Bloomsday’s Back

By Timothy Gillis

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AIRE Theater is bringing back Bloomsday for Beginners, its celebration of June 16, the day that the action takes place in James Joyce’s much revered but perhaps lesser read master work, “Ulysses.” In one hour, the troupe will take you through the perambulations of Leopold Bloom, the main character and Irish Odysseus who wanders the Dublin streets and pubs and, at for one point, a brothel. It is there that he meets up with Stephen Daedalus, the artist Joyce paints a portrait of in his earlier, more accessible work. Bloom is chaste in the scene, and spends his time trying to sober up Stephen and keep him from the missteps of youth, as if her were his own son, Rudy, who dies as a child. Meanwhile, back at his house, his wife, Molly Bloom, has been the opposite of her “Ulysses” counterpart, Penelope, who kept her suitors at bay, weaving and unweaving.

This marvelous, myriad cast of characters is brought to life through dramatic readings, in full brogue.

The rollicking performance piece was written by AIRE Artistic Director Tony Reilly, using scenes, songs, and lots of humor to explain the story line.

“I had read Ulysses and several other Joyce books, but I wasn’t a fanatic, as I soon learned a lot of people are,” Reilly said this week. “Since that initial production, AIRE and the MIHC have done many Bloomsday celebrations, including readings of the book by local Portland celebrities, pub crawls and readings at local landmarks, such as Monument Square, the Portland Public Library, and local book stores.

The MIHC plans to keep the tribute going with an exhibit of their collection of Joyce’s books, memorabilia, and a showing of the film “The Dead,” John Huston’s final film starring his daughter Anjelica Huston. Many cities in the US such as New York, Buffalo, and San Francisco have their own unique ways of celebrating, and with a blooming literary scene, Portland is throwing in its dented hat.

Last year, the MIHC held a program at their library, buoyed up with help from a Maine Humanities Council grant, featuring a reading of Joyce and other notable Irish authors.

“We’ve added an amazing amount of eclectic gatherings here in the last year,” said Vinny O’Malley, executive director. “And made some movements to encourage non-Irish folks. We want to be active, and have people come here to a real community center.”

Their slogan is “All are welcome,” and they have been working towards expanding their reach. “We’re an Irish center, but we want to make a space for all immigrant groups appearing here in greater Portland,” he said. “Some people can be intimidated by this place. They still think it’s a church. We have had wedding and funerals here; it’s not like some of that is not still going on here. But we’re so much more than that now.”

Last year, the MIHC hosted the 1st annual Welcome the Stranger, a local organization that helps new immigrants with issues surrounding their refugee status and seeking of asylum.

While broadening their scope, the center is still the main repository in town for all things Irish. Situated and steeped in the old neighbor of Tyng and Tate and Danforth Streets, and anchored at its opposite end with the statue of John Ford, the center brags of being the school of the acclaimed Hollywood director who got his education on these streets and at Portland High School when he was still “Bull” Feeney.

The center offers DNA testing and genealogical studies, and since 1994 when the old St. Dominic’s was closed by the Portland diocese and the MIHC was born, Dubliners have been feeling at home there.

“My wife Susan and I came up here to Portland to live in 2003. We had a previous relationship with the MIHC (Maine Irish Heritage Center) and our goal was to establish an Irish theater company, which we did. AIRE (American Irish Repertory Ensemble.   In 2004 members of the MIHC wanted to celebrate the 100th anniversary of “Bloomsday” — June 16th, 1904, the day the events in the book James Joyce novel Ulysses are set. Everyone had good ideas but they were having a hard to implementing them. I very foolishly stepped up and said that I would put together a theater piece for the occasion.   I sat down and reduced – probably one of the most difficult and important books in the English language – in to a one-hour piece for anyone who has read the book or anyone who never has and doesn’t intend to. It’s silly, fun and fast. And it actually covers the whole book in one hour.

Tony and his wife, Susan, were in a tragic car accident that claimed Susan’s life. Tony’s return to the stage they once shared has been an inspiration to center members, theater fans, and actors everywhere. “We love Tony, and we love that he’s back here,” O’Malley said. His return, though incredibly difficult, has inspired Tony, as well.

“I have to say that Susan was the prime mover and shaker on the Portland Bloomsday activities. Every year, she and a handful of local devotees would work very hard, to make it a fun and memorable event. When I was still in the hospital after the accident that took my wife, I got a call from members of the AIRE board that gingerly said ‘would you maybe consider doing Ulysses for Beginners this year? At the time I immediately said ‘yes,’ even though I don’t even think I was able to walk yet. After the initial yes, I started thinking that I was nuts to do it. But the thought of honoring Susan and her memory was too strong, and it was the best thing I could have done,” Reilly said. “The response that night (June 16, 2015) at the MIHC was overwhelming. ‘Ulysses’ is a funny book that attracts a very strong following. And it’s a very strong part of Irish culture, and that’s what AIRE and MIHC are all about: celebrating and spreading Irish joy.”

