Spotlight on: Luisa Sermol

Part 1 of 2: Birth of an Artist. As the grande dame of Portland theater prepares to move on, Bobby Bermea traces the beginnings of her career

There is a moment toward the beginning of Artist Rep’s The Humans, not too long after the parents have arrived at the children’s New York apartment, before much of the shenanigans, revelations and pandemonium have ensued, when Luisa Sermol comes to a moment of stillness at the top of the stairs. While a scene is happening on the floor below, she just stands there … and even so, it takes an act of will to tear your eyes away from her. Much of The Humans is artfully choreographed chaos — but not this. Sermol comes to a stop and time stops with her. Though you know next to nothing about this Deirdre Blake’s life, on a visceral level you feel everything that has brought this character to this moment. You feel the weight of her life, the joys long past, the choices made, the brokenness, the frustrations, the boundless love. It’s a moment that not all actors have in them. There is nothing to do. You just have to be. And few actors do that better than Luisa Sermol.

Luisa Sermol: The North Star. Photo: Owen Carey

She’s the North Star of the Portland theater community. She’s our grande dame, our standard-bearer. She’s been acting in Portland for twenty years. She graduated from Juilliard. She’s won five Drammys. She’s worked at almost every major house in Portland. She’s tackled everything in this town from Shakespeare to Johnna Adams and she’s done it with power, precision and vulnerability — and she’s made it look effortless (when, of course, it is anything but). Her hallmark is being able to dig down to the depths of her soul and leave it all on the stage. If Theatre Thanos came down in his spaceship, she would lead Portland’s team of Drama Avengers out to fight him. Tony Sonera, for whom Sermol gave two of her award-winning performances, put it this way: “When you have the big role, with big shoes, with big expectations, when it’s too difficult for you to figure out, you bring in Luisa Sermol.”

As a person, Sermol is good people. She’s warm and giving, as generous of herself offstage as she is on. Some of it is experience. She’s been around for a while now. She’s seen a lot. She’s learned a lot, not just about art but about people. Some of it is her affinity for Portland. After all, this is her town. She’s spent some thirty years here off and on, she’s loved, lost and loved again, raised a child to a beautiful young woman, and created her life’s work here. Some of it is her love, not just for the art form but for the people who work in it. She sees them, warts, quirks and all; and loves and appreciates that from the insanity also comes the good work. But most of all, this is just the way she’s wired. Her acting, her art, come directly out of her compassion for the human condition. “She can’t help herself,” says best friend and another wonderful theater artist, Louanne Moldovan. “She has a big heart and is extremely caring. So, her art is going to be utterly heartfelt because that’s part of her voice, part of her instrument. All of that is fed and nourished by her compassion.”

Jahnavi Alyssa, who worked with Sermol on Badass Theatre’s production of Johnna Adams’ brutal play, Sans Merci, has this to say: “Well, she is my Mama Luisa! I always call her that and I think it speaks to a lot of who she is. She is so open, warm and loving, but also has the ferocity of a mama bear and the stability and groundedness of Mother Earth.”

Sermol with Steve Vanderzee in “Suddenly Last Summer” at Shaking the Tree, 2015. Photo: Gary Norman

In fact, in as insulated and tempestuous an environment as the Portland theater community can be, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone with a negative word to say about Sermol. The closest I came was this tongue-in-cheek assessment from another long-time friend, colleague and rival, Sarah Lucht: “I have lost plenty of jobs to Luisa over the years. She is a very fine actor and brings a fire on stage with her that I think is unparalleled … the bitch.”

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IF THIS IS SOUNDING LIKE A VALENTINE, a love letter, perhaps it is. Because Luisa Sermol is leaving Portland, and the Rose City will be the lesser for it. For the past twenty years she’s tread the boards, raised the bar, strived for excellence, and now she makes her exit. “She gives credibility to every theater company that she works for,” says Sonera. “That’s hard to do. If you can get her to work for your company, your company has credit.”

