Thursday, September 06, 2007

Interview - Jonathan Walters


Photo: ?

September 6, 2007

PDF of the full interview here.

Full text also pasted into first post of thread.

Just in time for T:BA:07, a talk with Jonathan Walters, Artistic Director of one of Portland’s most exciting and excited performance companies, Hand2Mouth Theatre.

Walters and Hand2Mouth have created an original voice in the local arts landscape, a company that is both in tune with European and international currents as well as deeply rooted in Portland.

It's taken years of hard work and passion, in an often challenging environment for small, new companies.

But with recent critical successes, grant awards, and especially inclusion in Portland's own T:BA this year, Hand2Mouth is poised at their breakout moment. Hello, world!

A few excerpts...

*On how Hand2Mouth has changed REPEAT AFTER ME from the spring 2007 show for T:BA:

“…we wanted to make it much more of a desperate love song for America by a broken hearted (spurned/disgusted/suicidal?) lover, but one who is co-dependant, and can’t leave. That’s what I am, in a twisted, screwed up love affair with my country, and I can’t break it off. Sooo…we want the audience to realize something like that (that they are trapped in this love affair too, and not outside looking in on our event) during our show, and make it gut wrenching. While having the time of your life!”

*On the influence of current European work on Hand2Mouth’s direction:

“What I hope I’ve borrowed for Hand2Mouth is that in the kind of work I’m seeing (and interested in) the audience member must complete the painting themselves, it’s not all given, and it couldn’t happen without the audience…so the audience member really feels it was a personal encounter. You don’t feel FOR someone on stage, you feel for yourself (and those around you) experiencing the event. Only live performance can do that. H2M is shooting for that.”

*On Hand2Mouth’s new project under development, DOS PUEBLOS, a Mexican / American collaboration with La comedia humana in Mexico City and Miracle Theatre in Portland:

“In Mexico we are a strange sight, a group of Anglo-Americans on stage attempting to partner with a team of Mexican artists to figure out what we love/hate deep within one another. I think we offer a strange cathartic quality, because when we “misbehave” and are punished in the show…it’s a justice that really doesn’t happen much in the world…Americans (at least our current administration) can misbehave and throw tantrums across the world, and never really have to face reckoning. On the other hand when we do kind/humane things to the Mexican performers on stage, the crowd was floored.”

*On Hand2Mouth’s current momentum, the road ahead, and the key role larger institutions play in showcasing and nurturing small companies:

“I think what 2007 means for H2M…is that the people who make decisions about programming new work, and bringing shows for touring, and producing new performances, and funding these…we won’t have to knock on their door, or leave phone messages, seething with the knowledge that they are never going to call us back. I hope those dark days are over…now, we might get a chance for people to see our work, and decide if it has quality, and is important to society, and can stand toe-to-toe with the great contemporary work in the US and abroad. And that chance to actually be considered on that playing field for OUR WORK…that’s all that it’s about.

We don’t expect any handouts now, or a flood of contracts and checks. I also hope this scenario can and will play out for other smaller companies/artists in Portland. PICA has a mission to support NW artists, and really is trying to elevate artists from Portland to a national level, so they are looking at work in town and putting their money and name behind a few each year…it would be nice if other influential organizations in town had the same mission.”

4 comments:

Follow Spot said...

followspot Interview – Jonathan Walters

September 6, 2007

Hand2Mouth Theatre has been busy.

REPEAT AFTER ME, which won a 2007 Drammy Award for Ensemble Acting, officially premieres at PICA’s upcoming T:BA:07 festival September 11-15 at IFCC.

The group has also started work on a new project. DOS PUEBLOS, a joint Mexican/American collaboration with La comedia humana in Mexico City and Portand’s Miracle Theatre, explores the relationship between Mexico and the United States. DOS PUEBLOS will premiere in Mexico City in March 2008 and be a part of Miracle’s Mainstage 2008-2009.

Hand2Mouth recently spent three weeks in Mexico as artists in residence at Casa Santa Ana in San Miguel de Allende getting started on DOS PUEBLOS.

Followspot caught up with Hand2Mouth’s Artistic Director Jonathan Walters to talk about the past, present, and future of this exciting Portland company.

Followspot: Hello, Jonathan. Thanks for taking the time to speak with us. I’d like to start with some background on your theatre experience and training. You have a solid grounding in the European tradition of physical theatre. How did you get into theatre to begin with, and what were some of the key influences that shaped who you are today?

