By HEATHER HELINSKY
Profile Theatre carved out a unique niche in Portland’s theater scene by focusing narrowly and deeply. Each season showcases only a single venerated playwright, affording audiences a deeper understanding through experiencing several plays from throughout the writer’s career.
With newly hired artistic director Josh Hecht, though, Profile hopes to broaden its scope in several ways: chronologically, by adding emerging young playwrights to the mix; collaboratively, by partnering with other Portland theaters and cultural organizations of all kinds; and thematically, by adjusting what Hecht sees as the goal of its unique mission, from putting playwrights under the microscope to using their plays as a telescope pointed out at 21st century.
“Along with other members of Profile’s search committee, I was impressed by Josh’s credentials as an educator and award-winning director with broad and deep experience in American theatre — in NYC and across the U.S.,” Profile board chair Steve Young said in announcing Hecht’s hiring. “I am also impressed by his communication, collaboration, and leadership skills and by his passionate belief in theatre’s responsibility to contribute to the civic life of our community.”
An experienced educator, dramaturg, and senior staff member of two prominent NYC theaters, MCC Theater and Women’s Expressive Theater, Hecht also brings extensive experience as a freelance director in regional theatres across the country.
“My focus will always be compelling new productions of plays by some of our most celebrated and relevant voices,” Hecht, 38, told ArtsWatch. “That’s the cornerstone of our work at Profile.” Hecht’s inheritance is a strong tradition of viewing playwrights from a literary perspective from Profile Theatre’s tenacious founder, Jane Unger, who started the company in 1997.
Hecht appreciates the strides made by his predecessor, Profile’s second artistic director Adriana Baer, who shifted Profile away from examining playwrights from the 20th century masters to 21st century playwrights. “Writers like Sarah Ruhl, Tanya Barfield, and Quiara Alegría Hudes are in that sweet spot of their career, with enough of a body of work to warrant a year-long examination, but who are still producing their best, most exciting, most relevant and necessary work—playwrights for whom as much of their career lies ahead of them as behind them,” he says. He also plans to build upon the Diversity and Inclusion initiative that Baer created to engage audiences with works by women and artists of color.
But Hecht’s real forte is something new to Profile: new play development. As a Drama Desk-award winning director, he has specialized in new work, developing up to two dozen new plays a year. He’s worked with writers at major residencies, including the National Playwrights Conference at Connecticut’s O’Neill Theatre Institute, New York Stage and Film, PlayPenn in Philadelphia, Lake George Theatre Lab, Great Plains Theatre Conference, and Portland’s own JAW festival at Portland Center Stage.
“I think what I bring to Profile that is new is strong and deep connections to venerated contemporary writers and artists across the country through a history of developing new plays in New York and in regional cities from Minneapolis to DC, Louisville to San Francisco,” Hecht says. “I’m excited to bring those connections to Portland and to create new work that brings both local and national artists together.”
Hecht hopes to ask each featured playwright at Profile about emerging playwrights that they themselves are keeping their eye on. Hecht believes that in addition to exploring the featured writer’s work, Profile can have readings —and one day, even lab productions — of works by emerging writers inspired by the featured playwright. Hecht envisions the master playwright and emerging writer in conversation as they explore similar culturally important questions and themes.
Collaboration & Community
Theater artistic directors don’t change very often. At New York’s Signature Theatre Company, which shares a similar mission of focusing the lens on one master playwright, Paige Evans is taking over from founding artistic director James Houghton, who has been in charge since 1991. In Minneapolis, Joseph Haj succeeds Joe Dowling as the artistic director of the Guthrie Theatre, who had been in the chair since 1995. Hecht too is part of a new generation of artistic leaders across American regional theatre this season who are continually exploring possibilities for inspired collaborations, interdisciplinary producing models, and new ways of relating to the community and the city.
“The more audience members see great theater anywhere.” Hecht explains, “the more likely they are to seek out more opportunities to do that throughout their community. And funders are the same. Most people who are interested in supporting art give to more than one institution. The more we find opportunities for collaboration among organizations, on projects, across disciplines and with various funders, the better off all of us are. It also happens to be the fun part.”