Luisa is leaving, naturally enough, for love, because she is a romantic. Later this month she’s getting married, and moving to the Bay Area, where her fiancé, Tom Gough, is a tenured professor at Foothill College. After that, her hope is that one day she’ll return to Portland. But of course, nothing is ever certain. If there’s one thing that that theater teaches us, it’s that all stories come to an end.

And what a story it’s been. It’s a story that stretches from the Old World to the new and from one coast to the other. It’s a story that has elements of a classic romance, including, at the center, a fiery, red-haired heroine, sacrificing everything for love. It’s a story of a woman who fought to define her life on her own terms, even though at times that cost her. And it’s the story of that transitional period of Portland theater, from names like Storefront and Tygre’s Heart, to today with names like Shaking-the-Tree and Portland Playhouse. In 1996, when she came back to Portland from New York, the city had 500,000 people and about 1.8 million in its metropolitan area. Today it has 640,000, with more than 2.4 million in the metro area – the equivalent of the metro area absorbing a new city the size of 1996 Portland in just a little more than 20 years. The story of Luisa Sermol is the story of a city coming of age.

It’s fitting, in a way, that Sermol’s journey would return her to California, because that is where her American adventure began. She was born in Scotland to Scottish parents, the oldest of two children. (In fact, she and her daughter, Isabella, have dual citizenship.) Her mother, Dorothy, had been classically trained in opera and sings to this day. In fact, Sermol says, “My mother opened for Maria Callas at the Edinburgh Festival — the year that Maria Callas canceled.” This upward trajectory was stalled with the onset of family misfortune. Luisa’s birth-father died when she was three. Her mother “had to sacrifice her career at that point to take care of her kids.” Dorothy (then Caldwell) moved the family to California to join with her father, who had just lost his own wife — Sermol’s grandmother. Young Dorothy “lost her mother and her husband within two months of each other. And she had a three-year-old and a one-year-old.”

When Sermol was five her family’s fortunes took a turn for the better. Her mother married Hap Sermol, who formally adopted the children. “We grew up in Palo Alto and then in Half Moon Bay. I was in Half Moon Bay until the middle of high school.” It was then that destiny took a hand. Her father, Hap, got a job at Oregon Health Sciences University and moved the whole family north to Portland. For Luisa the teen-ager however, the move was fraught with trials and tribulations. She can laugh — now. “It was very tragic for me because I had a boyfriend down there. It was the middle of my sophomore year. And I had mono. It was not good.”

She came to acting indirectly, through music. “I had seen my mother do things. And I was always moved by — even when she sings in Italian or some other language I can’t understand — I was always moved by what was coming out of her. It didn’t have to do with the words, it had to do with her expression.” For a while, Luisa thought her own destiny was in music, specifically playing the viola. “I played the viola. I was going to follow that path. Played in lots of orchestras. Played in the Youth Philharmonic here. Played in chamber groups.” But after doing a high school musical or two, a different itch needed to be scratched. “I was tired of being in the pit. I wanted to be on the stage.

“When I was in my junior year of college I did a year abroad. I went to London. In London the only courses they had were theater-type courses. So, what we’d do is we’d read a play, go and see a play, and critique it. At that point I thought ‘I love this, I’m going to be a critic,’ because I could get what the playwright was writing about, go see it and think what was working, what wasn’t working. But I was also really taken with the acting classes at the time. I found that what I liked about turning in a paper and finding out what an author had to say, I could actually activate as an actor. I could do something with it. Not just write it down and hand it in to that one teacher. That I could actually take all that stuff that was happening and create a whole world.”

A pensive Sermol, leaning against the bed in Shaking the Tree’s “The Caucasian Chalk Circle” earlier this season. Photo: Gary Norman

After school, she returned to Portland, where acting continued to be at the forefront of her mind. She got a job working for Dan Hanna of Hanna Car Wash. “He was one of those geniuses that’s difficult to work with. But I could work with him okay. But I knew I didn’t want to keep doing that kind of work. I really wanted to do theater.” After enrolling in summer conservatory at ACT in San Francisco (“I loved that experience”) Sermol decided that more immersive training was called for and auditioned for a number of grad schools — and promptly hit the jackpot.

