All the city's a stage
If you happen to be by the downtown Portland waterfront and see somebody with an orange walking around, followed by an audience of people wearing headphones, don't be alarmed.
It's just theater.
For the first time, Begat Theater of France, featuring former Portlanders Karin Holmstrom and Dion Doulis, brings its immersive theater — or street theater — to our city in the form of "Hidden Stories."
Co-presented by Boom Arts and Hand2Mouth Theatre, "Hidden Stories" involves four actors walking around Portland, each carrying an object and encountering unsuspecting individuals, while audience members watch them while listening to a soundscape and other people's (scripted) thoughts through headphones.
The show takes place at 7 p.m. Thursday and Friday, Oct. 10-11, and noon and 6 p.m. Saturday-Sunday, Oct. 12-13, at the Willamette River waterfront and downtown. Audience members — 10 people per actor — are told the location a day or two in advance.
"I think people are going to be intrigued by it," said Holmstrom, whose brother, Peter Holmstrom of The Dandy Warhols, has created the soundscape for the show. "You'll see the city through different eyes after you see the show."
The question at the heart of the piece: "How can I live in a city of thousands, or even millions, and yet still feel so alone?"
Added Holmstrom: "We're working with the idea of solitude. These are four characters who are quite different and experience solitude in different ways, and they'll end up meeting up with each other, and it's also what it says about the city we live in."
The actors are Holmstrom, Doulis, Herve Cristianini and Nolwenn Moreau; Philippe Laliard acts as the crowd orchestrator.
Here's how Begat describes the show: "It's an outdoor immersive performance where the city is transformed into a sound stage, the audience's eye is the lens of the camera, and the spectator is the editor, choosing which images to sychronize to the soundtrack being played in their ears. They are free to follow the story from up close or from far away, to look at each detail, each gesture, each blink of an eye, or to let themselves be carried away by their own imagination and abandon themselves to the urban decor."
The audience members, with their headphones, have the power to hear the thoughts of certain passers-by and to follow them into the unknown. You follow an object carried by an actor (an orange, newspaper, box of matches or pen) as it makes its way through the streets of the city, being passed from hand to hand.
"Our trick is to make people doubt what they're actually watching — is it a reality or fictional show?" Doulis said. "So people are sort of destabilized, putting them outside their comfort zone."
Of course, it's fluid theater, because one never knows how the public will react to encounters.
"We can get people who are confused; there's a certain bemused puzzlement," Doulis added. "It's kind of strange. It's not about provoking confrontation, it's not aggressive at all. At the same time, some people don't react well to things out of the ordinary. 'What's going on?' But, the overall energy is, 'This is life in the city.'"
Actors are dressed as everyday people and not in costumes.
Holmstrom and Doulis both grew up in Portland — Holmstrom attending Oregon Episcopal School and Doulis attending Lincoln High — before leaving for education and career. Both are 40-somethings now, married (not to each other) with children, and living in France. Holmstrom started Begat Theater more than two decades ago, and then Doulis joined her.
Holmstrom created the show in 2010, along with Doulis and designer Erika Latta (who's the director), and staged it on streets in France and also Brooklyn, New York.
Such street theater is commonplace in France.
"It's not very common in the United States," Holmstrom said.
Said Doulis: "It's definitely not mime, but it's not text-based either. It's very much a physical performance, but not circus. It's a new genre. We're incorporating the architecture and urban environment into what we're doing with storytelling.
"We're telling stories through space, movement and interactions, as well as through soundscapes. There are a lot of layers that take place," he said. "There is a big role played by the city itself; there are chance encounters that can happen that the city provides as backdrop. Audience members are told to be discreet, with the idea that we're infiltrating public space."
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