There are many varietals of outdoor, free performance. This f*cked up city is home to many companies, with many different flavors of what role Shakespeare ought to play in our communal cultural life.
I’ve always been fondest of PAE’s gentle, somewhat old-fashioned approach: welcoming everyone, regardless of how privileged you are, embracing the sweetness of summer, and a regard for the rigor of text balanced against the fun, bawdy physicality. I remember watching a performance of Much Ado in high school, where the actors shared bread and grapes in wicker baskets and openly asked for beer money after the show. I remember performing last year in the Lone Fir Cemetery, watching the bats circling overhead as the sun went down perfectly in time with the plot of the play.
I think a lot about the poverty of theater. The core of what we do, is founded on nothing. An emptiness exists between the artist and the audience: an open space of air, that can be as distant as the voice can carry, or as thin as the space between lips before you kiss. In that emptiness, both the artist and the audience puts their imaginations into play, and our shared joys, griefs and wounds animate our longing and sympathy for one another, and sometimes, if we’re lucky, we recognize one another as though for the first time, as a result of this shared poverty, which is really profound abundance.
Lately, PAE’s production of Romeo and Juliet has been experiencing some of our most rewarding and our most challenging audiences. Folks who see a lot of Shakespeare, and folks who’ve never seen theater before, have expressed their wonder and joy with our production. They appreciate that our cast is diverse, that our Capulets and Montagues are age-appropriate, and that we do so much to invite a diverse audience, too. We are passionate about the poetry of Romeo and Juliet. We are equally passionate about giving everyone ample opportunities to laugh at ourselves.
Last weekend was one of the scariest performance experiences I’ve ever been through. Saturday night, an extremely drunk individual wandered backstage during the first act, and myself and three other castmates escorted him out of the cemetery during intermission, at which time he became belligerent and violent, going so far as to attempt to choke me. The police and EMS response, though slow in coming, was pretty shocking to witness afterwards. Much to my surprise, the vast majority of the audience stayed with us for the rest of the performance, even in spite of the delay and the anxiety this caused.
The deeper issues of poverty, violence and addiction that roil our city right now make the poetic poverty of theater seem effete by comparison. But the poetry is as inseparable from the environment as the poverty is. We are a theater without walls, without a building, without barriers to prevent anyone from joining us. This carries real risks, and inspires real fear and anxiety amongst us all. But it is the right thing to do, it is necessary, and it is essential–for all of us who have ourselves been prevented from joining a healthy cultural community, because I can’t afford to, or I’m the wrong skin color, or I don’t share your beliefs or values.
PAE will continue to offer free performances in open spaces, where all are welcome and made to feel welcomed, so that the poetry can continue to transmute the poverty into cultural abundance for all of us. We are better for knowing where we are, seeing and experiencing the poverty and the heat, taking these risks and striving for more. I would not choose to live in any other kind of cultural community.
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Please consider joining us for closing weekend of Romeo and Juliet, performing Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday at 7 pm in the Lone Fir Cemetery, on SE 26th and Stark, free! Special thanks to Metro, the Foster Grandparents Program of Multnomah County, the Multnomah County Cultural Coalition, the Regional Arts and Culture Council, A Taste of Excellence Catering, and all of our donors and patrons for making this work possible.
Our next show, Complete Works, opens this same weekend at the Concordia University green space, and then goes on tour to the Willamette Valley vineyards! More info at our website.
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PAE needs you to make our 50th Season a success! We’re actively seeking donors at the $500 contribution level or higher. Please consider donating whatever you can to help pay our artists and collaborators, and ensure positive, safe experiences for all. More info at www.portlandactors.org

paul j. “eminence grise” susi
two-fisted, openhearted, oceangoing theatre concern
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