Tim Gillis

Tim Gillis

Bloomsday's Back — Tony Reilly's AIRE Renews a Love of Joyce

Tony Reilly Ulysses for   Beginners

Tony Reilly in "Ulysses for Beginners"

The American Irish Repertory Theater (AIRE) is bringing back their original show "Bloomsday for Beginners," its celebration of June 16, the day that the action takes place in James Joyce’s much-revered-but perhaps-lesser-read masterwork, Ulysses.

In one hour, the troupe will take you through the perambulations of Leopold Bloom, the main character and Irish Odysseus who wanders the Dublin streets and pubs and, at one point, a brothel. It's there that he meets up with Stephen Daedalus, the artist Joyce paints a portrait of in his earlier, more accessible work. Bloom is chaste in the scene, and spends his time trying to sober up Stephen and keep him from the missteps of youth. Meanwhile, back at his house, his wife Molly Bloom has been the opposite of her Ulysses counterpart, Penelope, who kept her suitors at bay, weaving and unweaving.

The annual AIRE production brings this marvelous cast of characters to life, in full brogueThe rollicking adaptation was written by AIRE Artistic Director Tony Reilly using scenes, songs, and lots of humor to explain the story line.

“I had read Ulysses and several other Joyce books," Reilly said this week. "But I wasn't a fanatic, as I soon learned a lot of people are.”

Since that initial production, AIRE and the Maine Irish Heritage Center have done many Bloomsday celebrations, including readings of the book by local Portland celebrities, pub crawls and readings at landmarks like Monument Square, the Portland Public Library, and book stores.

My wife Susan and I came up here to Portland to live in 2003. We had a previous relationship with the MIHC (Maine Irish Heritage Center) and our goal was to establish an Irish theater company, which we did. AIRE (American Irish Repertory Ensemble. In 2004 members of the MIHC wanted to celebrate the 100th anniversary of "Bloomsday" — June 16th, 1904, the day the events in the book James Joyce novel Ulysses are set. Everyone had good ideas but they were having a hard time implementing them. I very foolishly stepped up and said that I would put together a theater piece for the occasion. I sat down and reduced probably one of the most difficult and important books in the English language to a one-hour piece."

Reilly says "Bloomsday For Beginners" is a play for anyone who has read and appreciated Joyce's version — or those who haven't and never intend to. "It's silly, fun and fast," he says. "And it actually covers the whole book in one hour." 

Tony and his wife, Susan, were in a tragic car accident that claimed Susan’s life. Tony’s return to the stage they once shared has been an inspiration to center members, theater fans, and actors everywhere. “We love Tony, and we love that he’s back here,” O’Malley said. His return, though incredibly difficult, has inspired Tony as well.

I have to say that Susan was the prime mover and shaker on the Portland Bloomsday activities. Every year, she and a handful of local devotees would work very hard, to make it a fun and memorable event. When I was still in the hospital after the accident that took my wife, I got a call from members of the AIRE board that gingerly said ‘would you maybe consider doing Ulysses for Beginners this year? At the time I immediately said ‘yes,’ even though I don’t even think I was able to walk yet. After the initial yes, I started thinking that I was nuts to do it. But the thought of honoring Susan and her memory was too strong, and it was the best thing I could have done,” Reilly said. “The response that night (June 16, 2015) at the MIHC was overwhelming. ‘Ulysses’ is a funny book that attracts a very strong following. And its a very strong part of Irish culture, and that’s what AIRE and MIHC are all about: celebrating and spreading Irish joy.

The MIHC plans to keep the tribute going with an exhibit of their collection of Joyce’s books, memorabilia, and a screening of The Dead, John Huston’s final film starring his daughter Anjelica Huston. Many cities in the US such as New York, Buffalo, and San Francisco have their own unique ways of celebrating, and with its potent literary scene, Portland is throwing in its dented hat. Last year, the MIHC hosted the 1st annual Welcome the Stranger, a local organization that helps new immigrants with issues surrounding their refugee status and seeking of asylum.

 


"Bloomsday for Beginners," readings and performances by AIRE (American Irish Repertory Ensemble) | Fri June 16, 7 p.m. | Maine Irish Heritage Center, 34 Gray Street, Portland | Free

  • Published in Theater

The Wolf and the Dove: Tracing ancestry and unpacking grief with Arabic-inspired flamenco dance

There are so many cultural things to do around town that one is never at a loss for an evening of dance, music, poetry, storytelling, or art. But even in these artistic environs, it’s unusual to find them all combined in one show.

 

“El Lobo y La Paloma” (The Wolf and The Dove) is a flamenco dance performance choreographed by Lindsey Bourassa that will be held Saturday, June 3, in South Portland.

 

“This work was inspired by the loss of my own father but also includes the universal experience of loss — that of losing a loved one, a homeland, a freedom, a right, an identity,” Bourassa said last week from her Forest Avenue studio, which she’s owned since 2014. “It’s about the reconstruction of our relationship with our lost being through the process of grief and healing.”

 

In addition to the original dance stylings of Bourassa and dancer Megan Keogh, it features Arabic singer Talal Alzefiri, oud player Thomas Kovacevic, and the paintings of Khosro Berahmandi, a Canadian-Iranian artist.

 

Videographer Ali Mann gives the live performance a visual backdrop, with images of the recurring wolf and dove symbols, and Molly Angie designed simple but symbolically colored dresses that move from dark to light. The Iraqi poet Kifah Abdulla translated original verses, odes to the dead written by Bourassa and her father, into Arabic.

 

This dazzling line-up of cultures and art forms is supported in part by a project grant from the Maine Arts Commission. It’s the liveliest of creative performances, but it has its origins in a difficult grieving process.

 

In 2015, Bourassa’s father, David, was dying of pulmonary fibrosis. She had recently returned from a year of studying flamenco dance in Spain, and able so spend some treasured time with him before he passed. She subsequently resolved to create an artistic response, a way out of her grief.

 

“I’ve always made work based on life experience, so that was the starting point,” she said. “During the time he was dying, I came to believe in the possibility of building a spiritual relationship with those who have passed … the choice of Arabic music to accompany the flamenco dance reflects one branch of flamenco’s ancestry, which guides the unfolding of this story.”

 

The story Bourassa created involves a wolf and a dove, symbols she kept encountering in the months leading to her father’s passing.

 

“My father named the wolf his spirit animal,” she explained. “In studying the meaning of animal symbolism in diverse traditions, I came to discover that wolves represent pathfinders … (and) that the dove is a symbol of the maternal spirit messenger who comes to lead her children safely from struggle.”

 

Later, when going through her father’s things, she discovered poems he had written when he lost his mother. Bourassa decided to write poetic responses to his odes, crafting the eventual narrative.

 

When it came to choreography, she had several options to choose from. In flamenco, there are many styles of dance—maybe 45 styles, according to Bourassa—each with its own melody or feeling. She selected seven different flamenco and Arabic styles. Kovacevic then created oud music for the seven paired-poems (Bourassa’s father and hers), and Alzefiri “sang in a way that went with the music,” she said.

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Providing the sonic textures and backdrop needed for Bourassa's flamenco show are oud player Tom Kovacevic and Arabic singer Talal Alzefiri.

The project was a return to the past for Alzefiri, who is from Kuwait City and moved to Westbrook in 2010. He grew up with a family of singers—his father, Ebra, and five uncles—and experienced music as part of daily life. When he left Kuwait, that all changed.

 

“I stopped singing when I came here,” he said. “I was focused on finishing high school and was facing a hard time with my grandmother’s death. I turned away from singing. But when I first saw this flamenco dance and the style they do it, it reminded me a lot of my culture and brought me back to my childhood. That’s when I really started to go back to singing.”

 

Alzefiri has even more to sing about lately. Last year, he got his United States citizenship, after a five-year process.

