For three years, Mark Russell has served as TBA's guest artistic director. Now at the end of his tenure, he spoke with the Mercury about his experience helming Portland's biggest arts festival.
MERCURY: This festival marks the end of your three-year stint at PICA. Did you have any specific goals when you started?
MARK RUSSELL: I just hoped not to break it. I knew that it was a pretty great treasure that Kristy [Edmunds, PICA founder and TBA's original curator] entrusted me with, and I was just trying to find a way to add my energy to it. And I think I found that. I wanted it to be a really inclusive festival. I wanted to open it up and get more people to be aware of the festival, and to some extent do programming that would involve more of the community. [I wanted to] let them know that this performance art—this "time-based art"—isn't a strange elite thing. It's something that everyone can participate in.
Did you have much of a connection to Portland before you started working with PICA?
I'd been out here to visit Kristy, but I hadn't been to the festival. Then I came out for that first festival after I got the job, which was just a great revelation.
In what way?
Just the whole way this festival is. It can take over the city for 10 days... and the [multiple] levels of it. The Works. The institute part. Using all these big theaters, small theaters, doing things site specific. It has so many great things it can do and I was also really jazzed by the way the whole community was participating in it, was intersecting with it. The pride that so many people have in this festival.
Are there any acts that you are particularly proud of having brought to Portland?
I think the way everybody embraced the Nature Theater of Oklahoma was something really special. I've known those artists for a long time, since they first got to New York City. And then it was great to see the whole city of Portland think they were just as great as I thought they were and become such rabid fans of them. It's going to be odd not having them here this festival. I had to stop at some point.
How about this upcoming festival, anything in particular you are really excited about?
You know they are all my children. They are all fabulous. I've been trying to wrap my head around how do I do the elevator speech for this festival... you know what that is, where you have to tell the nature of your business before you hit the third floor? I can't do that because it's got so many things going on in it. I'm really excited about Mike Daisey coming. I'm excited about all the French stuff. I'm really jazzed... jazzed, where did I get that word? I'm really psyched for Antony and the Johnsons.
How is the festival informed by the fact that it's in Portland?
Portland is the perfect size city for this type of event. It's not [so large that there are] a whole lot of other things happening which would drown out something this delicate. So you can get a lot of people involved. You can get a lot of people excited about it. So they take their vacations and come to the festival. It's in a city that's really looking at the future all the time. I'm amazed at that and it just invigorates me all the time to be in Portland and talking to people because they are always thinking way outside the box. So that kind of audience, that kind of great challenging audience, makes this festival special.
Is there anything else you want to tell people while I've got you on the horn?
I think this might be one of the best festivals I've been able to put together. I have really, really high hopes for it. There are a lot of projects, like Tim Etchells [see event listing], that I've been trying to bring [to the festival] for three or four years. And finally, we've been able to make it happen. Same thing with Antony [and the Johnsons, see event listing]. I saw him perform at the festival at the Works in '05, I think it was, and I wanted to bring him back and put him on a big stage. So, now we're able to do that. There are a lot of things that have come full circle for me and I'm also really excited to be handing this off to Cathy Edwards. I can't think of a better person to take it on.