Jonathan Walters: I didn’t grow in an artsy or theatre family, I lived on military bases almost my whole life, so I didn’t see much art until after high school. My family had lived in Germany (military base) when I was in middle school, so at age 19 I traveled back to Europe and lived in Warsaw, Poland for a year.

I ended up teaching English to the son of a very famous theatre critic and opera director, and she took me under her wing to educate me about what the theatre scene was like in that part of the world. And it was astounding (and still is), a key part of society in a way that’s hard to imagine in Portland.

After college I went back to live in Poland and work with Teatr Biuro Podrozy for a year, and since then I’ve been influenced by lots of companies in Europe (some great Russian ones, Derevo and Novoga Fronta) who use beautiful raw, poetic physicality and contemporary images. Most of these have rarely if ever been to the US (and never to the west coast). I also got intrigued by the great conceptual theatre/dance theatre companies in Europe, particularly Forced Entertainment in England (I even traveled to London last year to learn more about that scene and meet that theatre’s Artistic Director).

But after I won the NEA grant in 2005, I had the chance to pay attention to the incredible work going on in the US, particularly New York, work that was borderline theatre/performance, or caberet, or music-infused theatre, or installation. Plus this made me re-realize what a treasure of talent we’ve got in Portland, the great companies here in the city. Defunkt, Sojourn, Fever, Liminal, Sowelu…all of them have been a great influence and inspiration on me. Plus the great dance and music scene here…the dance in particular is so great here. Somehow it’s come full circle for me, and I’m more jazzed about the upcoming T:BA festival than any I could dream of going to in Europe.

FS: You have toured and performed abroad in Poland and Mexico. How does performing for an audience that speaks another language influence what you do? What do you look forward to about foreign performances?

JW: I love performing abroad, in Poland audiences have extremely high standards. They are not going to be polite to a show that is ill-conceived, fakey or self indulgent. It’s a great experience to be snubbed…Americans won’t do it.

On the other hand, when the work is strong…the love flowing from a Polish audience, unforced and rarely given, feels like the sweetest summer rain. In Mexico my experience with audiences was that they were much more interactive with the performance than I’d ever seen. It felt like a real AUDIBLE give and take.

Language hasn’t been a problem much (we don’t speak very much in our shows) but the use of our images, taken from somewhere deep in the collective conscious, strike really different chords abroad, because the world now is saturated with American images. They can be very frightening, or perhaps clich├ęd, to foreigners. I can’t WAIT to take this new show, all about America’s self love and self loathing to a place that has LITTLE or no love for the US.

FS: How have people abroad responded to Hand2Mouth’s work?

JW: In Poland our work is enjoyed, but maybe that’s because it has a “Polish style”, or did a few years ago, because we use layers of images, and a free flowing style of ideas…this is very foreign to narrative-weaned US audiences, but common as cold weather to the Northern Europeans.

In Mexico we are a strange sight, a group of Anglo-Americans on stage attempting to partner with a team of Mexican artists to figure out what we love/hate deep within one another. I think we offer a strange cathartic quality, because when we “misbehave” and are punished in the show…it’s a justice that really doesn’t happen much in the world…Americans (at least our current administration) can misbehave and throw tantrums across the world, and never really have to face reckoning. On the other hand when we do kind/humane things to the Mexican performers on stage, the crowd was floored. I hope we get to see how our high energy, karaoke-ized newer style reads in both Mexico, Europe and elsewhere …(Canada? Latin America? Asia?).

FS: How would you describe current European work you admire? What is different or distinctive about it? What do you want to incorporate from it into your own work?

JW: Damn, there is SO much amazing work going on in Europe, traveling there right now…it’s like if you were into Cuban music, and were from North Dakota, then suddenly moved to Havana…life-changing.

Well, when I went to England last year I was looking for companies that create in non traditional spaces, and/or that are exploring what ONLY live theatre can do, pushing the form while playfully, with delight, creating highly precise and beautifully executed work.

There is a company who I met, Rotozaza, that only uses non performers (feeding them instructions via overhead speakers and headphones hat they are hearing for the first time…in front of a live audience). Forced Entertainment is exploring the core reason (and the very strange falseness of the act of performing), people stand up and try to make a work of great beauty and comedy on stage.

Lots of this may sound self-involved, but it’s the opposite, it’s so fresh and direct and live that people with no theatre going background (and that is the VAST majority of the population, I’m afraid) feel immediately moved and thrilled by it. I always test out these kind of companies on “non theatre” friends, and in the end, the work is so out of the box, people’s shields are down and they have a very personal experience.