 

“It’s wonderful to finally have a piece of paper in my hand. Now I can travel,” he said. “And that’s the most beautiful thing about this project: Lindsey is a very hard worker—how she was able to bring so many cultures together.”

 

Cultures combine, and the performance whirls in and out of genres. Behind the unfolding works of music and dance, two poems are simultaneously narrated. These verses are layered atop video imagery of the natural world that is interspersed with digitally projected paintings.

 

The production represents an end and a beginning for Bourassa. She completed her Certificate of Professionalization in Flamenco Arts in Spain in 2012 at El Centro de Arte y Flamenco de Sevilla. When she returned to Maine, she wanted to start something.

“There was no flamenco in Maine, and I wanted to create something based on these rhythms,”] is because this is the reasoning behind creating Olas - to create something reminiscent of flamenco, but with local artists of diverse genres. Olas lasted from 2008 to 2016. El Lobo y La Paloma is my own work, a Bourassa Dance production, and departs from Olas. It was made in collaboration with several artists, three of which were also members of Olas (Megan Keogh, Tom Kovacevic and Molly Angie). Talal, Khosro, and Kifah are all new collaborators to my work.

The flamenco community in Maine is still small, but it’s growing. I’m trying to teach as true to the art form as I can.”

“El Lobo y La Paloma,” performance by Lindsey Bourassa | Sat 7 pm | June 3 | South Portland High School Auditorium 637 Highland Ave., South Portland

 

  • Published in Music

Tiki Take Two — Rhum Revamps Its Menu

The Portland restaurant scene is so competitive that it often takes a creative approach to opening a new eatery.

 

Last year, two seasoned industry vets teamed up with two local developers to form the 5th Food Group. Jason Loring and Michael Fraser sat down with Jed Troubh and Chris Thompson to figure out how to keep track of each of their existing investments while venturing forward in two new fooderies—Rhum Tiki Lounge on North Cross Street and Big J’s on Thompson’s Point, both in Portland.

 

“It’s taken a bit for us to get our feet under us and find everyone for the right positions,” Loring said.

Rhum brought on Trevin Hutchins as bar manager in March, and Chad Egeland to manage the kitchen, resulting in a brand new menu.

“On our new menu, we wanted to do something more approachable, fun, stick-to-your-ribs food,” Loring said. “People drinking want to fill themselves up, not with something light. Our food’s nostalgic. It hits on Chinese, Asian. Our lo mein reminds you of a local Chinese restaurant, done with a little more care.”

Loring, of course, has had his hands full with burger joint Nosh and the Sicilian-inspired pizza restaurant Slab, which he opened after selling Taco Escobarr. Michael Fraser was juggling the Bramhall Pub and new plans for the Roma Café, which he plans to resurrect in July. Chris Thompson, a principal at Thompson’s Point Development Co., and Jed Troubh, a partner there, had their hands full with a major expansion of food, beer, and music at Thompson’s Point. While the group's banding together has been a boon in an already bustling industry, at the time it felt like a calculated risk.

 

“We met with them a couple times a week for a year and got comfortable with each other, and to find out what we wanted to do," Loring says. "So we formed a restaurant group—the 5th Food Group. Like the four food groups, we’re the fifth.”

 

Their 60-plus years of restaurant experience came into play quickly when early success at Rhum led to long waits that could have unsettled their new regulars.

 

“We’re not overpriced; it’s all quality and value-driven and people don’t always understand that," Loring explains. "The response at the beginning was insane, and there was backlash from people having to wait, issues with getting the right bar staff. We went through difficult times with customers, but many hung on. We wanted to show them our improvements and expanded drink menu.”

In addition to Hutchins at the bar, he lured Egeland, his “chef de cuisine,” from the Thai fusion restaurant Boda in the West End.

 

“The new drink options are Tiki-driven, a nice mix of classic cocktails, like Trader Vic’s,” Hutchins said. “And we bring in more 'modern Tiki' with updated flavor profiles, like the Thatched Roof, based off Monk’s Respite, using a bright fresh green chili vodka. And Dead On Arrival, our version of a Zombie.”

He says this is where the value comes in. “It’s a $14 cocktail, but you’re essentially getting two for one,” he says. “It’s a big drink. We need to have a two-cocktail limit.”

Over on the food side, the Rangoon dip comes with wontons and is the biggest seller. “We offer a pupu platter for two, a throwback to your childhood sit-down restaurant,” Egeland said, “as well as General Tso’s lo mein and a soy sauce Kimchi rice bowl. We’ve started selling four, five times the food, and the customers have received it well.”

Loring said he came up with the menu with Chad, “but now it’s all him with a crew of three guys.”

“Each of us are prep cooks, line cooks, and dishwashers,” Egeland said. “It’s a team mentality. No one is like ‘Oh, I’m just a prep cook.’”

“It’s like Nosh meets Chinese food, with fun and forward flavor ideas,” Loring said. “It may not be people’s first thought when they go to a bar where you get turkey sandwiches. But in the way we approach it, food isn’t an afterthought.”

 food Rhum tabledrink

That was Then

 

Much lauded now, the Portland restaurant scene used to be much more subdued. Loring, whose first kitchen job was at the Back Bay Grill, remembers the less lucrative times.

“Back then [in the mid-'90s] it was just us (BBG). Stephen King’s daughter had Tabitha’s Jean’s, but it was short-lived. There were a few others—probably 90 percent fewer restaurants—maybe five or so," Loring recollects. "Congress Street had nothing.”

 

In 2010, Loring helped bring Portland, Maine, to the food map when Nosh’s Apocalypse Now burger—packed with crisp pork belly, bacon, foie gras paté, mayo, cherry jam, and American cheese—and its bacon-dusted fries were featured on the Food Network’s “Man vs. Food.” The newfound relative fame brought with it a reputation for admittedly fatty foods offered to the late-night bar crowd, as well as a reputation for creative menu items that extended to his other ventures. Now he has a handful of investments, so to get it all done, he balances time between restaurants and has managing partners at each one.

 

“They manage the staff. I have weekly meetings with partners and managers, and I’m around all the time. I try to stop into every restaurant during the week, but this (Rhum) has been the place where I spend most of my time lately, getting where we want it to be.”

 

 

This is Now

 

The spacious Rhum can accommodate large parties, with shareable food and shared bowls of booze for two to twelve. They plan to open a new patio this summer, with outside seating and lighting, under an alcove on the side of the street.

 

“The only reason to be in this business is if you love making food,” Loring explains. “You do not get rich quick."

"People look at me like I have all these restaurants, and I just bought a used car four years ago. Competition in Portland is huge, with so much high-end food in a simple setting. There’s casual and fast-casual, which you didn’t see before. It’s even harder to stay in the thick of it when people can spend $100 to $300 and it’s always good.”

 

The Rhum Tiki Lounge | 98 North Cross St., Portland | Mon-Sat 4 pm-1 am; Sun noon-10 pm | Happy Hour Mon-Fri 4 -7 pm | www.rhumportland.com

 

  • Published in Food

BobbyWasabi Goes Pro: A Teenage Portland Gamer's Quest for Glory and Riches

Soccer moms load their kids in minivans, encouraging their dreams of going pro. Dads pace or squirm nervously on sidelines or in the stands. High school coaches steer young athletes toward playing sports in college or beyond.

But while competitive sports can be their own reward, those seeking big money for their efforts often do so in vain. Statistics show that very few traditional athletes that play in high school continue onto college or pro (the NCAA estimates between .9 and 9.1 percent).

Robert Wilson, a senior at Waynflete High School in Portland, is already a pro player, with a sponsor and an upcoming paid trip to Las Vegas to compete in an international competition of skill and endurance. Basketball? Nope. Football? No, he’s never played.

Instead, Wilson’s an eSports player.

