JUNE 23–24 This weekend, Artists Repertory Theatre will no doubt drip with dancer sweat and shiver with shocking surprises throughout the fifth annual Hand2Mouth Risk/Reward Festival . On the eve of final preparations, festival director Jerry Tischleder explains why even though the 7-act showcase is gaining ground, they still seek out weird works with nailbiting pass-fail potential.
Starting to Grow
Our contemporary performance scene in Portland is still young and small compared to many other cities. The festival that ours is modeled after (Northwest New Works in Seattle) has been going for 30 years, whereas this is only our fifth year. We’re still trying to build a community, and that includes reaching out to artists who aren’t already “on the scene”—either they’re from out of town, or they’re from here but they work independently, or in another discipline (music, visual art) or even privately—and Risk/Reward gives them a whole new forum. We’re gradually getting more name recognition and acclaim. We got more than 50 applications this year—which is more than ever before—and their caliber has been consistently higher. Also, this year we have our first visiting acts from California and Canada. The fact that they’re willing to bring work here from elsewhere is, I think, a vote of confidence.
Often the work artists propose has yet to be premiered. Since we don’t know what we’re going to get, we just choose based on which ideas fascinate us the most. In the end, some of the artists will come up with something out of the blue that’s totally amazing, and some will fall flat on their face. Either way, since each piece only lasts about 20 minutes, unlike a play or a longer work, the audience isn’t “locked in”—and neither is the performer. By the way, you’re allowed to accept or reject any artist’s presentation based on whether or not it connects for you, even if their intention is very serious. It’s not like you’re trying to kill somebody’s puppies.
Failure is Always an Option
One of the key concepts of watching performance art is: “It’s okay for something to suck.” One artist a while back had a total meltdown on our stage, and then went on to do wonderful work with TBA. Sometimes a live disaster becomes part of an artist’s process. And a few of these pieces wouldn’t come to fruition at all if we didn’t give the artists a place to perform them.
Not Safe for Mom
Uncertainty is the main difference between adventurous performance art and regular theater. Most things produced at a high level are conservative (and often boring) because they can’t afford to fail. Big companies shy away from this type of work for fear it will be underrehearsed, unpredictable in a bad way, or inaccessible. But the works we choose reflect Portland’s DIY, experimental aesthetic. We want to continue to encourage the bizarre.
Sometimes people ask, “Is this the kind of show I can bring my mom to?”—and while it depends on your mom, the way that question’s typically understood the answer might be “no.” Artists like Kaj-Anne Pepper and Queen Shmooquan are very confrontational, and prone to freak people out. This is going to feel like a fun, rowdy, unpredictable party—more like a rock show than like the symphony or the ballet.
Even within the works we present, people are so quick to question which part was live, and even which part was improvised, versus what was scripted and/or prerecorded. In a modern, mediated world with so much BS, there’s almost this fetishization of “the real.” Live performance demands the audience’s full engagement and attention. There’s no pause button, no DVR, you’re stuck there in a room with real people sharing real ideas in real time. It’s a rush. You’re not going to be able to avoid having an opinion or a feeling.
Albeit from a unique perspective, these artists are really trying to tackle the issues that everyone’s concerned about today. Hand2Mouth (of which I am a member) are trying to stage a “perfect declaration of love” that speaks to life-long commitment. Kaj-Anne Pepper is exploring queer fantasy and identity, dance collaboration Pappas are using their Conduit residency to address ideas of history and memory, and Cat Main is processing growing up with a disabled sister and a translator to ask, “Are we truly communicating or are we not?”—which is pretty much the subject of most art as we know it.