DramaWatch: Wolf in the door at Portland Center Stage

Are you ready?

The new era at Portland Center Stage is set to begin next month with the arrival of Marissa Wolf as artistic director.

The theater announced Wolf’s hiring on Wednesday afternoon, concluding an eight-month search for a successor to Chris Coleman, who left earlier this year to take over the Denver Center for the Performing Arts Theatre Company, having made a huge impact on PCS and its community over his 17-year tenure.

Wolf will come to PCS from Kansas City Rep, where she’s spent the past three years as an associate artistic director in charge of developing and producing plays through the OriginKC: New Works Festival. She’ll start her new post on Sept. 15.

Marissa Wolf, Portland Center Stage’s incoming artistic director, brings “a dazzling spirit, spectacular taste, and a fierce vision” to the task. Photo: Tess Mayer/The Interval-NY

The PCS press release featured a laudatory comment about Wolf from one of the leading figures in the field, Oskar Eustis, artistic director of The Public Theater in New York and a producer who has worked with Wolf over the years: “Marissa Wolf is a rising star of the American theater. She has a dazzling spirit, spectacular taste, and a fierce vision which she imparts with grace and wit. Her institutional and artistic brilliance has led her to this moment. Portland Center Stage is lucky to have nabbed her just as her talent is fully exploding.”

Prior to her time in Kansas City, Wolf—who has a degree in drama from Vassar College, and additional training from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London—served for six seasons as artistic director of Crowded Fire Theater in San Francisco, where she was nominated for honors such as the Bay Area Critics Circle Award and earned a reputation for working with writers. Eric Rosen, the newly departed artistic director at KC Rep, hired her away to create a new-works program that in short order delivered world premieres such as the musical fantasy Between the Lines (based on the Jodi Picoult/Samantha van Leer novel), which the Kansas City Star called “lavishly mounted” and “an often breathtaking night of theater.”

Rosen, who recently left KC Rep to pursue more directing work in New York City, told the Kansas City star that he had a “list of mentoring achievements that I’m really proud of,” including Wolf among a handful of what he called “astonishing future leaders.”

Wolf’s appointment comes with a small and not at all surprising structural shift for PCS leadership. Coleman, in his last several years here, sat alone atop the organizational chart. The new artistic director will share company leadership with managing director Cynthia Fuhrman; they both will report directly to the board.

Fuhrman spoke to ArtsWatch on Wednesday evening about the process that led to selecting Wolf. She pointed out how different the company’s circumstances are from back in 2000 when it lured Coleman from his native Atlanta. It was still a relative fledgling, having branched off from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival only six years before, and in search of its own identity. And it still was a tenant, sharing its home with a crowded slate of events in the ill-suited Portland Center for the Performing Arts.

“The sense back then was that we needed to bring someone in who was going to shake things up and take us to the next level,” Fuhrman recalls. “Now, the situation is very different. Chris left us on really strong footing. Financially we’re in better shape than we’ve been in 30 years. Our audience has been growing each of the past three years…So now we want someone who’s going to get their head around what works here and why; but we also want someone with a vision of their own.”

Wolf impressed the search committee as an artist, as a producer and as a organizational leader who can connect with the broader community.

“We liked that of the top five selling shows at KC Rep, she’d directed three of them,” Fuhrman says.

“She has at the core of her experience a strong new-works element. She really sees JAW (Center Stage’s long-running play-development workshop and festival) as something significant to build on. And she really knows that world of new-play development. Back when she ran Crowded Fire, she was producing playwrights that a company that size couldn’t get now—she has the eye for talent to find these artists who are going to become major voices, but before everyone else recognizes that.

“We also wanted someone who’d be passionate about our community engagement and equity & inclusion work, and at KC Rep she exhibited really deep engagement on those things.”

Fuhrman said that the search process included “60-some candidates” who were whittled down to seven semi-finalists—a diverse group including five women and three persons of color, with ages ranging from early 30s to 62. The three finalists, all women, each took two-day visits to Portland for extensive interviews, meetings with the search committee, leadership team and staff, plus receptions with board members, funders and local theater-community members.

