Telling big stories on the big stage | An interview with Seattle playwright Robert Schenkkan

Seattle playwright Robert Schenkkan (@RobertSchenkkan) has had a long and distinguished career in theatre, TV and film. And at 61 he’s not slowing down one bit.

For the theatre, Schenkkan’s latest project is the epic, two play treatment of President Lyndon Baines Johnson, premiered by Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Part 1, ALL THE WAY (2012), which was commissioned by OSF’s American Revolutions program and covers Johnson’s first year in office, started in Ashland and then went to Boston and New York, picking up numerous awards along the way, including a Tony for best new play. In this age of small casts and attention spans, for a big history play to take Broadway by storm is impressive. It’s also being made into an HBO film directed by Steven Spielberg.

Part 2, THE GREAT SOCIETY (2014), was commissioned by Seattle Rep and launched this summer in Ashland. It covers Johnson’s second term from 1964-8. If all goes well, GREAT SOCIETY will also be Broadway bound in the not too distant future – possibly including Bryan Cranston again as Johnson.

But in the meantime, one of the most exciting theatre events anywhere in the US in the 2014-15 season is bearing down on Seattle and involves both plays in the cycle. Starting this Friday, Seattle Rep is bringing the original OSF productions of ALL THE WAY and THE GREAT SOCIETY to the Jet City to play in rep through January 4. ALL THE WAY will open first, followed by THE GREAT SOCIETY on December 5. The two will then run simultaneously for a month. So if you’re the marathon type, come see both shows for a single day six hour immersion in the kind of live experience only the theatre can provide. It’s a big story on the big stage – and it’s already selling out.

I caught up with this extremely articulate American playwright recently to talk about the Austin connection, Johnson, the contemporary theatre landscape and more.

The man behind the curtain.  Robert Schenkkan.
Robert Schenkkan.

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Interviews are back | Next up: Robert Schenkkan, Lynn Nottage, Mandy Greenfield

After a long break, we’ve got a lineup of interesting interviews heading down the wire. We’ll be checking in with three figures from the national theatre scene – two playwrights and an artistic director.

First up is Seattle playwright Robert Schenkkan, whose play THE GREAT SOCIETY (part two of an epic about President Johnson) is just finishing up a sold out run at Oregon Shakespeare Festival. If you missed it there (or even if you didn’t), do not miss the chance to see both of Schenkkan’s LBJ plays (ALL THE WAY and THE GREAT SOCIETY) together in rep at Seattle Rep starting in November. There is sure to be a lot of excitement around this celebration of the hometown playwright. Schenkkan’s Tony for ALL THE WAY is one of the biggest theatre honors Seattle has ever won, and Rain City likes a team to root for. Time it right and catch a Seahawks game while you’re there.

Then it’s Brooklyn playwright Lynn Nottage, who is currently working on SWEAT, a new play commissioned by OSF’s American Revolutions program that opens next summer. For this project Nottage spent several years doing research and interviews in Reading, PA. Her topic is the de-industrial revolution. What happens to the people when a town moves beyond heavy industry? Nottage’s last two plays have been simply spectacular, though very different. RUINED (2009) tells the story of Mama Nadi and a group of women in a brothel in war torn Congo. BY THE WAY, MEET VERA STARK (2011) is a fast-moving, very funny look at race and Hollywood in the 1930s and then 1970s. According to her web site, Nottage is a self described “writer, theatremaker, activist”, and that special combination is felt in her work.

Finally, we check in with Mandy Greenfield, the new Artistic Director of Williamstown Theatre Festival. Formerly second in command at Manhattan Theatre Club, Greenfield brings a wealth of new play knowledge and big city producing expertise to her new job. WTF – once upon a time, THE summer theatre festival in New England – has cycled through a few AD’s in recent years and has been losing ground to other outfits in the area. Greenfield looks to be the perfect person to breathe new and vital life into this Berkshire power house.

Seattle is getting ready for Robert Schenkkan's two part LBJ epic at Seattle Rep.
Seattle is getting ready for Robert Schenkkan’s two part LBJ epic at Seattle Rep.

“Staging a feeling of life-exactly-now-ness” | Five questions for overunder

After a long lapse – interviews are back.

And here’s the first in a new standard abbreviated format: five questions.

To kick off, we get the lowdown from overunder, one of Portland’s brand new theatre groups, made up mostly of ex Reedies.

After making waves with Who Made This Art in June, which consisted of interviewing arriving Drammy revelers about the racial composition of Drammy nominees vs. Portland’s population, overunder’s second project Freak Flag Phenomenon runs Friday and Saturday this week, September 12-13.