Perhaps the austerity conditions from 2008’s recession played a part, but the shift toward collaboration is philosophical as well as practical. The field has had more open conversations about diversity, audience engagement, and representation from the communities where the theaters live and operate. These new leaders are ready to create further conversations with their audiences about relevant 21st century issues.
“I’m excited to see what my generation of arts leaders does,” says Hecht. “Already, it’s been great to share ideas and strategies with my own cohort: Daniella Topol at Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre, Sean Daniels at Merrimack Repertory Theatre, Vivian Benesch at Playmakers Rep, Davis McCallum at Hudson Valley Shakespeare, Nigel Smith at The Flea, Will Davis at American Theatre Company, Gideon Lester at the Fischer Center at Bard, Meredith McDonough, the Associate Artistic Director at Actors Theatre of Louisville, and others. I think it’s an exciting time for American theater.”
The new generation’s sharing of ideas reflects their preference for collaboration. Hecht hopes to further the mission of the company by working together with other theatre companies in the community, pooling their resources, in a shared aim of developing new work.
“I’ve always thought of myself as a collaborative leader,” he explains. “I think the task of any leader is to provide vision that is focused enough to be galvanizing, yet capacious enough to contain many voices. I look forward to having my ideas expanded upon, challenged and refined by my collaborators. It’s as true in the conference room as it is in the rehearsal room.”
“I’m also interested in finding inspired community partners that include music and food and engaging the space in new, interesting ways,” Hecht continues. “And in forming community partnerships that make sure the work is seen by audiences who may not otherwise come to Profile, but who will feel seen and valued by the work onstage.”
He’s already identified potential partners. “What’s really amazing about Portland is that it is really becoming a center of new work,” he says. “For a city of this size, it has a real depth and breadth of cultural offerings. There’s already a strong, well-respected community of theatre artists who have nationally recognized careers who value the playwright’s voice: Chris Coleman, Mead Hunter, Jane Unger, Peter Ksander…the list goes on.”
By coincidence, Hecht’s first new partner will be an old friend. Lauren Bloom Hanover, who has been acting as the Interim Artistic Director at Profile since Adriana Baer’s departure, first met Hecht when he was directing his first play, Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women, at Wesleyan University. “Artistic director transitions can be difficult,” he acknowledges. “But it doesn’t have to be. The best transitions aren’t, of course. And here, the fact that Jane Unger, interim AD Lauren Bloom Hanover and I share a fondness for each other benefits the theatre and its community.”
Theater As Lens
While Hecht visited Portland this month to begin conversations with company members, he will move in January to launch Profile’s 2017 season dedicated to Pulitzer-Prize winning playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes. “I’m looking forward to presenting this incredible playwright’s work in new and compelling ways,” Hecht says, “like presenting the Pulitzer Prize winning play Water By the Spoonful and its sequel The Happiest Song Plays Last in rotating rep with the same director, design team and cast. Audiences can see the plays on their own, or together, spending an afternoon and evening with the plays’ three generations of an American military family.”
Hudes’s work exemplifies Hecht’s philosophy of examining playwrights not just for their own sake. “I’ve been imagining what the next chapter of Profile Theatre’s artistic life might look like,” he muses. “What interests me about Profile’s mission is the possibility of using a master artist as a lens to help us better understand our shared culture. What are the moral questions of our time that this artist thinks are important? What are the conversations this artist thinks we urgently need to be having? Theatre has a unique ability to pose these questions while deepening our empathy, our collective compassion. I’m interested in highlighting how our artists help us see our world — and ourselves — better.”
Heather Helinsky is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer and dramaturg. She’s been the resident dramaturg of the Great Plains Theatre Conference for six years and has dramaturged over sixty new plays across American regional theatre, including the upcoming premiere of the environmental play Two Degrees at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. www.helinskydramaturgy.com