they were available. The New Vaudeville movement was in full flower, adding circus skills and acrobatics and mime and juggling and puppetry and countercultural politics to the performance scene. But the emphasis was on revivals (sometimes very good ones) of European and American classics.

 

When avant-garde met old guard: Ric Young’s “Camille” at Portland Civic Theatre, 1979.

 

FLASH FORWARD TO 2018. Right now we’re in the middle of the ninth annual Fertile Ground Festival of New Works, which sprawls across the metro area and includes more than a hundred new plays and other performance works. Almost every established company in town includes at least one new play, and sometimes more, in its season.

And the city has more than a hundred theater companies producing shows at least occasionally, according to the membership rolls of the Portland Area Theatre Alliance. New-music groups playing the music of contemporary composers are proliferating, many of them made up of players whose main gig is with the Oregon Symphony. I can scarcely count the number of art galleries. When I came to town there were the Fountain and a couple of others, including one, the Image Gallery, that was run by the irascible painter and very good printmaker Jack McLarty and his wife Barbara. And Portland has become an attractor city. Younger people, many of them part of the creative industries that are driving much of the economy and interlinking with the city’s arts scene, are moving here in droves, because they like the IDEA of Portland, whatever that idea might be.

So. Not New York, not Chicago, not San Francisco or L.A. But for a major-minor city – we’re ranked these days as the 23rd biggest metro area in the nation – Portland punches above its cultural weight. At its best it reflects a sturdy regional flavor that is also fully aware of national and international trends.

And you’d think the newspapers and other news outlets would be hopping with stories about it. But don’t forget Thread Two of this little saga: the breakdown of the Press.

 

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Thread Two: Media Collapse

 

PORTLAND’S NEW VITALITY has come at a time, to extend the boxing metaphor, when the nation’s traditional media are on the ropes. Into the 1990s urban newspapers were riding high. At The Oregonian the joke was that we were in the business of printing money, and it was only barely a joke. Newspaper profit margins were almost obscenely high.

In The Oregonian’s culture sections we were living in a golden age, although we didn’t realize it at the time – we always felt we needed more staff, more space, more budget, more freedom from senior editors’ expectations, to explore what was really going on. At our height we had full-time critics covering visual arts, architecture, classical music, popular music, theater, movies, television. We had a literary editor and chief critic with a good-sized budget to assign reviews of new books. We had a large freelance budget so we could cover dance, which did not have a full-time staff writer, and send writers out to cover stories the staff writers couldn’t get to. We had a vast calendar of events with its own staff, and we had the essential luxury of attached staff feature writers on the lookout for cultural stories. We traveled up and down the West Coast, and to New York and Chicago and Louisville and Houston and London and even Russia and China and the Baltic States on the trail of stories. We had several editors, and good copy editors and designers.

And then the Internet happened. And readership plummeted, and advertising revenue dried up. Newspapers used to make a mint publishing classified advertisements. All of that went to the Web. Poof! No more mint.

 

Poster for the original film version of “The Front Page,” 1931: It’s history now. Wikimedia Commons

 

THE STRUGGLE IS REAL, and it is daunting. Tens of thousands of good journalists have left the business or been pushed out, moving on to be government spokespersons or freelancers or entrepreneurs or teachers or just taking early retirement. We are the coal miners of white-collar America, with no regulatory help from the President, who observes our weakness with glee.

The newspaper industry got caught with its pants down. It didn’t see the train coming down the tracks, and by the time the train smacked broadside into it, it was too late. The damage had been done.

That is very painful for journalists. It is crucially harmful for the nation’s citizens, who are now seeing a full-on attack from the highest levels on freedom of the press, and the grossly cynical coining of the term “fake news” to describe, usually, what is actually the opposite, and the passing off of true fakery as the real deal.

There are signs that the forced compact between the Internet giants and the traditional news organizations that provide them with their mostly free feeds may be shifting. The pattern that’s set in is simple: Traditional news organizations do the hard work of gathering the news and paying the workers who do it. Tech companies like Facebook then link to those stories, with no compensation to their originators. Readers click on the stories online, usually bypassing the news organizations’ own web pages, which are sometimes free and sometimes have a pay wall.

That pattern may be about to change. Earlier this week Bloomberg View published a story titled “Tech Is Starting To Lose Its War on Journalism.” One of the story’s unlikely heroes is Rupert Murdoch, head of the News Corporation, which for years has been mistrusted as a slanted and politically motivated source of information. But politics, and business, make strange bedfellows.

