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The Long & Shortz of ArtsWatch’s Puzzlemaster

ArtsWatch Weekly: Brett Campbell solves the riddle. Theater discovers radio. Music, dance, art, books, more.


LET THE RECORD STIPULATE THAT WE ARE LIVING THROUGH ASTONISHING DISRUPTIONS in the Court of Public Opinion. Let the record stipulate that these are trying and uncertain times. And let the record stipulate that although there may be “winners” and “losers,” the Court of Public Opinion, which is at war with itself, does not, will not, rest its case. Now, on to the other news:


ASSEMBLING ANY SORT OF PUBLICATION, ONLINE OR IN PRINT, IS A BIT OF A PUZZLE. Is that story ready to run, or does it still need fact-checking? Do we have photos? Is it timely? Has it covered all the angles? Does it have the beginning, middle, and end where the beginning, middle, and end ought to be? Does it need, in the gleeful words of one old-time Portland editor, “just one more run through the typewriter”? What’s the proper mix of stories for any given time? And how does it all fit together? Creating art of any sort, from playing an instrument to writing a poem to etching a metal plate to make a print, is a puzzle (which isn’t the same as a puzzlement), and so is journalism. Issues arise, and need to be solved.

Fortunately, ArtsWatch has its own resident Puzzlemaster – writer and senior editor Brett Campbell, who knows how things go together. And as of Sunday morning, when he appeared on National Public Radio’s Sunday Puzzle segment of Weekend Edition as the guest of Puzzlemaster Will Shortz, a whole nation of listeners knows that Campbell knows. They know, for one thing, that he’s a dab hand at figuring out the names of American cities if they’re scrambled and hidden behind rhymes. (“Tan Barber, Michigan” threw him a temporary curve, but after an initial whiff he nailed it, no sweat. And, “Wrong Peach, California”? Easy-peasy.) 

ArtsWatch Puzzlemaster Brett Campbell (right) trying (left) to work around a former head of the household, Kucing, who after an adventurous nine lives has passed his story-supervisor duties on to Bowie (stage name C.S. Eliot). How does Brett manage the workaround? It’s a puzzlement.

Campbell, who says he’s not really a puzzle fanatic – “I play the Sunday puzzle for a break, because it’s entertaining” – landed on national radio by correctly answering the previous week’s puzzle. “I asked, what common seven-letter verb is made up of three consecutive musical notes in order?” Shortz said. Campbell was one of 1,039 listeners to correctly answer: “Deflate.” That’s D-E flat-E, and no wonder Campbell got it right: He knows a lot about music, both classical and contemporary. In addition to writing insightfully for ArtsWatch about a broad range of music, he’s also a gamelan musician (he’s a longtime member of the Portland orchestra Venerable Showers of Beauty, which is on pandemic hiatus) and the author, with Bill Alves, of Lou Harrison: American Musical Maverick, the definitive biography of the late, great American composer, who was born in Portland in 1917. Campbell also knows his way around a theatrical stage: A veteran of the Eugene O’Neill National Critics Institute, he’s a playwright (often in tandem with his partner, Maria Choban) whose latest solo project, tentatively titled Safe Distance, has been curated into January and February’s online 2021 Fertile Ground Festival of new works as part of the Epic Shorts program from the PDX Playwrights writing group, where Campbell is a member.

So, if 1,039 listeners got the correct answer, how did Campbell get chosen to represent them on the show? He gives a virtual shrug of his shoulders over the phone. “It’s totally random, I think,” he says. “I’m not sure how they decide.” He does note that people from Oregon are on the show a fair amount, probably because Oregon Public Broadcasting has one of the national public-radio system’s highest listenerships. All right, then, how did he figure out the puzzle? “It’s the name of a note. With six or seven letters, it’s gotta have a ‘sharp’ or a ‘flat.’ I tried a flat, and … well, it was easy.”

Campbell had a lot of fun doing the broadcast, and, yes, he did give Oregon ArtsWatch a national plug. He also got to give his mother a nationally broadcast “happy birthday” on her 97th, with Puzzlemaster Shortz and “Weekend Edition” host Lulu Garcia-Navarro joining in. Here at ArtsWatch, we’re down with both of those things.



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How effective can Theater of the Ears be? Orson Welles meets with reporters on Oct. 31, 1938, to declare that no one associated with his “War of the Worlds” national radio broadcast the previous evening had any idea it would cause widespread panic. Photo: Acme News Photos, via Wikimedia Commons

THEATER FOR THE EARS. Speaking of puzzles, how do theater companies put on productions when coronavirus restrictions are keeping performance spaces on lockdown? And speaking of Puzzlemasters, Brett Campbell – yes, the Brett Campbell of Will Shortz national radio fame – unlocks an answer: Return to the days of old-time radio, when voice actors and sound technicians created a theater for the ears, one you heard but couldn’t see except in the unleashed imagination of your mind’s eye. Across the nation and in Portland in particular, Campbell discovered, a contemporary update of the medium that brought your grandparents Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds is ramping up and revivifying the theater world. A growing handful of streamed plays has been produced by several Portland area companies, and the artists are learning – and entertaining audiences – as they go.

