Great shakes: a Drammy tribute to Grant Turner

NW Classical Theatre's departing leader will take home a special award from Monday's Drammy ceremony

Grant Turner’s career epiphany came during his freshman year of college, but not within the halls of Eastern Oregon University in La Grande. Instead it was at the movies. While back in his native Portland for the winter break, Turner went to Cinema 21 to see Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 film version of Shakespeare’s Henry V.

And Turner had no idea what was going on.

He’d encountered the Bard before. In grade school, he’d seen the famous Franco Zeffirelli film of Romeo and Juliet. He’d even faked his way through a small part in a middle-school Hamlet and, a few years later at Centennial High, a class about Shakespeare. He says he never understood a word of it.

Turner (left) as Iachimo in "Cymbeline," with Tom Walton

Turner (left) as Iachimo in “Cymbeline,” with Tom Walton

Soon, the young theater major switched his focus from musical theater to classics. In the years since Branagh turned the light of understanding on for him, Turner’s become so adept at illuminating Shakespeare for others — actors and audiences alike —that he’s earned the 2014 Drammy Award for Special Achievement in Portland theater.

Turner and dozens of other theater artists will be honored Monday night at the Crystal Ballroom in the 36th annual Drammy Awards ceremony. Isaac Lamb – he of the world’s most famous marriage-proposal viral video, but more importantly a marvelous Portland actor and singer – will host the event, which starts at 7 p.m. Doors open at 6 p.m. for drinks, socializing and a slideshow of images from the 2013-’14 theater season.

For more than 15 years, Turner has been the founding artistic director/jack-of-all-trades at Northwest Classical Theatre Company, building it from a virtually unfunded speck on the summer calendar into one of the region’s steadiest and most respected small theaters. But life’s most important collaborative work — family — trumps the stage, so Turner is moving to La Grande, where his wife, Nicole, who co-founded the theater, has taken a job as a pathologist.

The theater scene that Turner leaves behind is one that, in subtle but profound ways, he’s done much to shape. Portland has been awash in Shakespeare for the past few years, with Post Five, Portland Shakespeare Project, Original Practice Shakespeare Festival and other newcomers feeding on the interest so long and assiduously nurtured by Turner.

“His passion has helped spark the interest within the community,” says longtime NWCTC ensemble actor Melissa Whitney. “I think he’s had a massive impact on how much Shakespeare is done in town.”

And the classical waters won’t recede anytime soon: Numerous companies are collaborating on a grand project to stage the full Bardic canon between this spring and April of 2016. Guess whose idea that was.

Somehow, Northwest Classical Theatre Company will carry on. Jason Maniccia (currently starring in NWCTC’s Macbeth) and Deanna Wells will become co-artistic directors. “As of January, it’ll pretty much be their company.”

Along with the other challenges that come along with running a small theater, the duo will have to try to avoid what’s sometimes called “founder’s syndrome,” the tendency of organizations to struggle with identity and direction when their original guiding light leaves.

“We’ve got a weird time ahead of us,” Whitney says. “I think our goal is not to replicate Grant Turner, ‘cause we can’t do that, but to figure out what the new Northwest Classical will be.”

“Grant has been the captain of the ship for so long,” says Wells, who’s worked with the company “off and on through the years” but was more involved with Profile Theatre. “So we have to try to make this huge transition in a way that our company members aren’t too ruffled and our audiences know that they’re still in good hands.”

Among the transition tasks are divvying up responsibilities between Wells and Maniccia, transferring the Shoe Box Theatre lease out of Turner’s name and assembling, in Turner’s words, “a more serious board.”

Turner’s devotion to theater began early.  He considers himself fortunate to have grown up “in a school system that really rewarded you for being creative…I’d been able to act in the public schools ever since fourth grade.” His friends from high school recall, he says, that even then his stated career goal was to run his own small theater company.

Back home after college, Turner cut his teeth acting and stage managing for Oregon Stage Company, soaking up lessons from artistic director Gary O’Brien. Then it was on to work with Tygres Heart Shakespeare Company and Northwest Children’s Theatre before launching his own venture in the summer of 1998.

“Our first production was The Taming of the Shrew, and we had no money at all,” he recalls. “I cut it down to eight people. We did it outdoors, at Couch Park, but I didn’t even know we had to have a permit. The set was a wrestling mat.

“Then, for the first several years, I’d work at PetCo and put my money away until I had enough in the bank to do another play. One or two a year.”

