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November 27th, 2013 REBECCA JACOBSON | Theater
 

Stage Whispers

A local podcast unleashes no-holds-barred theater criticism, with a shot of scotch.

perf_uselessdegrees_4004DRAMS AND DRAMA: James Engberg (left) and Eric Gilgore drink and discuss. - IMAGE: Misha Ashton Moore
Deep in Happy Valley on a blustery Monday evening, in a room lined with posters of Katy Perry and Bruce Springsteen, James Engberg and Eric Kilgore are drinking Scotch and discussing Bertolt Brecht. A whiteboard propped up nearby has been scrawled with notes. “Fine cast,” one note reads. Another asks: “Directing: Where was it?” Shania Twain plays faintly in the background.

This is where, each week, Engberg and Kilgore gather to debate—and frequently malign—the state of Portland’s theater scene. The two produce a weekly podcast called 5 Useless Degrees & A Bottle of Scotch, a show that allows the longtime friends, who met at the University of Portland in 1993, to gab about their mutual loves of whisky and theater. On this particular evening, neither the Scotch nor the play is faring particularly well. The Pig’s Nose Blended Scotch in their rounded Glencairn glasses tastes like either creamy pus or moldy cucumber, depending on which man you ask, and Lakewood Theatre Company’s Inspecting Carol “didn’t work really well,” in Engberg’s gentle words.

That comment is an unusually charitable one. In the nearly 40 weeks that Engberg and Kilgore have produced the podcast, the two have stuck firmly to their mission to be fair but critical, something they think local criticism is often too soft to do. “A lot of criticism about Portland theater is boosterism,” says Engberg. “Criticism that’s just ‘rah rah rah!’ is actually doing theater a disservice.”

Instead, they have no qualms about laying into a production, as they did with Portland Playhouse’s Detroit this fall. To Kilgore, that production represented “everything that is wrong with Portland theater.” Engberg and Kilgore’s no-holds-barred approach is refreshing, and it’s backed up by an impressive educational pedigree: The “5 degrees” in the podcast’s title refers to the five theater degrees they share, “useless” because they both now work in IT. On air, they’re affable and knowledgeable, inclined to name-drop playwrights or theater theorists but with the lively rapport and frequent laughter of two guys who’ve known each other for 20 years.

In a city with a crowded theater scene but just a handful of critics, the 40-minute podcast is a valuable little gem, enriching the dialogue about local performance. Engberg and Kilgore have also formed their own critical creed. For example, they don’t accept complimentary review tickets. “There’s an ethical reason behind it,” Engberg says. “We don’t want comps because it may lead to an air of bias. We have just raked some shows over the coals, and it seems like those companies are always the ones that ask us if we want comps.”

“We also want to pay for the seats we’re occupying,” adds Kilgore. “We want to support the companies we’re going to see.” And, he notes, it allows them to discuss the cost of theater honestly, something that’s generally absent in local criticism.

Prior to launching the podcast—their memories of its genesis are a little fuzzy, but they started it after ditching the idea of producing a Brecht play—the two hadn’t been attending much theater. The recent immersion has at times been rough. They have a flask rating system that goes against the star system: Fewer flasks are good, because it means they didn’t need to fortify themselves against schlocky acting or ham-fisted didacticism during a show. (And they do generally bring their flasks to the theater, though some companies—Third Rail Rep, for one—have warned them against it.) It’s rare that a production earns only one or two flasks.

They point to a number of problems in Portland’s theater scene, but much of it comes down to complacency. Theater companies, they say, aren’t inquisitive enough. “There’s just so much mediocrity that I wonder what they’re asking themselves,” Kilgore says. “Many of these companies are just going through the motions. They pick a season and they do it, and they never stop to wonder why.”

Nor, Engberg says, are they truthful with themselves about the results. “To get to a certain place in the preparation of a production and realize that it’s not up to a really high standard and yet to go forward with it—there’s not a lack of talent in this town, but there’s a lack of honesty,” he says.

Yet they haven’t soured on the enterprise entirely. “Every show we go into, I’m hopeful that what I’m about to see is going to be inspiring,” Kilgore says, “and that I’m going to walk out feeling refreshed.”


LISTEN: 5 Useless Degrees & A Bottle of Scotch can be heard at 5uselessdegrees.blogspot.com and on iTunes.

 
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