1. What was the net impact of the video you made outside the Drammys this year, and how did it go? What did you learn from making it?

Alan: I think the biggest impact the video had was in re-opening a dialogue that others around town have been having for a long time. A lot of what we were trying to say with the piece and the video isn’t new information—that the institutionalized theatre scene is predominately white, that play selection and casting decisions have a huge impact on diversity, both onstage and in the seats—but we thought it was important to say again.

As white artists, we have a certain amount of privilege with regards to how our message is received. Rather than say “of course we want to see more racial diversity in the scene here!” and then just wait for people of color to make it happen, we wanted to take an active position, to demonstrate that anyone—even a group of unfunded white kids with a camera—could try to make the changes they wanted to see, and that burden wasn’t just on underrepresented groups alone.

Erika: While planning our appearance at the Drammys, we were expecting our presence to receive a wide range of responses from the attendees– including the possibility of getting kicked off the premises. However, with only a few exceptions, we found the majority of people at the event to be very open to having in-depth and candid conversations with our group, many of which were not captured on camera.

When we posted the video, “Who Made This Art,” a month later, our responses were much more varied. We had a lot of people tell us how excited they were to see these issues (mostly about race and diversity in the Portland theatre scene) brought out into the spotlight. We also had many people who didn’t like the fact that we wanted to talk about some of these issues, or felt like we didn’t talk about them in the right way. However, what was important for us was that these dialogues– about race, class, gender, equality, representation, etc.– be initiated, in whatever way possible.

2. Your next show, freak flag phenomenon is coming up on September 12-13. What is that going to be like?

Alan: Freak Flag is a different creature entirely. We went our own way and did our own thing, so what audiences are getting is going to be more like a patchwork quilt than anything singular and coherent. I think that is a strength rather than a weakness, because we all went in asking a general question: what does it mean to not fit in, to challenge a convention, and what we are getting is four very different responses to that prompt.

From my perspective, I feel like my work is rough, raw, and entirely unpolished. This can be off-putting to audiences acquainted with “the straight play,” where everyone knows their lines and their blocking and does everything exactly the same every night. I’m putting on a show that has actors shouting over each other and dealing with an over saturation of information as part of their process. The audience is going to have to reconcile itself with that, and I hope they want to, but I’ll admit— I’m a little unsure.

Marisa: It’s going to be an experience. It’s going to be an experiment. It’s going to be a lot of things that I hope will be interesting. “Freak Flag” is a series of four 10-20 minute pieces by four of the company members. Original, devised work. That’s what this evening is.

Erika: Freak Flag Phenomenon will be our first full production together as overunder. It consists four 15-minute pieces, each directed and devised by a different member of the group. Audience members will be taken from Midwest musings on art and academia to patriotism and culture to modern American media to a movement-based creation and destruction myth. It’ll be a wild ride.

3. What are the main stories you are compelled to tell right now?

Alan: We’re interested in the idea of staging a feeling of contemporaryness, of life-exactly-now-ness that has always been the business of the artist. For us, that means asking open and direct questions about the lives of young people, about what the world is about to be instead of what it has been. So there’s the old stories—there’s always the old stories—but we’re working to tell them with modern language in a modern way.

Marisa: There are a lot of stories about a lot of different things that are all as important as the next. But maybe “stories” isn’t the right way to frame it, but perhaps “questions.” I’d like to think that by making theater and asking questions- lots of good, difficult questions-we will ultimately prompt some doing. Whatever the form that may take. Some of the main questions (I) am grappling with is who we are now, in America. Who are we, what are we doing here, and where do we want to go. As artists and as citizens.

Erika: As a group, we are committed to giving voice to the stories and people that often go unheard in today’s society. We want to steer clear of narratives that are retold time and time again, because oftentimes they are drowning out the words of others; drowning out narratives that are equally valid and necessary for us to understand the world and all of its complexities.

Personally, I’m interested in the stories that lie in the brief valley where dichotomies meet. I want to tell the stories that bind us and break us. I want to tell stories of peace and revolt, of beauty and pain, and I want to tell them in a way that is both ancient and new. I want to look at the things we take for granted and turn them upside down and see them from an alien perspective.

4. What’s it like trying to start a new theatre company as recent college grads? Where has the real heavy lifting occurred?

Alan: The most difficult thing so far has been dealing with the realities of funding an organization that exists outside the established regional theatre model— a network of donors, benefactors, and annual grants. We’ve been so incredibly blown away by the community support we’ve received through our kickstarter, and can’t express our gratitude enough. However, we’re taking a loss on this show, and know that we can’t keep tapping the same support base (many of whom are also current or recent college students) to put shows on their feet, so looking for sustainable growth is a huge issue. We know how to do theatre, but money is still a challenge.

