First off, I survived “Commission! Commission!” relatively intact. The JAW people are extraordinarily kind to their authors, and we were squired about with gentle care. The whole experience, if a little edgy, was actually pretty fun, and my commissioner gave me a good solid theme to run with. My playwrangler, of course, got a run for her money, but handled my nonsense with aplomb. To wit, seconds before I was to be introduced to my commissioner, I turned to her and deadpanned, “Is this a good time to begin demanding coke?” To which she replied, in equal deadpan, “Which flavor?”
For a write-up on JAW, see: JAW festival gives theater world new plays to chew on
The rest of the summer…will largely be devoted to enjoying the stunning Oregon summer weather (the last phrase dooming us to a month of overcast), weeding and watering the garden as waves of bloom flow through it, working on at least two new plays, one under way and going well, and the other one bumping around inside my skull but feeling promising…and learning to play the red object above right, which has such a weird, seductive pull, that I want to be home with it right now. I taught myself a 12-bar blues this weekend, which, having loved guitar (and blues) from afar lo these many years, I found immensely satisfying. I have no desire to play for anyone but myself, but I’m happy to report that my left wrist aches like a bastard and it’s hard to type with the blisters on me fingers.
Due to the ever persuasively urbane Mead Hunter, once again I’m stepping up on the auction block to offer my services for Commission! Commission! at Portland Center Stage’s JAW. The deal is, Portland Center Stage’s audience buys a swanky dinner and has a chance to bid on the services of the playwright of their choice. Once they, uh, buy you (“let me check yore teeths, son”), you interview them briefly on the subject they want you to write about (“I’d like something about nuclear winter that has…kittens in it”), and then you have about 20 minutes to bang out a play, which the actors have about 20 minutes to put together, and then the playlets are performed post-dinner. It’s definitely dangerous fun, like riding a BSA Lightning on freshly wet pavement at top speeds. In the dark. With your headlight out. The kicker this year is they’re opening the event, which is usually performed only for those who buy a dinner, up to the public, which means I have an opportunity to choke and embarass myself in front of even more people.
If you’d like to check out this combination art event/parlour trick, you can see the line-up of fine playwrights at: Commission! Commission! It’s nice company to be sweating bullets with. I don’t know what hell I’m doing there, but you ought to come to check out the other folk.
Traditionally—and who knows if tradition applies to weather anymore—the Northwest rainy season begins on Halloween night and ends April 15th. Oregon children trick-or-treat in Gore-Tex. That doesn’t mean it rains every single day, but…well, yes, it does.
And though it’s said true Oregonians don’t squint in the rain, the rainy season is really not all that much fun, and consecutive gray skies lend themselves to a certain introspection. Maybe that’s why so many Oregonians write. I knew a handsome old gent in Oregon logging country who said it was too risky to go to town because “there’s a widder behind every stump.” Much the same can be said of Northwest writers.
So it’s not surprising that we’re home to Powell’s Books, possibly the best independently owned bookstore in the U.S. (unlike The Strand, you can find things) or that winners of the Oregon Book Awards consistently produce work of such quality. But it may be surprising to know Portland is increasingly known as a home for new stage works. There are some very fine playwrights here—many of them are friends of mine—and artistic directors around the country are looking to Portland Center Stage’s JAW Playwrights Festival as a source for hot new plays and playwrights, with JAW plays and authors being picked up by the regional theatre circuit. My suspicion is that trend will not only continue but grow.
Another notable Portland characteristic, which I think fuels new work development, is that there’s a very strong DIY spirit here. Toss any three people together at a Portland coffeehouse—and we are rotten with coffeehouses—and you’ll end up with either a band, a restaurant, or, possibly, a theatre company. You can produce a play here for a fraction of what it costs elsewhere, and, if the local critics slaughter you, you don’t have to throw yourself in front of the MAX train—you just mope for awhile, listen to too much Elliott Smith, then begin writing again.
Oregon’s mountains, particularly the Coast Range, are unbelievably verdant, overflowing with life and pocketed with thickets rich with mood and mystery. If there’s a relationship between environment and psychology, perhaps it’s no surprise that Northwesterners inhabit equally complex inner worlds that sprout ideas the way fall rains breed mushrooms: overnight, whole landscapes change.