 

Bloomsday for Beginners

Friday, June 16, at 7 p.m.

The Maine Irish Heritage Center,

at the corner of State and Gray Streets in Portland

Festive and period attire encouraged. Cash bar.

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Flamenco dance project unites music, art, poetry and story-telling

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By Timothy Gillis

There are so many cultural things to do around town that one is never at a loss for an evening of dance, music, poetry, storytelling, or art. But even in these artistic environs, it’s unusual to find them all combined in one show.

“El Lobo y La Paloma” (The Wolf and The Dove) is a flamenco dance performance choreographed by Lindsey Bourassa that will be held Saturday, June 3, in South Portland.

“This work was inspired by the loss of my own father but also includes the universal experience of loss — that of losing a loved one, a homeland, a freedom, a right, an identity,” Bourassa said last week from her Forest Avenue studio, which she’s owned since 2014. “It’s about the reconstruction of our relationship with our lost being through the process of grief and healing.”

In addition to the original dance stylings of Bourassa and dancer Megan Keogh, it features Arabic singer Talal Alzefiri, oud player Thomas Kovacevic, and the paintings of Khosro Berahmandi, a Canadian-Iranian artist.

Videographer Ali Mann gives the live performance a visual backdrop, with images of the recurring wolf and dove symbols, and Molly Angie designed simple but symbolically colored dresses that move from dark to light. The Iraqi poet Kifah Abdulla translated original verses, odes to the dead written by Bourassa and her father, into Arabic.

This dazzling line-up of cultures and art forms is supported in part by a project grant from the Maine Arts Commission. It’s the liveliest of creative performances, but it has its origins in a difficult grieving process.

In 2015, Bourassa’s father, David, was dying of pulmonary fibrosis. She had recently returned from a year of studying flamenco dance in Spain, and able so spend some treasured time with him before he passed. She subsequently resolved to create an artistic response, a way out of her grief.

“I’ve always made work based on life experience, so that was the starting point,” she said. “During the time he was dying, I came to believe in the possibility of building a spiritual relationship with those who have passed … the choice of Arabic music to accompany the flamenco dance reflects one branch of flamenco’s ancestry, which guides the unfolding of this story.”

The story Bourassa created involves a wolf and a dove, symbols she kept encountering in the months leading to her father’s passing.

“My father named the wolf his spirit animal,” she explained. “In studying the meaning of animal symbolism in diverse traditions, I came to discover that wolves represent pathfinders … (and) that the dove is a symbol of the maternal spirit messenger who comes to lead her children safely from struggle.”

Later, when going through her father’s things, she discovered poems he had written when he lost his mother. Bourassa decided to write poetic responses to his odes, crafting the eventual narrative.

When it came to choreography, she had several options to choose from. In flamenco, there are many styles of dance—maybe 45 styles, according to Bourassa—each with its own melody or feeling. She selected seven different flamenco and Arabic styles. Kovacevic then created oud music for the seven paired-poems (Bourassa’s father and hers), and Alzefiri “sang in a way that went with the music,” she said.

music oudplayer

Providing the sonic textures and backdrop needed for Bourassa’s flamenco show are oud player Tom Kovacevic and Arabic singer Talal Alzefiri.

The project was a return to the past for Alzefiri, who is from Kuwait City and moved to Westbrook in 2010. He grew up with a family of singers—his father, Ebra, and five uncles—and experienced music as part of daily life. When he left Kuwait, that all changed.

“I stopped singing when I came here,” he said. “I was focused on finishing high school and was facing a hard time with my grandmother’s death. I turned away from singing. But when I first saw this flamenco dance and the style they do it, it reminded me a lot of my culture and brought me back to my childhood. That’s when I really started to go back to singing.”

Alzefiri has even more to sing about lately. Last year, he got his United States citizenship, after a five-year process.

“It’s wonderful to finally have a piece of paper in my hand. Now I can travel,” he said. “And that’s the most beautiful thing about this project: Lindsey is a very hard worker—how she was able to bring so many cultures together.”

Cultures combine, and the performance whirls in and out of genres. Behind the unfolding works of music and dance, two poems are simultaneously narrated. These verses are layered atop video imagery of the natural world that is interspersed with digitally projected paintings.

The production represents an end and a beginning for Bourassa. She completed her Certificate of Professionalization in Flamenco Arts in Spain in 2012 at El Centro de Arte y Flamenco de Sevilla. When she returned to Maine, she wanted to start something.

