“I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future.” That’s Scrooge’s famous redemptive line from Charles Dickens’s holiday classic A Christmas Carol, which is playing at Portland Playhouse through Dec. 30, and it’s particularly pertinent to this year’s director of the 10th annual production of the show.
In 2023, A Christmas Carol is being led by Charles Grant, in his first time as director of a mainstage show. Grant has been in town for only seven years, but he’s already made an outsize name for himself in the Portland theater community.
In fact, his star has been rising since nearly the day of his arrival in Portland in 2016, when he had graduated with a BFA in Acting from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and auditioned for an acting apprentice role at Portland Playhouse.
Nikki Weaver, head of the apprenticeship program at the time, saw talent. Within weeks of his arrival in Portland, Weaver threw Grant into the deep end of the pool, casting him as understudy for the award-winning powerhouse Victor Mack in the Playhouse’s production of How I Learned What I Learned.
“I did end up going on stage for a student matinee – Victor was so awesome,” remembers Grant. “He was so supportive, as well as Nikki and the director Kevin Jones. David Levine was our stage manager. It was a small group, but very supportive.”
It was a year of firsts. That year, Grant was also cast at Portland Playhouse as the Ghost of Christmas Present – and Mrs. Fezziwig! – in his first-ever experience being onstage for A Christmas Carol, and it was also the first year the Playhouse featured a female Scrooge, the multi-talented Jennifer Rowe.
Grant recognizes that Portland is a uniquely supportive place for theater. “Portland is different,” he says. “I do think it’s a testament to the evolving leadership in this community. And I do think there’s a lot of opportunity and goodwill for people to get seen.”
Grant was definitely seen as he stretched his acting wings beyond the Playhouse. In 2019, he was cast in the Portland Center Stage premiere of the comedy Redwood alongside the play’s creator, Brittany K. Allen. By 2023, the play Redwood had evolved and grown in audience – this fall, it opened off-Broadway at Ensemble Studio Theatre, in a new production lauded by New York theater critics.
Redwood changed Grant’s life in other ways as well – Redwood Director Chip Miller is now his life partner.
Grant appreciates the supportive launch pad that the Playhouse has provided him. He credits the Playhouse’s grounding in their local community as instructive. “I think the Playhouse’s ethos really is about community,” Grant says. “After all, we are located in the former Mount Sinai Baptist Church, and we take that legacy of being a community gathering space very seriously. … We’re a theater that remains responsible to our community, and we try to reflect a broad human experience.”
Grant continues to give back to that community. He has worked carefully with kids who – like him – have worked to find their footing in the community. Grant performs nearly every season at local schools, including in a one-man version of Martin Luther King Jr.’s life. He’s also directed Shakespeare with children: In fall of 2023, he directed a kids-only production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Harriet Tubman Middle School.
Grant finds work with actors of all ages inspiring: “Every day, I ask, how do we still bring that spirit of play and newness and imagination and joy and wonder to an audience?” says Grant. “I just love making theater – every time, we go on a journey together.”
The Playhouse’s support of Grant’s artistic journey has been instrumental in giving him the permission to learn and grow: He’s gone from acting to running a box office to company management to producer to helping to select and plan shows for the season. And this year, Grant has graduated to directing mainstage productions.
Yet every year he’s also been stretching his wings a little farther beyond the Playhouse doors. This fall he was seen in the Fats Waller musical revue Ain’t Misbehavin’ at Broadway Rose – his first appearance on the Tigard musical theater’s mainstage. And in 2022, he appeared in Rent’s ensemble, back at Portland Center Stage.
A key element that has turned Grant from a one-time apprentice to a force on multiple stages is the Portland Playhouse’s ethos of “yes, and…” . This is an idea derived from the world of improv theater, where actors accept wholeheartedly an existing element (yes!) and then build on that with their own creative contributions (and …). Grant sees this element as key to his growth:
“ ‘Yes and,’ for me is tied to improv’s constant collaboration,” he says. “You’re always saying ‘yes, that’s such a good idea and I’m gonna build on top of that.’ It is a benefit for me to be working with other theaters. For me, I think it only makes our work at Portland Playhouse stronger, it only makes our artistry stronger, when I’m working with other theaters as well.”
Grant’s feet are firmly planted at Portland Playhouse – he serves as the Playhouse’s producing director – and he’s invested in the future at this mainstay of Northwest theater: “At Portland Playhouse, we’re continuing to find that balance of artists you know and love, but also bringing in new faces and new voices every year, in every production.”