PORTLAND SOMETIMES FEELS like a college town, populated by rootless students who can't decide on a major. It's easy to live here and still retain one's native identity—to be a Portlander as well as a Minnesotan, or a Portlander and a Texan. And for many Portlanders, transplants and natives alike, there's no need to think outside of the city limits—if the rest of the state is considered at all, it's as home to the conservative voting blocks who skew our statewide elections, or to the suburbanites whose unfashionable displays of racial and socioeconomic diversity "ruin" downtown during the Rose Festival.
This weekend, Sojourn Theatre opens a new show that asks Portlanders to think about where we're situated in relation to the rest of the state—and asks one rural Oregon town to consider the same question. On the Table is Sojourn's first show in Oregon since TBA:08's Built. The new show aims to explore notions of identity and place in Oregon's urban and rural environments, themes that the development-focused Built kicked around as well. On paper, it sounds a little academic—in practice, it sounds delicious. From that dry-sounding summation comes what promises to be one of the most innovative, thought-provoking, and hunger-satisfying shows of the summer.
Each night of On the Table's short run begins with two separate 45-person audiences, one in Portland (population 582,130), one in Molalla (population 7,800). Each audience watches the first act of the show, set at the 1890s funeral of a prominent community member. Then both groups hop on buses to Oregon City, with the second act unfolding along the way—"using technology to connect Portlanders and Molallans before they actually meet," explains Sojourn Artistic Director Michael Rohd, somewhat mysteriously. Ultimately, the audiences meet, share a meal (Mexican, provided by Mayahuel Catering), and enjoy the show's final act, which fittingly takes place in the suburban location that once marked the end of the Oregon Trail. (Everyone will ultimately be bussed back to their starting points—no one's going to get stranded in Oregon City.)
Over the course of the show's development, Sojourn has worked to develop relationships with Molalla—partnering with the supportive Molalla Arts Commission to develop the show, performing excerpts of the show at poetry readings, exploring arts walk events on Molalla's Second Fridays, even visiting the Buckaroo Rodeo as guests of honors. Though years of work and much research have gone into the production, "It's not a documentary," explains Rohd. It's an attempt, through historical fiction and some unique "journey-based" theater-making, to inspire audiences to think differently about the places in which they live. "Experiences are what move audiences beyond the limits of daily discourse," says Rohd. "I would like us to be a part of that. If we can do that and make it fun...."
Participatory theater done wrong can be at best arrogant and at worst excruciatingly uncomfortable. But Sojourn's got a track record of making this kind of thing work—witness Built, in which audience members took fake condo tours of the South Waterfront, snacked on fresh melon and cookies, and ultimately worked together to design their own ideal built environment. Audiences can expect a tightly orchestrated, facilitated experience that nonetheless allows room for discourse—and some pretty good Mexican food, too. And all in the service of examining, as Rohd puts it, "How you define place, and how place defines you."