interview: John S. Berendzen – Liminal Performance Group

For # 12 in the series, it’s time to check in with Liminal co-founder John Berendzen. A strong presence on the Portland theatre scene since the late 90’s, the adventurous and distinctive Liminal just opened their latest production last night at Headwaters. This time the experimental group is taking on American classic OUR TOWN.

Hi John. Can you give us an idea of your theatre background and training. Where did you come from, how would you characterize the style of theatre you work in now, and who have been your main influences?

Personally, I ended up in theatre because the art class I signed up for in HS was full. I am primarily a music composer and director, and I approach performance and theatre with an ear towards treating all the elements like music – the visual, the thematic, the physical – all of it can be arranged in time as music. When an actor wants to sit down and talk about psychological motivation, I generally ask them to ignore that at first and instead pay attention to rhythm, tempo, and mood – and I always find that the emotional motivations come out of that.

To answer the question: Theatrically, one could identify in our work tributes to The Wooster Group, Richard Foreman, and Robert Wilson. Musically, I identify most with the ecstatic minimalists: La Monte Young, Terry Riley, and Steve Reich, Phil Glass, etc… These are all artists who deal with time in a very unique way (rather than rushing forward in narrative); who use simplicity and repetition of simple, understandable building blocks rather than convoluted complexity; and an emphasis on the direct, spiritual, visceral experience of being here-and-now (fighting the necessity of narrative to be “somewhere else”, to import an alien time and place into the theatre).

How did you come to found Liminal, and how has the group changed over the years?

About 12 of us migrated up here from San Antonio, TX in the late ’90’s. The first phase of Liminal, led by genius Bryan Markovitz, involved that group and several other collaborators soon joined. Our Town features three actors who are from that early group (Jeff Marchant, Alex Reagan, Leslie Finch), as well as long-term costume designer Jenny Ampersand. In 2005, both Markovitz and movement director Amanda Boekelheide left to pursue degrees, and are active on the east coast. We’re keeping it real and continuing to produce both types of events Liminal is known for: both uniquely staged plays, and also “happening”-style performance installations.

You have performed in a number of spaces over the years. Has the availability of appropriate space changed in Portland during that time, what’s it like right now in town, and where would you ideally like to do your work going forward?

We would love a huge warehouse to live in, right? 🙂 Space is the final frontier. Options for space are polarizing, as everything else in the current economy: either you go more high-end, or more independent. That the “middle class” is indeed suffering is illustrated by the closure of such treasures as Theatre! Theatre! space, and the movement of a group like Third Rail into the Winningstad.

What are a few of your most memorable Liminal shows across the years?

Almost all Liminal actors and collaborators agree on this:

Suicide in Bb – 1997 – Liminal’s first
The Seven Deadly Sings – 2002 – Brecht/Weill electronic opera
Objects for the Emancipated Consumer – 2000 – best original work
The Resurrectory – 2005 – installation at the old Portland Art Center, the last of the old gang

Liminal presents Gertrude Stein (2012) was epic as well.

What is your biggest challenge right now at Liminal, either personally or as a group?

Liminal is caught in an organizational no-man’s land between a small and large group. We don’t do a full season like the large arts orgs (PCS, ART) – we don’t focus on a product. We’re also not interested in spending our time on administrative overhead, thus we tend not to keep constantly active with things like educational and touring programs. It’s really hard to get mid-sized funding when you’re not interested in playing those games in order to get the money. We don’t fit anyone’s funding model of a safe bet.

How do you see the Portland theatre audience changing or evolving over time?

I don’t know who these audiences are – by which I mean to say, they are not homogeneous or constant. I hope that they’ll connect to what they find in what Liminal and other Portland theatre creators are offering. In general audiences evolve the way they are encouraged to evolve by the content they’re presented. Recently I see more “traditionally experimental” theatres in Portland like defunkt moving into social-issue plays and away from the experimental. I support socially transformative work but I hope that the boundaries of form and style will continue to be pushed. I still see that going strong in Hand2Mouth and newer groups like PETE.

Do you travel and see theatre elsewhere around the US, and if so what’s on your radar?

I don’t go to the theatre. Liminal has a love-hate relationship with theatre, and this is a primary motivation behind our Our Town. I’ve never seen Our Town. I feel like theatre has failed – and we have failed theatre – in many ways. For the most part we seem happy to have fallen into a severely self-limited set of theatricalisms that no longer really speak to us. It’s similar to how Hollywood has reduced cinematic language to nil – except minus the huge cash payoff! Wilder was trying to address this same problem in his day, when theatre was just beginning to lose out to the ‘talkies’. Theatre’s virtue lies in the real-time drama of a live audience situation, which is superior to even its storytelling abilities.

Are technology and social media changing in any fundamental way the types of stories you are drawn to or how you tell them?

No way. Partly because we don’t focus on storytelling – we don’t do that nearly as well as others in Portland. But I think watching a play about the internet would be about as interesting as, well, the internet. It’s like trying to get nourished by looking at pictures of food. Now, as far as incorporating this technology _into_ the live event – go for it. I fully expect the kids today to take this up and make it relevant. I’m pretty old school and find all that kind of unnecessary.

Which is harder: to create a compelling work of art on stage or turn out an audience to see it?

Both are pretty easy in Portland because the cost of living is low – which means you have more time and resources to create the work – and because audiences are curious. And the two are not at all incompatible. Any theatre that has to sell out in order to sell out, isn’t doing it right. The hard part is making sure that neither pursuit calls for the sacrifice of your goals and values, or of the happiness and satisfaction for you and your collaborators.

What’s next for Liminal?

* Fall 2014: Phoebe Zeitgeist (aka Marilyn Monroe vs the Vampyres), a play by filmmaker R.W. Fassbinder. The anti-Our Town, edgy and contemporary.
* 2014-2015: Samuel Beckett mini-festival!!

Thanks, John!