“If Facebook wants to recognize ‘trusted’ publishers then it should pay those publishers a carriage fee similar to the model adopted by cable companies,” the Bloomberg story quoted Murdoch. “The publishers are obviously enhancing the value and integrity of Facebook through their news and content but are not being adequately rewarded for those services. Carriage payments would have a minor impact on Facebook’s profits but a major impact on the prospects for publishers and journalists.”

In other words: Internet, don’t kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.

Will such a change actually take place? Maybe. Maybe not. Even if it does it seems likely only to modify the current balance of power, not shift it back to news organizations. And it is much more likely to benefit large national publications than regional and local ones. There are other ways to shift things. Like finding a billionaire angel. Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, bought the Washington Post and bailed it out of a deep financial hole. It’s now doing excellent journalism. Still, it’s troubling that ownership has shifted to a leading player in a financially and politically powerful industry that a newspaper like the Post ordinarily would be watching like a hawk.

In Portland, The Oregonian has reacted in several ways to the financial woes that have beset the industry. It’s cut down to four days of paper delivery a week, placing its bets on its Internet branch, Oregon Live, which it hasn’t substantially beefed up. And it’s gone mostly local in its coverage, although the astounding national events of the past year have forced it to draw back from that a little. Still, it thinks local first, believing it can provide vital local information not available or hard to find elsewhere. Yet it’s trying to do that with a sharply reduced and clearly overworked staff.

And it has slashed its cultural coverage. That seems a huge mistake. What can be more local than a place’s specific cultural life? What more defines what a place is? Having decided to go local, The Oregonian should have put more and more emphasis on the city’s creative and cultural life. Instead, it’s cut that coverage to the bone. (Or to the rib bone: It’s still big on covering the restaurant scene.) To be fair, it’s hardly been alone in that. Newspapers across the country have done the same thing. And so, we begin to live in a nation that is bigger and messier and less informed and more susceptible to angry voices, and does not know itself.

 

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Thread Three: Oregon ArtsWatch

 

MY LONGTIME FRIEND and colleague Barry Johnson and I worked side by side for more than twenty years at The Oregonian. Barry started ArtsWatch in 2011. He did it mostly on his own, with a couple of grants and a few helpers and the idea that if cultural journalism was going to work in a town like Portland, maybe the best way to go at it was as a nonprofit organization. Money would come from memberships – sort of along the public television line, without the pledge drives – advertising, individual donations, and grants from foundations and government agencies. That’s pretty much how things still work, on a very lean budget that grows a little bit each year. We spend only what we have. We have no debt.

What do our readers get for it?

We write extensively about classical music in Oregon, concentrating much of our energy on contemporary classical, a lot of it produced by Oregon composers and musicians. Less completely, we cover jazz and world music, too.

We cover theater deeply, with reviews, profiles, insider accounts and commentary.

We cover the city’s very busy dance scene, and sometimes dance in Eugene and elsewhere, too.

We write about visual art, including profiles of individual artists, gallery reviews, and news and reviews about museums, among them the Portland Art Museum, the Hallie Ford Museum in Salem, the Maryhill Museum in the Columbia Gorge, and sometimes the Jordan Schnitzer Museum in Eugene.

We write less often about film, television, and the literary arts. We would like to write about them more. When we have the resources, we will. We cover arts politics when the need arises. And we cover everything from a variety of points of view. We can’t hope to cover everything. We want everything we DO cover to count.

IN SHORT, WE PROVIDE a lot of views, from a lot of people, about a lot of art. Our executive director, Laura Grimes, did a count of our contributing writers recently. We have about forty-five – some regular, some now and again. And they come from all over — from Berkeley to Philadelphia to New York City to Germany to the Midwest to the whistle stop of towns that an Air Force family moves through, and beyond. They are jazz saxophonists, art historians, dancers, essayists, singers, biographers, photographers, academics, montage artists, composers, students, poets, actors, small-press editors, drag clowns, members of gamelan orchestras — a lot of experiences, a lot of approaches to the art of writing. Some of us come out of traditional journalism. Some of us come out of the arts world. One of the editors’ jobs is to try to connect the right writer with the right story at the right time.

I’m thrilled when I see good arts and cultural coverage in other publications. The Oregonian’s entertainment editor, Amy Wang, makes the most of the extremely limited resources the newspaper allows her. The Eugene Weekly, in particular, does a fine job of covering the culture in its city. I believe there is no better or more consistent source of cultural reporting and comment in Oregon than ArtsWatch right now.

The collapse of mainstream journalism in Portland – and ArtsWatch is hardly mainstream; people have to take the time to find us – has among many other things changed the relationship between arts groups and cultural journalists. When ArtsWatch began we were less interested in writing traditional reviews than in finding other ways to illuminate the city’s cultural life. Personal essays. Profiles and interviews. Long takes on stories that might be considered obsessions in the mainstream press, but that allowed writers to stretch out and explore the territory.