Campbell talks with these neo-pioneers, learns what they’ve been learning, and in a terrifically engaging essay fills us in on the creative revival of a new/old art form. “I’ve always been really fascinated with the imaginative potential of audio drama,” Josh Hecht, whose Profile Theatre recently audio-produced Lynn Nottage’s Mlima’s Tale, tells Campbell. “You can lie down on the couch and close your eyes and be transported around the world. Audio becomes a very intimate personal experience of the work … So many of us are so exhausted with Zoom and computer screens. The freedom to close my eyes and be immersed in a story is really appealing.” 


Composer and violist Nokuthula Ngwenyama, left, performing with the Dover Quartet’s Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt in Chamber Music Northwest’s premiere of Ngwenyama’s “Primal Message” in 2018. Fear No Music’s Kenji Bunch and Monica Ohuchi will play music by Ngwenyama, Regina Harris Baiocchi, and Adolphus Hailstork.

MUSICWATCH MONTHLY: A VOTE FOR DIVERSITY. “What I appreciate above all is that this new format allows for a bit more experimentation in repertoire as we continue to move on from the hegemony of German dudes in classical music,” Charles Rose writes about how live-streamed concerts have been bringing greater diversity to the music scene. In November that broader musical palette ranges from Fear No Music’s series of mini-concerts of work by Black composers, including Nokuthula Ngwenyama; to Portland Baroque Orchestra’s performance of music by Joseph Bologne, the first major African-descended composer of European classical music; to a Metropolitan Youth Symphony concert that includes music by Black composers Florence Price, John Coltrane, and William Grant Still; and much more.

  • NOW HEAR THIS: NOVEMBER EDITION. Speaking of diversity in listening, Robert Ham’s monthly look at what’s new and intriguing from Oregon musicians at the music distributor Bandcamp ranges in November from lo-fi Americana to unrelenting death metal to soothing slowcore. Give ’em a listen (it’s almost Fee Free First Friday) and add what you like to your digital library.


Veteran Portland independent dancers Bobby Fouther (left) and Linda Austin bring decades of experience to Oregon’s dance scene, defying the concept that dance is only for the young.

DANCEWATCH MONTHLY: FOCUS ON LINDA AUSTIN AND BOBBY FOUTHER. Age? What about it? Jamuna Chiarini’s November DanceWatch is chock full of possibilities from all sorts of sources, but she focuses squarely on local legends Bobby Fouther and Linda Austin, who’ve been creating dance for decades and show no signs of stopping. Fouther, 70, is something of an Oregon Renaissance man: In addition to dance, he’s a musician, a visual artist, and a clothing designer. Austin, 66, has been pushing the edges of contemporary dance in Portland for years. As Chiarini puts it, the two “exemplify how to live as an artist FOREVER.” Not a bad example at all.


LITWATCH MONTHLY: VIRTUALLY NOVEMBER. Itching to roam the aisles in your local library branch or favorite bookstore? Maybe not yet. But no pandemic’s going to keep people from reading, and in her new monthly column of literary events, Amy Leona Havin spotlights a stack of (mostly virtual) possibilities. November is NaNoWriMo – National Novel Writing Month – so pull out your quill, get set, write. The Portland Book Festival kicks off, with a host of speakers and events and some big names including Margaret Atwood, Isabel Wilkerson, and Jess Walter. There are livestream readings, workshops, open mics, a virtual literary crawl, and the rigorous rough-and-tumble of Slamlandia, a poetry slam in virtual space. Crack the covers. Who knows what might be inside?


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Artwork by Chase Biado at the new Helen’s Costume gallery in Northeast Portland. Image courtesy the gallery.

 VIZARTS MONTHLY: CONNECTION AMID ISOLATION. “Julia Cameron, author of the quintessential creative recovery book The Artist’s Way, prescribed a steady diet of ‘artist dates’—time set aside to nurture one’s inner creative by ‘filling the well’ with new stimuli for inspiration,” Lindsay Costello begins her November guide to shows to catch, virtually or in person, on the gallery scene. She finds plenty of such well-filling exhibits around town, from a group show at the new Helen’s Costume gallery to PICA’s “We Got Each Other’s Back” (they do) to Malia Jensen’s “Worth Your Salt” (it is), and more.


The Living Art School’s “Banners for Cultivating Resilience” in the windows at Nationale.

COLORFUL BANNERS WITH HOPEFUL MESSAGES FOR ANXIOUS TIMES. “At Nationale, the line between fine art and functional object has always been blurred,” Costello writes, explaining why the gallery is “a perfect venue for Banners for Cultivating Resilience,” an intergenerational art project from the Living School of Art, which is based in an affordable housing development in East Portland. The exhibit includes “six strikingly colorful banners,” designed by child artists and then enlarged and fabricated into cloth by Amanda Leigh Evans. The messages (one says, “Hi How R U?”) are a balm in troubled times.