What I hope I’ve borrowed for Hand2Mouth is that in the kind of work I’m seeing (and interested in) the audience member must complete the painting themselves, it’s not all given, and it couldn’t happen without the audience…so the audience member really feels it was a personal encounter. You don’t feel FOR someone on stage, you feel for yourself (and those around you) experiencing the event. Only live performance can do that. H2M is shooting for that.

FS: The official premiere of REPEAT AFTER ME is coming up in five days at PICA’s T:BA. How are preparations going?

JW: Rocking and rolling. It’s nerve-wracking to deepen/improve a show that was already successful during its work-in-progress shows. We always go back to our major works after a stint in the public eye…but sometimes they are so shakey they MUST improve. This one, damn, we have so much more we want from it…and there is that fragile tip-toeing around something that’s not really that broken. But I think we are there, and I AM thrilled to get it back and roaring through the speakers again. It’s such a wild, fun, twisted ride.

FS: Has the show changed in any significant way since the spring 2007 production at the Goldsmith building?

JW: Yes. I don’t want to give too much away…but we wanted to make it much more of a desperate love song for America by a broken hearted (spurned/disgusted/suicidal?) lover, but one who is co-dependant, and can’t leave. That’s what I am, in a twisted, screwed up love affair with my country, and I can’t break it off. Sooo…we want the audience to realize something like that (that they are trapped in this love affair too, and not outside looking in on our event) during our show, and make it gut wrenching. While having the time of your life!

FS: You’re performing at the IFCC for T:BA. This seems like a perfect venue for the show. Just the right size. What is the largest space in which you would want to perform this show?

JW: Great question. I remember Elevator Repair Service was brought by PICA years ago and performed in the Scottish Rite Temple, they had the seats taped off so only the first 100 were used, and the other hundreds behind us sat empty. They said “we’ve never been in a theatre over 100 seats”. Well that’s probably what I think, but in a bigger place we can rope ‘em off, I’m up for a challenge…

FS: How long has Hand2Mouth been working on REPEAT AFTER ME?

JW: We REALLY started in October 2006, but it had been rolling in at least one or two minds for much longer. We took a break or two (went to Mexico), but pretty much the entire artistic team has been focused on this piece for almost a year now.

FS: Tell us a bit about how you developed REPEAT AFTER ME. I know you often work without a script. How does the company start to put a show together? How do you organize the material as it comes to you?

JW: First we do research, in this case it was really fun, just listen to hundreds of American songs. Bizarre, and telling, what that revealed to us. Then I begin to have everyone bring in scenes or conceptual ideas for staging, based on the material. This show I added long form improvs (lots of theatres I admire use this, H2M tried it for the first time and loved it!) where 40 minutes or longer the company would riff on the pre-existing scenes and songs, and pull from a pile of props and costumes. Eventually all the material gets culled and we begin the VERY labor intensive process of trying to create a whole out of this…that is when I start to sweat and curse, and it feels a bit like hard labor.

FS: This show has some wonderful moments where physicality, music, and plot intersect electrically. I’m thinking of a movement where someone drops her shorts only to be perfectly concealed behind a blooming flower. Do you start off seeing some of those images from the start, or does it come out along the development road?

JW: Both. When you are working in improv and people are bringing in new scene ideas daily, it eventually has a synergistic effect where images start to occupy people’s dreams, waking hours, and then slowly they reappear in rehearsal, and eventually the good ones morph into something we can use.

Sometimes, like the one you describe, a great amazing happy accident occurs during an improv on top of an already interesting image. God, as a director, when that happens my life is easy…cause someone’s going to give me credit eventually and I didn’t do anything except shout “We’re keeping that one!” at the right moment.

FS: Where else will you take REPEAT AFTER ME after TBA? How much longer do you intend to perform this show before turning your attention to DOS PUEBLOS?

JW: We tour this to three colleges in Oregon, then On the Boards in Seattle, all this fall. We have one concrete invite, to the Myrna Loy Center in Helena Montana, for 2008. We hope the success of the show this fall gets us invited to future gigs and that RAM has a long, full life on the road, and across the seas. Touring a show like this ain’t cheap, so we need some nice offers and/or nice grants to get the whole crew of artists to the airport. But the model of our theatre (finally realized) is that one show is touring during the year the next is being made, keeping us in the public eye, keeping us on our toes, and keeping funds rolling in.

