Theatre Communications Group

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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Full Circle: a universe of theater

At TCG's national conference in Portland, people of color traded stories on how to build an American theater that includes everyone

I straddle many worlds as a journalist, writer, and media and theater artist. When I interview artists, I often have to pull back from their perspective to gain a more outside view. Yet it’s the inside look that draws me to the work of the artist, and it’s the personal I find fascinating. Crossing lines and boundaries of many worlds is in my DNA. I’m mixed-race. I’m Asian. I’m Chinese or Taiwanese or a person of color, an immigrant, an American. Like all PoCs (People of Color), I switch languages, cultures and sometimes personalities depending on the world I inhabit. I was not prepared to find the worlds presented at Full Circle, the Theatre Communications Group national conference June 8-10 at the Hilton Downtown, so welcoming and meaningful.

Theatre Communications Group’s leaders of color gather for a group shot at TCG’s national conference in Portland. Author Dmae Roberts is near the center in the second row from the top. Photo courtesy Elena Chang / TCG

I don’t generally like conferences, but lately I’ve found ones focusing on racial and cultural issues impact me the most. Last October I forged deep connections with API (Asian/Pacific Islander) theater artists at the National Asian American Theater Conference and Festival (ConFest). I honestly thought TCG would pale compared to ConFest. I was wrong.

I’ve been to enough conference sessions dealing with diversity issues to become skeptical. At one public radio conference, I recall a session on “Unintentional Bias” with great irony when a white executive director of a national radio program barged her way to the head of a line filled with PoCs waiting to comment. She felt defensive and thought nothing of interrupting a Latinx radio producer to tell everyone her network wasn’t biased.

So when I saw the TCG conference had numerous EDI sessions, I was hopeful yet cautious. Equity, diversity, and inclusion, or EDI, has become the phrase of choice when looking at changing the structures limiting the imagination when it comes to hiring practices and the kind of art that’s presented, particularly in theatre. This year’s Full Circle exceeded my expectations.

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Day 1 – June 8, 2017

On the first day of the TCG conference, I attended TCG’s Commitment to EDI session, which pretty much foreshadowed EDI as the main theme of the conference. I turned to another conference attendee and asked if this was a typical focus for the TCG conferences. The person nodded her head and said it was even more last year.

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ArtsWatch Weekly: Sweet Lou

A Lou Harrison celebration, invasion of the theater hatchers, Jewish museum's new home, shrinking Bach Fest, more

It’s been a busy seven days in Portland and Oregon, with all sorts of notable cultural events going on. The Astoria Music Festival, after an opening recital Sunday by Metropolitan Opera star and Northwest favorite (she grew up in Centralia, Wash.) Angela Meade, is in full swing. Portland Opera continues its latest foray into musical-theater waters with Man of La Mancha (two more performances, Thursday and Saturday in Keller Auditorium).

Among the past week’s many other highlights:

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Detail from Russian artist Grisha Bruskin’s tapestry series “ALEFBET: The Alphabet of Memory,” opening exhibit of the Oregon Jewish Museum in its new home. Photo: Oregon ArtsWatch

JEWISH MUSEUM’S BIG MOVE. The Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education opened its doors in its new, much bigger, home in a prime gallery row location, the former space of the late lamented Museum of Contemporary Craft. Its new home opens up fresh possibilities for OJMCHE. You can read our take: A bigger, bolder Jewish Museum.

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Theater at the intersection

Two themes at TCG's national conference in Portland – diversity and "maker" creativity – suggest a future for the art form

The Theatre Communications Group annual national conference, which landed in downtown Portland for four days last week, had two stated themes which I initially found, if not exactly contradictory, at least not particularly relevant to one another. One of the main programmatic strands was called “At the Intersections,” a series of structured workshops centered on diversity and allyship. The other was a stated interest in celebrating Portland’s “maker” culture, and exploring ways to apply this concept to theatrical work. Both interesting and worthy and, laid side-by-side, at first seeming sort of random.

But as I actually attended the conference, I found unexpected resonance between the two strands. The question of diversity and the question of how to redefine theater’s cultural role in relation to new movements and technology seemed to me to intersect in a broader question about how the theatre industry can find new ways to define its value.

