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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.”

Squashwatch

By Timothy Gillis

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When Greg Born’s son, David, was in high school, he was a dominant tennis player, mowing through many opponents and, as a sophomore, playing 3rd singles on a team that made it to the state finals.

But when he went off to Bates College, he switched sports to join the nationally ranked men’s squash team there. He had begun playing the sport only two years prior but was able to transfer some of his tennis skills to the new sport, something that would be a stretch for most athletes. Perhaps most importantly in his switch, though, was his dedication to academics and a similar commitment to practicing and mastering the he new sport.

The Portland Community Squash hopes that type of academic structure and athletic discipline will help give Portland youngsters a model for success.

Greg Born, Barrett Takesian, and Sandy Spaulding are founding members of the new facility on Noyes Street, and within the year, they hope to start a national program called “Urban Squash,” which will focus on a specific set of promising but underprivileged local kids. They plan to incorporate the US Squash’s National Urban Squash Education Association, which introduces squash to new players while providing academic support, mentoring and help with college placement.

“I reacquainted with Barrett and Sandy four years ago, having known them through collegiate squash,” said Born, who is an assistant coach at Bates.

Born picked the sport up just over a decade ago but really made his mark as a table tennis player. He was state champion twice, in 1994 and 1997, and half of a doubles team that won the states six times.

When asked about the move to squash, he says it was a necessity, not a choice as it was with his son.

“They took away our Ping-Pong tables at the YMCA,” he said. “There was nothing else to play there (besides squash). I got hooked.”

The same type of magnetic attraction has filled the courts already at PCS in just a few months of operation. The planning of expanding squash options really began in 2008, with efforts to organize the group of players that were already playing the sport.

“When I realized how much it costs to build and open a squash facility, I knew it wouldn’t be something I could do,” Born said. “But we tried to make it so others could come along and see the market opportunity. We focused on growing the sport in hopes that, with greater numbers, someone would recognize the demand.”

There are approximately 20 squash facilities in Maine, but half of these are in private residences, including eight on Mount Desert Island.

To create a place that was accessible to kids who wanted to learn the sport, PCS repurposed the former Congregation Shaarey Tphiloh.

PCS is funded with private donations—$1.5 million to buy and renovate—and is a 501(3)c non-profit. The building was purchased in October of last year. PCS was able to open this past January, 98 days of renovations from start to finish. They worked with Wright-Ryan, a local contractor on the work, which renovate the main hall, and added locker rooms, showers, and a fitness center.

“For a non-profit like us, they were unbelievable to work with,” Born said.

Volunteers worked on the other half of building. One father/son team knocked down a wall to help create classrooms that are now used for yoga, community meetings, and potluck suppers. A local string quartet practices there.

“We really are an entity that makes our city better. That’s the goal,” Born said. “The focus is primarily on kids, with the mission heavily supported by adult members.”

Memberships are $73 month for individuals and $113/month for family. The fee gets you unlimited squash (based on reservations for available courts), use of the gym, including plenty of opportunity to give as well as get.

“Part of idea of being a member is you’re not just buying the services of an athletic facility. You’re joining a community,” Born said. “Members are encouraged to volunteer their time, helping kids learn squash, wellness, yoga. We want you to be part of academic support sessions and help mentor. We encourage kids to seek a balance between athletics and studies, and to learn things beyond just squash, to be more mindful of their bodies and surroundings.”

PCS has a three-pronged approach. In addition to adult memberships and a junior program, they plan to add “Rally Portland” for students in grades 6-12, modeled after NUSEA. It’s designed for children whose families are not able to provide much help for them as they approach the college application process. Some of these kids will be the first in their families to even consider college.

“We want to provide academic support and guidance, and a structure,” Born said, “We end up being a liaison between kids, families, and schools to help make sure their homework is done, and assist in areas where they need it.” The long-term hope is that these capable youngsters go to college and return to their communities to become leaders there.

There are also some obvious health benefits to the sport. One has to be fit, strategic, and mindful of his or her surroundings.

“It’s a thinking person’s game,” Born said. “Unlike table tennis, which is ‘twitch reflex,’ squash rallies tend to be longer, especially with higher level players. Some rallies are more than 100 strokes long.”

