Bobby Bermea

Profiles & Conversations 2017

From poets to painters to dancers to actors to musicians, 21 tales from ArtsWatch on the people who make the art and why they do it

Art is a whole lot of things, but at its core it’s about people, and how they see life, and how they make a life, and how they get along or struggle with the mysteries of existence. That includes, of course, the artists themselves, whose stories and skills are central to the premise. In 2017 ArtsWatch’s writers have sat down with a lot of artists – painters, actors, dancers and choreographers, poets, music-makers – and listened as they spun out their tales.

We’ve been able to tell their stories because of support from you and people like you. Oregon ArtsWatch is a nonprofit cultural journalism organization, and your gifts help pay for the stories we produce. It’s easy to become a member and make a donation. Just click on the “donate today” button below:

Here are 21 stories from 2017 about Oregon artists and artists who’ve come here to do their work:

 


 

Erik Skinner. Photo: Michael Shay

Eric Skinner’s happy landing

Jan. 18: “On the afternoon that Snowpocalypse struck Portland, Eric Skinner walked into the lobby at BodyVox Dance Center after a morning in the studio and settled easily onto one of the long couches in the corner. As always he looked trim and taut: small but strong and tough, with a body fat index down somewhere around absolute zero. If anyone looks like a dancer, Skinner does. Even in repose he seems all about movement: you get the sense he might spring up suddenly like a Jumping Jack on those long lean muscles and bounce somewhere, anywhere, just for the sake of bouncing.” In January, after 30 years on Portland stages, Skinner was getting ready to retire from BodyVox – but not from dance, he told Bob Hicks.

 


 

Les Watanabe in ‘Sojourn’ by Donald McKayle, Inner City Repertory Company. Photographed by Martha Swope in New York. 1972. Photo courtesy of Les Watanabe

Les Watanabe on Alvin Ailey, Lar Lubovich, Donald McKayle and his life in dance

Jan. 20: In a wide-ranging Q&A interview, Jamuna Chiarini hears a lot of modern-dance history from Watanabe, who was in the thick of it and now teaches at Western Oregon University:

“During Alvin Ailey’s CBS rehearsals, Lar Lubovitch was teaching in the next studio. I ran into him at the drinking fountain. While living in L.A., I had read articles about him in Dance Magazine. So while he was stooped over drinking, I exclaimed, ‘Lar Lubovitch! I’ve read all about you!’

“At that point he stood up facing me wiping his mouth and looking incredulous like, ‘Who is this guy?’ I then asked, ‘Do you ever have auditions? I would love to dance with you.’

“’Are you dancing now?’ he asked.

“’Yes, with Alvin Ailey next door, but it is only for five weeks.’

“’Where do you take class?’ Lar asked. ‘At Maggie Black’s,’ I answered. ‘Good. Let’s meet at her first class. Then you can rush back to rehearsal. See you next week.’”

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New voices of ArtsWatch 2017

A dozen writers have joined the ArtsWatch ranks this year. Find out who they are, and what they're bringing to the cultural mixer.

In one important way it’s been a very good year for Oregon ArtsWatch: We’ve added a lot of good writers to our mix, deepening and broadening our coverage of everything from dance to theater to music to visual arts to literary events and more.

ArtsWatch has been able to add the voices of a dozen new contributors because of support from you and people like you. Oregon ArtsWatch is a nonprofit cultural journalism organization, and your gifts help pay for the stories we produce. It’s easy to become a member and make a donation.

In 2018 we hope to add even more fresh voices and perspectives to our continuing engagement with Oregon’s complex and diversified cultural life.

Meet 2017’s new writers, from A to Z (all right; A to W), and sample their work:

 


 

TJ Acena

A Portland essayist and journalist who studied creative writing at Western Washington University, TJ was selected as a 2017 Rising Leader of Color in arts journalism by Theatre Communications Group. He writes about theater and literary events for ArtsWatch, and also contributes to American Theatre Magazine and The Oregonian in addition to literary journals such as Somnambulist and Pacifica Literary Journal. Web: tjacena.com

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Greg Watanabe with Mao on the wall in “Caught.” Photo: Russell J Young

CAUGHT IN A LIE, OR A TRUTH

Acena reviews the installation and performance Caught at Artists Rep, a play that crosses the line between fact and fiction, fake news and real. “If it feels like there’s something I’m not telling you about Caught, you’re right. Don’t take it at face value: There’s a hidden conceit to the show. But discovering that conceit is what makes Caught compelling.”

