Who is an American? And what does it mean to be one? Those are questions that Cristi Miles, co-founder of the Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble, thought about when she first heard a podcast about an iconic series of photographs published in the late 1950s by Robert Frank. The collection is called “The Americans,” and little did she know that a few years later she would be exploring those themes and reimagining the photographs on stage using music and dance. The production, now playing at the historic Alberta House, takes its name from Frank’s collection. Miles co-directed the show and joins us to talk about how the ensemble went about exploring American identity in a performance that’s as much a poem as a play.
Note: This transcript was computer generated and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. Who is an American, and what does it mean to be one? These questions came to mind for Cristi Miles when she first heard about an iconic series of photographs published in the late 1950s by Robert Frank. His book was called “The Americans.” Miles is the co-founder of the Portland Experimental Theater Ensemble. But little did she know that a few years later she’d be exploring these themes and reimagining the photographs on stage. The production, now up at the Historic Alberta House in Northeast Portland, takes its name from Robert Frank’s book. Cristi Miles sat down with Think Out Loud senior producer Alison Frost to talk about the creation of The Americans, beginning with her first impressions of Robert Frank’s photographs:
Cristi Miles: Unapologetic, non-nostalgic view. A specific view of our country in the 50s. What struck me was the clear sense of divide between races, and the lack of representation of Native Americans, and- I’m Latine, and I was like “how many people in here are like me?” So I was struck. And I know the first time I came across a photo of a Latino in front of the jukebox, and I was like “there I am.”
Just really trying to take it in, the spontaneous capturing of us. It felt like he captured us in a moment, and that moment still felt true.
Alison Frost: Interesting. Even though this was 60ish, 70ish years ago?
Frost: Can you describe the cover of that book, the first photograph, essentially, that a person would see on the cover of Robert Frank’s The Americans?
Miles: Yeah, it’s a trolley photo, from when he took it in New Orleans. He captured the trolley in a series of windows, so it’s a series of squares. And within those squares, he caught some passengers who are looking at him and some who are not. He just happened to capture what seemed like the order of how people are valued in this country. So it’s a white man in the first window, followed by a white lady, followed by some white children, followed by a Black man, followed by a Black lady, followed by- in my mind it’s Black children, but I don’t know that that’s true. You kind of lose focus.
Frost: I definitely want to get to the staging of the show that was inspired by “The Americans.” But before we do that, I’d love to hear just a little bit about the Portland Experimental Theater Ensemble, because that’s also very thematically related, it seems to me, to “The Americans.” What’s the vision for PETE?
Miles: Our mission is to propose new ways of being through artistic inquiry and performance. We are a group of people that found each other through the training and the work. There’s four of us who are co-artistic directors. We believe in rigorous physical training that opens up the performer, and I think human even, to be able to communicate without language or without words. It’s not that we’re anti-language, we love text, we love language. But there’s a connection that humans have that is instinctual, fundamental to how we are together. So we focus on trainings that awaken us to that, to respond to that.
Frost: I didn’t expect for you to say new ways of being, that’s so interesting. And thinking of how we are with each other in a relationship, that is the way of being, and how inequity and racism fundamentally alters any relationship and way of being in a space where that’s present.
Miles: Yeah, that’s right.
Frost: Well, you are not new to the theater by any means. Before you formed PETE, what was your experience of being a performer, a creator in predominantly white theater, if I’m not going too far?
Miles: No, you’re not. PETE has been around for 13 years in company and 12 years in production. But really, these people, I found them 15 years ago. So prior to that I was just trying to make it, just trying to make my nut, trying to fit in where I could and be an actor, be a performer. So I think I was just like, yeah, okay, whatever you need I’ll do it. I was a yes person. And it served me. There was definitely a lot of learning that came from that, but I also felt in retrospect, I learned a lot of ways of being that maybe weren’t fully myself.
Frost: When did that change?
Miles: I did “La Ruta” at Artists Rep, in October/November of 2019, and it was the first time in my career that I was on a cast with only other Latinas, and in a room that was predominantly Latine. And I realized on the first day, at the end of the first rehearsal I was in tears and just said that aloud, like this is so profound to me. And throughout that process I realized how much I had been code switching in other rooms or other places. I found a part of myself that hadn’t been present in my work.
Frost: That’s so beautiful and powerful. And code switching really is also another way of talking about how you’re being.
So let’s get to the show, “The Americans,” why we invited you here, to talk about it. When you first brought this idea to your company, this dance movement piece from a series of photographs, what was that like, to workshop that?
