I have been going to TBA every year since its inception, for most of my adult life. The festival started in 2003: I was 23, fresh out of college, with an experimental theater degree and many big ideas about the potential for live performance. TBA did not disappoint–it quickly became the most important event in my year. I learned that the festival is best done through total immersion, so I would plan months ahead to make sure that I could get time off of work, clear my own rehearsal schedule, and avoid any major commitments during TBA time. I became a master of the puzzle of the TBA schedule, finding a way to see every show. I attended almost every workshop and artist talk and went to the Works every night.
As the festival gets older, so do I. In the eleven years since its inception I have gotten married, had a kid, and bought a house many miles from the center of the city. As with most new parents, my husband and I have had to put on hold many of the interests which used to define us. But for me, the TBA festival is non-negotiable–it is the last shred of dignity in a life that has become consumed by juice boxes and Curious George. It never occurred to me that I should take a break from the festival–my first festival as a mom was in 2012, and my son was only 8 weeks old. I did “slow down”, by planning only one show per night instead of my normal pace of 2 or 3. I still have the collection of panicked text messages that I received from my husband during most of those shows. I left early from almost all of them, in total defeat. This year, my son is 2-years-old and I am determined to get back to my old pace for this festival. Here’s how my first attempt panned out:
2:30pm I pick up my son from preschool
3pm Arrive at home, tempt him out of a post-nap tantrum with promises of juice and television time
3:30pm Jump in shower, try to find something to wear that doesn’t have holes or stains. TBA is, after all, a place to see and be seen. I settle for yoga pants with a dress over them–fancy!
4:30pm Coax unwilling toddler away from the television. Start the ultimate juggle: Prepare the car and the toddler for departure, get my bike to magically fit in the back of our small wagon while keeping toddler from dashing off to play in the street.
5:30pm Finally we are ready to go. Pull several sketchy traffic maneuvers to get to my husband’s workplace in Sellwood by the time he gets off
6:05pm Arrive in a panic, super quick car and toddler pass-off and I am on my bike, headed downtown for the 6:30pm Samita Sinha performance.
6:15pm Remember that I have not regularly bike commuted in over 2 years and that Sellwood is actually kind of far from downtown.
6:30pm Wheeze past a tandem bike on the Hawthorne bridge, still imagining that I might get there on time.
6:41pm Arrive at the Winningstad, defeated. Toddler 1, TBA Zero.
6:52pm Arrive at the Raven & Rose to enjoy a Manhattan, resolved to at least get an excellent seat for the 8:30 performance of Tanya Tagaq.
8:10pm Arrive to the pass holder line at PSU’s Lincoln Hall. Notice that the couple in front of me brought their 7-year-old. Eagerly interrogate them about the experience of bringing a child to the TBA fest. It turns out they saw the Samita Sinha show at 6:30. They report that the 7-year-old laughed uncomfortably through parts of it and made faces, but by the end was singing to herself as they exited, which her mother declares a success. They tell me that the show was “beautiful”, and I resolve to juggle the rest of my weekend around so I can see it.
8:20pm Sit down in my excellent seat, 5 rows from the front, and enjoy hearing the people behind me talk about how they have been attending TBA since the beginning. I am in good company.
8:34pm The show starts…
Tanya Tagaq comes out, barefoot, in a short and flowing dress. She smiles coyly and charms the audience with exclamations about how cool our city is. We are about to find out just how meaningful this statement is coming from an artist whose mother was born and raised in an igloo. The movie that unfolds before us reveals the stark landscape of the Inuits in the early 1900′s: Water, ice, wind and snow. The summers are cold, the winters are much colder. The food is raw meat, the only variation is in whether it comes from fish or mammal. Nanook of the North, we are told, is the first documentary ever made, but also controversial because some scenes were staged. Staged or not, I don’t think I have seen a movie this visceral, authentic and affecting in some time. Of course, the experience is colored by the strength of Tanya’s live soundtrack, and my focus is continually split between the remarkable, raw, humanity revealed by the film, and the remarkable, raw, humanity in Tanya’s wails, flails, rocks and shrieks. Amidst the starkness and intensity there are moments of humor. In my row I may be the only one who laughed knowingly as a mother tries to wipe her naked baby’s face with a seal skin and Tanya squeals with empathy for the unwilling child (apparently face wipes are universally reviled amongst toddlers). The movie does leave me with one unanswered question: Where do these babies poop?
The film announces “Tia Mak” (The End), and several moments go by as the artists and audience wind down from the other-world. Someone whistles loudly, and from there the audience erupts. I have a bike and I am seven miles from home, but as I chase a MAX train for 20 blocks through downtown Portland I realize how much of the wild courage of the film has gotten into me. I find myself maneuvering pedestrians, tracks, and traffic stops fearlessly, like an Inuit in a kayak on the choppy waves. I fly through the doors of my train in the nick of time and settle in to enjoy the aftermath of human effort, adrenaline and the ever-pulsing drive to live, deeply embedded in me by Tanya’s piece. I am reminded that it was never easy to have a 2-year-old. If I think its hard to make it to TBA on time, imagine if I had to spear a seal and build an igloo in just four hours of daylight.
Kate Sanderson Holly is a theater artist, yogi, mother, long-time TBA press corps volunteer, and former founding member of Fever Theater and Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble. She can currently be found teaching yoga and movement arts at her studio, Yoga Refuge.