When Allen Nause announced he was retiring from Artists Repertory Theatre last year, all eyes turned to Jon Kretzu, who has been his associate artistic director since 1993 and has directed some 50 plays for the company. Would Kretzu stay or would he go? Well, in November, just before the company announced that Damaso Rodriguez would be the new artistic director, Kretzu announced that he was leaving his artistic home of nearly 20 years.
That was fitting: Nause and Kretzu may have been something of an odd couple, but like Oscar and Felix, they were an enduring one. And after all these years, it would be hard to imagine one staying on after the other left.
I can’t say I saw all the plays that Kretzu directed, but I saw a good number, some of them among the best experiences in theater I’ve had in Portland: “Breaking the Code,” “Love! Valour! Compassion!”, “Keely and Du,” and well, I could go on. I saw many of his first shows at Artists Rep’s old home in the YWCA on Southwest Tenth Avenue and then more in its present home on Southwest Morrison, a building the company bought and remodeled into two delightful theater spaces over the years.
Kretzu added a lot to ART and to the culture in Portland generally. Three things that stood out to me:
He followed New York and London theater closely and kept the company and the city in touch with the major plays and stylistic changes happening in those theater centers.
He worked frequently with smaller companies in the city, often very successfully, and that exposure to new actors in the city kept ART’s casts fresh and interesting, besides creating a sense of collegiality in the community.
His own productions were (and are) thematically inventive and visually engaging, lyrical even, and the experience of them was frequently poetic, a nice balance to the psychological realism of Nause’s shows.
I talked to Kretzu before the holidays and a couple of days before he was to undergo a medical procedure (which went just fine). Nonetheless, he was his usual affable self. I’ve seen him upset only a very few times, and those were when he was worried that Portland wasn’t taking its theater in general seriously enough. I have edited our interview and trimmed it a bit for ease of mental handling.
OAW: The first show you did for ART was…
JK: “The Artificial Jungle,” Charles Ludlum, the summer of 1993 with Sarah Lucht, Vana O’Brien, Grant Byington and Duffy Epstein and another actor who went off to clown college and became a clown for Ringling & Bros. and that was the last I heard of him. It was great fun, I loved that piece.
OAW: And that was before you became Associate Artistic Director?
JK: Allen [Nause] created the position for me right after that. It went very well; it sold a lot of tickets.
OAW: So you caught ART in its building phase?
JK: Very much. I think Allen had been there for five years before me. It was really blooming at the Y, and it was a great time to come on. Some of the stuff I did—this was a big show, “Breaking the Code” was a major splash, and I did the closing show at the Y, which was a major honor, “Love! Valor! Compassion!” and that ran forever, and was very emotional to close that space, a great space even with the basketball games downstairs.
OAW: When you think of the process of building ART during that time, are their key ingredients or events that come to mind? How do you account for the steady upward climb?
JK: I think Allen really saw how great the bones were of the company, what was there, what was possible, what was magical about that very intimate space, the kind of real gutsy, visceral theater. We were always being called at that point the Steppenwolf of the Northwest—I think that was a mantle he was very aware of. So he was really pushing it toward the kind of professional theater he’d been involved with as an actor.
When he brought me on… we shared such a passion for theater and such an aesthetic, a truly high standard of what made theater exciting. The kind of magical thing was, we’re such different personalities and yet we totally agree on what makes theater work. And our directing styles are totally different and often we were attracted to very different types of plays, so it was kind of a perfect mix.
We had a bunch of wonderful people who were very much in our corner to work there. It was very guerrilla theater, but you can do amazing things in guerrilla theater. So, I think we just grew the audience with us. We were doing the kind of plays that really excited people. That was because we both read a great deal and I was aware of what was happening. It was kind of thrilling to grow that audience, who are still our core audience. There are still a lot of people from back then.
OAW: Play-to-play and season-to-season you had a lot continuity among the acting company. How important was that consistency in building a company?
JK: Oh, I think it’s really important. I always try to mix every cast with some people I’ve worked with a lot and some I haven’t. I think the combination of that is what gives a productions its real energy. I think having a core group of actors that you use all the time… This was years before we created the company members, but there was already an extended feeling of a family of actors. And since ART began as a collective of artists that made perfect sense.
OAW: There was a fiscal discipline at the company from the beginning that continues to this day. How did the budgets get worked out between the administrative side of the company and you and Allen?
JK: I think we were aware of budgets. We came from the world of, what kind of magic can I make out of almost nothing. There’s something incredibly exciting and inventive about that. I’ve worked with all sorts of budgets and you always adapt to the budget that you’re working with and get the most out of it. I still love doing productions like that. It hasn’t been that way here quite as much, but we aren’t a house built on enormous production costs.