“It was a lot of work, but I think it’s one of those things that strengthens the organization to go through, which wasn’t something I expected,” Fuhrman says.

While PCS still sees deep and multifaceted involvement with the city around it as a key to its identity, the manner of the interactions are likely to change. Coleman, after all, became a fairly political figure, helping to foster more communication among arts groups and other civic stakeholders, take a lead role in the formulation of and lobbying for the city’s arts tax, and so on.

“We don’t have the expectation that anyone will have that level of civic engagement—that was Chris,” Fuhrman says. “At the same time, we didn’t want to go back to the artistic director being walled into the rehearsal room all the time. We were looking for someone who would be comfortable with the outward-facing parts of the job, who wants to be part of the artistic and cultural and political conversations in the city. We feel really good about Marissa in that role.

“During one of the interviews she even joked that in Kansas City, she and her husband are considered kind of fringe-y, because they ride their bikes everywhere and they recycle. I think they’ll fit right in here.”

Return to the Valley of the Angry Inch

Dale Johannes prepares for Triangle Productions’ “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.”  Photo: Henry Liu

How about some sex, drugs and rock’n’roll!?

Well, that is if by sex we mostly mean gender fluidity and the social and emotional ramifications thereof; and by drugs we mean vermouth on the rocks; and by rock’n’roll we mean  — actually, some pretty great glam/punk/pop/Broadway absorbing rock-and-bloody-roll.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch delivers all that in a hilarious and touching story of unlikely transformations and the search for love and wholeness. Triangle Productions brings it back, offering just a couple more chances to catch the tart and sweet show that rocked our early summer.

Best line I read this week

British broadcaster/podcaster James Richardson hyping an upcoming soccer match on TV (as reported in The New York Times Magazine): “Like George W. Bush with a model-plane kit, you’ll be glued to the box.”

Opening

Crowded Fire (the Bay Area theater that new PCS honcho Marissa Wolf once ran, as mentioned above) is among the theaters to take up the work of E. Hunter Spreen. The San Francisco playwright’s Care of Trees, which her website describes as an “investigation of love and belief … [and] what happens when your partner embarks upon a path that you simply cannot follow,” gets a staged reading by Enso Theatre.

Writer/performer James Sherman’s The Ben Hecht Show mines the rich vein of culture, politics and show business in the memoirs of Hecht, a journalist, playwright and screenwriter whose notable works include The Front Page, the original Scarface, and (for Alfred Hitchcock, no less) Spellbound and Notorious. Though the show apparently concerns itself with Hecht’s Zionist activism as much as his creative work, it also serves up much of his own “rich, sardonic prose,” as the Chicago Tribune called it. And, as CoHo Productions adds, “With jokes.”

With No Belles—a prize pun if ever there was one—Portal Theatre shines a light on some of the unsung women of science, bringing home a show that has earned strong reviews at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and elsewhere.

Subtitled “Tales of a Medical Actor,” Donna Kay Yarbrough’s Diagnose This! gives us the inside view of an unusual job—using her improv-acting background to pose as a pretend patient for medical students. It’s presented by Affable Gentlemen Storytelling, who for good measure also tosses in a performance of a show called Mansplaining by “comedian/sex traitor Jaguar Bennett.”

Closing

In struggling to find the words to describe Will Eno’s word mastery, I stumbled upon the phrase “philosophically comic pointillism.” If that description seems befuddling or inadequate—or, conversely, intriguing—then perhaps you need to go straight to the source. At present, that’d be the final performances of Imago’s production of Title and Deed, starring another theatrical master, Todd Van Voris.

And with the brain-melting heat of this summer, who couldn’t use some “perfectly choreographed orphanage chaos,” as ArtsWatch’s DeAnn Welker described the high-spirited Annie that’s about to end its run at Clackamas Rep.

That’s all I have for now. I’ll try to do better the next time.

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