A sad day for unbiased theatre coverage in Portland | After 114 episodes, 5 Useless Degrees calls it quits

Some sad news popped up in the feed this week. After 114 episodes, the interesting, searching and independent Portland theatre podcast 5 Useless Degrees and a Bottle of Scotch (5UDBS) has decided to call it quits.

For a city with few unbiased, sharp voices on theatre left, it’s a major loss for the larger ecosystem.

Why did James and Eric decide to roll up the red carpet? You’ll just have to give a listen and find out.

There’s some good craic talking and a few zingers in the closing monologue. And some very funny anecdotes that illustrate how microscopically small and timid the Portland theatre scene remains at times – despite hysterically delusional coverage from some media.

In case no one noticed, two of the four biggest theatres in town scaled back their 2016 seasons from 2015. Is that a sign of a golden age for theatre? Probably not. Any probing stories on why that is or what’s going on? Not in a million years. And when the city’s largest theatre sticks the tax payer for millions and millions of dollars in fallout from an absurd goliath building that should never have been built – any dialogue at all from the local beret-wearing arts media? Nope. Nada. Just keep whistling in the dark and declare our work is “world class”. Ouch.

But the real audience isn’t dumb. I mean the people who turn out for world class events like TBA or NT Live or Oregon Shakespeare Festival. There’s a reason tickets for major Portland shows are still dumped for $12 or even $8 on Goldstar: That’s all they’re worth. Note to self: If you can’t sell main stage tickets for $8, the market is telling you as clearly as it possibly can that there is no demand for the product on offer.

Fake reviews or happy boosterism that don’t tell it like it is help no one. Crappy criticism, like crappy shows, just drives people away. Bad criticism tries to camouflage the real state of things and hopes no one notices. Good criticism helps the audience prune the crap and find the good stuff. That’s what 5UDBS did.

What was great about 5UDBS was that the two critics had absolutely NOTHING to fear. All sacred cows were gored, the hard questions were asked. That’s what criticism in a big city looks like.

The weekly 5UDBS show was very well done and clearly took a ton of work. Despite what Eric and James may think, I suspect a lot of people tuned in and found the frank dialogue a desperately needed sliver of reality.

Guys, I disagree. It was not a failure at all. Like those handful of great shows each year that give a glimpse of what is possible and set a high standard, your content was a reminder of the kind of real dialogue we need more of.

This channel will be missed BIG TIME.

The secret lives of play commissions | 5 Useless Degrees interviews Seattle playwright Bryan Willis, co-author with Dwayne Clark of controversial SEVEN WAYS TO GET THERE

As they are wont to do, the guys over at 5 Useless Degrees have been exploring the seamy, dank, always interesting underside of the theatre world. And this time their probing and prodding has led to one of the more interesting stories in the Northwest theatre this year.

You may recall back in March a story by Brendan Kiley in The Stranger about the new play SEVEN WAYS TO GET THERE by Bryan Willis and Dwayne Clark at Seattle’s ACT Theatre. Read that article for the backstory.

In a nutshell, businessman Dwayne Clark approached Willis about writing a play partially based on Clark’s life and experience in group therapy. They did it, Clark bankrolled the entire operation, and the play went up at ACT and sounds to have been pretty darn successful, both financially and critically.

And then, of course, the theatuh peanut gallery, which so often sounds like a mob of emaciated crows fighting over a roadkilled mouse, went into overdrive weeping and wailing how unfair it was that only rich playwrights get produced, and how wrong it was for Clark to use financial influence to get his play done.

There are many, many threads you could draw out in this saga, but probably the most relevant one is Clark’s observation on how broken the regional theatre is financially:

“Why do you do this? How do you stay in business? This seems like a broken economic model.”

Continue reading “The secret lives of play commissions | 5 Useless Degrees interviews Seattle playwright Bryan Willis, co-author with Dwayne Clark of controversial SEVEN WAYS TO GET THERE”

Waiting for Guffman – I mean CYRANO | 5 Useless Degrees: “incredibly dull”

Even though 5 Useless Degrees are no longer doing reviews in their radio show, that doesn’t mean they can’t post a few thoughts on shows they see.