And it’s a lifetime sport, as Born knows too well. He faced off against Charlie Butt (for whom a court was dedicated this past weekend) when he was 82 years old. Butt was a member of the Chinese Olympic team in two sports—basketball and swimming. He won 22 national squash titles.

“He’s a legend,” Born said. “I loved playing him. He was twice as old as me at the time, and it was humbling to be on a court with him.”

The PCS center hopes local kids who pick up the sport will find a similar lifetime of fun, health, and the discipline that propels them to realize their own potential.

Rending Wall

Poetry inspired by Donald Trump, with apologies to Robert Frost

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Someone there is who loves a wall,
Who foments the hate that boils up to build it,
And creates fake news, equates terror with one religion,
And makes a place where predators can grab a breast.

The work of the people is another thing:
I have joined them in their marches, their peaceful protests,
Which met with tear gas, resentment, and bile,
The resistance that has irked the angry dogs.

At mending time, a time to heal all wounds,
My neighbor lets me know beyond the hill,
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And crack the wall between us once again.

We smash the wall between us as we go.
He is all pine and I am apple orchard,
but together we get nourishment beneath the shade.
He’s heard “Good walls will keep out bad hombres.”

We wish we could put a notion in Trump’s head,
How do you know they’re bad before you meet them?
But Trump believes Breitbart News and watches Fox,
And thinks a wall’s the trick, doesn’t care if he gives offense.

Nature it is that doesn’t want the wall,
That tears it down when the people gather, rise up.
I see Trump there, hiding in his fool’s gold castle,
Peeking out behind the shades, afraid of another’s difference.

He takes no self-exam and can’t see similarities
With the very people he chooses to detest.
I want to pelt him with a barrage of ripe red apples,
The age-old symbol for knowledge he so disdains.

My neighbor wants to make a drone of pinecones,
And deliver a prickly payload of stark reality.
But Donald is the duck in a raincoat.
His conscience doesn’t work like yours or mine.

He moves in darkness, a product of his party’s mindless rage.
And doesn’t read a book nor turn a page.

Let’s Get It On

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Protesters gathered on Monument Square Friday night, with sign-holders chanting to passing cars and each other that “Hey Ho! Donald Trump has got to go.” The woman on the bullhorn implored art walkers to come out each month in similar fashion. Across the street, in the atrium of the Portland Public Library, critics of the current regime took another approach, gathering musicians from several immigrant communities for the Portland Culture Exchange’s music jam and dance party. They had “Mainer” shirts especially made for the day, crafted by Pigeon, the street artist name for Orson Horchler.

This first public event comes after a year of several impromptu house parties, introducing newcomers to the city to their neighbors and future friends. Lilly Pearlman anchors the group and plays fiddle and bass guitar. She grew up in Portland, went to college in New York, and then spent time in Brazil.

“When I moved back, I wanted to know a Portland that wasn’t as homogenous as the one I grew up in. I thought ‘What stands in the way?’ I realized that we’re not homogenous, we’re segregated.” She wanted a project that called upon peoples’ various skills and yet somehow united them. She started going to English classes, where she met new Mainers and talked about their interests. Almost everybody she met loved music; most played an instrument. Cuisine and culture quickly became two additional distinguished commonalities. They started holding monthly French-English discussions, and the group plans to add Spanish and Arabic exchanges to the mix. Despite national concerns with immigration policies and the swirling confusion of their effects on locals, the Portland Culture Exchange has remained intent on sharing traditions, food, and music.

“We are bridging the gaps between American-born and new Mainers through common passions to create the opportunity for building relationships, friendships between communities that are usually segregated,” she said. “Frequently, even when there’s interest between multiple groups to get together, it’s uncomfortable. There are cultural barriers. Sometimes people think the differences are greater than they are.”

The group started having informal parties that turned into Monument Square street jams. The library’s atrium was packed at Friday night’s event, and they’re considering moving to a bigger space the next time. But for the group, it’s not all song and dance.