Turner kept things going with a combination of dedication (during a snow storm, the troupe once performed Measure for Measure to an audience of one) and versatility. Turner’s innumerable duties at NWCTC have included even stepping into the role of Lord Talbot in a production of Henry VI, Part One at Terry Schrunk Plaza, replacing an actor who was arrested minutes before showtime for brandishing a sword too near an undercover cop.

This early itinerant period saw the company perform downtown in Schrunk Plaza (actor Tom Walton recalls prisoners in the nearby Justice Center heckling from above), at the Firehouse Theatre, and in a run-down Chinatown space shared with the soon-to-be-defunct Magdalen Theater Company. A decade ago, NWCTC crossed the river to make its long-term home in Southeast Portland’s Shoebox Theatre, a 38-seat hot-house of intense theatrical experiences.

“Something I’m really proud of — and I didn’t recognize it until very recently — is the idea of the Shoebox being taken seriously as a performance venue,” Turner says. “In a crazy way, it has helped define us as performers. You can’t not know your stuff and play it in that space. It forced us to really be a language-based theater company.”

That focus on language, though, already was Turner’s core value. Acting and directing for NWCTC “re-ignited a passion for classic theater” in Michael Mendelson, who since has formed Portland Shakespeare Project. “We both feel that performing classic theater is a privilege, and you have to have a set of skills to do it,” Mendelson says. “First is: Understand what you’re saying. He made it important for actors to convey with passion what is really on the page.”

Turner as Leontes in "The Winter's Tale." Photo: Jason Maniccia

Turner as Leontes in “The Winter’s Tale.” Photo: Jason Maniccia

A voracious reader, Turner has built impressive expertise in Shakespearean textual interpretation, performance history and acting technique. But just as important have been his knack for ensemble development and creating a working environment that challenges actors yet never threatens them.

“I was never afraid to approach Shakespeare, just because of the way he talked to me about it,” says Walton, who hadn’t acted before he became friends with Turner. “He was so passionate about it, and so helpful, he made it accessible.”

“He established a very low-key environment where you never felt dumb about asking a question,” says ensemble member Melissa Whitney. “He gave all kinds of Shakespeare rookies a safe place where we could learn, where it was a pleasure.”

In addition to Turner, the NWCTC learning environment has featured such illustrious teachers as Lisa Harrow, Imogen Stubbs, Bill Alexander and Barry Kyle — veterans of Britain’s vaunted Royal Shakespeare Company and National Theatre who Turner has brought to Portland to direct shows or present master classes.

And how has he lured such top overseas talent — folks used to working with the likes of Helen Mirren and Patrick Stewart — to a tiny theater eight time zones away?

“He fawns embarrassingly over them,” Walton explains.

Partly that’s showing a deep appreciation of their work — when Alexander came to town in 2012 to direct Othello, he found that he didn’t remember the details of his own career as well as Turner did. But it’s also a matter of sheer enthusiasm.

Walton recalls a trip to London and Stratford, which included seeing Turner’s hero, Branagh, perform: “After the show, we go around to the stage door, and it’s me and Grant and 15 young girls. After 15 minutes, Branagh comes out and the girls start squealing. I look around, and Grant’s squealing too. I was so embarrassed. But there he is with his shining red-apple cheeks and he’s so excited, and you can see how much of an impact these people have had on him.”

Despite his impending move to La Grande, Turner isn’t about to disappear. He’ll be back in town within weeks to direct a Twelfth Night that will play this summer around the Willamette Valley and in Bend. He’ll help NWCTC transition into a new era under Wells and Maniccia. “And I have the wheels in motion to find a way to keep my hand in here,” he adds.

All the same, this is a fitting time to honor his contributions to Portland theater, and to wish him a hearty good-bye — as long as you’re circumspect.

“He’s not a very huggy person,” Whitney warns. “It’s common knowledge that he doesn’t like to be touched too much. It makes him uncomfortable.” Mendelson even exploited this trait when directing Turner as Tranio in The Taming of the Shrew, arranging for him to be gang-tickled in one scene.

So perhaps you should simply shake his hand, and thank him for turning the light on.

 

 

One Response.

  1. Michael Streeter says:

    It has been an honor to work with Grant and a pleasure to watch the development of NWCTC over the years. Has it been fifteen years already? Wow… how time flies.

Comments are closed.