While the Curtain Stays Down, Portland Theaters Pivot to Audio
I’m in a dark corner of my linen closet with an old pillowcase draped over my eyes. “The sound is present, but it is also a feeling in your body,” whisper my AirPods. “HMS Terror 1840,” reads my most recent Google search. Thirty minutes of foreboding, immersive sound art jet directly into my skull: sawing synths, creaking wood, enigmatic dialogue that balances Cronenbergian body horror with banal 19th-century seafaring speak. I reemerge, a little wobbly, and try to make dinner, but can’t quite shake a phantom seasickness.
“I was really interested in what happens if you take away one of our primary senses—sight,” says Mark Valadez, an associate artist with the Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble. In 2015, Valadez developed All Well for the company: a sound installation inspired by the HMS Terror’s tragic 1840 Arctic expedition that placed audiences in hammocks in the basement of the Imago Theatre. The show featured a lobby-level maritime museum and saw Valadez cuing a cornucopia of sound elements in a darkened performance space, responding to the energy he received from the assembled audience each night.
Now, Valadez and company have adapted All Well into All Well (Alone), an interactive at-home experience that retains the audio from the original production and presents listeners with a list of eight “ingredients” to guide their interactions with the material, from a preshow cocktail to the cloth-covered experience I chose. The piece, accessible on PETE’s website, dovetails with an emerging trend in Portland theater: with curtains down for the foreseeable future, local companies are turning to audio projects as a storytelling stopgap.
“We talked about streaming some stuff we have video of, we thought about doing Zoom stuff,” says Rebecca Lingafelter, one of PETE’s co-artistic directors. “But we felt like, as much as I loved watching Hamilton the other night, it doesn’t get at the thing PETE is interested in, which is this experiential reciprocity between performer and audience.”
“With audio, there’s an opportunity to get really immersive. I love the idea of listening to a story as you’re taking a walk in Forest Park or while you’re making dinner as opposed to staring at a screen,” says Josh Hecht, artistic director of Profile Theatre, which was in the middle of a two-season program exploring the plays of Pulitzer winner Paula Vogel before the COVID shutdown. “With video recording, at the end of the day it’s always just reminding us of the better thing.”
Profile, too, is pushing out audio content right now, but compared to PETE, the company has its sights set on more straightforward audio drama. Told in nine scenes arranged into five episodes, Claudia, a Viral Love Story (released in June) takes its inspiration from a prompt on Vogel’s website, and “straightforward” is probably a little misleading. Set at the dawn of COVID, the story hops characters and continents to follow a French-speaking pangolin named Claudia as she falls into the hands of everyone from a closeted Iranian café owner to an employee at Mar-a-Lago.
Hecht rounded up nine playwrights from around the country (one per scene, with several frequent Profile collaborators among them) to piece the project together. Each had two days to work—one to “read and dream,” one to write—before they passed the baton, and after all nine scenes had been drafted, Hecht fielded notes and the writers tweaked the finished product. Once the script was locked, he assembled a cast, held some Zoom meetings for table work, and then started recording (also on Zoom, so the actors could see each other’s faces).
“Spring was so full of strategy meetings and rebudgeting and cash-flow forecasting and survival that there was something so joyous for us about getting back into a room and making something again,” Hecht says. “It was really clear that a) you can work really quickly and make something you’re proud of—a writer can write something in 48 hours that has real heft and delight in it—and b) we can get together and produce something in a month and a half, and we can be sort of ingenious about it. I think about TV shows like Top Chef or Project Runway, where the constraint is what creates the genius. That was a real lesson for us.”
It’s a lesson shared by Dámaso Rodríguez, artistic director of Artists Repertory Theatre. Planning to utilize the funds ART received from the Paycheck Protection Program to develop and bank future content, Rodríguez approached Portland playwright E. M. Lewis (who also contributed a scene to Claudia) about adapting her five-hour epic Magellanica—Rodríguez directed the original 2018 production—for the podcast set. The company reassembled the original cast, built a makeshift, distanced recording studio in ART’s temporary rehearsal space on the South Waterfront, and recorded the project in 11 days. Lewis would pull the script up live on her screen during video calls with Rodríguez and sound designer Rodolfo Ortega, and they would adapt scenes as they went.
“One of the opportunities and scary parts of recording, of doing an audio drama, is that you’re kind of documenting the script and the performances in a sense,” Rodríguez says. “You’re archiving them.” Buoyed by the process of making something again (he was just as burnt out on COVID-19 strategy meetings as Hecht), Rodríguez started tapping other frequent ART collaborators like writer and drag performer Anthony Hudson (a.k.a. Carla Rossi) and playwright-in-residence Andrea Stolowitz for more projects. Ambitions ballooned to encompass site-specific performances, short film, and more. On June 30, ART announced the Mercury Company, a name Rodríguez and his team developed to encompass all the work they commissioned that nods to Orson Welles’s Mercury Theatre radio dramas, including his infamous War of the Worlds broadcast.
Rodríguez and his cohort worked, literally, until the last moment. “We finished the final recording on the last day we were eligible for protection funds, with three minutes to spare,” he says. Magellanica will come out sometime in the early fall, and beside it, a reworked version of Stolowitz’s autobiographical two-person show The Berlin Diaries, which is scheduled to premiere off-Broadway in March. Rodríguez and Ortega plan to dot the audio version with podcast-y, narrative-journalism-style production.
Next season, Profile will adapt three plays it had planned to perform live as audio dramas. PETE is considering a stationary, site-specific piece with scheduled viewings, or maybe even a traveling production. Like ART, PETE and Profile have utilized funds from the CARES Act and the Paycheck Protection Program to stay afloat for the last few months, and Rodríguez, Hecht, and Lingafelter all stress the importance of continued funding to keep their doors open (in the increasingly limited capacities that they are).
Hecht points to the arts’ economic weight—“arts and entertainment” comprise about 4.5 percent of US GDP. Lingafelter is frustrated by what she calls the “false binary between safety and economic strength” that’s led relief policy, but says that sharing All Well (Alone) has kept her hopeful about the future. PETE recently held a Zoom happy hour with patrons who’d experienced the piece at home, and Lingafelter reveled in their feedback.
“It really has made me double down on sharing space with people,” she says. “There are these long-standing conversations about the death of theater and how theater is irrelevant and it doesn’t matter. If anything, the pandemic is showing that with our art form, there’s something so fundamental about bodies breathing and experiencing storytelling together in time and space. It’s just a really special thing, and I think we all crave it. And I don’t think it’s gonna go away.”