Antonio Sonera’s Badass Hospitality

As the city's new theater season swings into action, Portland's maverick director speaks out about why it's done, and who should have access

Antonio Sonera is the maverick of the Portland theater scene: a wild card, an enigma, complicated and controversial, undoubtedly gifted, knowledgeable and hard-working. He’s been a vital part of the Portland theater scene for 30-odd years, yet in many ways, he’s on the outside looking in. He hasn’t worked at Artists Rep in years. He’s never directed at Portland Center Stage. He’s never worked at Portland Playhouse or Profile or Defunkt. He’s on the Drammy Committee, yet, in those same three decades of doing good — and oftentimes great — work in this town, he’s yet to win a Drammy himself. If you look back over his career his record holds up against any local director you can name. El Paso Blue, References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot, El Grito Del Bronx, Boleros for the Disenchanted, Invasion!, Sans Merci, God of Carnage and his most recent piece World Builders all were among the most memorable productions of the seasons in which they appeared. A lot of accolades and awards are sprinkled throughout that small sampling of Sonera’s work — as well as a lot of risks being taken and buttons being pushed. When Sonera works these days, it’s primarily on projects he’s developed or produced.

Recently, I had a chance to sit down and talk with him about that hiatus; about his company, Badass Theatre; and about the state of theater in Portland. Anyone who knows Sonera already knows he had a lot to say. He’s a man of strong opinions and he’s not afraid to speak them. He’s also a thoughtful man, smart, experienced and perhaps most importantly, he gives a damn. You can agree with him or not, but you can’t deny his passion or commitment.

Antonio Sonera, up close and personal. Photo: Tim Krause

When World Builders rolled around this June Portland hadn’t heard from Badass in four years, which was too bad. Because when Badass had spoken, people had listened. Invasion!, Jonas Hassen Khamiri’s perception-shattering tornado of a play, was easily the most talked-about theater piece of its season. Sans Merci, Johnna Adams’ brutal exploration of love and grief, contained a trio of outstanding performances, headed by the amazing Luisa Sermol, ripping her soul to tatters and leaving it there on the stage for everybody to see. (Sermol won an award for her work, not her first by any means, and not her first under Sonera’s direction. She’d taken home another Drammy for her work in Boleros for the Disenchanted at Milagro in 2012.)

And then … nothing. Silence. Badass disappeared from the Portland radar for four years. Why? Sans Merci, had been critically lauded. Badass had more than furthered its growing reputation for edgy, excellent, relevant theater. Why bring that momentum train to a halt?

“Four hundred ninety-five people saw it,” Sonera declaims, with just a hint of an edge. “We were doing our show at the Portland Actors Conservatory Space. Which had a capacity of 45-50 seats. And we had 15 performances or something. So we had potential of like, 895 seats. And 495 of them were filled by people who got to see the show. It was a good show. A very good show. And I’d hoped more people would get to see it. That’s one of the more difficult things about producing. You never know what kind of audiences you’re going to get. I don’t know if it was location. I don’t know if it was subject matter. I don’t know if it was too many things going on in the world, but when you do a show like Sans Merci and only 495 people come, it does a little damage on the soul.”

Anyone who works in theater gets it. Theater is a nickel-and-dime industry. Even big theaters spend all their money in a season and then the next year, they have to start all over again, raising it, using it, and rarely ever making it. Invasion!, smash hit though it was, barely registered on Portland’s cultural Richter scale. If you’d asked your average Portlander walking down the street about it, they wouldn’t have known what you were talking about. Theater is that far down the societal totem pole. That’s understood. When tackling a project like a Sans Merci, from a playwright like Johnna Adams, a writer who demands so much from her actors as collaborating artists, it can be disheartening if not enough people come. After all, the audience completes the theatrical circuit. They’re the reason you do it at all.

Luisa Sermol (left) with Jessica Tidd in “Sans Merci.” Photo: Russell J Young

The lack of commercial success for Sans Merci wasn’t the only reason for Sonera (and consequently, Badass Theatre’s) hiatus. In the months before Sans Merci Badass had remounted Invasion! and Sonera had directed Learn to Be Latina, an exuberant, bawdy satire on ethnicity, sexual identity and media at El Teatro Milagro. These three productions, wildly different from each other and happening one right after the other, were a lot, and Sonera was, frankly, tired. “There comes a time,” he says, “when the benefits of doing theater are outweighed by the challenges of doing theater.”