Miles: It was incredible! I mean it was also really scary. I proposed this idea, and everyone, we all said okay, let’s workshop it, because that’s the PETE way, we have to workshop an idea before we fully produce it. And that first day of the workshop, or even before then, getting the people in the room for the workshop was such a wild time, having to sit down with people and be like “Hi, I have this crazy idea, I want to make a dance piece that continues the race dialogue that we’re having in the country or community.”
Frost: This was 2020, when you were proposing this?
Miles: This was 2021. I took a while to really sit with it, and then January 2021 I told the other co-artistic directors. And then summer of 2022 we workshopped it.
Frost: This is a process.
Miles: Yeah. It’s been around for a while in my head, and just talking about it with the company. I swear, anybody who was around me in the last 6/7/8 months, if they would talk to me about this, they got an earful.
Frost: Tell me a little bit about how you structured this piece. It’s not structured with acts and scenes, it’s not a play. Having seen it and being very moved by it, it almost seems more like a poem, combined with a long song.
Miles: Yeah, that’s so lovely. I love that so much. We structured it in the symphony structure. I borrowed the structure for Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring Symphony.” It’s in eight movements. And this really came out as a way for the sound designer Mark Valadez and I to have a conversation around the sound score that he produced. He and I collaborated. That sound score was laid down before the performers got into the room together, so we had something to respond to. So really, Mark was the first one to contribute creatively, other than me, in the source material. Mark laid down that sound score from this symphony structure.
So we have eight movements throughout the piece. And in between, Mark really helped us with a record static to help us delineate between movements. That symphony structure felt right, using jazz, the juxtaposition between the western European symphony and the American, particularly Black American sound of jazz. Something about it, my gut checks that I’ve been using for this piece was like “that feels right, that tension between the two fields.”
Frost: And of course, there was plenty of text, but just integrated into this. And for folks who haven’t seen it there’s six actors, dancers, performers, and there’s representation both in their individuality and their movements, and in their coordinated movements, in the scenes that they create to describe different movements, as you just said. And there are themes that are explored. Can you just give us a sense in those movements, some of the themes that are explored?
Miles: Yeah. So we were interested in “how are we going to use this to talk about race?” And so I brought it in… bluntly, not gracefully at all. Our first movement we reckon with segregation and the race divide in our country. The second movement was about immigration, and I’m looking through it through my particular lens and who I am as a person, but I see immigration in there. The third movement is the American dream, and reckoning with the American dream. The fourth movement’s our ancestors, the people who lived in this country before us if there are people before us. The fifth one being beauty, or American standards, or American exceptionalism, needing to be a good person, needing to go save the world, this sort of way of being that feels in this country clear to me. And the sixth one is our legacy of war and protest. And the seventh is our home, and reckoning with being able to be at home, and the war outside the home or sometimes the war inside the home. And then the eighth movement is choosing to remember,
Frost: I wanna talk a little bit about the text that is throughout the piece, starting with the land acknowledgment at the beginning. I think a lot of people might be familiar with hearing a land acknowledgement, that this land was once the home of native peoples. You integrate the land acknowledgement into the show. It becomes clear that this show is starting, this is not just a land acknowledgement. Can you describe your feelings about land acknowledgements more broadly, before you decided to actually do one for this show?
Miles: I mean I feel so complex about it. I understand that it’s nice to be able to acknowledge it. When we first started doing it, I was like “yeah, okay. Now we’re starting something!” It felt right. But then it sort of plateaued, community-wide, country-wide. Now we’re just acknowledging. And not everyone of course. But there’s a sense of “well what’s next” that I struggle with. We can’t just acknowledge, but now what do we do? And sometimes it feels, when I’m listening to it, that it’s just the thing that some people do now, just another check the box way of being.
And so with Chris Gonzalez, who was a writer involved with our devising process, we brought in PETE’s community illumination person Ki Ridenour-Starnes, who is of First Nations. Ki led us through some creative writing that was meant to bring us to a personal land acknowledgement, like our relationship to the land, which was so beautiful. And then Ki took all of our writing and combined it, that then Chris took and tried to write a land acknowledgement. You can’t do a show called “The Americans” without acknowledging.
Frost: It’s not as if you weren’t going to do one, it’s just how are you going to do it?
