Sunday, March 12, 2006

Mea Culpa, Take II

Damn it, Neal's right. He reminds me both that my blog is not a place to be politically correct and that my critical asides on the quality of Portland acting are not gratuitous--it is indeed poor, in comparison to the theater I know from elsewhere, at least. No--to head off a retort--my own acting is no better than the average performance, in Portland. But, that's not necessarily the point.

My instinct to pull my punches with an apology comes from two sources: my own deep insecurity about not being a very good actor and my desire not to anger any potential local producer or director, which my anonymous critic may well be. Now, whereas nothing I say will improve or harm my own acting, I could, indeed, run into trouble with overly sensitive local producers and directors. Well, this is what I realize: I have been working enough for several directors to know what I'm like, and I have made solid alliances and friendships in the theater community that will allow me to take part in making good theater, in Portland, regardless of what I say here, or at least, regardless of what I WOULD say here (trust me, I don't say EVERYTHING I think, and I don't name call. You'll note that most of my references to named persons are positive.)

Note that this blog is not anonymous. I think there is a place for anonymity--e.g., Followspot wouldn't be possible without it--but for me, one way I try to be a solid citizen and member of a local arts community is by acting and speaking as transparently as possible. I deeply believe that we change ourselves and others best by acting and speaking with as much transparency, and as little duplicity, as possible, even to the point of risking exposure to those who would take advantage of us. I'll give you an example: when I lived in Missoula, MT., I moved through a community made up of writers, on the one hand, and, through my now-ex wife, social and political activists, on the other. I owned my own, small house, drove a nice car, and had furniture that matched. This made me quite wealthy in comparison to our social circle, and my social circle never quite trusted me, because of it; I think they had a hard time reconciling my self-avowed liberal principles with my economic security. I wanted very much to reassure them, to court their approval, and to hide my access to a family inheritance that made my life style possible. I didn't do any of those things. Everyone knew that I'd inherited money. For me, it was a political act not to hide it. I was saying, "yes, wealth inequality sucks, and there are more people out here who are getting by only because they have help from someone else--I'm an example--so don't believe all those people who keep harping that you should be pulling yourself up by your bootstraps." Of course, since my political act was no more than my choice to live honestly and openly (do you think Karl Marx would have NOT lived on a trust fund while writing Das Kapital if it had been available to him?) the point was, indeed, lost on many. But, I know in my gut that my choice to be as transparent as possible had honor, and contributed to an important debate, even if it could be excruciatingly uncomfortable, for me.

Also, I lived 28 years of my life on the east coast, where standards of debate are markedly stiffer than they are, here. Commentary in Time Out can get as sophomoric and pouty as the most stupefying, immature reviews seen in The Mercury or The Willamette Week, but it tends to have more teeth, too. The skin of artists also tends to be thicker on the east coast than here. They demonstrate more commitment to art than they do their own self-image as "artists."

So, I will try not to censor myself, after all. I'll always try to avoid gratuitous insult--I'll never name call--but I won't boil away my brains to make them bland enough to be served up to some overly sensitive palates.

Another thing Neal is right about: the most average of Off-Off Broadway is stellar next to the average work scene here, and as good as the best. Last year, I saw a series of character sketches at a coffee house in Tribeca better than anything I've seen here, with the exception of Third Rail's productions, which are first rate. I once saw a production of Tartuffe for $15 in a ratty, second floor office space on eighth avenue that kicked the ass of any classical work I've seen in Portland. Last season, one of the best shows I've ever seen was The Trojan Women, done by Harlem Classical Theater (I also saw once a wretched, cringe-producing Lysistrata, in Williamsburg, but the audience was drunk, so it didn't matter.)

Look. I'm a nice guy. Really, I am. I'll buy you a beer if you tap my on the shoulder sometime and mention this blog. And, I'm actually quite positive about the future of Portland theater. We have more good actors than we did four years ago, when I first got back into town after an eight year absence (PATA is doing it's share of the heavy lifting to raise standards,) and I sense the stirrings of a genuine audience, out there, an audience that can only be generated by having seen some theater it likes (I'm thinking of CoHo, which seems to be building a new audience.) I don't snipe that often, in point of fact, though Droubay has tested my resolve and good taste more than once. All in all, I'm a rather bubbly guy and fond of local theater people.

But, this is my blog, and I'll kevetch if I want to.


Thanks for the nudge, Neal.


Anonymous said...

Cheers to that. It's your blog - fuck 'em. We all have opinions, right?

