After nearly a decade of nurturing her vision from a no-budget, living-room passion project into one of the city’s most consistently incisive theater companies, Gemma Whelan is preparing to step down as artistic director of Corrib Theatre at the end of this calendar year.
The change comes amid a spate of leadership changes at the region’s theaters, among them the Oregon Shakespeare Festival adding two additional associate artistic directors, and the impending departure of Dámaso Rodriguez from Artists Rep. Each of the personnel shufflings has its causes and dynamics, of course, and for Whelan it came down to a sincere version of the old cliche — she really does want to spend more time with family — and a chance meeting with someone she says is a “perfect fit” as her successor.
Set to step into the role in 2022 is Justine Nakase, who has been in a part-time role at Corrib as community engagement director since spring of this year.
“We’re coming up on the 10th anniversary and I think that’s a good amount of time to run a theater company,” Whelan said in a phone interview this week. “I would not pass on Corrib until I found the right person. And I wasn’t really actively looking — it might have been a few more years. But finding Justine just made this feel like the right time.
“It’s my baby, but it’s almost a teenager now. And, in this case, somebody else can take over the mothering.”
She’s raised her baby well. Like so many other theaters, Corrib has produced only a few audio programs over the past couple of years, due to the Covid-19 pandemic. But she notes that, as also at other companies, she and managing director Adam Liberman have shifted their energies toward development. As a result, she says, “the company’s stronger financially than it’s ever been.” And while it remains a relatively small operation, with a budget of about $250,000 and only Whelan and Liberman as current full-time employees, its track record of successive critically acclaimed productions is striking.
Corrib’s beginnings were decidedly modest. The Irish-born director had moved to Portland after a decade or so of work in the San Francisco theater scene. Actor Ted Roisum approached her with a play he wanted to do and thought she could help with: St. Nicholas, Conor McPherson’s hauntingly real examination of those two kinds of damned souls, vampires and theater critics.
“We were working in my living room,” Whelan recalls of the long rehearsal process the two undertook. “There was zero money involved. And I mean zero. The approach was professional, but we just said, ‘We’ll do it and see how it goes.’”
Performing for the door in an upstairs banquet room at Kell’s Irish Pub for all-too-short runs in 2012 and again the following year, Roisum, who died in 2015, was a hit, the show a bare-bones masterpiece. After that, another solo show, A Night in November starring Damon Kupper, drew raves.
Corrib’s first larger production, The Hen Night Epiphany, was only to be a staged reading at first. “The response was so strong and the women in the cast practically mobbed me, saying ‘We HAVE to do this!’,” Whelan recalls. I didn’t have the money for it. I put the cart before the horse. I planned the production and put it on the schedule and then I started writing to people for money.”
Such gambles continued to pay off. Corrib presented a clear identity — focused on smart and visceral contemporary Irish stage literature — and Whelan’s work as stage director foregrounded both a narrative clarity and an emotional whallop.
And though those first two shows were stories by and featuring white men, Whelan from the start was interested in equity, in finding space for women playwrights, women’s stories, women’s roles, both onstage and off. “Then I just expanded that to BIPOC — why can’t everybody be onstage?”
And wouldn’t it be cool, she thought, to find a BIPOC Irish person to run Corrib?
Justine Nakase identifies herself not as Irish but as “Asian-American, primarily Japanese and Korean.” But she spent a decade living in Ireland and, as Whelan notes, has more up-to-date experience there than Whelan does. Raised in Los Angeles, Nakase visited Ireland after a college friend began graduate studies in Galway.
“I went out there and fell in love with the place and applied to a master program there, too,” she said by phone Wednesday. “Then I met a man who was Irish and ended up getting married. My one-year tenure there turned into ten.” She eventually earned her PhD in race and Irish performance at the National University of Ireland, Galway.
Her husband’s work brought them to Portland in 2019 and since then Nakase has taught at Portland State University and Linfield College and directed a production at Reed College.
She’d been aware of Corrib because her thesis adviser in Ireland serves on the theater’s resource council, and went to see Eclipsed, impressed that a Portland company was staging a controversial Irish play so often talked about but so seldom produced in Ireland.
PSU theater professor Karen Magaldi recommended Whelan as a guest speaker for a class Nakase was teaching on Irish women playwrights.
