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Waller's new show promises musical and lyrical improvisation on a local environmental issue. 

Image: Zoë Ghertner

What happens when a performance artist spends three months with an environmental nonprofit? The answer is Notes from the Riverkeepers, a new musical recital from Portland's Holcombe Waller that hits North Portland’s Headwaters Theatre this weekend, May 4–6.

Waller spent three months as an artist-in-residence with Columbia Riverkeeper, and Notes from the Riverkeepers is his musical response to that experience. “The show is outlined, more than written, and both the monologues and the singing are quite extemporaneous,” says Waller, whose Requiem Mass: LGBT/Working Title, a hit at 2015's TBA festival, explored the persecution of LGBT individuals as a choral work. This show, he says, is another departure. “It’s a different vibe than scripted theater. It’s like R&B, soul and jazz fusion.”

Waller had already been working on a larger project with a focus on environmental issues when he was approached by Signal Fire—an organization that facilitates wild lands residencies to connect artists with the natural environment—which brought him to Columbia Riverkeeper.

“The idea is to create performance-based work around local environmental issues,” he says. “[Notes from the Riverkeepers] would be an example of it.”

The show focuses on the risks of crude-oil-by-rail transport along both sides of the river. “It has become the biggest threat that Columbia Riverkeeper is tracking, because of the fracking boom of the last twelve years,” says Waller. “The same fracking boom that spawned the need for the Dakota Access Pipeline is the source of the crude oil that’s currently being trained out the Columbia to shipping terminals. It’s a new phenomenon, oil-by-rail, and the traffic has increased by a factor of 100 in the last 12 years.”

Waller says the show aims to contextualize “what’s happening and why and who the players are,” with lyrics incorporating the history of the federal railroad system, and looking at train derailments, like the 2016 derailment and fire in Mosier, Oregon. All this in a theater situated right by the railroad tracks. “You get to have a little firsthand track time,” says Waller, adding that you can hear trains go by from inside the theater.

This weekend’s series of performances—three evening performances and a 4:20 p.m. matinee on Saturday—are part of a bigger in-progress work, a project he’s calling Climate Ceremony, which he describes as “a large community-engagement music performance project that would bring focus and generative attention to local environmental issues.”

His aim for audiences this weekend? “I’m hoping to literalize the mechanics and influences around the topic,” Waller says. “It’s a story that can be told with names and faces and objects and dates, in a way that the mainstream handling of the topic fails to do. I would expect people to learn more about the broad context of the topic than I think they might expect to learn at a rock concert.”

Notes from the Riverkeepers

8 p.m. Thu–Fri and 4:20 and 8 p.m. Sat, May 4–6, Headwaters Theatre, $10–26

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