Marc Boone, “Ennio Morricone – Once Upon A Time In America,” 2020; watercolor, gouache, silver oil paint, white acrylic paint; 9 x 12 inches, at Michael Parsons Fine Art. 

MARC BOONE’S “ISOLATION” AT MICHAEL PARSONS FINE ART. Music and art go together like bread and jam. Go into most any artist’s studio and you’re likely to hear some sort of music while the artmaking’s going on. Sometimes you can almost hear the music amplifying from the canvas. “Music has always been a stimulus for my paintings,” Boone, who divides his time between Portland and the Long Beach Peninsula on the Washington coast, says. “For several years I have been naming them for musicians or tunes. The great jazz musician Miles Davis says: ‘A painting is music you can see and music is a painting you can hear.'” His painting titles make up a pretty fabulous playlist. They include, among others, Ornette Coleman, Louis Armstrong, Herbie Hancock, Cannonball Adderley, Blossom Dearie, Erik Satie, Diana Krall, Sun-Ra, John Cage, Lester Young, Oscar Peterson, and Roy Hargrove. Boone’s new show at Michael Parsons in downtown Portland is called “Isolation” because he created the paintings while in isolation over the past several months. It continues through Jan. 2.


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A rendering by Scott|Edwards Architecture shows the future LaJoie Theatre in the Performing Arts Wing of the Chehalem Cultural Center in Newberg. This view is looking north at the theater, which will be on the second floor. Courtesy: Chehalem Cultural Center

CHEHALEM CULTURAL CENTER EXPANSION MAKES A-LIST. The Newberg cultural center “is feeling some wind beneath its planned $5 million Performance Art Wing,” David Bates reports, because it made the Oregon Cultural Advocacy Coalition’s list of 11 capital construction projects around the state that the cultural lobbying group is pushing to add to the state budget when the Legislature reconvenes next year. It’s not money in the bank, but the coalition has an excellent track record, having successfully lobbied for more than $13 million in state lottery-backed bonds for cultural projects since 2013. The Newberg project is slotted for $1.25 million of the $9.5 million request, and would add a roughly 250-seat theater and adjoining green room, a dance and movement studio, gallery space, and a remodeled lobby on the center’s second floor.

Other projects being endorsed by the advocacy group: The Maxville Heritage Interpretive Center, for preservation of the Maxville Townsite, and Josephy Center for Arts and Culture, for facility expansion and renovation, both in Joseph; Artists Repertory Theatre‘s ARTsHub, Portland; Eastern Oregon Regional Theatre, for Baker Orpheum Theatre renovation, Baker City; Siletz Tribal Arts & Heritage Society, for a Siletz Cultural Center, Siletz; Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education, for expansion into the Charles A. Hartman Fine Art gallery space, Portland; Shedd Institute for the Arts, for a north entrance remodel, Eugene; Little Theatre on the Bay, for theater expansion and enhancement of the Liberty Theatre, North Bend; Columbia Maritime Museum, for preservation of the Lightship Columbia, Astoria; and the Portland Art Museum, for construction of its Mark Rothko Pavilion.


Lisa Adams, a music teacher at Duniway Elementary School in Southeast Portland, is teaching her students how to make musical instruments from ordinary materials in their homes. Photo: Max Tapogna

OUT OF ISOLATION: TEACHING THE ARTS. Portland Public Schools continue to teach long-distance during the pandemic while students sign in to virtual classes from home. How’s that working for normally hands-on arts classes? In the latest chapter of our occasional series “The Art of Learning,” Max Tapogna discovers that arts teachers – and students – have invented creative ways to adapt. “There’s been a big emphasis on dance for film,” says Portland dancer Rachel Slater, who teaches at Jefferson High School. “How do you make dance site-specific? I’ve had kids somersaulting back and forth across their beds. Really interesting, creative things.”



Oregon Cultural Trust

  “I MAY NOT BE A VERY GOOD ACTOR. I am not always believable. But as I see it, the main concern for an actor or a writer is not believability but the removal of time. Because when a person is totally absorbed in a play or a film and they don’t know what time it is or how long it has been going on; then they’ll usually find contentment and happiness. When an artist can suspend time like that for an audience, he has succeeded. It doesn’t really matter, I think, whether it is ‘believable’ or not. The believability comes afterward; or it doesn’t. But the artist’s job is to remove time for you while you’re still in the book, or in the theatre. And that I think I do.”

 – Sean Connery, actor, movie star, the original James Bond in the celebrated movie franchise, as quoted in a 1965 interview in Playboy magazine. Connery died at age 90 on October 31.   

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Bob Hicks has been covering arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest since 1978, including 25 years at The Oregonian. Among his art books are Kazuyuki Ohtsu; James B. Thompson: Fragments in Time; and Beth Van Hoesen: Fauna and Flora. His work has appeared in American Theatre, Biblio, Professional Artist, Northwest Passage, Art Scatter, and elsewhere. He also writes the daily art-history series "Today I Am."


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