Especially when producing. “ It’s easier to be a hired gun and go out and just direct. I show up, I do some auditions — or not, cast whoever I want. God of Carnage out at Lakewood. Piece of cake. Walk in the park.”

Further, many of Sonera’s professional relationships are also personal relationships, and when one started to make the other “weird,” Sonera figured it was time to prioritize. “I decided,” he says, “that my friendships were more important to me than theater.”

Getting your priorities straight is likewise essential to a life in theater, whatever they may be. You have to know what’s important to you to succeed, or you get swallowed up and spit out. Perhaps even more importantly, you have to decide for yourself what success is and adhere to that.

But there was another, equally important reason why Badass wasn’t heard from for a while. “The intention of Badass was never to be a company that produced a regular season every season. I wanted to be different. I wanted to produce when inspiration hit. ‘This is something that I want to do. This is a play I want to do. These are people I want to work with.’ I didn’t want to just do theater for theater’s sake, with the name Badass.”

That period wasn’t completely barren. He read. A lot. “I’ve read fifty plays over the last four years that I thought were okay plays and then I really look at one or two. There’s one play that I thought, this is a play I should be doing and I knew the playwright but then ART is doing that show. And then there’s shows that I’ve applied for rights but I haven’t gotten the rights so, it’s been four years but it’s not like I haven’t tried to do stuff. Things just didn’t pan out.”

World Builders “panned out.”

When we discussed World Builders, it was still going on. Again, it had gotten pretty good notices and even better word-of-mouth. This time, it seemed like the audience turnout was a bit better. Sonera had decided for himself to worry less this time about how many people came to see it and just be satisfied that they came and got their lives changed for 90 minutes. Then his own words caught his attention. “Changes your life. That’s a big statement, you know what I mean? It may plant seeds that grow into something bigger. I don’t know if that’s the case or not.” He continued: “My job as an artist isn’t to care about that. I’m not doing theater so I can plant seeds out there in the world. I do want to give people an experience.”

Nathan Dunkin and Jessica Tidd in Badass Theatre’s ‘World Builders.’ Photo: Russell J. Young.

Now, he’s warming up. “You and I, we’re theater people. We see theater all the time. I don’t think it’s as precious to us. But my friend Jill, she used to be welfare mom. She lived in a little tiny, 14’ x 16’ space. And she had nothing except for toys for her daughter and a mattress on the floor. I invited her and another one of her friends at the complex to come see Boleros for the Disenchanted. She went and she saw it and she cried and cried. She just loved it. Afterwards she says, ‘Oh, you didn’t tell me I was gonna cry, I loved it so much.’ I said, ‘Oh I’m really happy that you liked it.’ She said, ‘You know, people like me don’t get to see theater.’ I said, ‘What do you mean, people like you? You’re people like me. We’re the same people.’ She said, ‘Tony, no we’re not. We’re not the same. Wake up. I’m a welfare mom. I worry about if I’m going to be able to pay for the electricity at my shithole complex that I live in so that I can cook food for my daughter and so she can have TV. Those are the realities of my world. Theater is a million miles away.’ And I thought, ‘Now, wait a minute. You just enjoyed the shit out of this thing and you’re telling me that you don’t get to do it.’ That’s the person I want in the seats. That’s the person.”

By this point, Sonera’s whole demeanor has changed. His voice has changed. We are now talking about beliefs, and Tony Sonera doesn’t come by his beliefs lightly: he expounds on them with the full force of his personality and considerable intelligence. “I saw 62 shows last year. Did it change my life? No. But that show that she went and saw enriched her life. For that day. Just for that day, it enriched her life. She’s now my biggest fan. She comes to everything I do. And I give her a ticket. Because I want her in the seats.”

When it’s offered that you can’t give away seats to everybody, because artists cost money and space costs money and lights cost money, the whole shebang, Sonera’s having none of it. He didn’t know the question was coming but you could tell it was something he’d thought about a lot already, an argument he’d already had, either with someone else or just in his head. Either way, it was, in the words of August Wilson, “a fastball on the outside corner” and he knew what to do with that.

