It was one of the reasons I moved here nearly 8 years ago. This awesome city has a distinct reputation across the country as being slightly left of left, a little off, weird… as they say. And for the most part I think this city really stands up to the billing. Where else can you see a bag-piping Darth Vader on a unicycle…daily?
We have Voodoo Donuts (don’t get me started), full-frontal strip clubs (both male and female), and our public officials probably have tattoos. Our hipsters are the children and grandchildren of the hippies who thought we should care for our Earth long before Al Gore made a movie about it. We have nude…ahem… clothing optional beaches on both sides of the city, and somewhere, somehow, there is a city ordinance that allows public nudity (to some nebulous degree). Oh… and Beards. I could go on… but this list is not really my point.
(Well, get to the point then…)
I’m sorry. It’s not easy. It’s a personal observation and it probably won’t land well… but I think it’s an important topic to address as we as a theatre community attempt to become a more viable option for American Theatre.
Portland theatre is not weird. (There. I said it.)
Of course, in the plethora of small theatre companies that populate Portland, there are a few exceptions to the rule: Hand2Mouth, PETE, Action Adventure, OPS Fest… just to name a few, but even these companies, though successful in their own right, are not among the most supported companies in town.
Now, I’m no fool (citation needed). I know that every company needs to think about the bottom line, and we all have to be selective about how we challenge our audiences. But I miss those nights of going to the theatre and seeing something utterly new. For someone who has seen a lot of theatre, it is what’s new to me that excites me. But who is our SITI Company, Wooster Group (ducks), or La Mama? Furthermore, who is our Theatre for the New City and PS 122?
Who are the Portland-based companies and producers who promote theatre that is slightly bent or paradigm shifting? Have we created a situation where the larger companies are leaving it up to the few granting organizations and a few generous patrons (whom I will take a moment to thank for doing the “good work”) to keep our avant-garde theatre scene alive? Artists Rep and PCS have their specific missions and they are viable and necessary. But far too often I see theatre that is aiming towards their work from the remainder of our upper echelon theatre companies. And more and more, the theatre is all starting to look the same. It’s becoming homogenous. Or maybe it always has been.
It starts with one of the “smaller” professional companies. Who is going to step away and offer multiple plays that are not musicals and/or part of the contemporary realism canon… let alone an entire season? Not to single anybody out, but simply to offer examples: What if Third Rail or Portland Playhouse coupled with SITI Company resident artists for a season to create a series of new works? What would happen if Profile chose Sarah Kane or Charles Mee as their author of the season? And what if some of the companies in town who have been creating weird theatre for years were produced by one of the major theatre companies in town? Maybe this is happening, and I just don’t know about it. Maybe this is what TBA is supposed to be, and I should just take what I can get. Maybe this is what Jerry Tischleder’s recent TCG Grant is all about. Maybe I’m just jumping the gun. I hope so.
I am continuously impressed with the level of theatre that this city produces. There is a LOT of good theatre out there, and in fact, every single one of the companies I mentioned above creates vibrant, legitimate theatre. I’ll admit that it sometimes even verges on weird… and that is good. But, it’s not about whether it is good or not. And that bears repeating. It’s not about whether it is good or not. It is about what could make our theatre community more complete and thus open our art to a wider audience… an audience which, in this specific case, defines itself as “weird.”
But maybe this is the ultimate problem. Those people who make this city weird — the young hipsters, the tatted micro-brew drinking crowd, the people whose bikes rise above traffic — are they coming to the theatre? Not in the numbers that we’d hope. And certainly not in the numbers of the generations before them. So then I begin to wonder if we are a theatre community packed with talent and creativity who is sitting on one of the next great movements of the American theatre, but we are too busy creating theatre for the only people who will sit through it.
And maybe this isn’t a problem exclusive to Portland.
And then I cry a single tear into my organic-vegan-gluten and GMO-free green tea as I watch the sunset reflect its pinks and purples and oranges across the face of Mt Hood… and I hear the faint whisper of Scottish bagpipes in the distance.