Wilson’s among the growing number of millennials who take video games to a serious, professional level. He’s among those sharp enough to monetize what’s often considered a mindless hobby by competing for cash before graduating.

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Robert Wilson, AKA BobbyWasabi.

Wilson — or BobbyWasabi as he’s known in gaming circles — recently won a tourney at the HUD Gaming Lounge in Portland, pocketing $125 in three hours. He estimates he spent 500 hours playing Super Smash Bros. to get to that level, from its Nintendo inception in 1999 on N64 to the radically improved newest version on the Nintendo WiiU. Apart from the money, the win gained him notoriety with a sponsor, Super Nova, a company that mainly offers apparel, energy pills, and some gaming news.

“They help get my name out, I help get their name out,’ Wilson said. “I wear their jerseys, help advertise their merch and other teams under the Super Nova umbrella.”

Ben Baker has been gaming around town since 2012, and now runs tournaments in Waterville similar to HUD’s that bring gamers together to compete for moderate prizes. Baker was Super Nova’s first Smash player and helped get Wilson on board. They are doubles partners now, although Baker’s work schedule prevents him from the Vegas trip. He’s going to Florida in June for Community Effort Orlando, another national tournament.

“Back then, I would've never thought gaming could be a career," Baker said. "It wasn't until I got more involved in fighting games that it really clicked with me that it’s possible." Baker says a turning point was when he found the Maine Fighting Gamers Alliance page on Facebook. "I started getting really into Street Fighter IV , and then traveled to Calgary in 2011 for Canada Cup, a major tournament. It really started to sink in with me that it could be a career.”

Super Nova is flying Wilson to Las Vegas in July for EVO 2017, a tourney which bills itself as the "world's largest fighting game event," where he will pit his Super Smash Bros. skills against the world’s best gamers. For a $75 ticket (and another $48-97 ticket to participate in or watch the finals), competitors there will play on a WiiU or Nintendo GameCube decked out in game gear, sugared drinks, and junk food. Big winners will pocket thousands.

“The scene for Smash in the state has grown insanely since I joined, and even at a state level it really can be a worthwhile and profitable hobby,” Baker said. “The better players with the right mindset and passion can easily take it to the next step with all these national events and such popping up.”

Wilson plays as Pikachu (Pokémon) and Villager (Animal Crossing) and is considered the best in the state with these characters. Tournaments usually last anywhere between three to eight hours. Bigger tournaments like Shine and EVO span three days and attract hundreds of gamers from across the globe.

“The most unenjoyable aspect would have to be stress that comes with playing. If I'm ever in an intense match, I sometimes start to shake or get nervous that I could get knocked out of the tournament,” he said. “It's a blessing and a curse though, since I find that I often play better when stakes are high.”

While juggling final exams, he still gets in 30 minutes of practice daily, playing in training mode or online against gamers who challenge him on his Twitch livestream account. He does video game reviews on YouTube, and stays fresh with other games like Mario Kart 8 Deluxe and Persona 5. Even when he's not competing, gaming is a major part of Wilson's life.

“I’m working on 100 percent completion of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and looking forward to the release of Splatoon 2 , ARMS, and Super Mario Odyssey,” he says. Wilson is just a high schooler, but already making his first — albeit modest — paycheck doing what he loves.

 

INSTITUTIONAL GAMING

High school sports are an essential part of the teen years, but parents and coaches who feed their children the line that their time invested in a year of sports will pay them back with college scholarships or professional jobs are often misleading.

According to Forbes magazine, the gaming industry continues to grow. As it does, those within the industry assert that more and more jobs will be available. “The economic impact of the gaming industry to the US GDP was over $11 billion in 2016, and that number is certain to grow for the foreseeable future,” according to the magazine. (This figure includes those in programming and writing code — not simply professional gamers.)

BOYS PUSHING BUTTONS

One trait about eSports Wilson acknowledges is its tendency to foster an environment that is unwelcoming to women.

“It’s a very male-dominated profession. This is in part due to a lot of community’s sexism and discrimination towards female players and enthusiasts,” Wilson says. “A lot of this plays into both the anonymity aspect of players online, as well as a long running stereotype that girls aren't that into ‘real video games.’

That the gaming industry has its problems welcoming women is hardly news. The #Gamergate controversy of 2014, when a female developer was repeatedly threatened, doxed, and harassed online, exposed the deep sexism and misogyny embedded in the gaming world.

And while there's more to that story (and the political alliances behind it), Wilson and others hope the world of eSports can grow into its diversity. "The field is completely open, especially when you consider how sports are separated by men’s leagues and women’s leagues due to biological physicality," he says. "With eSports, that factor doesn't play a part when competing at a high level. Endurance, strong mentality, and overall skill at the game are all that matter.”

As an example, Wilson says his girlfriend doesn't often play video games, yet "has a blast while playing as ‘Kirby,’" an adorable ball of pink puff who was designed to be very accessible to more novice players. "The brilliance is that accessibility in Smash Bros. does not equate to hand-holding or a crutch to stand on, and that's where the true social aspect of Super Smash Bros. shines.”

But securing financial dividends within the young industry is something of a gamble. While 27 million people play League of Legends each day, just 40 professionals earn salaried positions in the North American League. Players can also earn ad dollars when fans livestream their games on websites like Twitch and Azubu TV. But gamers say only a handful of players can earn enough to make a living.

Wilson wants to be one of those handfuls.

“My dad (Grant) told me ever since I could move my hands, I had a Gameboy in them,” Wilson said. “At age two, I was playing Super Mario Land and Alleyway , and since then I’ve been so drawn to video games. At three, I got a GameCube for Christmas and was in line at age seven to get a Nintendo Wii with dad when it came out.”

Super Smash Bros. Brawl was released two years later, and marked the first time he entered a tournament — at 13 years old, the PortCon 2012 tourney for SSB Brawl .

“I got knocked out immediately, but it was one of the first times I was exposed to a community of people who also play this game, other than my brothers (Ike and Trip) or friends from school.”

Next year, Wilson is headed to Emerson College, where he can add a scholastic approach to his gaming habits. Emerson has recently started a program for eSports gamers in the Communications Department. “It’s what partially attracted me there. I was also looking for journalism and communications,” he said. “After seeing what they are doing with the program there solidified my decision to go.”

He considered other schools — Champlain College in Burlington, Vermont, is known for its gaming design program and offers a competitive gaming community.

The takeaway of all this? There’s big money out there for dedicated gamers, or big fans of the industry and its creative mechanisms. But on top of that, there are job opportunities for those looking to host gaming events like these. Production, organization, planning, coverage, commentary are also possible vocations.

“A lot of people go into game development. The gaming industry is worth more than $70 billion a year, and there aren’t huge CEOs to pay that are taking most of it as a lot of those sales are in indie games and small studios,” said Gabe Letourneau, founder of HUD gaming lounge, which opened in Biddeford and made the move north to Portland last year. VR and AR (augmented reality) are also growing fields and will require new creative minds to learn to program and code games and experiences for them and is sure to become a lucrative skillset in the coming years.”

More eSport events would open the door to a new ripple to economies both local and national. eSports has found its home on Twitch.tv, a website dedicated to livestreams of players playing dgames either by themselves or online with viewers. eSport events are often broadcast on this site, though some major events like League of Legends , Dota 2, and Hearthstone tournaments can sometimes be found on legacy media like ESPN.

While these names may not all be familiar to the general public, Wilson's proficiency in these games is hardly esoteric. The biggest games in eSports now are League of Legends, Dota 2 , CS:GO, and Hearthstone. The biggest fighting games in eSports are the Smash Bros. suite (Super Smash Bros. [1999], Super Smash Bros. Melee [2001], Super Smash Bros. Brawl [2008], Super Smash Bros. [2014]), as well as Street Fighter, Guilty Gear , and Mortal Kombat.

