Katie Watkins' day job is doing marketing for the Jupiter Hotel, but her passion project is Risk/Reward. It's a performance festival that draws on artists from Southern Oregon up to Vancouver, British Columbia. The format is three acts, an intermission, then three more acts, playing the same material each night for three nights.
"It feels more like a tasting plate of different artists," Watkins told the Portland Tribune.
There's no prescriptive theme as Watkins plans the festival, because different artists are often still creating their pieces. But if there's a theme in 2022, Watkins said, "It does (seem to be) the concepts of life and death, and grief, and what that means for what we're all going through, collectively and individually. The artists are either memorializing their own grief or a more communal grief."
The six acts, staging June 24-26, range from the text-heavy to pure movement. The audience won't overlap 100 percent with the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art Time-Based Art crowd, the hardcore lovers of difficult performance art.
"Our audience comes from the burlesque nightlife crowd, the dance crowd and the theater and performance schools, all of that."
Watkins said the appetite for this work is strong.
"Portland has such a lovely community of performing folks and such sense of sharing in this town. I love that 'rising tide lifts all boats' mentality. With some things coming back, everybody is happy to share information to each other and give their community an opportunity to come and see more work."
Noelle Simone's publicity shot shows her in a black bikini or underwear with BITCH, ANXIETY and DPRESSION written on her flesh in marker. Simone's 30-minute solo dance piece is called "Heavy is the Head that Wears the Crown: Mental Health Memoirs of the Black Woman." She told the Portland Tribune: "It's dedicated to the mental health and awareness of black women and their memoirs of what they have to navigate throughout life in order to show up in the world."
The work is a mix of hip hop and modern dance, with some nudity when she makes costume changes on stage. The only props are crowns and the only scenery is imagery of newspaper clippings.
Simone says that as a black woman, she has to go through hoops that others don't have to. She mentions a white man, who later became a friend, treating her as though she was being overly aggressive, just because she was business-minded when collaborating with him on an art project. Another source of pain is white women's uninvited comments on her hair. She takes such microaggressions and folds them into a bigger picture of her own mental health struggle.
So, the words written on her body are Simone's take on how outsiders see her before they get to know her.
Simone teaches dance around town and is also in the Portland Revels show "A Little Bird Told Me." She enjoys Risk/Reward because she gets to be her own choreographer and create something personal.
"Heavy is the Head" is in three parts. There is a spoken word section at the beginning and the show ends with a recorded song, "Triggered" by Jhene Aiko.
It's hard enough to put complex thoughts and feelings of depression and ADHD into words. Translating them into movement must be even harder.
"The spoken word leads you on the journey. I consider movement its own language and I definitely use my body in different, intricate ways to bring the audience into my world," Simone said. There's a beginning, middle and an end. "I definitely want it to be complex enough, but also simple enough to follow. There's the beginning, the middle ground where we're in dialogue, and then it closes out with camaraderie, and self-love, and sisterhood, and all of those things black women are looking for."
There will be a table-top video game just outside the Ellen Bye studio in the basement of the Armory. Called "Confluence," the game was made to make theater-goers think about their place in the city, and to compete in their guesses about how Portland has evolved since 1866. The video map advances one year every 30 seconds.
James Mapes is a lighting designer for Portland Center Stage, as well as a writer and board game creator.
"It's an interactive installation that presents as a board game," Mapes told the Portland Tribune. "Each audience member gets one piece to play on a map of Portland, and we divide them into two teams based on whether they live near or far from the people who raised them."
This Noobs-versus-Natives dynamic should make for some interesting game play.
"We start to get into their heads a little bit about gentrification and making communities and what it's like to make a city together," Mapes said.
(First conceived in 2018, the idea was to show it at an artist night at a bar on Hawthorne called Likewise, a mix between Monopoly and a drinking game. That never happened.)
Players might spend a minute or two before the show deciding where to place their piece. The map has 180 spaces. After the show they can see where their idea of what would develop stacks up against reality.
As players take their magnetic card from the wall, it reveals a drawing of how Portland might have looked before white settlement. Each card has a fact about that part of the city. For example, Piccolo Park, at Southeast 27th Avenue and Division Street, used to be an abandoned lot. It was cleared for the Mount Hood Freeway, which was never built. Vanport and the flood are important enough to warrant several facts, as is the Lewis & Clark Exposition of 1905 (motto: "Westward the course of empire takes its way").
Mapes said it's not about scolding people for gentrification, "But also asking, how do you make a city without that stuff? I hope that it's a novel way of getting into people's heads."
"I'm a lighting designer by trade, but I hope to pass along some of the crazy stuff that happened in pre-hipster Portland."
Pay up or pay down
Risk/Reward tickets are all "pay what you can" this time.
"I always thought 'pay what you will' sounds so variable, like 'Eh, maybe I'll pay this much tonight.' Whereas 'pay what you can' is an accessibility factor," said Watkins. "We want people to come no matter what they can pay. You can pay a dollar, you can pay $100."
Watkins has found that Portlanders are quite generous under pay what you can, averaging $29 per head. "What's high, right? You do get the folks out here who can pay $20 each, and they understand a lot of that money goes straight into the audience's pockets."
In May, the Unit Souzou shows sold out, so Watkins is sure they were doing something right.
"I was very nervous. That was our first big show for a long time," she said.
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