They’re planning a big event called “We Sing for Peace,” using some of the Jewish traditions of Eastern Europe, especially the notion of a tisch – a joyous public celebration with a meal set up on a long table, often held on a Friday, “when Orthodox Jews aren’t supposed to play musical instruments, so they sing into the night,” Pearlman said. “Niggunim, or traditional melodies, for example. Based on that, we are going to have people lead easy songs in their languages that call for peace. We’ll probably need more space, perhaps the auditorium.”

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“The notion of a tisch comes from my Jewish (Ashkenazi, Eastern European) heritage,” said Pearlman, who teaches ceilidh dances from her Scottish heritage at their jams. She says the project works to build a real multicultural view of what ‘Portland culture’ is, based on Portland’s residents and their multifaceted histories and traditions.

“We Sing for Peace” is modeled after a tisch because that, too, is part of Portland’s traditions. “While the project is grounded in the sharing, appreciating, and exchanging of traditions and cultures, we put great value on the people who bring Portland’s cultural richness,” she said. “When Eric Simido sings an Angolan song, he makes his Angolan culture essential to Portland culture. When the folks at Chez Okapi – a Congolese restaurant on St. John’s Street where we host our French-English language exchanges – cook fufu and pundu in Portland, they bring their home with them, and they build Portland’s culture. When any brilliant foreign-born Mainer uses their ingenuity to create a new business in Portland, their unique way of thinking and being makes its way into this community’s roots and foundation. So we see our exchange as part of an intertwining of long histories in the place where we all now share common space: Portland.”

The musical regulars include Pearlman and her brother Neil on the keyboard. Majoja, on the drums and guitar, and Eric Simido, vocals and guitar, are both from Angola. Ness Smith-Savedoff, who grew up in Portland and Switzerland, plays drums. The Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda are regularly represented. Everyone is invited to bring an instrument and come and dance. At “We Sing for Peace,” tentatively scheduled for April, they hope to have as many as ten countries joining voice.

Majoja is the nickname or artistic name for Kingebeni Kilaka Kelorde, who is originally from the north of Angola. “I had to go to DR Congo, the country where I lived for about two decades because my country was in civil war.”

He studied art in high school, and is now a painter and musician. “I have loved the music since my childhood because it has been part of my traditional culture,” he said. “I have been in Portland since October 2015. It was not easy for me to be accustomed with the weather, oh nooo! So cold, the lifestyle is so fast and busy. When I met with Jenny van West, she connected me with Pigeon and he connected me with Lilly Pearlman. She talked to me about the Portland Culture Exchange. It seemed to be an interesting project and I promised her to give all my energies because I believe that everyone has something special to share to make Portland a better place for everyone. I live in the US , and I love this multicultural country. Culture is the identity of people. I’d like to see Portland growing up like all the metropolitan cities around the world. Portland Culture Exchange is our first step.”

 

For more information, contact portlandcultureexchange@gmail.com

Scott Cairns talks poetry, politics and the possibility of peace

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Scott Cairns was born in Tacoma, Washington. He earned a BA from Western Washington University, an MA from Hollins College, an MFA from Bowling Green State University, and a PhD from the University of Utah. This interview was conducted by Tim Gillis ahead of Cairns’ reading in South Portland on Jan. 30.

 

TG: How does geography influence your poetry?

 

SC: I don’t know that I consciously am aware of how it might. I do know I’ve been in exile for 40 years, in the wilderness. I grew up here, but left for grad school in ’77 and then didn’t really get back until just now. Despite having lived and taught all around the country, this landscape has always been the landscape of my imagination. Maine is similar, the evergreen trees that creep down to the shore, the low skies on a cloudy day – I found it analogous to the kind of quiet that one pursues when settling into writing a poem or saying a prayer.

 

Besides writing poetry, Cairns has also written a spiritual memoir, Short Trip to the Edge (2007), and the libretto for the oratorios “The Martyrdom of Saint Polycarp” and “A Melancholy Beauty.”

 

TG: Talk about the element of spirituality in your work.

