THE PORTAL: Rock Opera
Who looks outwards, dreams
who looks inwards, awakens
Have you ever wanted to leave your world behind?
Then come with us as we follow Dante through majestic deserts and alpine mountains as he seeks the beautiful and mysterious Beatrice--while also being pursued by his own inner-demons.
Is his quest real? Dream? Or an allegory of our own desire for transformation?
Driven by epic rock, pulsing with tribal and electronic beats, The Portal is part concert, part movie, and part performance. Inspired by Burning Man, Pink Floyd, EDM, and world mythology, The Portal not only entertains, it also immerses you, the audience, in a journey of transformation and empowerment.
The Portal: My comments
"The Portal" started like so many other things in my life: as an adventure into unknown psychological, artistic and entrepreneurial terrain fraught with perils and promises. While making this show, I had on my desk a small replica of Gimli, the bellicose dwarf from "Lord of the Rings," who liked to say before trudging into battle with the orcs: "Certainty of death, little chance of success, count me in." I was also fond of saying: "If they don't like your art, then fuck em." Its also not surprising that the chant, "hoka heya," found its way into the lyrics of the music. These days few seem to identify with this warrior ethic unless its part of movies or video games--but it was real for me. I wanted me and my team brave and experimental, not timid and conformists, not just trying to satisfy the needs of the perceived market.
When conceiving of ideas around "The Portal," I was still on my inner journey which consisted of my mishmash of meditation, Burning Man, dietary experiments and extended wilderness trips for backpacking and windsurfing. I was also exploring some ideas that were hip in certain circles--the idea that art and entertainment should be used ritualistically to help people transcend and transform, to find something "higher" in themselves. In contrast it seemed that most American entertainment, having succumbed to corporate control, was passive stimulation and nihilistic spectacle, distraction and diversion, that all too often could make you feel feel stupid, silly, violated or depressed. I thought art and entertainment should help people with the rest of their life.
Perhaps art and entertainment were created in our distant evolutionary past for that very purpose. Although not yet proven, its likely that our ability to create and appreciate art were genetic and behavioral adaptations which emerged tens of thousands of years ago to help us survive in many different ways. Consider some examples. Music and dance, which likely came first, can help us stay fit and spontaneous as well as bond communally, identify mates, lower inhibitions and prepare for battle to defend territory. Stories can help us convey useful information and make sense of our world, as well as help us heal our emotions and even manipulate reality more to our liking. Artistic experiences can sometimes help us transcend into spiritual realms of communal love and harmony. In all those senses, art and entertainment helps, especially in the past, with such basic and universal evolutionary needs as finding food, defending territory and identifying mates as well as higher emotional and spiritual needs around community, cooperation and the will to live amidst great difficulties. Art keeps the individual and tribe strong--and therefore helps us survive, thrive and love.
To further explore my ideas, I read lots of Joseph Campbell, Carl Jung; and books about Shamanism, Vision Quests and ancient rituals of Native Americans, Africans, and European Pagans and Christians--all of which, in turn, allowed me to further my ideas. I was also experiencing my ideas through trance dances, contact improv, plant medicines, Burning Man and other festivals, as well as some of the more enlightened parties happening in my small town of Boulder, CO and on the distant shores of international windsurfing and kiteboarding destinations. I was also experiencing my ideas through the band Kan Nal who seemed to beckon their audience to some more ancient and primal past; in their music I could feel wolves howling, warriors dancing, nomads wondering, lovers heaving. And when this was combined with their ritualistic and theatrical concerts, I felt I was restored to some earlier and more alive version of myself that indeed empowered the rest of my life.
I started to work with Kan Nal in part to help me develop some of my ideas. But due to reason beyond my control, the band sadly dwindled away while perhaps at the crux of larger success, leaving both me and one of its members, Tierro, looking for the next adventure. With Tierro on hand to create the music, I began to lay the foundation of the show, "The Portal," as the visual construct or metaphor, which would open at the beginning of each show and close at the end. Once invited into "The Portal" by the musician guides, the audience would then travel on waves of animated fractals, as though moving through the proverbial rabbithole or wormhole, swirling and mesmerized, from one realm to another while also altering their consciousness in ways that were under their control.
Late one night while listening with Tierro to one of his compositions, I said this song feels like its about someone who is hunting, but also being hunted or, to use Kahlil Gibran's words, "the desired and the dreaded." I was struck by how much my comment revealed the human condition: that many of us, if not all of us, are essentially wired to flee away from something while also chasing after something, not much different from our Hominoid ancestors in Africa trying to avoid the lions while also hunting for the gazelle. Indeed avoiding predation, while seeking food, is the predominant patterns of all of biology. This naturally applies not just to the visceral level but to the psychological and spiritual level as well, as many of us are trying to flee from older versions of ourselves towards something better. Thus our protagonists, Dante, was born, the proverbial everyman, the archetype of all humans, who is fleeing away from his inner-demons while also reaching towards self-actualization in the icon of his guide, Beatrice.
To structure the story further, I borrowed from some other ideas that I had been reading about that fit the concept--that is, the hero’s journey, the shamanic journey and the vision quest. All three of these structures, found predominantly throughout history, share some obvious similarities because they are all journeys taken by certain people into unknown terrain with certain dangers, for the purpose of attaining some kind of benefit, be that healing, wisdom or power. But although I do not reveal this generally, I mostly structured the whole concept around the shamanic journey. According to the scholar Mircea Elliade, these journeys usually begin by the shaman playing certain beat patterns, both with low and high pitches, that are prone to induce states of "trance," during which the shaman then travels through some kind of vortex into the underworld where great challenges and dangers are faced; then into the upperworld where transcendence and healing are actualized, before returning to the middleworld--that is, the world we humans ordinarily inhabit.