One of my own first pieces for ArtsWatch, in January of 2012, was titled “Down the rabbit hole: Melody Owen makes a book,” and it was very much down a rabbit hole, about the opening gala for the release of a talented artist’s quirky book called “The Looking Glass Book,” an assemblage of collages she made out of twenty years’ worth of collected images relating to her obsession with the works of Lewis Carroll. Along the way the essay also got into the strange story of the Publication Studio, where Owen’s book was published, and which successfully does things in a way that most of the publishing world would find counterintuitive at the least. In all probability I never would have had the time or priority to write such a story at The Oregonian. It remains one of my favorites.

 

A strange little rabbit: Illustration from Melody Owen’s “Looking Glass Book.”

 

We still encourage and write this sort of story. But as mainstream coverage began to disappear, arts groups let us know that they wanted, needed, reviews. And so we began to emphasize reviews, sometimes to a greater degree than we really wanted. Readers, of course, also wanted reviews: they remain the bread and butter of arts coverage. But we try to make them more than simple thumbs-up, thumbs-down pieces.

Our reviews, when they hit the mark, are really essays that take the performance or the exhibition as a starting point for cultural exploration. Sometimes the arts groups like that and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes, we suspect, what they really want is good quotes for their grant applications and advertising campaigns. Of course it’s always nice if things turn out that way, but it isn’t our first priority. We continue to believe that honest engagement is better in the long run for everybody – readers, writers, and artists.

I’VE TOSSED AROUND THE WORD “CULTURE” quite a bit. There are two kinds of culture, and I think they overlap. One is more or less a synonym for “the arts.” We talk about the cultural life: going to the opera and symphony and theater and museum. The second meaning is much broader: culture as the belief patterns and history and habits of a society; culture as a crucial engagement in community life. Part of what we write about at ArtsWatch is Definition No. 1, the aesthetic life. But we also believe quite strongly in Definition No. 2 – that everything in Definition No. 1 reflects and helps shape and is shaped by its engagement in the communal life of the entire society.

No man is an island, entire of itself. No work of art is, either. We want our stories and ideas always to connect. And that means we want them to take a broad view. A new piece of music has been premiered. What does it mean in context? How does it fit? A stripped-down production of Bertolt Brecht’s 1944 play “The Caucasian Chalk Circle,” which came out of a specific time and situation, takes place in a Southeast Portland warehouse in the fall of 2017. What does it mean in a city like Portland on a day like today, under the political and cultural realities of today’s United States? We’re not a magazine, but in certain ways we want to think like a magazine: write about now, but with an eye on the future and the past.

ArtsWatch is growing and changing all the time, as any good publication should. And we’re always looking for new talent.

We look for people who know their subject and can learn to write. We look for people who are writers and can learn their subject. We look for people who already have both. We look for people with a variety of cultural and racial backgrounds.

And we look for younger people, who might be able to take this thing over and keep it going through changing times. Metro, the Portland regional government, predicts a metropolitan population of more than 3 million by 2035. If more of the nation grows insufferably hot and water supplies dwindle as climate change takes hold, that estimate could be modest: people will be flocking to those parts of the country that still have a decent water supply. How would that change Portland and Oregon? What shifts would it make in their culture – both kinds of culture?

I’m hoping Oregon ArtsWatch will be on hand, bigger and better than it is now, to help people sort it all out.

 

Play it, Sam: remembering Shepard

The legendary American playwright and actor, dead at 73, changed the way we thought about theater

“I hate endings. Just detest them,” Sam Shepard once said. “… The temptation towards resolution, towards wrapping up the package, seems to me a terrible trap. Why not be more honest with the moment? The most authentic endings are the ones which are already revolving towards another beginning. That’s genius.”

When word broke on Monday morning that Shepard had died last Thursday, revolving toward some fresh beginning amid the great unknown, it was like a rolling thunderclap breaking over a dry terrain. We don’t expect our geniuses to just end – what sort of resolution is that? – and in a way they don’t. They live on as they play inside our souls and minds, and Shepard surely will do that. He was 73 years old and had had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

Sam Shepard in the movie “Steel Magnolias.” Photo: Rastar Films © 1989

A lot of people will remember Shepard as an iconic movie actor seemingly carved from the American hills and soil, and his work in Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven and the astronaut movie The Right Stuff, among other films, is memorable He also wrote the screenplay for the terrific movie Paris, Texas. But for me, and many others, his true genius was as a playwright.