Eric Kilgore threw himself on the landmine that is CYRANO over at PCS and had this to say:

“This production is so vapid and lifeless that I was trying to figure out how I could extract myself from my center seat after less than 10 minutes.”

I totally agree.

But I’m such a masochist I saw it twice somehow. Actually 1 1/2 times.

If you must go, remember you can ALWAYS get a $20 rush ticket for main stage PCS shows just beforehand. The second night I went after opening the theatre was about half full.

Is this a conflict of interest which I see before me? | 5 Useless Degrees probes relationship between Artslandia and Oregon Arts Watch

It’s a serious question with implications for the local theatre and arts scene. And so of course it falls to 5 Useless Degrees to take it on.

What’s up with this alliance between Artslandia, a commercial advertising operation, and Oregon Arts Watch, supposedly a group of critics advocating for the audience? And is there any conflict of interest here if the critics are now writing the glossy programs handed out at live events (laden with lifestyles of the rich and famous advertising)? You’d think so. And in their latest episode, our crew of degree- and scotch-laden theatre critics take on this interesting topic. It’s worth a listen.

Continue reading “Is this a conflict of interest which I see before me? | 5 Useless Degrees probes relationship between Artslandia and Oregon Arts Watch”

“That’s not writing, it’s typing” | Former Willamette Week critic Steffen Silvis flays Oregonian theater coverage during his time in Portland as “synopsis” and “stenography”

As they are wont to do, the guys at 5 Useless Degrees and A Bottle of Scotch have been busy hunting down all the Portland theatre content you want to hear about. And last week as part of their July interview series, they somehow located legendary former Willamette Week critic Steffen Silvis and brought him in to the studio to reflect back on his time covering the Portland theatre scene, now almost ten years in the rear view mirror.

If you’ve been around a bit, you may recall Silvis’s reign of terror as theater critic at Willamette Week from 1997-2005. Decidedly NOT a booster type, Silvis slammed, bammed, raved, and panned his way through a stream of shows back in the previous era of Portland theatre. His literary exploits led to, among other badges of honor, getting banned from three theaters, including PCS (bad reviews of PCS shows still get critics on a shit list).

In the interview, Silvis describes how a lot of the (often negative) heat in his reviews was explained by his frustration with the town’s newspaper of record, which was apparently unable to write an honest (negative) review. Silvis describes the Oregonian style of reviewing at the time as “stenography” – simply listing the things that happened in a show without providing any value-added interpretation or judgement. Of course, we’re talking about an age when at least the Oregonian DID theatre reviews.

Though Silvis was active in a different time, before the meltdown of newspapers and media budgets scaled back theater coverage, the issues of objectivity and boosterism are still very much alive.

He’s also got an interesting anecdote about what it feels like to be on the receiving end of a scathing review in London, and how it helped his own playwriting career.

As with all the 5UD podcasts, it’s worth a listen.

Here’s a few snippets.

“Most of the criticism at the Oregonian was useless. It was mostly praise, for the most part, I think it was the Oregonian’s attempt to keep what advertising they had in the arts and culture section…. It was never truly honest.”

“In the days of Elizabeth Huddle (1994-2000), it (Portland Center Stage) really was the emperor’s new clothes…. The Oregonian could find no fault in what was going on at PCS. I went and was seeing a lot of expensive mediocre work, and was saying so to the point where first PCS pulled its advertising from Willamette Week and then it banned me from the theater, which is still a badge of honor as far as I’m concerned.”

“You have to be honest. You should be serving the theater audience, but to a certain extent you should be serving the wider readership out there. Is this worth the average punter’s $20 or $30? And I thought not. But the Oregonian would write these wonderful, empty reviews.”

“I’m a great fan of booing.”

Thank god for 5 Useless Degrees | New Portland theatre criticism outlet takes aim at outrageous PCPA ticketing fees

They haven’t been around for that long in a journalistic capacity, but they routinely hit the bulls-eye like experienced vets.