 


 

Bobby Bermea

 

A leading actor, director, and producer in Portland and elsewhere, Bobby specializes in deeply reported and insightful profiles of theater and other creative people for ArtsWatch. A three-time Drammy Award winner for his work onstage, he’s also the author of the plays Heart of the City, Mercy, and Rocket Man.

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Our grande dame takes a bow

Spotlight on: Luisa Sermol, Part 2 of 2. As she completes "The Humans" and prepares a wedding, a Portland icon gets ready for a big move

In the year 1996, Bill Clinton became the first Democratic president elected to a second term in 40 years. The English Patient won the Oscar for Best Picture. Deep Blue became the first computer to beat a world champion, defeating Gary Kasparov. The Dallas Cowboys won their last Super Bowl. And Luisa Sermol returned from New York to her adopted home, Portland, Oregon.

“We lived in my parents’ basement again — they’re kind of my transitional housing (laughs)– until Rick found some work.” A year or so after she and her then-husband, Rick Waldron, arrived from New York, her daughter, Isabella, was born. In addition to being a new mom, Sermol started looking around and doing outreach work: the Haven Project, pairing underserved teens with professional actors, directors, and writers; Artists Rep’s Actors-to-Go; her continuing work with Portland Actors Conservatory, the training ground for new professional actors. Through this work she started to meet other theater artists in town, such as Lorraine Bahr and Haven founder Gretchen Corbett. Corbett subsequently cast Sermol in her production of The Taming of the Shrew.

Another relationship also facilitated her re-integration into the Portland theater scene, superseding all the others and becoming not just one of Sermol’s most productive artistic partnerships but also among her most enduring friendships: Louanne Moldovan. They had met when Sermol was in town doing Midsummer.

“Oh, I know! Hairdresser!” remembers Moldovan, “That’s how we knew each other. Because I went to the same hairdresser as her, Valerium, unbeknownst to each other. I was in there one day bringing a flyer to one of my shows as I always did, and he said, “Oh my gosh, you have to meet Luisa. She’s an actress and was in New York.”

Sermol concurs. “Louanne pops in and Valerium had wanted me to meet her. She’s handing out all these flyers for The Wild Party and you know Louanne. There’s all this energy.” Moldovan picks up the story: “You know me, I’m like, “Tell me all about yourself! What are you doing! Blah blah blah! And that’s how we first met, was through the hairdresser.”

Luisa Sermol: The grande dame. Photo: Owen Carey

When Sermol returned to Portland, opportunities for an Equity actress in town were not what they are today. But she remembered that Cygnet, a literary theater company, specialized in stage readings, which opened up possibilities. She re-established contact with Moldovan, who ran the company and was all over the idea. “She did the John Sayles piece about the truck drivers that Teddy Roisum was in. That was what we did first. Then we did a holiday show that was a hoot. Lot of funny material and singing and everything.” And the two became fast friends, cemented by going through pregnancy at the same time. “We went through pre-natal yoga together,” says Moldovan. “We went to Ringside and had big steaks together when we were craving protein.” That friendship — and creative partnership — continues to this day. (The day after Sermol’s current show, Artists Rep’s The Humans, closes, Cygnet will do a reading of The Holiday Show, which will feature Sermol, at Tabor Bread.)

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Reborning: a strong debut for a new theater company

Beirut Wedding kicks into action with a funny and provocative drama, a CoHo cross-promotion, and music from Portland bands

Bobby Bermea and Jamie Rea’s new theater company, Beirut Wedding, makes some wise moves right out of the gate. Open the program, and a coupon falls out, recommending that if you like this show, Reborning, then you may enjoy CoHo Theatre’s concurrent play, The How and The Why. Indeed you may. Since both shows prominently feature the relationship between an older and a younger woman, and both confront the complexities of motherhood, it’s a natural pairing.

But what’s more: on trend with upcoming shows at Portland Center Stage and Artists Rep, they’ve scored their debut show entirely with local music, listed the bands in the program, and given them a shoutout in the curtain speech. (As a former PDX Pop Now volunteer, it warms my heart whenever creative groups source their music locally. With every genre, subgenre and non-genre well represented, there’s no good reason not to. Beirut Wedding has chosen roaring hard rock and smart, sardonic rap from Tiny Knives, Myke Bogan, Candace, A Volcano, and We the Wild.)

