TBA Day 11: Are Portland Audiences Boring?

As we say goodbye to the fine conversation of the Works, we have to ask: have we all grown just a little too bland?

By Aaron Scott September 16, 2012

Last night saw the final soiree at the Works. While the DJs and producers of Los Angeles-based Fade to Mind made the high school shudder with their dirty bass, folks flocked to the beer garden for one last Smoky Margarita, Nong’s scrumptious Khao Man Gai, and a final chat about the work they’d seen. Most talk I overheard focused on three shows: Gob Squad (seemed to be the favorite of the fest, though a few found it lacking in purpose), Keith Hennessy’s Turbulence (by far the most controversial show—beloved by some, joyfully bewildering to others, and totally detested to a fair number, too), and Chelfitsch (a few loved it; many didn’t get it but found it quirky enough to entertain). 

The Works beer garden was one of the highlights of the fest this year, albeit a slightly bittersweet one. Moving it to the front of the building, making it free, and doing up the design breathed new life into the gatherings by making it  hard to walk by without stopping in for a drink (no doubt helped by the fabulous weather), particularly in comparison to last year's drizzle, where the numbers seemed downright anemic for the second half of the fest.

That said, the Works shows themselves continued to suffer from the environment of the high school theater and the separation from the beer garden (this time by the all ages moat that drinks couldn’t pass). Of the more lively club-style shows, Christeene and Venus X were the only two I saw that really felt like there was a critical enough mass of people standing and dancing to buoy the performance (I missed Brainstorm and Parenthetical Girls, so don’t know how they faired). Others, like Alexis Blair Penney, might have been enjoyable in a crowded club venue, but downright floundered in a sit-down theater setting. I kept wishing they’d have the shows in one of the classrooms or even the hallway, creating the crowded environment that functions like a vessel for audience energy. (I hope wherever TBA lands next year, it’s a more unified warehouse-style setting a la the previous home in Audio Cinema.)

In fact, one of the liveliest Works performances wasn’t on the schedule at all. On Thursday, an SF drag queen in town with the Turbulence crew climbed up onto one of the beer garden tables, made her own spotlight (and pantomime mic) from a flashlight, and taught the eager crowd a couple of dance moves before launching into a performance of Miley Cyrus’s “Party in the U.S.A.” Was it good art? No. But it made me long for more acts of guerrilla performance and communal, participatory art, from the hijinks of the Dada ball to the Labor Day picnic, that penetrated into the crowds instead of waiting for us to enter the theater.

Which raises a long simmering question for me that I wish I would’ve put to some of the visiting international artists: are Portland audiences boring? We well know we’re earnestly, eagerly, energetically supportive, giving a standing ovation at the drop of a curtain call. And we're intellectually engaged, as was evidenced from eavesdropping over any number of Works conversations. But when it comes to participation, are we just a bit bland, like the white bread in Gob Squad’s show? It seems unfair to compare us to New York, where a disproportionate number of attention hungry artists and characters fill any given crowd. But I was just in Seattle a month ago for the Mattachine dance party, and even there there were a number of people making a performance of their very presence, from a fellow who danced the entire night in a horse mask, to a hilarious artist wearing a miniature, graffitied bathroom door on his face with little puppet arms pretending to be a singing glory hole. Sure, we have plenty of people in town making things, but, at least since the retirement of the Sissy Boys, we don’t have many people making a scene. I barely even saw an interesting outfit this go around. Am I off base here, Portland, or have we grown boringly entitled in our audience complacency, wanting simply to be spoon fed other people's art?

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