Pop Culture on the Fly

Portland performance group Hand2Mouth brings Pep Talk to OCT

We’re sort of a road-hardened, long-running, tight theater ensemble,” says Hand2Mouth Theatre’s artistic director Jonathan Walters. “Our shows are sophisticated, structured and incredibly interactive.”

Founded in 2000, Portland-based Hand2Mouth sails into town for one-night-only, Sunday, April 19, at Oregon Contemporary Theatre.

With 18 original shows under their belts, Hand2Mouth’s latest venture, Pep Talk, explores popular culture references like post-9/11 patriotic country music and long-running television programs such as Friday Night Lights.

What does it mean to be the good-hearted coach? Hand2Mouth asks.

“Pep Talk” depends on its live audiences to fill in the blanks.

“Each performance has a tremendous amount of open space,” Walters says. “None of us knows exactly what’s going to happen.”

Hand2Mouth’s presentational style is rooted in the physical, weaving text within a lexicon of movement that conveys complex and accessible emotion, without tipping into the maudlin.

Steering clear of agitprop “issues,” Hand2Mouth instead delves into memory for source material.

“It starts from the company member’s personal experience and a lot of writing,” Walters says.

During work-in-progress showings, Hand2Mouth performers interview audience members and incorporate the answers into future shows.

But even with a show they’ve performed time and again, nothing is pinned down.

This uniquely responsive approach to theater has found audiences across the Northwest, from rural small towns to major cities, and as far as New York. Hand2Mouth has performed for (and with) at-risk youth and incarcerated populations.

Across the boards, audiences from diverse backgrounds can’t help but notice a current wafting up through the music and entertainment industry.

“Nowadays, we’re fixating on popular culture phenomenon,” Walters says. “It’s in the zeitgeist.”

At one point in Pep Talk, for example, the cast encourages the audience to generate a list of heroes.

“It’s a big discussion,” Walter says. “And the list is a reflection of the community.”

Hand2Mouth’s good-natured approach, tethered to a disciplined and highly defined format, emboldens audiences to share, learn and maybe even become a team, albeit a fleeting one.

“We call it ‘event theater,’” Walters says, referring to a performance style that’s at once self-aware and inclusive. “Over the course of the show, we’re creating a pep talk, together.”

Hand2Mouth’s Pep Talk performs 7:30 pm Sunday, April 19, at Oregon Contemporary Theatre, 194 W. Broadway. $10-$12, tickets at 465-1506 or visit octheatre.org.