So thus the structure of "The Portal" was born: that while being led by the guides (the three musicians), the audience would follow our everyman, Dante, into "The Portal," then into the underworld (the desert) where Dante would encounter various challenges--that is, archetypes of himself representing power, identity and death. He would then kill off those aspects of himself to attain another level of development, at which point another fractal journey is launched to celebrate the victory and then deliver Dante to another realm of the underworld. In certain acts, too, the audience also sees Dante in the middleworld (the city). While overcoming his challenges Dante is led ever onward by his visions of Beatrice in the upperworld (the mountains and sky). And in the final act, he ascends into the upperworld for his fleeing and mysterious encounter with her, in which the audience is left, along with Dante, to explore the idea of her true identity. Is she real or not? Angel or Alien? Or just metaphor for some aspect of our own psyche? In the final act as "The Portal" recloses, the performers then deliver their gift to the audience and everyone celebrates. Naturally, while following Dante on his healing journey, the audience itself also experiences some healing--thus making the show transformational, on one level or another.
Though not really known, the concept of the shamanic journey is rife throughout both our ancient and modern world to some extent or another. Mircea Elliade has noted that the structures of Shamanism is universal from one Paleolithic tribe to another, even though those tribes have been separated from each other for tens of thousands of years, suggesting that these journeys are not cultural inventions, but rather parts of our human and perhaps genetic nature. Shamanic music is everywhere from ancient drumming, to modern electronica, to rock and roll. Shamanic images are found everywhere in the various mandalas found across nearly all cultures, including contemporary EDM and festival culture. Curiously enough, the universal language of math creates fractals which could be defined as Shamanic, suggesting that maybe the Shamanic realms are somehow part of our actual universe instead of just parts of our imagination. Shamanic stories are found throughout literature in the "Divine Comedy," "Alice in Wonderland," "The Wizard of Oz," "Lord of The Rings" and "Star Wars." In marketing The Portal, I naturally keep the term hidden because of its potential for misinterpretation.
Next I paired my script with Tierro's music--and then hired a production company from California to help me shoot the script in Utah and Colorado. On our first day of the shoot, we arose at four in the morning, hiked two hours in sleet and snow into the Colorado mountains, shot all day while periodically warming ourselves in sleeping bags, and then only started our exit once the sky was darkening while shooting all the way back to the trailhead. For about nine days we maintained some of this intense pace. After Utah I returned to Boulder with hard-drives in hand, ready to embark on two more stages all equally as challenging as the others: post-production and live-production. At the end of these stages, I was quite burnt-out after mounting several steep learning curves over the prior year and half.
So when taking the show to market, I was not in the best state of mind for what were challenges equal--and way more frustrating and banal--than encountered earlier. Though trying on several occasions, I could not find anyone to help me manage or market the show, so I had to assume those positions myself even though I did not have the skills or desire. At the same time I was launching an innovative brand from zero in the entertainment business: surely one of the more challenging endeavors around. Overall the market did not seem all that interested in my creation, nor the press, and venues in particular were resistant to even booking the show. The transition from my vaulting imagination, into the venal and uncaring marketplace, was difficult.
However, from the first of our shows, we received an outpouring of appreciation from the odd assortment of mavens, artists, students, healers and mavericks of all ages. People seemed to experience the show differently: some deeply engaged with the allegorical story and its symbolism; others with the visual and musical journey; others with the music. When people came for two or more shows, they claimed they experienced the show differently. Once when I was posting something sophisticated about "The Portal" on Facebook, one college student said, much to my delight: "Fuck that. The Portal rocks." Yet many people were also calling the show transformational or spiritual or psychedelic; some even claimed the show changed the rest of their week or the rest of their life, showing that the show was indeed delivering upon its ambitions. Later, through professional audience surveys, we confirmed our results more objectively, concluding that our product was indeed viable. In my own mind I thought "The Portal" was one of the best memes around--a nascent and struggling idea with the potential to change our culture in some way. And it was my job to see that it lived.
But touring was eroding our financial and managerial resources as well as making it difficult, if not impossible, to further develop the artistry of the show. For all those reasons and others, I chose to try to land the show in one fixed venue in New York City which, however, proved frustrating as the right venue was almost impossible to get under contract; and the theater crowd there just seemed timid, feckless and way more interested in politics and less interested in art. So for couple of years while I concentrated on other endeavors, "The Portal" drifted on the sidelines much to my frustration until I developed another plan to release the show in Denver for an extended run with much greater artistic and entrepreneurial resources brought to the project this time around.
In preparing for the reopening at City Hall, I definitely feel the usual call of adventure--but its different this time, as my ultimate goal is less about the journey and more about the results--that is, of making The Portal into a national brand that either tours or settles in NYC, using all the skills I posses as an artist and producer in conjunction with my capable team. The next incarnation of the show will have the same soul; however that soul will be more refined, more expressive, more capable of delivering its ultimate purpose of providing transformational entertainment.
The creation of "The Portal" indeed parallels the narrative of "The Portal"--that is, both were shamanic and hero's journeys. The characters embark upon journeys, travel far away from normal society, encounter enormous challenges and finally return back to their society. By most accounts the hero's journey then ends there and the hero fades away into obscurity--but hopefully yet another adventure exists for "The Portal."