A whole new generation of writers dominates the American stage now, many of them women and writers of color, reflecting the excitement and challenges and vivid possibilities of a rapidly changing culture. But  Shepard remains a genuine radical who changed the way we thought about theater. Beginning as a wild and free-form outside voice, he matured into a central chronicler of the culture, reinhabiting the mainstream of the American theater in the tradition established by Eugene O’Neill but doing it in his own voice and on his own terms, without losing his outsider edge.

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Bringing back the Babes, and other memories

The lore and legend of Storefront Theatre live on in Portland's theatrical genetic pool – and in a new show at Triangle

By virtue (if that’s the right word) of being old and here for a long time, I’ve come to be considered something of an expert on the storied Storefront Theatre, which shut its doors for good in 1991. In truth, the world’s filled with people who know the Storefront story far better than I do, because they helped create it. I saw it only from the outside, as a spectator and a journalist. The real experts – people like Henk Pander, Wendy Westerwelle, Teddy and Alice Deane, Izetta Smith, Polly and John Zagone, Leigh Clarkgranville (now Aza Cody), Victoria Mercer, Wrick Jones, Rosalie Brandon, Sharon Knorr and a revolt of fellow Angry Housewives, Ross Huffman-Kerr, Susan Stelljes, David Chelsea, Marychris Mass, and a host of others – lived it.

Storefront shut down 24 years ago, longer than the 21 years it existed, and still it’s something of a legend in Portland. That’s the way legends work: one brief string of shining moments, and a long afterlife.

"Babes" at Triangle: a little cheese, a little sleaze. Photo: Triangle Productions

“Babes” at Triangle: a little cheese, a little sleaze. Photo: Triangle Productions

Storefront sprang to life in 1970 as a direct response to the Kent State killings that shocked the nation and kicked fresh life into America’s antiwar movement. Through the years it leaped and sometimes lurched from being a theater company that was also an alternative community (or maybe an alternative community that also did theater) through various phases that reflected its shifting people and accelerating times. It was hip and bawdy and visually robust, an experiment in romantic-utopian anarchy that went through a crisis when its founders split off, and gradually became more conventional as new people moved in, old people moved on, and the lure of moving mainstream in the brand-new Portland Center for the Performing Arts proved irresistible. In a weird way, Storefront got swallowed by its own success – which, ironically, also left the former shoestring operation with a mountain of bills.

Triangle Productions’ Storefront Revue: The Babes Are Back, which runs through May 31, brings back some of the theater’s glory days, in a format loosely based on the old Babes on Burnside burlesques that Storefront produced after abandoning its original space on industrial North Russell Street and moving into a former porno movie house just off of West Burnside Street in Old Town. Assembled by Triangle’s Don Horn after a prodigious amount of research, it’s the latest in his series of shows based on historical adventures and adventurers in Portland, from the flashy night-club impresario Gracie Hansen to Native American jazz legend Jim Pepper, figure-skating melodramatist Tonya Harding, and a reworking of Westerwelle’s Sophie Tucker show, Soph: An Evening with the Last of the Red Hot Mamas, which was originally developed and produced at Storefront. Horn has a lasting affection for Portland’s historical demimonde, the subterranean old creatives who spiced up the good gray river city before the young creatives came to town and put a tattoo on it.

David Swadis and Lisamarie Harrison: two tokes over the line. Photo: Triangle Productions

David Swadis, Lisamarie Harrison: two tokes over the line. Photo: Triangle Productions

I never saw a show on Russell Street, where the legend began. Storefront hit the boards in 1970, and I hit town in 1974, and for my first few years in Portland I was otherwise engaged. Besides, co-founders Tom Hill and Anne Gerety didn’t much cotton to the mainstream press: The Babes Are Back includes the infamous (at least, in journalistic circles) tale of Hill threatening to punch my former colleague Ted Mahar in the nose if he ever stepped inside the theater’s door. Mahar once told me he’d also received a pages-long, angry letter from Gerety. It was handwritten, and as she composed she pressed so hard and furiously on the paper that the back of each sheet looked as if it had been embossed. I did, curiously, see Storefront’s original show, its bawdy, largely nude adaptation of Aristophanes’ antiwar satire Lysistrata, a production celebrated and reviled for the large prosthetic decorated penises that the men in the cast waved around. I was living in Bellingham at the time, finishing my studies at Western Washington State College (now WWU), and was part of a small group trying to come up with ways to respond to the Kent State shootings. One of Gerety’s sons, Chris Condon, was there, too, and told the group his mother had started a theater company in Portland that was doing a radical nude Lysistrata, and he was pretty sure he could get her to bring it north. Great, we said, and up they came. The show was a rousing (and, as longtime Portland actor/teacher/director Ed Collier, who happened to be there, too, reminded me, a rather drunken) success: It caught the spirit of the times.