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The HUD Gaming Lounge, a competitive (and casual) gaming space on Congress St. in Portland.
 
In Maine, gamers can play publicly, and competitively. A group of 20 to 50 people come together at one venue to compete in tourney or just play against each other. Most venues charge between $5 to $10, while some tourneys are free. For the prize level, pay an extra $5 and the top three winners grab some cash.

 

EGAMES IN MAINE HISTORY

Maine's eWorld was created, virtually, by Maine Competitive Gaming founders Marc Patenaude, Jordan Lovell, and Jordan Sage, whom Wilson calls “trailblazers for the gaming community in Maine.”

Late last year, the guys host tournaments at Howard Johnson’s in South Portland and the Maine Mall, both in collaboration with PortCon. They host doubles tournaments every other week at Arcadia National Bar, which offers Portland-area patrons arcade, console, pinball, and board games. MCG currently runs Rocket League and CSGO tournaments at HUD Gaming Lounge, and will be running a Super Smash Bros. event called “MCG Arena” in June.

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Gamers going head to head in the first person shooter CS-GO. 

Some of the best players in Maine can win money. The average prize pool for a monthly event can yield first placers $200. The tourneys SMCC holds every Thursday do not charge and players cannot win. Monthlies are posted Saturday night events with slightly higher stakes, turnout, and prizes.

Wilson is starting Timber Weeklies at Amigo's on Mondays, and future Timber Monthlies will be held at HoJo's in SoPo, with one planned for this Saturday, May 13. (“’Timber’” comes from a name of a move that the character “Villager” does,” Wilson explained. “She or he plants a tree, grows it and then cuts it down with an axe.”)

On a national scale, Wilson has an opportunity to cash in on his passion this summer. “I don't know what the prize is for EVO 2017,” Wilson said. “It all depends on the turnout of the event, but the numbers have been growing every year.” The prize pool last year was between $26,000 and $100,000, depending on the games. (Prizes at EVO are split between the top eight winners at a 60/20/10/4/2/2/1/1 distribution scale.)

Local eGaming merchants, too, have seen business tick up, often staying open all hours to meet client needs.

“We have seen a few players in our tournaments who could go pro — very talented gamers who blow us away whenever we see them compete,” says Letourneau. “Based on our live streams, comments, and likes on our Facebook page, there are clear favorites who have tons of people rooting for them to win, by commenting and interacting with our tournaments even if they aren’t playing.”

And business can be good for the gamers, too.

“Just as players of football, or baseball, or basketball, etc. who are really good become professional players, people who are really good at games follow a similar path,” he says. “Just as the pro traditional sports teams make money from sponsors and spectators, eSports are exactly the same, except the sponsors aren’t for cars or life insurance. It's for gaming gear, computer equipment, and Doritos.” 

Creating a World: The Secret Life of Portland's Most Shadowy Artists

By the time the opening night audience is seated, the curtain raised, and the lights brought up on any local stage around town, another cast of characters has already played their parts — vital, but behind the scenes. Well before the first line is uttered, designers, managers, and technicians have already created this dramatic world. Those in the theater business are well aware of their value, but to many a theatergoer, they are a lot like an official in a sports contest, only noticed if there is a mistake.

 

Arts of all stripes are in financial danger these days, with federal threats of funding cuts, and increased local competition for an audience. Many theater companies aim to appeal to the younger set, offering pay-what-you-can rates and price reductions. And theater techs get paid, but the money is not the source of their affinity for the genre and the labor involved to make a play come off without a hitch.  

 

“These people are who make it happen, but they don’t get the credit they deserve,” says Craig Robinson, technical director at Good Theater, the theater-in-residence at the St. Lawrence Arts Center in Portland, where he’s worked for all of its 15 years. The playwright has an idea, a vision, as does the director, but these theater technicians make this vision become a workable play. “When a theater company decides to do a play, two equally important teams are assembled, he said. “There are general scenic descriptions, and then we come in. From that first meeting, the play takes on parallel lives both onstage and off.

 

Scenic and lighting designers consider the physical stage space, in conjunction with the stage manager and technical director, he says, outlining the myriad decisions made before opening night. And there’s a ton of decisions that need to be made before that arrives.

 

“The scenic design is created and offered to the director, technical director, lighting designer, costume designer, and scenic painter. The director discusses staging and blocking. The technical director evaluates the physical details and safety of the design within their theater space. The lighting designer gathers the needs of all the others in the team to begin the lighting design and cues. The costumer begins design. The technical director does a take-off from the design plans to order lumber, paint, and supplies from local vendors. All these things have to happen before the build team is even called in.”

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A set Robinson built for a production at Good Theater.

 

Robinson has been involved in building 90 or so sets, he reckons, for Portland theater companies. He also takes performance pictures, B-roll, and pre-shoot publicity shots for area newspapers.

 

“Performance photos show the play from start to finish and keep a photographic history of these productions,” he says. The Portland area had only a handful of theater companies when he started out. “Now there are up to 15 or 20, of different sizes, with some stages designed solely for kids. It’s developing. More people are involved. It’s increased its exposure to more people, with more new productions written by local playwrights. And there’s a sharing of resources, especially by tech people. More than it used to be.” When necessary, tools, lighting structures, and costumes are resources that might move between companies. Human resources are the commodity that they also share.

 

Stacey Koloski is a director, set and props designer, and scenic painter. She’s a company member at Mad Horse Theatre Company and the Theater at Monmouth, and has worked as a freelancer for the American Irish Repertory Ensemble (AIRE), Dramatic Repertory Company, Lorem Ipsum, Ziggurat Theatre Ensemble, and the South Portland community theaters: Lyric Music Theater and Portland Players. She's also on the organizational committee for PortFringe, Maine's annual fringe theater festival which takes place in late June.

 

Between these several companies, she’s seen this type of sharing of resources throughout the theater world, increasingly imperiled by funding problems. She believes that the network has come about primarily because of the people involved and the number of theaters in the area that do not have their own physical spaces and storage.

 

“Many places accumulate stock, like costumes, props, and furniture — the number one request I get — that can be used by others. And in all cases, it doesn’t come with a price tag. People are willing to lend things out, knowing that when they need something, they will get it.”

 

Currently, Koloski is working on designing a set for the family show at Theater at Monmouth this summer, My Father’s Dragon, which opens in July. She started working on it last December. “We assembled the team for the show (the director, designers, tech directors) and held design meetings by phone in January,” she said. “The first draft of set designs passed back and forth between me and the director and were due in March to the theater, where the staff there reviews it in the context of all five of their summer shows, look at them together for what’s in stock and the costs if approved. They send the designs back. I then refine the color choices and furniture. In June, the guys in the shop build it.”

 

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L to R: Zoe Sporer, Meg Anderson, Anna Halloran, Craig Robinson, Dana Hopkins, Ted Gallant [Photo by Craig Robinson] 

Once considered disloyal by their theater bosses, freelancing techs are also a shared resource. They are better able to support themselves by working several gigs, and the theaters always seem to need their help. In addition to technical directors, a successful set needs master carpenters, electricians, prop masters, scenic painters, and production assistants. The physical construction begins, and walls, doors, windows, platforms, scenic elements, and masking are built. The props are gathered or made. The scenic painting is done as set construction allows. The stage manager gets the backstage space set up with tables for props, hooks for costumes, and carpeting for muffling backstage passage.

 

In addition to creating an environment, a great device for bringing a bygone age to life is an effective costume. But creativity has to compensate for cost. Anna Halloran, a costumer who has worked with Mad Horse Theatre Company, Lyric Music Theater, and children’s theaters, tries to track an idea down before resorting to cutting new cloth.

