DramaWatch: Building a bigger, broader audience

Portland Center Stage's leaders talk about diversity and inclusion on the stage and in the seats; plus, the rundown on a host of theater openings.

For Cynthia Fuhrman, enthusiasm about Portland Center Stage is part of both her job and her nature. Even so, about a year into her tenure as PCS managing director — and three decades after she helped found the company as an offshoot of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, she really is…well…enthusiastic.

“Chris left us in better shape than we’ve ever been in,” she said in a recent interview, referring to longtime artistic director Chris Coleman’s departure earlier this year for a similar post in Denver. “We don’t have any accumulated debt. We have a $3 million mortgage on the building that’s completely manageable; right now, we’re scheduled to pay (it) off in 2029, but that might happen earlier. We have a growing audience. And we have a higher national visibility than we’ve ever had. For all that to be the platform that he hands over to somebody is kind of amazing.”

Marissa Wolf, Portland Center Stage’s new artistic director, has something to say to her people. Photo: Tess Mayer/The Interval-NY

That somebody is Marissa Wolf, who was hired in August as Coleman’s successor and started her job in the company’s picturesque Armory headquarters on Sept. 15. Not long after Wolf’s arrival, I sat down with her and Fuhrman, in separate interviews, for a forthcoming Artslandia article. That piece focuses on the arc of their careers as women in theater who’ve risen to top leadership positions.

But our conversations also included discussion of PCS and the audience growth that Fuhrman mentioned.

Furhman expounded on the topic in response to a question about what results PCS has seen from a Wallace Foundation grant in 2015, part of a nation-wide audience-building initiative.

“It’s always a question of cause and effect, but we have to give some credit to the Wallace grant,” she said. “Over the past three years our audience has grown, between 4,000 and 6,000 tickets annually. Last year we had 132,000 admissions and three years ago we were at 120,000. The move to the Armory 12 years ago brought down the median age of our audience. When I came back to the theater in 2008 our surveys showed that our median age was around 49. That’s dropped to about 45. A lot of our growth has been in the target age range for the grant, which was 30-45.

“The one thing that’s completely obvious is that a year ago we started this new subscription model for people under 35 called the Armory Card. It’s an idea we stole from Steppenwolf (Theatre in Chicago) — a highly reduced discount ticket on a refillable-card model that unbounds you from a lot of the traditional subscription restrictions. We originally ordered 200 from the card supplier, hoping we could sell those in the first year. We sold 700.

“Another big thing tied to the grant is the Northwest Stories series. We’ve produced one of the commissions, Astoria, and have another this season, Crossing Mnisose, but we’ve branded other shows that have that connection — Oregon Trail, Hold These Truths…Those shows have been selling above average, which is nice, but we found during the artistic-director search that it’s really caught other theaters’ eyes nationally.

“We’ve heard the conversations over the years of regional theaters being homogeneous, all doing the plays that were on Broadway last year. But PCS, over the last several years, has not been doing that as much as other theaters are. And that was noticed. Lots of artistic director candidates said, ‘I love that you are doing plays tied to where you live.’”

So many conversations about theater these days come around to issues of diversity, and Fuhrman sounded that note when asked if the programming in recent seasons seemed to be making demographic difference.

“In the past 4-5 years, the range of voices we’re producing is greater and I think that’s interesting to younger audiences,” she said. “The younger generation in Portland is more diverse. And I know I like that better, too — being able to see different kind of stories instead of the same old same old.”

Similarly, Wolf, part of a rapidly growing cadre of female artistic directors at top regional theaters, suggested that diversity, particularly will be a major part of how PCS, and other theaters around the country, grow and change in the coming years.

“One of the major impacts (of greater female leadership) will be what’s onstage and what voices we are celebrating and amplifying,” she said. “Projects with lead artists who are women are going to rise in visibility, and I think that goes also for projects with lead artists who are people of color. These two demographics have been woefully under-represented in the American theater — even with the growing amount of visibility, they’re still under-represented compared to the population. I feel like there’s space for everyone at this table.”

