Shaking the Tree

A dozen great reads from 2017

From a Lewis Carroll lark to a rambling Road Dog to a play about a baby to art out of ocean garbage, twelve ArtsWatch stories not to miss

A dance critic walks into an art show. A man and his dog travel the byroads of America. A pop song sinks into a writer’s soul. A jazz pianist walks into the wilderness. A play about a baby strikes a theater reviewer close to home. On the southern Oregon coast, artists make huge sculptures from the detritus that chokes the sea.

We run a lot of stories on a lot of subjects at Oregon ArtsWatch – more than 500 in 2017 alone – and a few stand out simply as stories that want to be told. Put together a good writer and a good subject and chances are you’ll get a memorable tale. Here are a dozen such stories from 2017.

 


 

We’re able to tell the stories we tell 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:

 


 

A look back at a dozen stories from 2017 you won’t want to miss:

 

Matthew Kerrigan reinterprets Lewis Carroll’s White Rabbit, with a fleeting attention span ruled by a smartphone.

We’re all mad here … so let’s party

Jan. 31: “What do you do with your existential frustration? If you boil it down into its purest form, you get either despair or rage—which then has to be dealt with. But if you chill it out and mix in some humor, you end up with absurdity. And that can be played with! O Frabjous Day!” A.L. Adams got down in the existential trenches with Shaking the Tree’s We’re All Mad Here, a piece performed and largely conceived by Matthew Kerrigan in homage to the great absurdist Lewis Carroll. “Any drug-addled dodo could dream up a different world, but that wasn’t the crux of Carroll’s vision. Like his forebears Aesop and Chaucer and Jonathan ‘Gulliver’ Swift, Carroll was a satirist as well as a fabulist.”

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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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Spotlight on: Luisa Sermol

Part 1 of 2: Birth of an Artist. As the grande dame of Portland theater prepares to move on, Bobby Bermea traces the beginnings of her career

There is a moment toward the beginning of Artist Rep’s The Humans, not too long after the parents have arrived at the children’s New York apartment, before much of the shenanigans, revelations and pandemonium have ensued, when Luisa Sermol comes to a moment of stillness at the top of the stairs. While a scene is happening on the floor below, she just stands there … and even so, it takes an act of will to tear your eyes away from her. Much of The Humans is artfully choreographed chaos — but not this. Sermol comes to a stop and time stops with her. Though you know next to nothing about this Deirdre Blake’s life, on a visceral level you feel everything that has brought this character to this moment. You feel the weight of her life, the joys long past, the choices made, the brokenness, the frustrations, the boundless love. It’s a moment that not all actors have in them. There is nothing to do. You just have to be. And few actors do that better than Luisa Sermol.

Luisa Sermol: The North Star. Photo: Owen Carey

She’s the North Star of the Portland theater community. She’s our grande dame, our standard-bearer. She’s been acting in Portland for twenty years. She graduated from Juilliard. She’s won five Drammys. She’s worked at almost every major house in Portland. She’s tackled everything in this town from Shakespeare to Johnna Adams and she’s done it with power, precision and vulnerability — and she’s made it look effortless (when, of course, it is anything but). Her hallmark is being able to dig down to the depths of her soul and leave it all on the stage. If Theatre Thanos came down in his spaceship, she would lead Portland’s team of Drama Avengers out to fight him. Tony Sonera, for whom Sermol gave two of her award-winning performances, put it this way: “When you have the big role, with big shoes, with big expectations, when it’s too difficult for you to figure out, you bring in Luisa Sermol.”

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‘Belfast Girls’: It’s about time

Corrib Theatre's resonant staging of a play about women escaping the Irish Famine rings true amid today's sea change of women's rights

“The time of women is coming.” Uttered by a character early on in Corrib Theatre’s production of Belfast Girls, it sounds like foreshadowing. This is a play, after all, about five women escaping Ireland during the Irish Famine of 1845-1852. They board a ship called the Inchinnan en route to Australia, with hopes of a better life.

What we know, of course, and what the playwright Jaki McCarrick knew when she wrote this play in 2015, was that the time of women is still coming. The statement – and these five fiery female characters – are particularly prescient today, amid a sea change in women’s rights, particularly the right to be free of sexual abuse, assault, and harassment. But we all also know that time can’t come soon enough.

The Belfast Girls, from left: Summer Olsson, Hannah Edelson, Tiffany Groben, Brennan Dwyer, Anya Pearson. Photo: Adam Liberman

When Belfast Girls begins, we meet four women escaping Ireland, bonded by a shared dorm quarters on the ship taking them toward their dreams. There is the de facto leader, Judith (Anya Pearson), a well-spoken woman unafraid to speak her mind. She is joined by Ellen (Brenan Dwyer) – “stupid Ellen,” as Judith calls her in the beginning, but we learn there is much more to her than anyone realizes. Hannah (Summer Olsson) – called “fat Hannah” by Judith and her other companions – carries more grief and resilience than anyone should have to muster. Sarah (Hannah Edelson) is the stranger in the group, a country girl – and the only one who was not a street girl in Belfast. Still, she has her reasons to be here, and we’ll learn those soon enough. These four are joined before departure by Molly (Tiffany Groben), a weak and sickly maid from outside of Belfast who has carried on books and more than her share of secrets.

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DramaWatch Weekly: on ’til November

Im Portland theater it's a week of the Rooster, The Events, seasonal cosplay, and some houseplants for Hand2Mouth

Has it occurred to you that Halloween is the only time of year when regular people moonlight as actors?

A.L. Adams

And all the more so since character cosplay has engulfed general-category costumes. Instead of “a zombie,” or “a pirate,” more and more people seem to dress as “this zombie” or “that pirate” from some show or movie, leaving them oddly depicting a mix of the character they’re being, the actor who famously plays the character, and themselves. And just like that, your Halloween party spread is transformed into craft services on a Hollywood set, with Captain Johnny-Jack Depp-Sparrow, who is actually Kevin from work, scarfing all of your Doritos. How meta.

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Spotlight on: Samantha Van Der Merwe and ‘Caucasian Chalk Circle’

Myth, story, and a striking visual sense have been the hallmarks of Shaking the Tree's creative force. Now she's taking on a Brecht classic.

Every year in the Rose City, a Shaking the Tree production is one of the most hotly anticipated events of the theatrical season. Samantha Van Der Merwe, Shaking the Tree’s founder, artistic director, and primary engine, has built a sterling reputation for work that is visually striking, thematically powerful and dramaturgically daring. She is perhaps our most adept magician, with an eclectic and facile command of the theatrical vocabulary. Her singular visual sense is part and parcel of her storytelling oeuvre. She has a knack for making simple choices that feel audacious. Van Der Merwe’s special gift is knowing the one specific detail that will alight the audience’s imagination, and make its members her intimates in the act of creation.

Samantha Van Der Merwe, Shaking the Tree’s driving creative force. Photo: Dmae Roberts

Now, Van Der Merwe has turned her attention to one of her most ambitious projects yet: Bertolt Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle, which opened in her company’s Southeast Portland warehouse space October 6 and continues through November 4. At first glance Brecht, the famed modernist and “epic theater” proponent, would seem an uneasy fit for Van Der Merwe’s particular brand of spell-casting. But if you look a little deeper, the pairing of the two disparate sensibilities seems almost inevitable.

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