In their weekly podcast, 5 Useless Theatre Degrees & A Bottle of Scotch are consistently the freshest voice in town. Beholden to no one, and with no skin in the game or advertising revenue to lose, the duo of James Engberg and Eric Kilgore gore the sacred cows with a vengeance and tell it like it is.

Thank god.

In their latest report, the two mention at the outset of the show the absurd extra ticketing fees you will have the pleasure of paying if you ever try to buy tickets from the PCPA (or whatever it’s called). It should be said that citizens are somewhat protected from the fees right now because the ticketing web site is so non functional, you have to really want to suffer to move your purchase all the way through to completion. It’s great to hear someone focusing in on this, but the fees are only the tip of the iceberg.

There is a much, much bigger story here that someone needs to tell at length. In a nutshell, how is it that instead of the cool, vibrant city theatre center that Portland SHOULD have downtown, we in fact have the horrific eyesore that is the PCPA, a generic piece of throwaway architecture that looks like a mall, has interior decorating from East Berlin, serves bland food, and sticks citizens with usurious ticket fees that are siphoned off to major corporations? Why is a publicly owned arts center being managed not for the benefit of audience members, but instead for the raft of special interests that penetrate the center and extract their pound of flesh? I suspect the full story here would curl your hair.

It started with the decision to build the monstrosity we know and don’t love, and how whoever was in charge did NOT pick a submitted proposal from international star architect Philip Johnson, because it was too expensive. The “design” (if that’s the right word) they did pick went on to go way over budget and cost (you guessed it) more than the Johnson project. That was the key moment. Because instead of a building that is a work of art, we have a major piece of blight on SW Broadway. Imagine what could have been possible if we had started with a world class building? Unfortunately, the look and feel of a place sets a strong tone that it becomes hard to overcome. And no amount of rebranding on earth is going to make the totalitarian PCPA cool. It just ain’t gonna happen.

Meanwhile, if you enjoy sending your money to Ticketmaster and other faceless corps, keep buying tickets online at the PCPA.

Mission impossible: Make this building cool.  Good luck.
Mission impossible: Make this building cool. Good luck.

Would not be out of place at the old Friedrich Strasse U-Bahn.  If this is the aesthetic of the space, what kind of shows will they put on?
Would not be out of place at the old Friedrich Strasse U-Bahn. If this is the aesthetic of the space, what kind of shows will they put on?

The dreaded $8 fee.  "We'll just mark up your ticket another 20% to pay for the cost of our wonderful rebranding."
The dreaded $8 fee. “We’ll just mark up your ticket another 20% to pay for the cost of our wonderful rebranding.”

5 Useless Degrees & A Bottle of Scotch are anything but useless | Weekly podcast raves and rants about Portland theatre

Will wonders never cease.

New sources of commentary on Portland theatre are popping out of the hedge faster than Republican demands for more concessions.

The latest “discovery” (for me): 5 Useless Degrees & A Bottle of Scotch. These guys are priceless. I somehow missed the output of this intrepid duo (trio counting Haggis), which have been doing what they do for about a year now, until Barry Johnson’s piece on how much the Scotch-laden critics hated DETROIT at Portland Playhouse.

You’ve probably known about them for months. If you are not listening to these two in their weekly Thursday podcast, you are missing A LOT of fun. In a nutshell, James and Eric are two sharp, theatre savvy guys (those degrees) who see one play a week and then subject it to merciless dissection while under the influence of Scotch. Sounds fun to do, right? It’s even more fun to listen to.

And it is SUCH a needed blast of fresh air. With no involvement or investment in the theatre scene, these two simply talk and crack wise. Bit of a difference from the typical tiptoeing thru the tulips approach you’ll find in a lot of critical coverage. Instead of beating round the bush, the two detonate zingy one liners. Boom. Highly entertaining.

The stoic delivery, the palpable outrage, the bon mots – these guys have it all. And some weeks, it’s the best show in town.

So tune in and batten down the hatches.

Yes, they publish a forward calendar of shows they are reviewing next.
Yes, they publish a forward calendar of shows they are reviewing next.