 

“A lot of it is locating costumes, going through stocks, finding something that matches your vision, “ she said. “If I can’t find it, I’ll make it. The theaters I work with tend to have limited budgets — $300 or less — which means I can’t custom-make pieces for each actor. Often times I’ll ‘shop in actor’s closets’ by borrowing staple pieces they might have. If the show is set in recent eras (from the 1980’s to now), I’ll source a lot from Goodwill or Wal-Mart. For pieces set in much earlier times, I will go to Lyric or Mad Horse costume stocks and search there. Both Mad Horse and Lyric have fabulous antique garments, some dating back to the 1920’s, so there are options out there. The great thing about fashion is it cycles every 30 years or so, meaning I can take outfits from different eras and add or subtract to make them more appropriate.”

She enjoys the challenges from plays such as Lysistrata, the interpretation of which by Mad Horse Theatre Company (in 2015) reflected many different time periods, instead of simply the traditional Ancient Greek.

 

“In Kimberly Akimbo (also from Mad Horse two seasons ago), the lead character is a young girl with an aging disease, played by an older woman. The best part was finding a childlike outfit for someone who wouldn’t necessarily wear it. It was cool creating the illusion. I did a lot of shopping for that one.”

 

Halloran started out as an actress, her first performance at seven years old on a children’s show called Tumbleweeds. “It was my birthday, me and my sister and a couple other kids my age,” she said of her early foray in theater and then its shift in point-of-view. “I started costuming in middle school — for comic book conventions, then I started doing it for the stage. My senior year of high school I costumed the senior musical, Pippin,and from there just kept going.”

 

The theater community is strong, and it seems that there is little friction between the acting troupes and the techs that support them.

“I have never worked with a cast that wasn't grateful for their tech crew. It's harder to feel the same gratitude from audiences. Often times if people aren't talking about the costumes I take it as a success because it means the design fit the show enough that it didn't distract,” she said. “When I costume, I put a lot of thought into depicting the character's story arch through color choice and style, so, selfishly, I would love to hear what people think, and if audiences pick up on such choices.”

Ted Gallant, the technical director for Portland Stage, has been with them since 1987, but he never would have predicted it. He was a foreign language major visiting a friend who worked there when he was offered a job as a carpenter. “I had no interest in working in theater at all,” he said. “I thought it would be a nice part-time job until I found a teaching position.”

 

After 15 years as assistant technical director there, he said he grew “tired of working for people who knew less than I did,” and approached Anita Stewart, executive and artistic director at Portland Stage, and asked for the tech director job.

 

In terms of changes in the business over the years, Gallant said he can only speak for Portland Stage, and that “since Anita took over, it’s a nice place to work. She fosters an environment where we can use our strengths. She adapts the job to our strengths.”

 

Theater sets are quality made constructions, but they are often quickly crafted. “We have between two to three weeks to build the set. Then we start loading the set into the space on a Monday morning and by Wednesday it is pretty much done,” he said.. “We focus lights on it Wednesday night so that’s why it must be ready by that time. Actors are on stage Thursday around noon.”

 

Some of the greatest challenges to theater techs are being able to reproduce Mother Nature indoors. “Water on stage is always a challenge,” Gallant said. “Making it rain. Water could either come from some pool of water you’re drawing from with a pump so the system recirculates or you could draw from an outside source, like the scene shop (located directly behind theater).” Between scenes, stagehands literally mop up after the actors.

 

When the last performance of the play run has ended, the “strike,” or deconstruction, of the set begins. All the technical people then work into the wee hours to clear the entire stage of their creation. Then the stage is empty and set for the next creation.

 

Theater companies strive for individuality of design, but the resulting stages are often different by other factors.

 

“Anita Stewart designs most of the shows at Portland Stage,” Gallant said. “I am not sure how it looks to someone outside of theater, but I notice a certain style that she has. Outside designers offer different styles, but often the play dictates the design. And that design often reflects the budget.”

 

In fact, a theater’s size and fiscal strength often determine the very plays they chose to produce. “Shows are often chosen, in part, by the cast size. The design has little to do with which shows are chosen,” he said. “Obviously, a large musical is out of the question for most small theaters. But it has less to do with design and more to do with the expense incurred with the cast, costumes, and musicians.”

 

“The proposed cuts to the NEA will affect all of us,” Robinson said. “When everyone is striving to survive, year to year. This is not a moneymaking proposition by any means. We do it for the love of it, not the income. If we spent as much for the arts as on warfare, that would be nice.”

 

Guidance through sports: After a Jewish Congregation turns to a squash facility, Portland's youth find community

When Greg Born’s son, David, was in high school, he was a dominant tennis player, mowing through many opponents and, as a sophomore, playing third singles on a team that made it to the state finals.

But when he went off to Bates College, he switched sports to join the nationally ranked men’s squash team there. Though he'd begun playing the sport only two years prior, David was able to transfer some of his tennis skills, something that would be a stretch for most athletes. Perhaps factoring most importantly in his switch was his dedication to academics and a similar commitment to practicing and mastering the new sport. (I know this because David played on a high school tennis team that I coached.)

The Portland Community Squash hopes that this type of academic structure and athletic discipline will give Portland's youngsters a model for success.

Greg Born, Barrett Takesian, and Sandy Spaulding are founding members of the new squash facility on Noyes Street. Within the year, they hope to start a national program called “Urban Squash,” which will teach a specific group of promising but underprivileged local kids. They plan to incorporate the US Squash’s National Urban Squash Education Association, which introduces squash to new players while providing academic support, mentoring and help with college placement.

“I reacquainted with Barrett and Sandy four years ago, having known them through collegiate squash,” said Born, now an assistant coach at Bates College.

The elder Born picked the sport up just over a decade ago, but really made his mark as a table tennis player. He was state champion twice, in 1994 and 1997, and half of a doubles team that won the states six times.

When asked about the move to squash, he says it was a necessity, not a choice as it was with his son.

“They took away our ping-pong tables at the YMCA,” he said. “There was nothing else to play there (besides squash). I got hooked.”

A similar magnetic attraction has already filled the PCS courts in just a few months of operation. The planning of expanding the spread of places to play squash really began in 2008, with efforts to organize the group of players that were already playing the sport. 

“When I realized how much it costs to build and open a squash facility, I knew it wouldn’t be something I could do,” Born said. “But we tried to make it so others could come along and see the market opportunity. We focused on growing the sport in hopes that, with greater numbers, someone would recognize the demand.”

There are approximately 20 squash facilities in Maine, but half of these are in private residences, including eight on Mount Desert Island alone.

To create a place that was accessible to kids who wanted to learn the sport, PCS repurposed the former Congregation Shaarey Tphiloh.

PCS is funded with private donations — $1.5 million to buy and renovate — and is a 501(3)c non-profit. The building was purchased in October of last year. PCS was able to open this past January, 98 days of renovations from start to finish. They worked with Wright-Ryan, a local contractor who renovated the main hall and added locker rooms, showers, and a fitness center.

“For a non-profit like us, they were unbelievable to work with,” Born said.

Volunteers worked on the other half of the building. One father/son team knocked down a wall to help create classrooms that are now used for yoga, community meetings, and potluck suppers. A local string quartet practices there.

“We really are an entity that makes our city better. That’s the goal,” Born said. “The focus is primarily on kids, with the mission heavily supported by adult members.”

Memberships are $73 a month for individuals and $113 a month for families. The fee gets you unlimited squash (based on reservations for available courts), use of the gym, including plenty of opportunities to give as well as get.

“Part of the idea of being a member is you’re not just buying the services of an athletic facility. You’re joining a community,” Born said. “Members are encouraged to volunteer their time, helping kids learn squash, wellness, yoga. We want you to be part of academic support sessions and help mentor. We encourage kids to seek a balance between athletics and studies, and to learn things beyond just squash, to be more mindful of their bodies and surroundings.”