I started following Storefront closely after the company moved to Burnside in 1980. The burlesques were often brilliant: blends of standup, vaudeville, carnival-style burlycue served with a nostalgic wink, topical satire, and terrific songs, mostly written by the talented Teddy Deane, who had come to Portland with the psychedelic folk band Holy Modal Rounders and just stuck around. That’s the format that Horn’s musical at Triangle follows, although not completely: he adds a lot of history, which gives a sense of how the company lived and died but also makes the evening episodic and a bit disjointed. Adding a cabaret-style emcee as a narrator/performer (R. Dee and Huffman-Kerr were naturals in similar roles for Storefront) could help synthesize the history and the show; moving some of the history off the stage and into the program could also tighten things and help the show just be the show. Horn’s cast – led by the sultry earth mama-ish Lisamarie Harrison, whose sass and brass set just the right Storefront tone – sings and performs with verve, and the onstage band, led from the keyboard by John Quesenberry, is a constant and creative presence, underscoring how important Deane was to the success of the original shows.

My memories of Storefront include watching a mouse scamper across the stage during August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (that was nothing compared to the mouse Deane recalls falling out of the ceiling and onto his piano keyboard at Russell Street before skittering away), and the legendary designer/director Ric Young, dressed all in black with silver-white hair and beard, lean and swashbuckling like a pirate of Penzance, strolling through downtown with his retinue of the moment, and a lot of serious plays, like Miguel Piñero’s Short Eyes and Steven Berkoff’s Greek and Romulus Linney’s Holy Ghosts and W.B. Yeats’s astounding Cuchulain Cycle and Young’s A Passion for Fresh Flowers and a gobsmacking version of Sam Shepard’s The Unseen Hand directed by Kelly Brooks. Shepard had played drums briefly with the Holy Modal Rounders in New York, and for a while, when he was working out of San Francisco, his shows would open at the Magic Theatre there and head up the coast shortly after to Storefront. The Burnside Street space was a step up from Russell, but it could still be sketchy. One afternoon, after I’d been sitting in on a rehearsal for a show starring the late, great Peter Fornara – it was Billy Bishop Goes to War, as I recall – I walked outside and straight into a brawl on the sidewalk. Two guys were going at it, with a crowd around them, urging them on. Then one pulled out a knife. I ducked back into the theater, grabbed the house telephone (this was before cell phones) and called 911. By the time I got back outside, both the crowd and the man with the knife were gone, and the other guy was lying on the sidewalk, bleeding from a wound in his thigh as the cops pulled up. Storefront came by its grit honestly.

Poster for Storefront's original burlesque. Courtesy Don Horn

Poster for Storefront’s original burlesque. Courtesy Don Horn

A friend who saw Triangle’s The Babes Are Back sent me a note afterwards. It’s good to keep the cultural memory of Storefront alive, she wrote. But “it’s equally true that edgy, humorous, original theater ‘like they did in the old days’ is being created anew right now in other theaters — constantly at Action/Adventure, and frequently enough at Post5 (through Cassandra Boice’s Sound & Fury and clown shows).”

Fair enough. Except for Imago and some puppet or dance companies like Tears of Joy and BodyVox, I can’t think of anyone in town who’s doing the astonishing sort of visual theater that Storefront did under the influence of Young and Pander and others. And the stylish, often topical wit of the burlesques, which were closer in spirit to old Saturday Night Live and new The Daily Show than to standard American stage drama, is tough to find in town today. But that old rebellious Storefront spirit has atomized and spread all over town, mutating to fit the changing times. When Storefront finally gave up the ghost in 1991, I wrote that “in today’s theater there are no young radicals. It’s a dutiful, well-trained, may-I-have-a-job-please? generation.” I was wrong. Through exasperation or dismay or a temporary dip in the quality of shows or – who knows? – just a case of the snits, I failed to notice that it was only the tactics, not the core resolve, that had shifted. From Defunkt to Shaking the Tree to Vertigo to PETE and many others, little Storefronts are all over town now, rethinking theater and American culture in their own, contemporary ways. And in another quarter-century, someone will be carrying the torch for them.

In the meantime, all hail the good old days. In their messy, sprawling, abrasive, pretentious, gorgeous, inventive, utopian, flamboyant way, they really were.

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Storefront Revue: The Babes Are Back continues through May 31 at Triangle Productions; ticket information is here. At 7 p.m. on Friday, May 22, a half-hour before curtain, Bob Hicks will lead an audience talk on Storefront and its history.

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