“We met over Zoom first,” Whelan recalls. “And the light went on. I thought, ‘Wow. We have so much in common, even though our life experiences are so different.’ Eventually I asked her to send me her resume because I was thinking about our outreach job. When I saw it, I just thought, ‘We’ve got to have her connected to the theater somehow.’”
Several months of discussions later, Whelan is getting ready to pass her baby along.
Barbara’s life is a mess. Her family gathers to try to straighten things out. Problem is, her family’s a mess, too.
Playwright Robert O’Hara uses that simple premise, with the siblings meeting in a park for a barbecue that’s really intended as an intervention, as the jumping-off point for Barbecue, a multi-level satire that, in the description of Chris Jones in the Chicago Tribune, “spoofs righteous theater, cliched modern-family dramas, reality television, Hollywood pandering, the celebrity confessional culture, social media personal branding, proclamations on diversity, our endlessly self-serving declarations of worthiness and so on and so forth.” Among the devices O’Hara uses is to call for parallel casts, presenting the fractious O’Mallery family alternately as white and black, challenging the audience’s preconceptions and perceptions of the characters. Hilton Als, in The New Yorker, has called it “my idea of an American classic, or the kind of classic we need.” Portland Playhouse presents it with Dana Green and Cycerli Ash in leading roles, directed by Patdro Harris.
While the Covid-19 pandemic disrupted the operations of every theater, Artists Repertory Theatre has been doubly displaced, as the wholesale reconstruction of its headquarters west of I-405 downtown continues. But, transplanted for now to the basement Ellyn Bye Studio at Portland Center Stage, the company returns to live, in-person, onstage duty with The Chinese Lady, playwright Lloyd Suh’s imaginative take on the true story of Afong Moy, a woman brought to the United States in 1834 and put on display as a touring display of freakish exoticism. Lava Alapai directs, and it should be a treat to see the engaging Barbie Wu, who has shined in shows including Everybody at Artists Rep and The Wolves at Portland Playhouse, in such a prominent role.
At Imago Theatre, Carol Triffle has a short-run seasonal show playing Friday and Saturday only, Oct. 22-23. Is Dracula thirsty for blood, or only pining for love? It’s a puzzlement. To find out, you can gather in the parking lot for a drink and then go into the theater for Triffle’s 30-minute show, The Lonely Vampire.
Says a press release from the highly-regarded, Halloween-focused theater troupe The Reformers, “As we face the never-ending waves of Coronavirus and a society on the brink of collapse, horror is the last thing on people’s minds.”
Well, maybe last and first and many other places on the list. But in any case, Charmian Creagle, Sean Doran and company have decided to flip the script this year, promising “optimism and light” with their latest devised, interactive offering, Peep. As usual, the Reformers bring a small audience on a brief adventure (in this case, 12 folks at a time, for about 20 minutes), with clever surprises in store. And with mentions of “an actual earth witch” being involved, who knows what light might reveal.
Getting back into theaters has been kind of exhilarating lately. But for various reasons (reasonable caution about public health, longstanding access issues, introversion…whatever) it’s good to have other options as well. Among the offerings coming this weekend not to a theater near you but to a screen likely already much nearer: the series of live readings in the Ashland New Plays Festival Fall Festival and Thursday’s reading of Macbeth in a modern verse translation by Migdalia Cruz for Blk Girls Luv the Bard and Play On Shakespeare.
The Flattened Stage
And speaking of Macbeth…
Don’t stop the Danse
It’s not the worst problem to have: Hand2Mouth Theatre’s recent run of Danse Macabre: the Testament of Francois Villon, remarkable evocation of the medieval-yet-timeless character of a 15th-century French poet — by director Stepan Simek, actor Jean-Luc Boucherot and the musical ensemble Musica Universalis — just didn’t have enough seats to go around. So whether you were interested and missed out, or simply want to revisit it’s compelling mixture of the seedy and the sublime, you’ll get another chance. The show’s creative team, no longer co-producing with Hand2Mouth, will bring it back for two weekends, between Nov. 5 and 14, transplanted this time from the Shoebox Theater to the (even smaller!) space, the 2509, a basement studio in a Northeast Portland house, where the Danse had its first public showing in the 2020 Fertile Ground festival.
Best line I read this week
“The only thing new in the world is the history you don’t know.”
— attributed to Harry Truman
That’s all I have for now. I’ll try to do better the next time.