“There was no flamenco in Maine, and I wanted to create something based on these rhythms,”] is because this is the reasoning behind creating Olas – to create something reminiscent of flamenco, but with local artists of diverse genres. Olas lasted from 2008 to 2016. El Lobo y La Paloma is my own work, a Bourassa Dance production, and departs from Olas. It was made in collaboration with several artists, three of which were also members of Olas (Megan Keogh, Tom Kovacevic and Molly Angie). Talal, Khosro, and Kifah are all new collaborators to my work.

The flamenco community in Maine is still small, but it’s growing. I’m trying to teach as true to the art form as I can.”

“El Lobo y La Paloma,” performance by Lindsey Bourassa | Sat 7 pm | June 3 | South Portland High School Auditorium 637 Highland Ave., South Portland

Backstage at Portland’s theaters

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By Timothy Gillis, journophotalist

By the time the opening night audience is seated, the curtain raised, and the lights brought up on any local stage around town, another cast of characters has already played their parts — vital, but behind the scenes. Well before the first line is uttered, designers, managers, and technicians have already created this dramatic world. Those in the theater business are well aware of their value, but to many a theatergoer, they are a lot like an official in a sports contest, only noticed if there is a mistake.

Arts of all stripes are in financial danger these days, with federal threats of funding cuts, and increased local competition for an audience. Many theater companies aim to appeal to the younger set, offering pay-what-you-can rates and price reductions. And theater techs get paid, but the money is not the source of their affinity for the genre and the labor involved to make a play come off without a hitch.

“These people are who make it happen, but they don’t get the credit they deserve,” says Craig Robinson, technical director at Good Theater, the theater-in-residence at the St. Lawrence Arts Center in Portland, where he’s worked for all of its 15 years. The playwright has an idea, a vision, as does the director, but these theater technicians make this vision become a workable play. “When a theater company decides to do a play, two equally important teams are assembled, he said. “There are general scenic descriptions, and then we come in. From that first meeting, the play takes on parallel lives both onstage and off.

Scenic and lighting designers consider the physical stage space, in conjunction with the stage manager and technical director, he says, outlining the myriad decisions made before opening night. And there’s a ton of decisions that need to be made before that arrives.

“The scenic design is created and offered to the director, technical director, lighting designer, costume designer, and scenic painter. The director discusses staging and blocking. The technical director evaluates the physical details and safety of the design within their theater space. The lighting designer gathers the needs of all the others in the team to begin the lighting design and cues. The costumer begins design. The technical director does a take-off from the design plans to order lumber, paint, and supplies from local vendors. All these things have to happen before the build team is even called in.”

 

Robinson has been involved in building 90 or so sets, he reckons, for Portland theater companies. He also takes performance pictures, B-roll, and pre-shoot publicity shots for area newspapers.

“Performance photos show the play from start to finish and keep a photographic history of these productions,” he says. The Portland area had only a handful of theater companies when he started out. “Now there are up to 15 or 20, of different sizes, with some stages designed solely for kids. It’s developing. More people are involved. It’s increased its exposure to more people, with more new productions written by local playwrights. And there’s a sharing of resources, especially by tech people. More than it used to be.” When necessary, tools, lighting structures, and costumes are resources that might move between companies. Human resources are the commodity that they also share.

Stacey Koloski is a director, set and props designer, and scenic painter. She’s a company member at Mad Horse Theatre and the Theater at Monmouth, and has worked as a freelancer for the American Irish Repertory Ensemble (AIRE), Dramatic Repertory Company, Lorem Ipsum, Ziggurat Theatre Ensemble, and the South Portland community theaters: Lyric Music Theater and Portland Players.

Between these several companies, she’s seen this type of sharing of resources throughout the theater world, increasingly imperiled by funding problems. She believes that the network has come about primarily because of the people involved and the number of theaters in the area that do not have their own physical spaces and storage.

“Many places accumulate stock, like costumes, props, and furniture — the number one request I get — that can be used by others. And in all cases, it doesn’t come with a price tag. People are willing to lend things out, knowing that when they need something, they will get it.”

Currently, Koloski is working on designing a set for the family show at Theater at Monmouth this summer, My Father’s Dragon, which opens in July. She started working on it last December. “We assembled the team for the show (the director, designers, tech directors) and held design meetings by phone in January,” she said. “The first draft of set designs passed back and forth between me and the director and were due in March to the theater, where the staff there reviews it in the context of all five of their summer shows, look at them together for what’s in stock and the costs if approved. They send the designs back. I then refine the color choices and furniture. In June, the guys in the shop build it.”

Once considered disloyal by their theater bosses, freelancing techs are also a shared resource, and are better able to support themselves by working several gigs, and the theaters always seem to need need their help. In addition to technical directors, a successful set needs master carpenters, electricians, prop masters, scenic painters, and production assistants. The physical construction begins, and walls, doors, windows, platforms, scenic elements, and masking are built. The props are gathered or made. The scenic painting is done as set construction allows. The stage manager gets the backstage space set up with tables for props, hooks for costumes, and carpeting for muffling backstage passage.