 

SC: When I started out, I was like most of my American contemporaries, working off of my own experiences and trying to find something useful to talk about. I guess at some point, around my second book, I started writing to find out, instead of writing what I thought I knew, pouring over the language on the page looking for something I hadn’t apprehended. Most of my career now has been comprised of composing that way. Not too far along that way, I started attending to my own personal obsessions with God – using that practice to lean into an understanding of the nearness of God, developed through the poems, meditations, through that contemplative compressing of language, and figured out how I commune with God. Not every poem, but most in the past 30-plus years have commenced that way.

 

Cairns has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities, and was awarded the Denise Levertov Award in 2014. He has taught at numerous universities including University of North Texas, Old Dominion University, Seattle Pacific University, and the University of Missouri. He also directs a low-residency MFA program at Seattle Pacific University.

 

TG: Tell me a bit about the nitty-gritty of your writing process?

 

SC: I use a legal pad and a pencil, and am usually reading something. What I’m reading is varied – a great poem or some theological text – Patristic Greek, the fathers of the church, early saints and their writings.

 

TG: Can you contrast when process when writing poetry, memoir, and libretti?

 

SC: They require a different filter of the head. With poetry, my primary mode, I write to find things out. If I have an idea before I start, I wait for it to go away. I want the language to tell me something I don’t yet apprehend. With the memoir, a template of actual events that I allowed into the text in a way I wouldn’t have done with a poem. I wanted the events to be recorded and examined. Memoir is a way to revisit those occasions and glean from them a more useful sense of what to make of them, these visits to holy places and discussions with holy men. Libretti were pretty much defined by historical occasions – e.g. the martyrdom of St. Polycarp of Symrna. I worked with a composer who did the music. He supplied verses for moments in the score. Then the composer worked from those and educed from those musical phrases.

 

TG: You’re founding director of Writing Workshops in Greece, a program that brings writers to study and engage with literary life in modern Greece. How did that enterprise come about?

 

SC: In college, I started reading patristic texts, which led me into becoming an Orthodox Christian. Most noticeable Orthodox Christians in America are Greek Orthodox. An understanding of the faith led me to pay more attention to these early writings – usually in Greek. I started learning Greek and going to Greece. I visited a monastic enclave at Mount Athos. The Byzantine Empire covered much of the Mediterranean from Venice east, and subsequently succumbed to Islamic takeover. This place is the last vestige of the Byzantine Empire, a finger of a peninsula. It still goes on to this day, a part of Greece but self-governing, like the Vatican. I developed the writing program as an excuse to go to Greece more often. By now, I have gone to this holy mountain 24 times.

 

TG: A sharp contrast to disturbing recent new of religiously motivated attacks and threats of violence nationally. In Portland last Thursday (Jan. 19), a bomb threat was called into a Jewish pre-school. You’re reading at Congregation Bet Ha’am, a Reform Jewish congregation in South Portland, at an event hosted by the BTS Center, a United Church of Christ affiliate that’s ecumenical in nature. Talk about these intersections of politics and religion, and the possibilities for peace. And how can contemporary poetry speak to that end?

 

SC: Orthodox Christianity is probably the most Jewish of Christian expressions. In orthodoxy, that connection has been maintained, even the way the priests dress. I studied a lot of rabbinic texts, a lot of early writings that revolve around a puzzling moment in scripture. In terms of poetics and politics, one writes poems from a place of understanding words, and the power of words, and honoring what truth and attention can avail. If there is a relationship between the poet and the politician – the poet examines the language of the politician for veracity. Poets in our culture now are in a position to challenge careless or misleading uses of language in the political realm. We have to call people on it. For that reason, we have an obligation to share what we see against euphemism or obfuscation.

 

 

 

 

Details:

Poetry Reading by Scott Cairns

Hosted by The BTS Center

Congregation Bet Ha’am

81 Westbrook St, South Portland

Monday, Jan 30 7-8 p.m.

Cairns is the author of eight books of poetry, including The Theology of Doubt (1985), The Translation of Babel (1990), Philokalia (2002), Idiot Psalms (2014), and Slow Pilgrim: The Collected Poems (2015). His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, The Paris Review, The New Republic, Poetry, and elsewhere, and has been anthologized in Best Spiritual Writing and Best American Spiritual Writing.