“It all costs money, right? There are people in the world who can afford to pay and fund theater. And there are people in the world who cannot afford the price of a ticket. There are people in the world who cannot afford a ten dollar ticket but would love to go and see theater. So, we make a percentage of those available. That’s what we do at Badass. That was a policy right from the very beginning. I said we’re going to take 10 to 20 percent of our tickets, of our seats that we have available, every night and we’re gonna make those available to the people who just can’t afford the price of a ticket. It’s Radical Hospitality, right? It’s a philosophy that was started by a theater in Minnesota [Mixed Blood Theatre]. And they do completely one hundred percent free theatre and they’re funded by the city and donors. So, when I hear people say, ‘You can’t give everybody a free ticket.’ Bullshit. I call bullshit.”

Luisa Sermol and Ted Schulz in Miracle Theatre’s 2012 production of “Boleros for the Disechanted,” which Sonera directed. Photo: Russell Young

Now, of course, he’s cooking with grease. “There’s this whole big thing in this city about, ‘Let’s build capacity. Let’s give access.’ Nobody’s giving access. There are theaters in town that are charging fifty to seventy-five dollars for a ticket. Who are they asking to come to their theater? Do you know the answer? They’re not asking you and me. You’re a poor artist. You can’t afford to go see all those shows at $50-$75 a ticket.”

Now, he’s laughing — at himself as much as anyone else. He knows he’s worked up. “They give the ten dollar rush ticket. When was the last time you saw the ten dollar rush ticket advertised anywhere? It’s last minute day of because for some reason, they weren’t able to fill their house one hundred percent. ‘Oh, I could still squeeze ten dollars out of ten actors in town who want to come and see this.’ C’mon, man. That’s lazy access. You want to give access to people? Do Radical Hospitality.”

At this point, the Badass version of Radical Hospitality is not the Mixed Blood version of Radical Hospitality. Sonera’s not asking theaters to give away all of their seats. He is, on the other hand, looking at the way theater approaches box office, the way it approaches tickets, as a means of creating theatre’s audience and perhaps, relevancy. “I’m gonna take 20 percent of my seats and then I’m going to go to Roosevelt High School, I’m gonna go to Jefferson High School. And I’m going to go into those classrooms and I’m going to talk to those teachers and those kids and I’m going to say, “Hey, we’ve opened this up. We want you to come. We want you to come (bangs the table) and see shows (bangs the table). It’s not gonna cost you a dime (bang) but I’m going (bang) to turn you (bang) into a theater-goer. (Bang, bang, bang.) Right? We’re going to go over to these facilities over on 41st and we’re going to say, ‘Ladies, you’re all single moms working really hard. We’re going to set up a program for you. We’re going to have an area at our theater where you can come, drop off your kids and they’re going to be taken care of for the two hours while we take you in and show you a show that’s going to enrich your life, and then you get to pick up your kid and go back to the facility.’ That’s Radical Hospitality.”

Of course, Badass doesn’t have a space at all, let alone a place to hold kids while parents watch the show. And at this point, he himself is only one guy. But it’s the dream. “If Badass was going to go any place in terms of growth for an organization, that’s where I would want to take it. My goal is always to get a butt in a seat that didn’t know that it could be there. That means the world to me.”

Antonio Sonera, in his element. Photo: Russell J Young

For Sonera, Radical Hospitality isn’t just a program, it’s a mindset. For instance, a lot of Portland theater companies do accept Arts for All, a program under which theaters grant five-dollar tickets to people who are Oregon Trail Card Holders. That’s all well and good, Sonera feels, but if someone says they need an Arts for All ticket, just give it to them, don’t ask to see their Trail Card. “I think it’s ridiculous that if someone wants to pay five dollars to see theater and they’ve already told you they have a trail card — I get food stamps is what they’re saying — that you would have to make them show it. Yeah, don’t do that. I mean, if someone is cheating what are they really saying? They’re going to sneak and lie and cheat to get into theater? Think about that.”