Regarding the quality of acting/theatre in Portland: I've never been to New York, but I am willing to accept your assertions of its superiority. But here's the thing: if I was that good, I'd BE there. I'm not. I'm here. And so are all of you.

Why do we feel compelled to compare ourself to another market? What makes "good" acting and "good" theatre? Isn't a great deal of that up to taste? And even when talking about quantifiable qualities, why aren't we questioning how those are established, and by whom? Should we simply look to New York to educate us on proper technique and style?

David, you profess Portland actors to be generally under par, and you place yourself in that category as well. If you think that of yourself, why do you expect so much more of others? Don't they face the same challenges as you? If they were that "good", wouldn't they go to New York where they could make a living? I know I would.

I don't know if I have a point. I just know that the longer I'm here the more empathy and respect I have for local artists - even if they're not as "good" as artists in other markets. When I see another actor onstage here I have to remember that, in a somewhat larger picture, I'm looking at myself.


David said...

Jason, you are not wrong! Last season, I went down to OSF for the first time in a couple of years. In the past, I've always felt frustration with the acting, down there. This time, though, I found myself empathyzing more, and understanding better what the actors' jobs really were; e.g., a supporting player has to help tell the story first, and 'show off,' second. And you're right: I'd never get on stage in NYC!

So, what's my beef? I have to better articulate it--and make it more specific--when I can.

Anonymous said...

Yes it is your blog David, and you can say whatever you like! (Go boy) Thankfully, it is also a public forum that allows others to speak their mind as well. I appreciate the fact that your express your opinions so openly David. My take on this subject is much likened to what the “anonymous critique” said. The larger the city, the larger the pool. As a local actor, I am really proud of the art that is produced here. I agree that there is a fair share of uninspired crap, but much of the work has more heart, passion, and professional integrity than anything I’ve witnessed otherwise. Bad actors are everywhere…it’s an international epidemic. In NYC, I’ve seen just as much unprofessional scharm, because there are more theatres/actors to choose from! But I am also growing weary of the belief that if I was a serious actor/artist I would leave P-Town. Isn't Portland as deserving of good artists as we are deserving of good beer? I pride myself on the work I do here. Some of it is amateurish, but much of it is not, and I take my work seriously. Is it possible that long instilled stereotypes of Portland actors ( we can’t be serious artists) still taint how work is received? And frankly, I appreciate that we have the amount of community theatres that we do. It gives people a chance to be involved with theatre just for the love of doing it, not to change the artistic integrity of a city. Stumptown theatre is heading to an exciting place, as you said David. I just hope that we embrace our local artists, not chastise them for doing what they love.



David said...


Your point, too, is well taken. Again, I think my main fault is not being specific in my criticism. It's not helpful of me to say, "we all suck; don't you KNOW we all suck?" Not helpful, at all, especially since it's not fully honest, is it?

I need to take the same care in my language--while taking the occasional vacation by letting loose a irresistable polemical volley, now and then-- that I wish from local critics, even while insisting--from my corner of the ring--that we actors take every opportunity to raise the bar for our work.

Anonymous said...

I have to concur with Melissa. Why are we so quick to criticize Portland actors? That is so off the mark! I'd say a good 50% or more aren't even FROM Portland. Someone is ignoring the obvious: several that have performed in NYC (off-Broadway, off-off Broadway,), Chicago at Steppenwolf, Seattle, Dallas, etc. have moved to Portland to live, work, raise families, whatever. And all of a sudden, these fine actors (and they are damn good) aren't up to par because they now live and act in Portland?

Did they fail in these other cities? No, quite the contrary. Additionally, I've known several who moved to Oregon, left back East and acted and then guess what? They came back to Portland. I'm just fed-up with this argument that if you live and act in Portland you're not a serious actor or you don't have the chops to go do it in NYC. That's such B.S. Many already have been there, done that. Are some of the world's best actors in NYC? Hell yes! But that doesn't preclude the obvious fact that I've seen better shows in Portland than offered in NYC. And just because of its sheer size and talent pool, NYC, Chicago, SF, will produce better theatre overall.

This is bordering on pompousity and snobbery and it's just tiring.

My best,

PS ~ As for 'anonymous' ~ remember some of the greatest documents in history were written 'anonymously' or under a pseudonym. Anomymous writers unite!

David said...

This whole thread has been making me squirm something terrible, JD. That's a good thing. And, actually, I'm heartened by these passionate defenses of Portland actors. In future posts, I'll write with more accuracy, at least.

Anonymous said...

Jason - I like it here. Don't tell me where I should go. Or I'll do the same to you.