 

What to do when not tuning in

Wicked Good, Halfway Decent Un’naugural Ball

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Jenny Van West, Troy R. Bennett, and award-winning gospel singer Fiston Bujambi Seba
By Timothy Gillis

What better way to celebrate the inauguration than to skip it altogether and spend the evening laughing and dancing and raising money for a great cause? Mayo Street Arts Center is hosting the Wicked Good, Halfway Decent Un’naugural Ball on Friday, Jan. 20, to benefit Mayo Street Arts and the Maine Immigrant Musical Instrument Project, which helps new arrivals reconnect with their musical roots by finding them instruments and introducing them to local like-minded communities.

The Wicked Good Band will team up with the Half Moon Jug Band for the event. Troy R. Bennett, on guitar and banjo, says he is known as the Van Gogh of the banjo since “I only give the impression that I’m playing it.” He’s joined by “Frost” Steve Brewer on bass, kazoo, and sax and Jeff Hamm who plays a suitcase drum set made from old American Tourister luggage.

Bennett says the idea for the show came to him after the presidential election, but stresses that it’s all positive vibes, not a protest.

“Everyone’s getting worked up over it,” he says of the election results. “They feel like they’ve lost control. We wanted to have a fun concert in town, where you aren’t spinning your wheels, to think about our own neighbors right here.”

That desire to help Portland’s new neighbors led him to Jenny Van West, the founder and director of the Maine Immigrant Musical Instrument Project. Bennett had written about her efforts for a local newspaper and quickly realized her story went on from where he’d left off.

“She had run into a new Mainer from Africa, who commented on the guitar she was carrying,” he says. “She found out that he’d fled Africa but was not able to bring his guitar. You know, while immigrants are waiting for a ruling on a green card, they are barred from working, but it’s free to make music.”

After that initial chance encounter, Van West started work on the project, which is part of a larger effort called “Welcoming the New American Family,” orchestrated by Pastor Maurice Namwira. It brings together recent arrivals with folks who’ve been here longer, “making sure they are oriented, have household items, know what they need to do next for their asylum cases, and getting together to eat and play music and relax,” she said.

An early gathering at her house brought in “a mélange of people from 10 different African countries. We had all kinds of music – country, folk, traditional African music. Out of that, a grassroots network started to grow. There are a lot of them in Portland and they are starting to connect, moving into a more formal direction to tackle issues like housing and education since a lot of people are afraid to speak up. For now, we quietly see what can we do for someone to help them feel a little more integrated.”

She notes the various and deep psychological pressures on immigrants, based on what they’re been through and how well they acclimate to their new surroundings. “Music is a common thread. They could be from several different countries, but they all know all these songs,” she said. “Recently I delivered guitars to two people on the same night, men who are living in the same apartment. Typically, roommate situations for recent arrivals seeking asylum are not by choice – more like they are thrown in together because they all need a room and one is available in a particular apartment. One knew that I was coming; the other one did not. The one who knew I was coming is from DR Congo. There, when you receive a gift, the polite thing to do is to put it behind a closed door and open it later. To open it right then is considered rude. So that’s what he did and quietly returned to talking with me. While my American self was disappointed that I would not see his reaction, I knew he was receiving this gift in absolutely the most respectful way possible, which made me feel great. The one who did not know I was coming is quite extroverted, and when he got the word I was there, came running out of his room so completely excited. He opened the thin case right up, and pulled out the guitar. He sat right down, started playing and singing in a big gorgeous voice.”

Moving experiences like this one are not only felt when she delivers instruments to immigrants, but also when she receives a donation that has been played for generations.

“One of my African friends told me that giving instruments is an act of family,” she said. “If you’re here with no biological family, you feel like you’re at home.”

That sense of family pervades these organizations, and is the driving force for the Un’naugural Ball. “We’re totally into having a good time,” Bennett says. “Whatever happens with the new administration, people are going to need good times. We’re not against anybody. We’re just for stuff – for good times and making sure musicians get instruments in their hands.”

 

Details:

Wicked Good, Halfway Decent Un’naugural Ball

Friday, Jan. 20 at 7:30 p.m.

Mayo Street Arts, 10 Mayo Street, Portland

Contact mayostreetarts.org for more info