Miles: Right. We’ve previously had a land acknowledgement in our program, and that was definitely not the way to do it. And so I just was like “I don’t know how to do it.” And it was interesting, when Chris had Ki’s writing and all of our writings, Ki was like “I don’t know how to do it because I have complex feelings about them as well.” And so he and I talked maybe for half an hour on the phone. And after that conversation I said “I think it’s this: what happens if you write your struggle? What happens if you write the struggle we’ve just talked about? And then he got excited. And then we hung up, and then the next morning I woke up to what you hear in the show, the land acknowledgment text, which is just really brilliant. He turned it into a prologue. He used the land acknowledgment, and then also was able to lay the foundation, the themes of the show into that. “He fixed our play,” is what I said when I read it.
Frost: Well I have to say, obviously I really enjoyed it like I said. You cannot come late. You must come for the acknowledgement. Stay for the show, but it’s just particularly brilliant. I haven’t heard anything like that.
I can’t let you go without talking about the symbol of America, the flag. And this is used so interestingly in different ways in the show, incorporating different historical versions of the flag, the flags that are hanging in the doorway. And in one scene, the current contemporary American flag is used as a picnic blanket and rolled out on the ground. And I had this visceral reaction to that when I saw it, and it surprised me. What were you intending to convey with particularly the rolling it out as a blanket?
Miles: I wish I could say it was an image that I had, but it was really a response to the work that the actors brought in. They do it in front of one of our frames, it’s a white person who rolls out the picnic blanket, and then a person of color that steps through the frame onto the flag and sits. And it was that motion of the person of color stepping through the frame and onto the flag that again resonated this immigrant coming to America. I’m a child of an immigrant, so it just was like “oh yeah, stepping into the American dream.” That particular image is in our third movement. It just seemed so clear to me. They get on there, they are welcomed into the land, they do a little dance, and then they sit down and they have a picnic. And they eat. But then the eating actually turns into gorging. The whole progression of it feels really resonant into examining what it is to dream of a better life here, and then how sometimes that better life can turn into something not so great.
Frost: You mentioned stepping into the frame, and I haven’t even mentioned that, just the tension between the images and the frames. You use these big black rolling metal frames very effectively and interestingly. But then there’s also the frame of the wall behind the actors where there’s huge projected video and images, so that’s also running through the whole thing: what’s in the frame, what’s in the image.
But just briefly about those images, where did those come from, the video, the images that are on the wall behind the action?
Miles: Yeah, there’s several. Our video designer is Trevor Sargent. The very first video that is shown in the piece is from archive.org, and it is a video of some family’s road trip from 1960, I think, really close to the year that we were examining. Then later in the show, you see landscapes that are projected slow motion behind the dancing. And those were taken from Trevor himself, who took a cross country train ride, knowing that this show was coming, and he videoed looking out the window on his train. Just stunning.
Frost: These journeys, the journey in 1960, the contemporary journey, and this journey that you’re putting on on stage - your theater performs not just in one place, but all over, in various venues, as I understand it. This show is performed at the Historic Alberta House. Why did you choose that location?
Miles: Oh my gosh, it just seemed like such a great fit. Vin Shambry and Matthew Kerrigan, who are the new artistic and creative directors of the Historic Alberta House, are two collaborators and friends that I’ve known for quite a while, and I knew I wanted to partner with them. I tried to get both of them on stage for this show and that didn’t work. But then Vin said “but what about here?” As he said that I looked around the architecture. The history of that building is in fact the history of our country. That building was a Masonic temple, and then it turned into a church in North Portland, that has now been turned into an art center, a community center.
Frost: And it was in a historically Black neighborhood that is now very much gentrified.
Miles: Yes that’s right, being led by a Black man. It just felt like a really good partnership to be in dialogue with both Vin and Matthew, to be in dialogue with the ghosts, the history of that building and that neighborhood. In that room, there are these four beautiful paintings by Henk Pender that are depicting the protests from May of 2020. And when we were there the first day of the workshop, we started by looking at those paintings, saying “well, here we are. They are present.” The gut check just kept being like “yep, we’re exactly where we need to be.”
Generally, we do a lot of our shows at Reed College because we’re all professors and our set designer company member Peter Ksander is a tenured professor there. And Peter is incredibly brilliant, usually we transform their spaces into other things. And something Peter said to me during our workshop was “if we weren’t doing it here, this would be the set I would try to build.” I was like, “oh, well let’s just do it here then, let’s do it site specifically” And we had never done a site specific show. So that was something that was new for us.
Frost: In a space that was not actually designed as a theater?
Frost: This show has just opened and it runs through February 4th. What has been the reaction so far?
Miles: Yeah, I think a lot of questions, a lot of excitement. People who have spoken to me, it’s been mostly positive. But I’m sure that there’s been people going “I don’t know what I just saw.” And that’s okay. I’m excited for the birth of our show, in dialogue with our community.
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