Murri Lazaroff-Babin and Tiffany Groben. Photo © Russell J Young

Murri Lazaroff-Babin and Tiffany Groben. Photo © Russell J Young

Such community partnerships extend the reach and deepen the creative context of a show. Every company that hasn’t, should try them.

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‘Blue Door’: truth & consequences

Profile's taut production of Tanya Barfield's drama of a black man in conflict with his soul brings back the ghosts of pain and opportunity

In the dark, the sounds of African drumming and a loud, exultant chant ring out. Lights up, and the dialogue begins. “Divorce!” the actor Victor Mack declares, rolling and spitting the word in bafflement, savage humor, and contempt. What follows in Blue Door, which opened Saturday night at Profile Theatre, is close to two hours of dramatic exploration of what divorce means – not only or even mostly the divorce of Mack’s character, Lewis, from his wife, but of Lewis’s attempted divorce from his own black identity and cultural history.

Seth Rue in "Blue Door." Photo: David Kinder

Seth Rue in “Blue Door.” Photo: David Kinder

Blue Door, the second full production in Profile’s season of plays by Portland native Tanya Barfield, takes a big leap forward by trimming its sails. Its issues are larger and deeper than those in the season’s appealing but sprawling first production, The Call, but the focus is much tighter: Just Mack and fellow actor Seth Rue, who plays a variety of characters in Lewis’s long family story, are onstage.

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‘The Set-Up’: punch-drunk on stage

Poetry and fancy footwork enter the ring with Cygnet's adaptation of a Jazz Age rhyming narrative about the world of boxing

King Lear rose from his seat at the end of the sharply choreographed brawl that is The Set-Up, looked around the heath, smiled broadly and said, “I love this theater community. People will try anything.”

He was hardly alone. The enthusiasm was contagious Friday night in the seats surrounding Tim Stapleton’s boxing ring of a set in the little warehouse space of Shaking the Tree. Of course, the opening night house was packed with friends of the theater – in this case, Cygnet Productions, which is producing this newly adapted stage version of Joseph Moncure March‘s 1928 free-for-all of an epic poem – but I have the sense that a house full of strangers might have felt much the same. Or maybe not, because a lot of the show’s pleasure is in the way it plays around with theatrical conventions, updating and refreshing approaches that might seem buried in the past, and who better than a theatrical audience to appreciate something like that? Then again, the audience is no dummy. And whether this sort of fight club’s your bottle of liniment oil or not, it’s easy to see the thing packs a pretty good punch and is quick on its feet.

Pansy (Bobby Bermea) gets a breather between rounds after absorbing a beating. Photo: Owen Carey

Pansy (Bobby Bermea) gets a breather between rounds after absorbing a beating. Photo: Owen Carey

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The profound ecstasy of a free breath

Artists Rep's taut "Exiles" rides a tense and complex freedom boat out of Castro's Cuba, toward … what?

In the iconography created for us by the advertising industry, America is epitomized by those canonical products of wholesomeness: baseball, hot dogs, apple pie, and Chevrolet. Strange, though, that the gods of Madison Avenue, with all their insight into our values and desires, did not think to include Vicks VapoRub.

For one of the characters in the Carlos Lacámara play Exiles, which opened Saturday night at Artists Rep, Vicks is one of those little – we might foolishly say negligible – things that represent a time past, a world changed and a life lost.

Living in Castro’s Cuba, this poor man has spent 20 years suffering the twin repressions of communism and hay fever.

It doesn’t help, of course, that he’s also profoundly mentally ill. So much so that when Exiles opens, he is tied to the railing of the sport-fishing boat where the play’s main action takes place. So much so that the script identifies him only as “the Lunatic.”

Bobby Bermea, taking a seat on the boat toward Vicks: the cogent Lunatic. Photo: Owen Carey

Bobby Bermea, taking a seat on the boat toward Vicks: the cogent Lunatic. Photo: Owen Carey

Nonetheless, he’s articulate in his derangement, so that the insidious forces of consumerism and nasal congestion lead him not just to memories of Vicks but to an almost Jeffersonian longing for “the profound ecstasy of a free breath.” Whereupon the even more insidious force of communist indoctrination quickly offers up an equally eloquent corrective: “That’s the pipe-dream that tempts us away from the path of virtue.”

As it turns out, freedom, virtue, and the prices we pay for them are the central issues in Exiles, a gripping combination of political drama and family squabble, given a taut, vivid production here by artistic director Dámaso Rodriguez.

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