PCS has a three-pronged approach. In addition to adult memberships and a junior program, they plan to add “Rally Portland” for students in grades 6-12, modeled after NUSEA (National Urban Squash + Education Association). It’s designed for children whose families are not able to provide much help for them as they approach the college application process. Some of these kids will be the first in their families to even consider college.

“We want to provide academic support and guidance, and a structure,” Born said, “We end up being a liaison between kids, families, and schools to help make sure their homework is done, and assist in areas where they need it.” The long-term hope is that these capable youngsters go to college and return to their communities to become leaders there.

There are also some obvious health benefits to the sport. One has to be fit, strategic, and mindful of his or her surroundings.

“It’s a thinking person’s game,” Born said. “Unlike table tennis, which is ‘twitch reflex,’ squash rallies tend to be longer, especially with higher level players. Some rallies are more than 100 strokes long.”

And it’s a lifetime sport, as Born knows too well. He's faced off against Charlie Butt (for whom a court was dedicated this past weekend) when he was 82 years old. Butt was a member of the Chinese Olympic team in two sports — basketball and swimming. He won 22 national squash titles.

“He’s a legend,” Born said. “I loved playing him. He was twice as old as me at the time, and it was humbling to be on a court with him.”

The PCS center hopes local kids who pick up the sport will find a similar lifetime of fun, health, and the discipline that propels them to realize their own potential.

 

  • Published in Sports

Music Matters: Marcia Butler's Memoir The Skin Above My Knee at Print

One would think all childhood discoveries are the joyous sort, filling the young ones with wide-eyed wonder and doting parents with pride and love. But the rite of passage Marcia Butler describes in her new memoir, about being a professional oboist while living a complicated double life in New York, sounds a definitive down note.

As professional musician for 25 years, Butler performed as a principal oboist and soloist on some of the most renowned of New York and international stages, with many high-profile musicians and orchestra players — including pianist Andre Watts, composer and pianist Keith Jarrett and soprano Dawn Upshaw. But her early home life in the 1950s was full of physical and sexual abuse, perpetuated by her father and tacitly condoned by her mother.

“Music saved my life,” Butler said last week, ahead of her visit to Print bookstore for a reading from her new work, The Skin Above My Knee, on Thursday, March 16. But it was a life that would always be beset by depression, substance abuse, and dangerous decisions.

When Butler was young, the memoir tells, her father regularly abused her older sister, Jinx, while her mother ignored her pleas to step in. The household was always on edge, the family members awaiting his next violent outburst while attempting countermeasures to assuage his rage.

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In order to get her father to drive her to music lesson, Butler has to sit on his lap, a recurring act she perceived to be perverse. Even at four years old she senses something was wrong about it, but she trades on those intuitions so she can get to class.

Her life under the lights, she tells The Phoenix in a phone interview, always distracted others from her secrets and herself from their resulting pain. “My mother was profoundly distancing. My father acted on Jinx in an overt, physical way and on me in a covert way,” she said. “I always thought she had the harder time because my father’s abuse toward me was secret. We had this unspoken childhood agreement: he was brought to arousal while I was on his lap, and he would bring me to oboe lessons.”

Her memoir, published last month by Little, Brown and Company, details this harrowing journey as Butler, inspired by an early love for classical German opera, finds the drive to become a professional musician no matter the cost.

Along the way, she provides wonderfully rich and detailed interludes on classical music and the instruments and personalities that populate it, along with vignettes describing what musicians experience on stage before the lights go up, and what the stomach, head, and fingers feel during a performance. These passages blend with first-person accounts of her fractured home life, damaging relationships, tales of resorting to theft for survival, drug abuse, suicide attempts, cancer diagnoses.

“I was living parallel lives, of a professional oboist as well as living on a seedy level, and I wanted to delineate those two narratives,” Butler says. “This way of psychologically separating my personal life with my professional life was actually the way I lived my life.”

While the sections may seem thematically discordant, they both come back to the music. When she was a child, her mother would vacuum to the strains of Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde. Norwegian opera singer Kirsten Flagstad sang Isolde’s final aria, the Liebestod, while Butler lay on the carpet, feeling and hearing the buzzes.

“I didn’t know what it was about, but I sensed that this was a profound universal expression of love,” she said. Liebestod means love-death, and it was not too long before the young music student learned that the two go hand-in-hand.

“It was quite the experience for a four-year-old to have,” she said. “As instruments dropped in my lap as I grew older, I instinctively knew to hang onto this thing.”

“It’s a great book for musicians to read,” says Kate Beever, a local musician and founder of Maine Music & Health, a music therapy organization in southern Maine. “It tells her story, but also gives that extra thing to think about. If you go back and listen to the music and think about how she related to it, you start to think of it in a new way. If I learn about the composer’s life, I learn there’s a different aspect to the music.”

Beever employs music therapy with disabled clients, using instruments to help them find tactile and audible treatment. Her professional clients struggle mainly with developmental and intellectual disabilities, and she works with them in medical settings. She’s also taken them on the road, one time visiting the State Theatre to have them perform on stage, to feel the thrill even if in an empty venue.

While she says parts of the memoir made for tough reading, she loved the way Butler references actual pieces of music as we’re carried through the plot.

In Butler’s story, when not steeped in her music (or obsessively hand-making reeds), she lives a meager existence, surviving on a head of lettuce and saltines for meals. She steals from her roommate and uses phony subway tokens until she’s able to land a restaurant job. That work introduced her to a lifestyle of late nights, drinking and using drugs, and eventually the promiscuity she says she was initiated into at a young age.

“There was so much shame,” she says. “It felt devious, secretive, like everything was hidden. Growing up, not much was said about sex. Nothing was explained by my mother, of course, but I was experiencing sex (albeit in an abstracted form, which was really about power) with my father. It was a destructive, devastating exchange. When I got to New York City, I didn’t have a healthy understanding of what sex or love meant and I was unable to say no to anyone. I thought if a man wanted to be with me, I had to say yes. You think it’s freedom to say yes, but it’s a cage.”

Her relationships came to include such toxic exchanges that suicide seemed a viable escape. But for the intervention of a passerby, her suicide attempt walking into New York City traffic would have succeeded.

“I darted out and within seconds she pushed me to the side,” Butler said of the time she walked into traffic, amazed that someone had been watching her. “I was saved. It’s amazing what people see in New York City. Sometimes you see nothing, sometimes you see everything.”

Through that story and the many other tales within The Skin Above My Knee, Butler keeps the lens focused squarely on what she can be accountable for.

“I’m careful in the memoir not to take prisoners,” Butler says. “I report what happened to me. I wanted my book to be very clean and just about my own interactions with these people. Who knows what made these men behave the way they did? But you need a wide bandwidth of compassion.”

The art of using music as medicine, and practice and performance as therapy, has long been an industry truism. Portland has renown as a musical town, and musicians and their fans alike often seek the stage lights for solace from hard times. But not everything works toward the cure.

“Music therapy, in terms of self-medication, can be an escape, especially for children when they’re dealing with stuff they don’t understand,” Beever says. “It seems like there could be nothing wrong with music, but for some it can be detrimental. In same way you can drown yourself with anything — working out, for example. It’s the same with music. A person could be playing all the time and blocking out the world.

“I sometimes worry about people who say ‘music is my therapy.’ It’s good to have other activities — writing poetry, getting together with friends, getting out in nature.”

Beever says the Portland music scene doesn’t always provide the greatest of settings. “In bars, at parties — it’s like a cycle of unhealthiness. The music, the art itself, can be really healing, but the setting where a lot of us are forced to present our music can be detrimental, especially the rock scene. You go play, everyone’s drinking, you’re up late.”

But for Butler, music was the only way out, and well worth the risk.