Sonera points out that you don’t have to go all the way to Minneapolis-St. Paul to see this practice in action. Defunkt, one of Portland’s oldest and most storied small theaters, make all of its seats pay-what-you-will. “I don’t know this to be true,” muses Sonera, “but I imagine that Matthew [Kern, co-artistic director] talked to his donors and said, “Here’s what we do and here’s our financial situation. If you really believe in what we do, we need you to support our seasons. At a considerable amount. And what we’re gonna do is we’re going to open our doors and say pay-what-you-will all the time. Which is pretty close to, ‘It’s free all the time.’ I think that’s a wonderful model that Defunkt has set up. I applaud them and I cheer for them.

That’s quite a limb to go out on for a lot of theater companies. One can see why some or most might be scared to put this practice into action. “What’s scarier,” asks Sonera, “a house of fifty people who have been comped? Or a house of three people who all paid full price?” The key, he surmises, is to do like Defunkt does. Raise the necessary money beforehand. “I don’t say you don’t have to be fiscally responsible. You do. But here’s what I know. Theater does not make money. The little company has to rely on one, two, three, four funders who they can go to and they can say, “Hey, can you give me this amount and this amount?” and they look for a certain percentage of their budget to be given to them and then they hope to make it up in ticket sales. They’re not gonna make it up in ticket sales. They’re gonna lose. What you do as a small company is you go to those funders and you try to get the whole amount of your budget and then once you make extra? You pay yourself. And you make sure that everybody gets paid — well. And you produce the art because the art needed to be produced. And what you hope for is, ‘Hey, we made more money in ticket sales than we anticipated and this can be the seed that starts the next show.’ And that’s how theaters really, truly grow.”

For Badass Theatre, Sonera is looking for a two-year residency somewhere, a temporary home. “I’m trying to get a residency. I want to get a residency for the next two years. So have a resident space. Essentially work out some kind of deal with the given organization and say, ‘We’re going to give you so much money over a two year period and in return you’re going to let us use your facilities, use your space but also, I want to partner with their resources in marketing. One of the things we don’t have is marketing. Like [one local theater company], for instance, sends out 5,000 postcards to people every show. They’ve got a mailing list and their newsletter and all these things that they do. That would be a very helpful resource in taking a small company like this and helping it thrive a little bit more.” But wherever he goes, Sonera has every intention of Badass continuing its journey into Radical Hospitality. “Out of all the things I’ve done with Badass so far, creating access and Radical Hospitality is the thing I’m most proud of.”

Because, whether we’re using our art to pay our rent or not, Sonera surmises, the truth is the rent’s not why we do it. “The question becomes,” he says, “’Why are we doing this? Am I doing this to get paid? No. Am I doing this for audiences to see? And this is me, personally — no. I’m doing a given show because it’s a show I felt I needed to produce. Sometimes you read something and you’re like, “Yeah, I gotta do this.” It spoke to me. Artists don’t do art for the money. That’s the problem. Does the painter paint because he wants to get paid? No. He paints because he has to. Does the dancer dance because she wants to get paid? No. She dances because she has to.”

From left: Marilyn Stacey, David Sikking, Don Alder, Sarah Lucht in Yasmina Reza’s “God of Carnage,” which Sonera directed for Lakewood Theatre. Photo: Triumph Photography

This, then, is the final truth about Antonio Sonera. During our conversation he vacillated between what’s next for Badass Theatre and wanting to drop out of theater altogether, a possibility he proposed with some gravity. And yet, even as these words were being typed Sonera was holding auditions for Inherit the Wind at Lakewood Theatre. Because of course he is. Because like most thespians I know, he’s locked in an emotionally abusive relationship with his art form. She can beat him, treat him like dirt, break his heart, steal his money and he still always comes back. He knows he should leave but he just can’t. That would be the healthy choice and he’ll probably never make it. Because just like that proverbial painter and dancer he mentioned, Sonera doesn’t do theatre for the money, he doesn’t do it for the acclaim. He doesn’t even do it for the audiences. He may want to drop out of theater, that is completely possible. But the truth of the matter is that the choice might not be his.

 

One Response. Have your say.

  1. pat m lawson says:

    Spot on information. Tony knows what he is talking about, and with my knowledge of Tony and of my immediate Families involvement with Portland Theater, this is a really well done article.

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