“I was doing Old Times here. And I was playing a part I was too young for. But still, I was grateful to have it. So, I went in and one of my monologues for Juilliard was from Old Times — which was kind of an obscure thing to do. I think that was part of it. And I did Phoebe [from As You Like It]. It was on Valentine’s Day and I sang My Funny Valentine. I was so relaxed because I didn’t think I’d get in. It was for fun. I just thought, ‘While I’m here…’ and I got in.”

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OF COURSE, GETTING INTO the prestigious school was only part of the battle. Acceptance brought other problems. “I’m like, ‘I don’t know how I’m going to pay for this.’ I talked to Hanna. I would go to him a lot of times for kids or people that needed sponsors for things and he’d always be very generous. So I went to him, ‘I’m wondering, I’ve got this opportunity, is there any way you could help me out?’ And he said, ‘If you come back in the summers and work for me, I’ll give you a thousand dollars a month.’ He helped me out through my first two years. It was a very generous thing.”

New York, naturally enough, was an eye-opener. “Juilliard was a great place to be. Now they’ve got a beautiful dorm that’s attached to the school, but at that time I had to live at the YMCA. My first day there I got to my room, which was literally 8’ x 10’. I just sat there afraid from all the stories you hear of New York. I thought, ‘Okay, I better go out. I gotta go out and get some supplies. So I ventured out to Amsterdam. It wasn’t so bad. People were kinda nice.”

Before too long, she developed an affinity for the amazing city. “The characters you would see there. The lady with the invisible dog taking the elevator every morning. Or the woman who took a shower with all of her clothes on. We weren’t sure if that was because she wanted to wash her clothes at the same time or she didn’t know. She’d just come in, step in the shower and scrub away. So little bit by little bit … and I loved being in New York. Until I didn’t anymore.”

Juilliard pushed her. “Now they have playwrighting and directing within the program. Then, it was very pure. It was acting. Which included voice, dance, all of the other things too as part of the conservatory. But it was all focused on the actor. We didn’t just have a voice class. We had a voice class, a text class, a movement that’s connected to the voice class, articulation with Robert Williams, a dialects class that was separate from that. Learning the IPA, the phonetic alphabet. We had these amazing teachers where you’d constantly be working on that, to get it ingrained. It just did not end.

“Also, at Juilliard we didn’t learn one particular technique. We weren’t taught only Meisner or only Stanislavski, or anything. We were introduced to all of that. And then, what works best? Often for me, when I’m working on something that’s very comic, I work better outside in. And then when I’m working on something where I really have to make a lot of strong emotional connections, I have to work inside out.”

There were other lessons too, not necessarily part of the curriculum. “I was always kind of — very put together. My clothes would match. I would always have everything in on time, everything always in place. Organized. I have an organized chaos that I live with, in order to do everything. One of my first lessons, John Stix, my first-year acting teacher, he talked to me. He called me on it. I was really good about writing all this stuff about my character. He said, ‘I don’t want to see all this writing. It doesn’t matter unless it’s up on stage.’ And I felt bad cuz I thought, ‘It’s true. It doesn’t matter. If they’re not seeing it on stage then what’s it matter I write all this stuff out?’ And then I thought about it some more and went and had a talk with him in his office hours. ‘Just to make clear, I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t the kind of person that did this. It grounds me to do this kind of work. Just me.’ It started teaching me about what I need versus what I’m being told. I don’t do that kind of work anymore but when I’m stuck on something, that’s what I do to help me.”

(This fearlessness about fighting for her artistic ground is a hallmark of Sermol’s career. Tony Sonera tells a similar story from working with her on Boleros for the Disenchanted. “There was a point early on in the rehearsal where she was focusing on business and I said something ridiculous like, ‘The scene is not about giving him a shot’ which later led to a three-page email– humbling me. ‘You don’t need to speak to me like that.’ (Laughs) What I learned was that in those moments I just need to back away and let her work through that because she’s not going to give up. And if she needs to work on a piece of business I need to let her work on that. Really good artists let you know as a director what you need to guide them. That’s her.”)