In addition to creating an environment, a great device for bringing a bygone age to life is an effective costume. But creativity has to compensate for cost. Anna Halloran, a costumer who has worked with Mad Horse Theatre Company, Lyric Music Theater, and children’s theaters, tries to track an idea down before resorting to cutting new cloth.

“A lot of it is locating costumes, going through stocks, finding something that matches your vision, “ she said. “If I can’t find it, I’ll make it. The theaters I work with tend to have limited budgets — $300 or less — which means I can’t custom-make pieces for each actor. Often times I’ll ‘shop in actor’s closets’ by borrowing staple pieces they might have. If the show is set in recent eras (from the 1980’s to now), I’ll source a lot from Goodwill or Wal-Mart. For pieces set in much earlier times, I will go to Lyric or Mad Horse costume stocks and search there. Both Mad Horse and Lyric have fabulous antique garments, some dating back to the 1920’s, so there are options out there. The great thing about fashion is it cycles every 30 years or so, meaning I can take outfits from different eras and add or subtract to make them more appropriate.”

She enjoys the challenges from plays such as Lysistrata, the interpretation of which by Mad Horse Theatre Company (in 2015) reflected many different time periods, instead of simply the traditional Ancient Greek.

“In Kimberly Akimbo (also from Mad Horse two seasons ago), the lead character is a young girl with an aging disease, played by an older woman. The best part was finding a childlike outfit for someone who wouldn’t necessarily wear it. It was cool creating the illusion. I did a lot of shopping for that one.”

Halloran started out as an actress, her first performance at seven years old on a children’s show called Tumbleweeds. “It was my birthday, me and my sister and a couple other kids my age,” she said of her early foray in theater and then its shift in point-of-view. “I started costuming in middle school — for comic book conventions, then I started doing it for the stage. My senior year of high school I costumed the senior musical, Pippin,and from there just kept going.”

The theater community is strong, and it seems that there is little friction between the acting troupes and the techs that support them.

“I have never worked with a cast that wasn’t grateful for their tech crew. It’s harder to feel the same gratitude from audiences. Often times if people aren’t talking about the costumes I take it as a success because it means the design fit the show enough that it didn’t distract,” she said. “When I costume, I put a lot of thought into depicting the character’s story arch through color choice and style, so, selfishly, I would love to hear what people think, and if audiences pick up on such choices.”

Ted Gallant, the technical director for Portland Stage, has been with them since 1987, but he never would have predicted it. He was a foreign language major visiting a friend who worked there when he was offered a job as a carpenter. “I had no interest in working in theater at all,” he said. “I thought it would be a nice part-time job until I found a teaching position.”

After 15 years as assistant technical director there, he said he grew “tired of working for people who knew less than I did,” and approached Anita Stewart, executive and artistic director at Portland Stage, and asked for the tech director job.

In terms of changes in the business over the years, Gallant said he can only speak for Portland Stage, and that “since Anita took over, it’s a nice place to work. She fosters an environment where we can use our strengths. She adapts the job to our strengths.”

Theater sets are quality made constructions, but they are often quickly crafted. “We have between two to three weeks to build the set. Then we start loading the set into the space on a Monday morning and by Wednesday it is pretty much done,” he said.. “We focus lights on it Wednesday night so that’s why it must be ready by that time. Actors are on stage Thursday around noon.”

Some of the greatest challenges to theater techs are being able to reproduce Mother Nature indoors. “Water on stage is always a challenge,” Gallant said. “Making it rain. Water could either come from some pool of water you’re drawing from with a pump so the system recirculates or you could draw from an outside source, like the scene shop (located directly behind theater).” Between scenes, stagehands literally mop up after the actors.

When the last performance of the play run has ended, the “strike,” or deconstruction, of the set begins. All the technical people then work into the wee hours to clear the entire stage of their creation. Then the stage is empty and set for the next creation.

Theater companies strive for individuality of design, but the resulting stages are often different by other factors.

“Anita Stewart designs most of the shows at Portland Stage,” Gallant said. “I am not sure how it looks to someone outside of theater, but I notice a certain style that she has. Outside designers offer different styles, but often the play dictates the design. And that design often reflects the budget.”

In fact, a theater’s size and fiscal strength often determine the very plays they chose to produce. “Shows are often chosen, in part, by the cast size. The design has little to do with which shows are chosen,” he said. “Obviously, a large musical is out of the question for most small theaters. But it has less to do with design and more to do with the expense incurred with the cast, costumes, and musicians.”

“The proposed cuts to the NEA will affect all of us,” Robinson said. “When everyone is striving to survive, year to year. This is not a moneymaking proposition by any means. We do it for the love of it, not the income. If we spent as much for the arts as on warfare, that would be nice.”