Marcia Butler discusses her memoir The Skin Above My Knee | March 16, 7 p.m. | Print: A Bookstore, 273 Congress St., Portland | printbookstore.com

  • Published in Books

Have Fingers, Will Travel

While much of Maine was hunkering down and getting ready for another big snowfall, a few lucky ones made the trek to Mayo Street Arts on March 12 to get schooled in a guitar lesson that blends East and West.

Hiroya Tsukamoto, a New York-based guitarist and singer from Kyoto, Japan, led a workshop on “Cinematic Guitar Poetry,” a program which includes music, storytelling, and poetry.

In this intimate workshop, Michael Libby of Lewiston, Jon Sweeney of Eliot and Steve Bizub of Cape Elizabeth learned various techniques of fingerstyle guitar, wherein one plays guitar with the fingers or fingernails in place of a pick. Tsukamoto demonstrated various chords as well as basic musical theory.

In the workshop, he shared techniques that blend contemporary stylings with traditional aspects of the music from his home country. His musical influences growing up were decidedly Western — a lot of American rock and folk music, and of course some Axl Rose. He often enjoys mixing traditional Japanese music with an experimental side, using a loop pedal to record his voice and guitar in real time, and then creating layers on top of that.

“Though I play by myself, it sounds like an orchestra atmosphere,” Tsukamoto tells us. “I also improvise and some songs I keep very simple. I tell a lot of stories during a show, giving the Japanese background and history so people can connect with the music.”

Tsukamoto has been leading concerts internationally for several years now, including several appearances at Blue Note in New York City with his group and on Japanese national television. He performs more than one hundred shows a year across the U.S. and internationally.

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My first instrument was a five-string banjo,” he said from the Big Apple ahead of the Portland workshop. It’s an instrument he picked up when he was five. “I’d been playing different kinds of music, but listened to a lot of Simon and Garfunkel, the Carpenters, as well as bands like Guns ’N’ Roses. After Berklee, I became more focused on jazz, which made me think of moving to Boston permanently to study deeper.”

He stuck around Beantown for a year and then moved to New York City.

“I thought it would be good, but there are too many musicians there. It’s so competitive. In the beginning, I was more focused on jazz, after seeing all these talented guitar players, I started thinking about doing something different,” he said. “I became more of a solo guitar player and did whole concerts by myself. It was a big change. Also, after I moved to New York, I tried to follow the ‘train’ of the city, the contemporary vibe, but six years ago, I decided to go back to my past, all the way from where I came from. Now I try to compose songs with that base.”

In 2000, Tsukamoto received a scholarship to Berklee College of Music and came to the United States. In Boston, he formed his own group called Interoceanico, or Inter-oceanic, which consists of unique musicians from different continents (including Latin Grammy nominee Colombian singer Marta Gomez). The group has released three acclaimed records, “The Other Side of the World,” “Confluencia,” and “Where the River Shines.” Tsukamoto has released two solo albums, “Heartland” and “Places,” on the Japanese record label 333 discs.

Tsukamoto appeared as part of Mayo Street’s International Heritage Music Series, which is based on the idea that music is inherent to strengthening community in cultures around the world. The series celebrates regional music and dance traditions.

  • Published in Music

WHAT IS A CRIMINAL? The intersection of racial justice and policing in Portland

Jean Valjean is hungry so he steals a loaf of bread. He cannot work and his family is starving, so he commits this necessary act.


But Javert, the local police official, considers it a threat to society and pursues the protagonist of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables for hundreds of pages, convinced he is a criminal who will always return to committing crimes. The reader, on the other hand, roots for Valjean.


Rodion Raskolnikov, Dostoevsky's protagonist in Crime and Punishment, does not consider himself a criminal. He's an ubermensch, a superman who does not have to abide by the laws of men. When he kills a worthless pawnbroker, he thinks his premeditated murder no crime; in fact, he considers it a benefit to rid society of this usurious wretch. Only when he kills her younger sister, when she happens upon the scene, does he begin to feel the remorse that will be his undoing. The reader delights in the just suffering he endures.


What we think of these fictional criminals might be straightforward enough: a misdemeanor and a felony, respectively. But the settings of these novels — Revolution-era France and St. Petersburg in the 1860s — were relatively homogenous and told stories of class, not race. Today’s Portland, Maine, has an increasingly mixed population and a predominantly white police force. Issues of racial profiling are prevalent.


These issues were on tap for the season’s first Think & Drink, presented at SPACE Gallery on Feb. 28. Titled “What Is a Criminal?”, the event was the first in a four-part series of panel discussions called “Policing, Protection, Community, and Trust in the 21st Century,” sponsored by the Maine Humanities Council and moderated by Samaa Abdurraqib of the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence.

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Portland shows up to talk about policing in Portland at the SPACE Gallery's first "Think and Drink" event. 


Anne Schlitt, assistant director of the MHC, knew the first subject area needed representatives from all perspectives to weigh in.


“We collaborated deeply with the moderator to develop the content, and since it’s such a hot-button topic, we called together an advisory board,” Schlitt said. That group included Westbrook Police Chief Janine Roberts, Phippsburg Police Chief John Skroski, who brought a smaller rural policing perspective, Dr. Leroy M. Rowe, assistant professor of African American History and Politics at USM, Rachel Healy from the ACLU, Jim Burke from UMaine Law School, Danielle Conway, who in July of 2015 became the seventh dean and the first African American to lead Maine’s public law school since its founding in 1962, and Dr. Darren Ranco, chair of Native American Programs at the University of Maine.


“When we started, our interest in the topic of policing wasn’t immediately polarizing," Schlitt said. "We needed to dig in and understand the broader topics of policing and racial injustice. That’s the way we created the four sections [of the series], and tried to represent that with our panelists.” She adds that the theme was decided before the elections. Since that time hate crimes across the country — including bomb threats to Jewish schools, mosque burnings, heightened KKK presence, and destruction of cemeteries — have risen dramatically.


Schlitt has a personal interest in the subject, she says. Her husband, Erick Halpin, is a patrol office in Damariscotta. “It’s not one of the larger immigration populations. It’s largely white. His experience with race has been more theoretical.”


Abdurraqib doesn’t deal with incidents of police profiling in her work at the MCEDV, but works indirectly with both sides of policing. “I support advocates across the state who do direct support work, but they work more closely with police,” she said. “In my job, I’m providing training for law enforcement for risk assessment tools, so when they go to a domestic violence call, they can go through risk assessment to see whether a person who committed a domestic violence offense before is more likely to commit another one.”


For the discussion, the decision to do prep work with several members of law enforcement turned out to be crucial foresight. The panelists for the evening were Alicia Wilcox, from the School of Legal Studies, Husson University; Michael Rocque, a sociology professor from Bates College; and Carl Williams of the National Lawyers Guild. (The Portland Police Department was not represented, neither on the panel nor in attendance.)
Williams later voiced concern of the representational imbalance in an email.


“I don’t have experience with the police in Portland. As far as I know, no one from the police came to the community discussion. That seems unfortunate,” he wrote, stating that he was not commenting as a representative of the ACLU or the National Lawyers Guild. “I have heard of multiple incidences of Portland police killing community members. That is chilling. I am aware of the police and district attorney pursuing cases against Black Lives Matter protesters. That is upsetting. I have read and seen videos of Maine's governor saying things that appear to be openly racist. That is unacceptable.”

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The panelists: Michael Rocque, Alicia Wilcox, and Karl Williams. Photos courtesy of the Maine Humanities Council. 


These issues provided added impetus for the series’ content this year. “We’re deeply aware of the questions around race, and the way policing has been fraught over time, and how the issues have been bubbling to the surface,” Schlitt adds. "There’s no right or wrong answer. We’re interested in creating the conversation so people will be better informed as they go about the work of policy or policing. We hope members of law enforcement come to the sessions. Certainly, the panelists will provide a variety of perspectives to help the audience examine their own beliefs with fresh eyes.”
The consensus of the discussion, of panelists and audience alike at the packed SPACE Gallery, is that we are all criminals, whether of street or white-collar crime, misdemeanor or felony, and especially whether or not we get caught. Some of us are perceived as criminals beforehand and are policed accordingly. These perceptions are often based on race, gender, age, but also such factors as what neighborhood we’re in, what time of day or night it is, and what we’re wearing.  Language barriers can also present all kinds of problems. Drug use or mental illness can alter dramatically the nature of a police call.