Sermol in “The Humans,” continuing through Dec. 17 at Artists Rep. Photo: Russell J Young

Looking back, Sermol says, “Juilliard was a great experience. It was a small group. I was basically with seventeen people for four years. Laura Linney was the class ahead of me. I spent two Thanksgivings with her. She would have orphan Thanksgiving at her father, Romulus Linney’s, house. She was very generous and would have us all over. And Jean Tripplehorn was in that same class. Viola Davis was a class below me. A lot of the men in my class have done pretty well, a lot of character work. So, a few of us are still acting, regionally or locally. It was great to immerse yourself in something so completely for that length of time.”

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JUILLIARD WAS ONLY A PORTION of Sermol’s New York experience. After she graduated she “stayed in New York for a while. Got married there. Tried to get work. It was hard. I would get to do work. I got my Equity card there doing a production of Macbeth. That I really enjoyed. That was a wonderful process. I loved that. Then still pounding the pavement all the time for more work. New York feels very hierarchical. It feels like you’ve got to climb a ladder. I didn’t want to climb a ladder. No matter where I got to, I never felt it was enough. You could never get to where you needed to get to. I didn’t like that feeling.

“I was with this manager at the time. And the manager wanted me to get a new agent. So, she’s sending me out to these agents. I go to this one agent and he’s like, ‘So, who’s your manager?’ I tell him. He’s like, ‘You mean the murderess?’

‘What?’

‘Yeah. You mean, you didn’t know?’

‘What? NO! No, I did not!’ She’d apparently killed her boyfriend in some kind of drug craze but because it was self-defense, she’d gotten off. But it was all in the paper. I’m sitting there thinking, ‘I need to shower.’ It was just one thing after another.

“Another epiphany I had was, sitting on the subway, reading, a guy comes in, total stream-of-consciousness, in-your-face screaming, just one of the New York people, right? We’re all sitting there ignoring him. He’s literally in our face, screaming all this stuff trying to get our attention. And we’re ignoring him. And I just thought, ‘Okay, who’s crazier here? This guy, who’s saying exactly everything that’s coming into his head, or we who are sitting here, acting like this is not happening? And how much do you keep going through that every day before that gets to you?’”

Even more than New York pushing her away, Portland started calling. “I had done some auditions across the country just to see what would happen. I booked them, which was really lovely. I was here, doing a show (A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Portland Center Stage) and staying with my parents. I was running up on a hill (this is back in the days when I would run) and I stopped and looked out and saw the mountains and the trees and I breathed a breath of air that I felt go through every pore of my body. There was that instinct. I thought, ‘I need to breathe like this. Whatever this is about, I can’t explain it, I don’t know the physiology of it, but I need to breathe like this.’”

There was more. “My best friend was doing the Broadway show of Three Tall Women at the time. And I was thinking, ‘She’s so lucky. When am I gonna get my big break? Where’s my luck?’

“Sitting around my parents’ table where, once again, I’d done a show, I come home, it’s 11:30, all their friends are sitting around with a guitar, my father decides to make another midnight meal, so they’re having dinner — again.”

For Sermol, it sealed the deal. “I’m sitting there thinking, ‘This is my luck. This is my special gift. People don’t necessarily have this. It’s a rare thing to have your parents sit around, my gourmet cook father, opera-singing mother, all the friends they gather at their table to sing and play and talk for hours and hours and hours. That is a rare thing.’”

Luckily, Rick Waldron, her then-husband, was of like mind. “Rick understood that. He was a Wall Street lawyer at the time and he hated it. So, we ended up packing up the U-Haul and moving without knowing what was gonna happen.”

Portland was calling. The time had come to answer the call.

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Tomorrow: Part Two of Two. Our Grande Dame Takes a Bow.

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Sermol wrote her own piece on her decision to relocate, Luisa Sermol Bids Farewell with One Last Willie Wonka, which ArtsWatch reprinted on May 7, 2017.

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