Erika: Funding, most definitely. We have been lucky enough to receive an enormous amount of support from our friends and families in order to make Freak Flag happen, but that’s only the first step. We’d like to eventually be able to fund our productions ourselves, using as few outside resources as possible. It’s difficult to think about how you are going to secure funding for your art while you’re still figuring out how to take care of your own needs.

5. How do you go about building your audience?

Alan: I think we build an audience by including them in the conversation. Social and new media allow us to do that more effectively than ever before, and—being the young, savvy millenials that we are— we know how to take advantage of that. One of our standing goals is to foster a sense of community between theatremakers and audiences, especially with regards to immediate social and political issues we feel need addressing, but it’s a two way street. We want to have a platform in place to enable other voices from outside the organization to share their thoughts and experiences, both in an artistic and intellectual capacity. I think people, especially young people who feel disenfranchised in today’s society, are incredibly receptive to that.

Marisa: Audience is a tricky question right now. As artists associated with a specific demographic it is difficult to expand beyond just that. In a way it is difficult just in de-associating from the liberal arts college group of people we know. Ideally, we’d be able to collaborate and speak to artists and audiences from other demographics. Because really, who are we making this art for? To whom and to what experiences are we speaking to? I think it is definitely something that we need to consider and work on with future projects.

Erika: So far, it’s mostly been through word of mouth. We’ve gotten great advice and support from theatre professionals by going to performances and events around Portland and talking to artists about who we are and what we at overunder hope to accomplish. By meeting people and talking to them, we can work towards building a strong and diverse base of mentors, collaborators, and supporters. We want to build an audience that is willing to enter into dialogue with us and our work and realize the impact they can have on their community and the world.


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!

interview: B. Frayn Masters – Back Fence PDX

For number 11 in the interview series, we talk to another woman at the forefront of Portland’s comedy / improv / storytelling scene, B. Frayn Masters, Host and Executive Producer of Back Fence PDX.

Among other illustrious titles, she is officially “The Reason Portland Knows About Lauren Weedman”.

Wish I could list that tag line on my business card.

This week Back Fence PDX has not one but two shows on. So you’re really going to have to work hard to miss them both. Or to channel Lady Bracknell: “To miss one Back Fence PDX show in a week may be regarded as a misfortune; to miss two you gotta be seriously f-ed up!”

4.5 Back Fence PDX – BUT WAIT, IT GETS WORSE | 5 TRUTHS AND A LIE at Mission Theater
4.6 Back Fence PDX – RUSSIAN ROULETTE at Disjecta

Look closely, dear readers, and ye shall find a discount code for Saturday night at Disjecta hidden away in the interview!

On stage at Back Fence PDX.
B. Frayn Masters on stage at another sold out Back Fence PDX show at the Mission Theater.

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interview: Shelley McLendon – Bad Reputation Productions

For number 10 in the interview series, we get the latest from Shelley McLendon, CCO (Chief Comedy Officer) of Bad Reputation Productions. McLendon is a member of comedy / improv acts The Aces and The Liberators, among others, and famously brought Roadhouse: The Play! (an adaptation of that Patrick Swayze film you were re-watching again last night) right “to your face”, as she would say.

Or at least all the way to the stage in the Ellen Bye Studio at the Armory.

Which is relatively close to your face.

This weekend on Friday and Saturday nights, the Armory will once again be the site of yet another McLendon vehicle: Slingshot, a night of smartsexy improv.

So be there. And laugh – OR ELSE!!!

McLendon and Michael Fetters of The Aces.  photo © 2013 andy batt -
McLendon and Michael Fetters of The Aces. photo © 2013 andy batt –

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interview: Third Rail Repertory Theatre

Third Rail Repertory Theatre opened their second season at the Winningstad Theater at the Portland Center for the Performing Arts with THAT HOPEY CHANGEY THING by Richard Nelson.

From their original smash hit production of RECENT TRAGIC EVENTS at the 100 seat CoHo Theatre in the spring of 2005, to unforgettable shows like THE LONESOME WEST, GRACE, and THE PAVILION during three years in residence at the slightly larger IFCC, to full scale main stage triumphs like DEAD FUNNY, FABULOSO, THE LYING KIND, THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF DISSOCIA, and THE GRAY SISTERS in three years performing at the larger still World Trade Center, Third Rail has been on an elevator going up.

I caught up with the director and cast of HOPEY CHANGEY in September during rehearsals.

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