I mean that in two senses, and they both feel particularly pressing here in Portland. The first is, of course, financial. As Artists Rep artistic director Dámaso Rodriguez pointed out during a live taping of the American Theatre magazine podcast, in most cities, the most well-established companies pay a symbolic fee on an incredibly long lease, while the smaller and less financially stable companies pay exorbitant monthly or weekly rents. This is true in Portland, too, where the brunt of the financial burden of steeply climbing real estate prices is borne by the small companies least able to absorb any additional costs, much less costs growing at the rate of Portland’s rents.

Portland-based “Hands Up: 7 Playwrights, 7 Testaments,” the August Wilson Red Door Project’s touring show of works by African American writers, was featured at the TAG annual conference.

Pair this with theater’s increasing—or at least ongoing—cultural irrelevance. As exciting as Hamilton was, it does not seem to have heralded theater’s return to the mainstream. We know well, and it remains true, that audiences are small, white, and old. How can theaters prove their value to new and current audiences in order to remain alive in both the short and long term? How can they prove their value to a city that seems happy to fill its trendiest areas with condos and storefronts instead of arts venues?

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Theater notes: TCG and the Tonys

The national theater scene parties down in Portland. Oregonians grab the hardware at the Tonys. The Drammys and PAMTAs are on the way.

The bright-red-lettered lanyards bobbed and weaved and scooted around the lobbies and meeting rooms and stairwells and elevator shafts of the downtown Portland Hilton and Duniway hotels for four days last week, swinging in perpetual motion from hundreds of chests as conventioneers at the Theatre Communications Group‘s annual national conference scurried around the place like cattle on the brink of a stampede. TCG, a sort of think tank and clearing house for the people who run and work in theater companies across the nation (among many other things, it publishes American Theatre magazine, the bible of the nonprofit theater biz), was in town from Wednesday through Saturday, taking in the sights, seeing Portland shows, meeting and greeting and eating and gossiping, and gathering in small and large groups to hash out the issues of the day. Those ranged from matters of equity, diversity, and inclusion – the conference’s major themes – to such crucial behind-the-curtain issues as raising money, adapting to new technologies, producing in small or isolated markets, and how to create or refine a brand.

Regan Linton with Joseph Anthony Foronda in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s 2015 production of “Secret Love in Peach Blossom Time.” Photo: Jenny Graham

Out of dozens of possibilities on Friday afternoon, I wandered at random into a large room where a breakout session titled “Creative Access: Accommodations for Professional Performers with Disabilities” was going on. It was crowded: a lot of people were interested in the issue. This wasn’t about wheelchair access or seating arrangements for audience members, though those are important matters. It was about, are theater companies creating roles for blind or deaf or limited-mobility actors, and what do those performers need to do their jobs, and what challenges do they face in auditioning, and are there stairs to deal with backstage or bathrooms that aren’t upstairs or downstairs, and if a performer is dyslexic can she get a copy of the script early for auditioning, or if he’s visually impaired can you supply a reader, and is there a dressing room on stage level, and if not, what can you do to create a temporary one? “When I roll into a room,” the veteran actor Regan Linton said, “I’m trying to get across not only that  I’m the best person for the role, but also that I’m a human being who deserves to live.” She laughed to ease the sting, but the point was made.

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ArtsWatch Weekly: fires fading and rekindling

As national theater leaders descend on Portland, big questions rise in New York, the Oregon Jewish Museum makes a splash, and Don Quixote hits the opera stage

Listening to the New York Philharmonic’s radio broadcast Sunday evening of the Verdi Requiem on All Classical KQAC, all seemed right with the world. Conductor and music director Alan Gilbert had the orchestra in a heady balance of precision and emotion, with a superb sense of pacing and the ebbs and flows of a great score. The soloists (including Metropolitan Opera star and Northwest favorite Angela Meade, who’ll be kicking off the Astoria Music Festival with a recital this Sunday; see Brett Campbell’s comments below) were superb. This was music the way music was meant to be.

Angela Meade: opening the Astoria Music Festival

But appearances, including aural ones, can be deceiving. Gilbert, at just age 50, was at the end of what turned out to be an eight-year run at the head of the Philharmonic, although when he signed on it was expected to be much longer. What happened? As he told Michael Cooper for a revealing, lengthy and essential story in the New York Times, the fire waned: “To a degree, I lost my stomach to fight for things.” Cooper’s story is well worth reading in its entirety, as is Anthony Tommasini’s more narrowly focused and admiring assessment, also in the Times.

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