Over the past 25 years, Maine averaged 2.5 police-involved shootings a year. But there were six shootings last year, and three already this year. At a point during the event, the most recent shooting, of a man with a BB rifle, was referenced.  “Say his name!” someone in the audience called. “Chance Baker,” another responded.


Of the panelists, Abdurraqib asked, “What is a crime?” and “What is the process you have to go through to be labeled a criminal, to be charged with a crime?”


The group provided a range of answers. “If I got a ticket for driving over the speed limit, maybe get a verbal warning or get a ticket, but I don’t consider myself a criminal,” Wilcox said. “When you’re a kid and experiment with drugs and don’t get caught, and your neighbor doesn’t know, you don’t feel like a criminal. Did you sleep with someone before their age of consent? Probably everyone here has committed a crime. If we got caught, we maybe get a warning. We think of it as an ‘us’ and ‘them,’ but is it really? Or is that just what we have been taught?”


The less personal and more theoretical classroom perspective was added. “When I ask students to list the top 10 crimes, they all include the ones we expect —murder, rape, theft,” Rocque said. “I ask them why pointing a gun at someone is a greater crime. There any many more millions of dollars lost to white-collar crime than street theft.”


The ACLU lawyer took a more direct approach. “Look at who uses drugs and who sells drugs. Even though whites and blacks both sell and use drugs, each within their own communities, black folks and brown folks get arrested,” Williams said. “Then the cycle starts — small crimes, prison, parole violation. Then they go back in. When they get out, they can’t get a job and they go back in again. They are more likely to get picked up for violating parole and they go back in. Cops profile a car, pull it over. A driver has four packets of heroin. There are four people in the car. Police charge all four of them with collective trafficking. A crime is whatever the dominant society deems is the most threatening. But dominant society uses violence, the threat of force, to make us appear in court, for example.”


Williams feels that perception of a “criminal” is too-often formed from a tilted system, rigged towards the rich or powerful.


“The profession that commits the most cases of domestic violence? Cops. But you don’t see too many cops get arrested for that. What is the cause of that? Privilege? Fear of retribution from the dominant society?” he asked, in contrast to “the kid stopped three different times by police who are profiling. The kid in the hoodie eventually loses his cool, gets arrested for disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, trespassing — all because the last bus has left so the bus stop is closed.”

After the event, I asked Abdurraqib, “Beyond panel discussions and demonstrations, how can police and community get in the same room to address racial or religious profiling?”


“It’s not the function of the panel discussions to propose legislation," she said. "Sometimes people at an event meet like-minded people and go out and encourage legislators to make changes.” Abdurraqib notes that two legislators and a city councilor were present at the Feb. 28 event.

“The goal is to have community conversations, but not come out of a conversation with a bullet-point platform on how to change social climate or policing.” The MHC is trying to find more of the blue perspective, “but it’s kind of difficult to have police officers sit on stage and have that conversation,” Schlitt said.


Upcoming Think & Drinks: in the series, “Policing, Protection, Community, and Trust in the 21st Century.” Social discussions on policing in Maine, its intersection with race, and how local experience connects with what we are seeing across the U.S.


April 5: “What Makes a Police Officer?: Training and Expectations of Law Enforcement”.
May 3: “Who’s Watching Whom?: Physical Surveillance By and Of the Police.
June 7: “What’s the Harm?: Emotional Challenges of Policing and Being Policed.
All events are free and run from 6:30–8 p.m. at SPACE Gallery, 538 Congress St., Portland | https://mainehumanities.org/blog/think-drink-blog/think-drink-portland-2017/ 

"Protecting the environment is not a partisan issue" Why Mainers resist Trump's EPA pick

Scott Pruitt was confirmed twice last week. First as the new head of the Environmental Protection Agency. The second confirmation was of his suspected ties to oil, gas, and coal companies after thousands of his emails to fossil fuel execs were leaked.

 

Environmental groups fear the worst, but there are specific steps you can take on an individual, local level to fight back.

 

Several area non-profits have teamed up to create “protester primers,” workshops on environmental crises and actionable ways to combat them.

 

“Resist: Skills to Fight Back for Maine's Environment: Portland” will be held on March 8 at the University of Southern Maine. While many attendees may be of a similar political persuasion, the intent is to avoid politics.

 

“We really want to highlight that this is not a partisan event,” said Sophie Halpin, communications and development coordinator at Maine Conservation Voters, the lead organizer. “We’re not talking about resisting Trump because he’s a Republican. It’s because of his statements and cabinet picks. We want everyone to come together to say that the environment is not a partisan issue; it’s a basic human right.”

 

The idea is to draw attention to President Trump’s policy proposals and cabinet picks.

 

“It’s not normal that Scott Pruitt is heading the EPA, which he has sued several times,” said Melissa Mann, advocacy coordinator. “We were thankful that (Senators Angus) King and (Susan) Collins voted against him, but he’s still in charge so we’re looking at what that means for the Clean Air and Water Acts.”

 

“There has been an outpouring of support,” Halpin said. “There’s a waitlist to get into training, so we’re looking to do more for staff members of organizations that want to expand what they do into advocacy work as well.”

 

For more than two years, the Maine Conservation Voters group has worked to increase the number of Mainers talking about climate change and taking on civic engagement around environmental issues around the state. As part of that foundational effort, she worked with community members and students from Unity College and the University of Maine to identify major areas of concern. Interest in organizing informational and action sessions peaked at the end of last year.

 

“After the election, there was fever pitch of people who wanted to do this work on a higher level,” Mann says. “We knew we needed to do more, to build on that activist energy. And to do that within our mission, we needed to give Mainers the means and method to respond. We also wanted to make sure it wasn’t a one-man show.”

news environment kids at solar hearing

Maine students advocating for renewable solar energy. 

Maine Conservation Voters worked with the Appalachian Mountain Club, the Maine Public Health Association, the Natural Resources Council of Maine, and the Wilderness Society to create the events. In addition, speakers and workshop leaders representing several other groups, including Revision Energy and Knack Factory, a multimedia production company based in Portland, will provide information about the current threats to national parks, how to grow solar power in Maine, and effective measures to defend the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts.

 

Once well armed with this environmental information, work-shoppers will get a quick lesson in Organizing 101.

 

Next, attendees will get busy with workshops on how to put all this info into action.

 

They’ll learn how to lobby legislators on issues that matter the most to them, how to make an impact with unique stories, and how to get messages out using social media and letters to the editor.

 

Maine Speaker of the House Sara Gideon (D-Freeport) will address Portlanders and lead the session on how to lobby legislators. Majority Leader Erin Herbig (D-Belfast) will speak at the Belfast workshop.

 

One of the most important issues to Mainers is arsenic in well water. According to Mann, York and Kennebec counties have some of the highest reported incidents of toxicity. In some counties, more than 20 percent of their wells are contaminated with arsenic above federal safety levels.

 

“We’re working to get increased testing,” she said. “There is arsenic in well-water across the state. Education is key. In Kennebec County, children with arsenic in their well water had lower average IQ scores than their peers. Arsenic is also linked to kidney failure, as well as skin, bladder, and lung cancer. Arsenic in water is a social justice issue.”

 

These specific examples from our state offer credible evidence of national concerns.

 

“On a bigger scale, it relates to why protecting water and air are so important,” Halpin said. “So we can make these environmental issues protect all families in Maine.”

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