OAW: You have small theaters…
JK: Yes, but there are small theaters that spend a lot of money. It’s been fun working at some other places recently that are sort of where ART was. So like working at Northwest Classical Theatre, where they don’t have a huge budget and it’s in this smaller space than the Y was—that’s really stimulating for me. I love it.
So it was never looking at a budget as a restraint, but as a key to what you were going to do.
OAW: Did you and Allen divide types of plays between you?
JK: You know it’s such a varied list. The 50 plays I did were all over the map. I never ever tried to be pegged in one genre. I hate that. So I always tried to mix it up a lot. ART was the place where I started to do more world premieres, which was really exciting. I was able to do all of these of-the-moment Off Broadway and London pieces. I don’t think I did as much what you’d call kitchen sink drama for lack of a better term—Allen did a little bit more of that—but I even did my share of that. I tend to do the more in-your-face theatrical stuff, I guess.
OAW: How did you arrive at your seasons?
JK: It was just an endless discussion. We would just look and look and look. I’d come in with a list of plays and Allen would have a list of plays, and we’d combine our thoughts. At the very end when we had to announce, the lists would coalesce and he’d make his choice. But I always had a huge amount of input in that.
Very often in the season there would plays that he would champion and that I was maybe a little cooler on, but saw the reason to do it. And I would champion something and he wouldn’t be as crazy about it, but he saw the reason why I wanted to do it and would trust me that it would be a good piece.
It was great fun that way. There was a constant give and take. I still say that the regional theaters that I’ve been happiest with the work have often been the product of two minds like that, that balance each other. You can see that in the glory years of ACT [American Conservatory Theatre]with William Ball and Allen Fletcher, who were completely yin and yang and absolutely worked beautifully together. Jack O’Brien and Craig Noel and the Old Globe…
OAW: Are there shows you thought of as big risks at the time?
JK: Yes! There were many shows. I think we were constantly throwing the dice. There were a lot of risky shows. I think doing Edward Bond’s “The Sea,” was a bizarre choice. It had a huge cast; it was a period piece; in that tiny space, that was an outrageous choice. Any theater that says its going to do four world premiere adaptations of Chekhov— that’s an insane idea, and one of my favorite things that we did. Even a play like “Breaking the Code”: Who knew about that play? It was an obscure English play. The Jean Cocteau we did the first season here, “Indiscretions,” wasn’t particularly well known and had two huge complex sets—how in the world were we going to do that. I think every season, there’s big risky shows. I don’t think that ever stopped.
We’re also surprised all the time. We thought “Superior Donuts,” which we thought was a wonderful play, Allen adored it, it was a perfect show for him to direct. But we thought that would be kind of a quiet little play that maybe would do OK. We put it in that quiet play slot, that after Christmas slot. It ended up being huge. Audiences went nuts, and we never thought that was going to be the case. It just touched a chord.
OAW: What makes a production popular?
JK: It might be the right time to do a classic. Or great incredible performances that jump out and get noticed and people want to see. There’s pieces that touch on what’s going on in the national conscience. “The Crucible” was a fine example of that. We opened right around 9/11, and that were something about that play that really touched a chord. I think it would have been a successful production at any time, but that particular time was great. We did the Larry Kramer plays, “Normal Heart” and “A Destiny of Me,” the sequel, in rep, and we were the first theater to do that. And that was just such an impactful time, at the height of the [AIDS] crisis, and really did well with audiences. “Love! Valour! Compassion!” showed that, too.
Timing is sometimes everything. Portland is a very odd city. It’s an interesting place for theater. It is not theater-centric. It’s not a place where theater is this hugely passionate subject. I think people like going here, and they get into it and they enjoy it, it’s always that thing of, ‘this is really fun, I should come more often,’ that happens all the time. But it doesn’t feel like Chicago or Seattle or Milwaukee or Minneapolis, to name just some others, where there’s a real strong feeling of passion for theater. Portland sort of likes a lot of things, and theater is just one of things that makes it enjoyable.
OAW: We do have lots of theater companies.
JK: Yes, and I’ve been here long enough now to have seen many theater companies go. There were some really fun theaters that I loved working at that I was very sad to see them go. It felt like many times I was directing the last or next-to-last production at these places, I had nothing to do with that! I really miss Portland Rep, Tygres Heart, Storefront and New Rose, Musical Theatre Company. These were really cool companies and did really fascinating work. They were sort of middle tier companies, and I don’t know how that sifted down. There are still a lot of companies, but there are a lot of companies that seem to come and go, too. It’s an interesting fluidity here.