FS: REPEAT AFTER ME is the kind of show that can bring in people outside of the traditional theatre-going audience. It feels like a hybrid of theatre, rock concert, night club act, and sporting event spectacle. How do you go about finding that audience who might go to this show but are not interested in more traditional sit-down theatre fare?

JW: Well, it’s taken H2M a while for figure this out ourselves. Company members pushed the idea on me that H2M needs to go where the people are, so with RAM we performed sections of it three times at music clubs. In 06 we worked with the Portland Art Center on an installation piece that tapped into the visual art community…and with the T:BA show, THAT is the perfect audience for us.

Over the years we’ve built a little crowd, mostly by word of mouth, people telling their friends (who go to music and film, but not theatre) “I know it says theatre, but it’s ACTUALLY good”. That’s our people I suppose…because sometimes we seem to lose people who are more used to play-based work, perhaps because we don’t have the pay off and structure of a well-made story.

I hope it’s not because they “read” us as young and chaotic and undisciplined. It makes me sad that Portland theatre-goers might make that judgement, because in bigger cities and other countries with a richer tradition of “devised” or “physical” or “alternative” theatre, people realize that work like ours is just as complex, deep, disciplined and serious as something at Royal Shakespeare or Portland Center Stage. Many of these “alternative” companies and directors are considered national treasures (think Peter Brook) and their work is more well known internationally than the “mainstream” directors.

FS: How much does the performance of REPEAT AFTER ME tend to vary night by night, if at all?

JW: Not much. It would be fun to have someone tell me what parts they thought were “improved” or mistakes. Usually the “mistakes” are absolutely set in stone. Any openness in RAM is within two very tight points that they must hit on either side. We use improv at times to help us create the work, but we don’t improv live. One thing we do is let the actors have live connections with the audience (this is a simple clown or musicians idea) during which they can react to exactly how an audience coughs, laughs, shuffles…and look in the eyes of single audience members to provoke reactions. I want the audience to realize we are paying attention to them, as a special group of individuals, not as a vague “audience” that is same each night.

FS: What can you tell us about DOS PUEBLOS?

JW: This is a great new project with an amazing team of Mexican artists led by a sweet, and very smart director (I get to co direct with this guy, it’s like a dream come true), Ruben Ortiz. H2M is creating a piece about the REAL (using performers’ own testimonies and research) and fictional, historic and political connections between the people and culture of USA and Mexico. Artists will work in Portland and Mexico next year with all these artists and have a premiere in Mexico City and at Milagro Theatre, all in 2008. I worked, with Hand2Mouth folks and the Mexican artists, in Mexico this May and fell in love with the country, the artists I’m working with, and the emotionally charged themes. I can’t wait to continue it.

FS: On the subject of new work. When you are talking about creating new work not from a script, how does the institutional and funding system differ from what is available for script-based work?

JW: So far I haven’t seen anyone funding us or not because we don’t use a script. The thing I’ve noticed is that most funders won’t give to small arts organizations because they think they will fold in a few years, or aren’t yet stable financially. No one in Portland will give a small theatre enough to pay artists health care for a 2 month process, much less a 10 month one.

This is terrible because that means most little guys never get to become medium size where they can pay artists/staff and get health care and SURVIVE, sustain and last. So therefore Portland suffers, groups disband and move to New York or Chicago or get a teaching job somewhere. This is near criminal, and who it hurts most is our city, and its culture. So, to survive the bigger organizations, and little scrappy folks should partner more…big folks can bring their connections to the wealthy side of society (and their respectability) and smaller can bring their energetic young audiences and out-of-the-box thinking/vision and ability to do SO MUCH with so little.

FS: What are some of the preeminent festivals for non-script based work in the US?

JW: Damn, you can probably count US festivals like that on one hand…even if you’ve had an accident in the woodshop. Outside the US there are hundreds!

Biggest names, and most interesting is Under the Radar in January in New York (curated by Mark Russell who is guest curator for T:BA) and Live Arts Festival in Philadelphia. There’s an amazing festival, the PUSH festival in winter up in Vancouver, BC. There are smaller festivals around the country that focus on Ensemble Theatre (doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not script based), there will be a 2nd Network of Ensemble Theatres festival in a few years. Most places to take work like RAM are venues (like On the Boards, Walker Art Center in Minneapolis) that program a mix of dance and performance, and these often have mini-festivals. Many of these are part of a network called the National Performance Network. They are very hip to work that is not traditional theatre based.

