Theater on the edge: Something epic

Directions to Action/Adventure Theater

By Emily Stevens

You know that strange no man’s land between Powell and Clinton in Southeast Portland? The dingy industrial blocks, not the glamorous ones that house Roture and Produce Row? The spot where you get trapped behind the train when you are late? Behind that Karate studio and that empty cell phone store is a theater. The only indication is an orange plywood sign appearing every now and then that proclaims “show tonite” in green stenciled letters, and the fact that the door is red.

If you choose to visit this venue, you should make a reservation, because as it says on the blog, “If a train stops on the tracks at 7:55 for fifteen minutes WE WILL WAIT FOR YOU.” And they do.

The theater space was just opened by Action/Adventure Theater, a company best known for the Fall of the House comedy series, but now branching out into chewier works. Their Danny and the Deep Blue Sea this February was a deeply haunting portrait of a relationship gone horribly right (or horribly wrong? I’m still unsure). Their Something Epic/Everyday was a collaboration between Action/Adventure and another young company, The Working Theatre Collective.

The Working Theatre Collective, or WTC, is a company that, in its fourth season, brands itself as “aggressively artistic.” According to director Ashley Hollingstead, WTC really started when she was living in San Francisco just after college, thinking about her future as a young playwright and also, “Wow, I really don’t want to be paying this much in rent.”

She had always talked casually about starting a theater company with her friend and former classmate from Western Washington, Nate Harpel, and in the summer of 2008  they decided to stop talking. Nate had relocated to Portland after bouncing around some other places, and so Holllingstead joined him. They met up with another former classmate, Eva Sutter, and began collaborating right away. The Working Theatre Collective’s first piece, a story that ends and begins with a dream, was written by Harpel, directed by Hollingstead and introduced them to their fourth company member, Noelle Eaton. It was performed in a garage.

While small and cold, Action/Adventure’s space is a step up venue-wise (if not for the art itself, then at least for the comfort of the audience), and Something Epic/Everyday  was something of a breakthrough for the Working Theater Collective, receiving glowing reviews from The Oregonian and The Portland Mercury.

The production was deliciously experimental, blurring the line perfectly between “theater” and “not theater.” Opening with a dance number that would not be entirely out of place in a 1960’s beach party film or a Bertold Brecht play, performers Tara Coen, Noah Dunham, Noelle Eaton and Devon Wade Granmo wandered on from there, letting us know that as bad as things seem right now, there is still some kind of American dream out there.

There is no narrative in this piece, but, rather a series of thematically-related bits. One is a chant:

“I’m poor, I’m poor, I’m poor, I know it. What? WHAT?
Whatchu gonna do? Whatchu gonna do?
Take away my birthday?  Nu hu! NU HU!
IIIII’m poor, I’m poor…”

The strongest vignettes come from found text, specifically, from John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, but there are also original scenes written about the here and now, like an exhibit of a relationship that is built between two women as they bond over their love of sewing while applying  for unemployment at the Department of Human Services office.  Every once in a while there is a “break for optimism”:

“Make some art!
Eat a slice of pizza!
Volunteer!”

Director Holllingstead knows plenty about needing optimism, too—she lost her job during the rehearsal process for Something Epic / Everyday.

“I was at the last place I worked for three years, and then the restaurant closed,” she said. “But  it was sort of nice because it gave me a chance to focus on the piece.” It also must have given her inspiration: Her story appears as one of the many scenes in the play.

Something Epic/Everyday doesn’t have a script, exactly (“Well, I’m sure our Stage Manager has something she used”). It was pieced together through pure collaboration. From what Holllingstead tells me about their process, the cast met over the course of many months to create the show.

“At our first meeting, I made everyone dinner and we got out big pieces of paper and colored pencils and wrote down things like things that we think about when we think about this topic… things that you want to be in this show. And you just go around and everyone is writing on everything and if there is an idea of someones that you really like you can circle it and say, ‘yes! I support that idea!’”

Singing, movement, found text and a ‘scene without words’ were all things on these pieces of paper, and, when combined they gave the show a very distinct flavor.

At the end of each meeting, Holllingstead gave a homework assignment, “write about a moment of hope in your life, and a moment of despair” and over the course of a month they just created (and, Holllingstead admits, watched many hours of YouTube videos). And then, they spent many more months editing.

(L to R) Noah Dunham, Devon Granmo, Tara Collen and Noelle Eaton in “Something Epic/Everyday”/Photo by Pat Moran

Watching Something Epic/Everyday and speaking with Hollingstead about their process reminded me of a lecture given by Playwright and Director Mary Zimmerman’s in February at the Portland Art Museum’s Whitsell Auditorium. She explained how important playing was in the creative processes of both writing and directing:

“They don’t call it a play for nothing. We think of ‘play’ as a noun. ‘I’m going to see a play.’ We forget that it’s also a verb. Children play in order to survive. They’re practicing at life in order to cope and survive later in life. Plays do the same thing. They’re teaching us how to cope with situations, like the advent of our death. And we can sit back and observe.”

After her lecture, a young playwright in the crowd asked her advice for how to get started, and Ms. Zimmerman replied, “produce yourself, don’t wait.”

It’s no wonder that Hollingstead cites Zimmerman as an inspiration.

Something Epic/Everyday was not perfect, there were a few points that felt glazed over, where I wanted to feel the bite of our current recession just a little bit more. But the authentic voice cuts right through to you, and the work that went into the piece is palpable—in the camaraderie between the actors, the care taken with the words of Steinbeck and Bruce Springsteen and the hours spent perfecting dance moves.

When I asked Hollingstead what she needed most to make her company grow, I expected the routine answer of “money.” But, Hollingstead surprised me by saying “space.”  Affordable space to rehearse and space to perform. Also, for people to take a chance on original work and simply come see it, participate as an audience member.

These “in-between” spaces of art—the weird space behind the red door between Clinton and Powell, the moments between a play and not a play, and the space between a group of friends acting together and a real company is so important to this cultural revolution we seem to be having.

But where does this little play lie in the grander scheme of things? It isn’t generating the economic impact of a large theater or even necessarily the quality of work, but it is important because the energy created in that little space, behind the red door is irreplaceable. And feeling it makes me think of the future of these little companies and what they could mean for Portland’s so called “cultural revolution.”  I’m thankful that The Portland Civic Theatre Guild agrees—Action/Adventure was granted a $2,500 award at this year’s Drammy Awards.

So, if you have a chance next season, take a chance on new work. This little theater by the train tracks will have plenty to offer, including a new devised piece created and directed by Ashley Hollingstead.

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