OAW: Artists Rep persevered. When it began, in the pecking order it was beneath Portland Rep and Storefront and New Rose. Why did that happen?
JK: I think a lot of that had to do with companies moving too fast, getting ahead of themselves. We were very very steady. It was not about: ‘We had a very successful season so next season we’re going to do this crazy season.’ Hugely expensive productions or outrageously risky pieces, though not in subject matter, because god knows we took on lots of those. But not 20-character pieces or elaborate historical dramas. Even musicals we’ve done very small. We’ve been very very clever. It wasn’t like jumping to, only performing at the performing arts center, or, get into a huge space where we had so many more seats to fill. Even when we moved here, it was such a considered move. It was so slowly thought through, in the best possible way. Because Allen and I had seen so many theaters fall on their face.
That doesn’t mean in any way that makes the art less, it just means you can grow the art slower. Look how long it took us to build a second stage here.
OAW: You are sort of cash and carry. You don’t buy on credit.
JK: Very much. I think that’s good.
OAW: Lots of theaters go with one larger and one smaller venue. Talk about the decision to go with two intimate spaces.
JK: We talked around the idea of building a much bigger space where the parking lot is. It never really was attractive to us. I was this big champion of the idea that people come to ART at the Y[WCA] because they are only five rows from the action at most. I thought that was such a great commercial selling point, that is such a great intimate experience. So, the whole point of moving to this space was, OK, we’re just going to add a row. Of course, this was bigger rows.
I don’t think we ever wanted a lot of seats. Allen and I, I can’t ever remember us saying, ‘Oh my god, if we only had a bigger theater.’ I think that the relationship of the audience to the stage has always been so strong here, something in the DNA that goes all the way back to the Y, where that audience-actor relationship was incredibly intense.
OAW: Do you have any thoughts to pass along to Damaso Rodriguez, Artist Rep’s new artistic director?
JR: We just had our first chat, and I just loved him. I thought he was so great and exactly the right person. I think they made an incredibly great decision.
I told him I’m here for him no matter what to help him with this transition. And that I have a couple of really cool ideas I’d like to talk to him about. I think he’s the kind of low-key, thoughtful, intelligent person that you want to be here.
The most important thing you could tell someone coming into this kind of position, with this kind of theater, with this kind of history is to absolutely and sincerely honor the past and be incredibly visionary about the future. That is the key. Because you can’t have one without the other.
I’d ask him to really embrace these two spaces and perhaps find a third one in this building, which is still full of many nooks and crannies. I still think there should be a space called the Art Studio. I think really honoring and embracing these two spaces, which are magical and there’s still so much to be mined from them. They are very transformative.
I think the third one is to always create theater here that comes directly from his heart and not from anybody else telling him what to do. Allen and I always created directly from our passions. We never ever told each other what to do. We’d certainly comment and help each other and listen to each other, but we would always sift through what each other said and keep what we liked and toss aside the stuff that wasn’t useful, and we were both wonderful at that. And I think that would be very important for him, not to do what other people have done, to do what means something to him.
OAW: Do you have any advice for the theater community?
JR: They should go more. Read and look at what’s going on in theater. Think of theater as not something to do after a foodie meal. It’s something to do before the meal and eat after. It should be the focus of their evening. I think they should take it a little more seriously.
Kretzu has lots of projects lined up for 2013, he said. In February he will direct “Love’s Labours Lost” for the Seattle Shakespeare Company (following his excellent “Lear” last summer for the Portland Shakespeare Project). Then he takes on the spring opera for PSU’s opera department, Puccini’s “La Rondine,” and two shows (each a landmark play in gay and lesbian theater) in repertory for defunkt theatre: “The Children’s Hour” and “Boys in the Band.”
This summer, he’ll head to Edmonton, Alberta, for “A Steady Rain,” before turning his attention to an adventurous project for Opera Theater Oregon, “Sleep No More.” And he’s working with Cynthia Whitcomb and Joseph Fisher on script ideas for films. Kretzu will be even busier than ever, from the sound of it.
Marty Hughley interviewed Jon Kretzu along somewhat different line for The Oregonian, which I had read before heading into this one.
“Hughley: You liked the idea of this being the last season for both you and Allen?
Kretzu: That felt like the best thing for the theater. I just didn’t want to be an appendage. We are such a team, and I could not imagine being there without him. I’ve always had such involvement in decisions that to take a reduced position with the new artistic director — who probably would not know me from Adam—that just wasn’t very interesting.”