FS: You’ve had some big recent successes on the grant side. You just received a $30,000 grant from the Multi Arts Production Fund. You also got $5,000 from the Oregon Cultural Trust for REPEAT AFTER ME at T:BA. Congratulations! In addition to being featured at this year’s T:BA, do these awards represent a breakthrough moment in terms of recognition and support for Hand2Mouth? Where do you go from here?

JW: Yes, it feels like a breakout year. I should say the MAP Fund is to Miracle Theatre to help produce/present Dos Pueblos in 2008, not directly to H2M. I think what 2007 means for H2M…is that the people who make decisions about programming new work, and bringing shows for touring, and producing new performances, and funding these…the theatre won’t have to knock on their door, or leave phone messages, seething with the knowledge that they are never going to call us back. I hope those dark days are over…now, we might get a chance for people to see our work, and decide if it has quality, and is important to society, and can stand toe-to-toe with the great contemporary work in the US and abroad.

And that chance to actually be considered on that playing field for OUR WORK…that’s all that it’s about. We don’t expect any handouts now, or a flood of contracts and checks. I also hope this scenario can and will play out for other smaller companies/artists in Portland. PICA has a mission to support NW artists, and really is trying to elevate artists from Portland to a national level, so they are looking at work in town and putting their money and name behind a few each year…it would be nice if other influential organizations in town had the same mission.

FS: In what ways are you as an artist limited right now? Are there things you want to do but can’t. If so, why? If not now, later?

JW: It’s frustrating to not be able to get up in the morning and go to rehearsal…and work all week like that. Everyone in our company has day jobs…imagine asking a school teacher or a professional sports star to “do it in your spare time”. Along with that, we are missing technical help and expertise that comes with resources available in bigger US cities, which cripples some of our more ambitious staging/visionary ideas. Other than the constraints of lack of resources and time, the only thing I feel holding me back is myself…just have to see more work, raise the bar of my own, and keep experimenting and pushing farther and farther and be unafraid to go down unknown roads, where there is danger of failure and confusion. As a group, we’ve got to urge each other on. If H2M never shies away from the new, the necessary, we’ll keep growing and hopefully avoid complacency.

FS: How long have you lived in Portland?

JW: About 13 years or more. It’s home for me.

FS: How do you view Portland as an incubator and home base for new work? Good place to be? Average?

JW: Hmm. It’s an easy place to get a cheap piece of rent, and make your own work, get a small grant and get a small audience. But it’s really got a DIY attitude, which is beautiful on one hand, but doesn’t work as good for theatre as it does for post-punk music or zines.

There are no central clubs/venues for this DIY theatre, so it’s all dispersed and doesn’t feel like a synergy that could buoy us all up and feel jazzed to be “incubating” here. For original performance I think the socialist attitude (and reality) is more useful, let taxpayers and funders, and more established organizations support it and instead focus your struggle on just making amazing, challenging art.

In a place like NYC, most experimental companies create as part of an artist residency program, or curated season (La Mama, Mabou Mines Suites, or HERE Arts Residency Program, or Ontological Theatre’s Incubator, or Soho Rep or PS 122) or curated series that provides resources, rehearsal space, a venue, press and even some cash. Most importantly it puts your work in front of eyes of curators and people who can book your next show into their season/program. Since we don’t have that kind of support (except PICA) here, we maybe could use the Vancouver BC style, where eleven independent theatre companies band together to buy add space, share their email lists, and create a big, glossy color program on the year’s shows. They pump each other’s audiences up, and have tons of great theatre thriving there.

Portland will be a great incubator once we team up, artists can still DIY, but it’d be 10 times better if companies shared the backbreaking work of trying to get all the non-artistic pieces of producing new work.

FS: How would you describe the Portland arts scene to someone who has never been here?

JW: Kick ass. Absolutely and utterly thriving and about to explode. In theatre, we’ve got a long way to go before people all raving about Portland as a hot, amazing theatre city, and where Portlanders themselves brag about it is when they travel. But we could get there, if we really, really want to.

FS: Thanks for your time, Jonathan!

JW: Thank you, great questions, and great work with the website…very important for us all!

Anonymous said...

Great interview! Just FYI for anyone who wants to catch Repeat After Me at TBA, some of their performances are sold out already. I went to get my tickets yesterday and they still had some for Saturday the 15 at 4:30. So hurry hurry or plan to queue at the door the night of.

Anonymous said...

What if you have a pass? Do you still need a reservation?

Anonymous said...

No, if you have a pass you're fine for this show, although others do require a reservation even with a pass (Claude Wampler, Nature Theatre of Oklahoma, Elevator Repair Service).