Wednesday means theater: Notes on Risk/Reward and ART directors

Today, I am deliberately ignoring nature’s various shenanigans outside my office window. It’s seriously disturbing! Instead, I’m moving on to theater and performance, because the Risk/Reward Festival’s fifth incarnation is this weekend and Artists Rep announced a couple of the directors for its 2012-13 season, and that got us dreaming…

Queen Shmooquan

I have some insider info on this year’s Risk/Reward Festivalbecause Hand2Mouth, which produces this annual adventure in experimental performance, invited me to serve on its selection panel. So I spent most of a day reading proposals and watching video with the other panelists, an interesting group from Seattle and Portland. Want some names? Let’s see: PICA’s Erin Boberg Doughton, Sean Ryan, the regional programs director of On The Boards in Seattle, White Bird’s Walter Jaffe, Portland Actors Conservatory’s Philip Cuomo and several more, including members of Hand2Mouth and other artists.

We disagreed. A lot. A couple of my very favorites did not make the cut. On the other hand, that was probably true for everyone on the panel. My main problem was just this: I didn’t know the performers well enough to be able to predict how inclusion in the festival might affect their trajectories as artists. Was this the kind of thing that would accelerate their growth somehow, maybe from the recognition or maybe because it would give them a chance to bring together ideas they’ve been playing with for a while into something they perform for an audience?

So sometimes I was drawn to work that was highly proficient technically and sometimes my voting was affected by the stories of the artists that some of the other panelists knew.

What actually made it in? Well, it couldn’t be more various. I really liked Other Side Through Youby Cat Main and Jamie Nesbitt from Vancouver, B.C., which explores Main’s attempts to communicate with her sister, who has cerebral palsy, through an alphabet board. The piece was both moving and explored some communication “theory”: To what extent do we hear only what we want to hear? And we were all won over by Seattle’s Queen Shmooquan (Jeppa K Hall) and her wild “solo psychedelic theater performances that merge pop-art clowning with multi-media performance art, music, and non-linear storytelling,” as the program notes for the festival describe him.

But then everyone artist on the 2-day program had something important and/or strange to say, and they all said it in interesting ways. So, despite my alternate preferences, I have to say that I think you’ll find the festival interesting, especially if you like to swim in the experimental end of the performance pool (and in some cases, even if you don’t).

The facts: The festival is 7:30 Saturday and Sunday, June 23 and 24, at Artists Repertory Theatre’s Alder Stage, 1516 SW Alder St, Portland. Tickets are $14-$20.

Through the wonder that is Facebook, we discovered that Kevin Jones will direct August Wilson’s “Seven Guitars” and Allen Nause will take on Sue Mach’s “The Lost Boy” at Artists Repertory Theatre next season.

Jones directed Portland Playhouse’s hit production of Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” last year and Romulus Linney’s “A Lesson Before Dying” for Profile Theatre this season, and he’s one of the founders of The August Wilson Red Door Project. The project is dedicated to partnering with various art groups around town “to promote high quality art, theater and musical events that showcase the works of marginalized groups or people of color. We host professionally facilitated community conversations to provide Portlanders with opportunities for transformational dialogue about issues of race and other social issues,” as Jones told Profile’s Behind the Scenes blog.

Kevin Jones, left, and Victor Mack in the 2010 Portland Playhouse
production of August Wilson’s “Radio Golf.”
Courtesy Portland Playhouse

In that interview, he also pointed out something else we worry about sometimes:

Profile: Do you want to do more directing?
Kevin Jones: I’d love to do a comedy. I’d love to direct a group of white actors or something that’s not an African American play. I don’t want to be labeled as the guy who directs black shows. So, I don’t know what my future as a director will be. There are a lot of people who direct in Portland. We’ll see.

I’d love to see Jones direct a comedy, and I’m game for anything Victor Mack cares to direct after seeing how he pulled together Portland Playhouse’s “The Brother/Sister Plays,” which won Mack a Drammy Award for direction, whether it’s about the African American experience or not.

Sue Mach’s “The Lost Boy” has already won an Oregon Book Award, though Artists Rep will be giving the play its world premiere. Her first play, “Monograms,” was beautifully written and dramatically powerful, and it introduced me to the poetry of Oregon poet Hazel Hall. This will be Nause’s first directing job for ART since he resigned his post as artistic director, and makes me feel better about his whole retirement thing—I’d really miss the intense, deeply investigated productions he cooks up.

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