Then came the moment that, if this were a TV show instead of an online column, she’d have turned to gaze directly into the camera:

“Let me speak to my people, the white people,” she said. “There’s something so powerful about seeing yourself onstage. That is so much the power of catharsis, when you feel visible. And that’s a gift that we should be giving to all the people in a community. When you get to see yourself represented all the time, it’s also a gift to sit in a theater for two hours and see someone else.”

She may have been speaking to white people, I pointed out, but I heard her too. Despite being black, I grew up in Southeast Portland. It seldom occurred to me — or at least only rarely bothered me — that the white characters I saw in popular culture weren’t representing me. They looked like everyone around me (though, perhaps, better-looking on average); they proffered a vision of universality I had no trouble relating to, seeing myself in.

Wolf’s reply was especially trenchant, I think.

“It’s important to ask where our cultural assumptions about universality come from,” she said. “I love Arthur Miller. I have wept with Tennessee Williams. I love those voices and feel at home inside those plays. But when we sit at the table of Lorraine Hansberry at A Raisin in the Sun, we have to recognize: That is as universal as Arthur Miller.

“I worked very closely with Nathan Louis Jackson, who was the playwright-in-residence at Kansas City Rep. He’s black, and he said to me, “Sure, I can relate to those characters onstage. I’ve been asked to do it my whole life. I know how to do that. But sometimes I’m tired of doing that.”

Once-local boy makes good

Both Wolf and Fuhrman pointed out that there’s a big change going on in regional-theater leadership across the country. Among League of Resident Theaters (or LORT) companies — which includes Portland Center Stage and, more recently, Artists Rep — 14 percent were led by women artistic directors two years ago. Now, that’s up to 38 percent. Part of that dynamic, Fuhrman notes, is a wave of baby-boomer retirement, that’s opening a number of positions and creating movement among the rest.

One major recent opening, at California’s highly acclaimed South Coast Repertory, hasn’t been filled by a woman, but by a former Oregonian. David Ivers was hired last month to be the new artistic director at the Costa Mesa theater that is known as a new-play incubator and is a past regional-theater Tony Award winner (1988).

Ivers is a California native, but he went to college at Southern Oregon University in Ashland and Fuhrman recalls his time as a Portland actor in the 1990s, when he worked for Portland Center Stage and Portland Rep, and served on the board of the Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center. He acted at Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 1991 and returned in 2014 to direct The Cocoanuts. The bulk of his career has been at Utah Shakespeare Festival as an actor, director and artistic director. He left that job for the top post at the Arizona Theatre Company, but after less than two years was lured away to South Coast Rep, where he’s set to start next spring.

Opening

There’s a lot on the theater docket this weekend, so let’s try to cover them quickly.

Anna Deavere Smith’s Fires in the Mirror has been praised as a great work of both theater and journalism. Built from extensive interviews in the aftermath of racial conflict in Crown Heights, Brooklyn in the early 1990s, the play presents monologues from about two dozen characters, offering what Profile Theatre calls a “Rashomon-like documentary portrait of contemporary ethnic turmoil.” Seth Rue does the solo shape-shifting onstage, directed by Bobby Bermea.

Quiet, yes; peaceful, maybe. Michael Mendelson, John San Nicolas and Ayanna Berkshire in Bess Wohl’s “Small Mouth Sounds” at Artists Rep. Photo: David Kinder

I always try not to judge any production in advance. However Artists Rep’s next show, Small Mouth Sounds, about a handful of folks at silent yoga retreat,  is a play by Bess Wohl, whose American Hero, staged here two years ago, quite likely is the worst-written play I’ve seen at this usually reliable theater. Shawn Lee is, again, the director, and again has a terrific cast at his disposal, including company stalwart Michael Mendelson. Better luck this time.

Miami Sound Machine leaders Emilio and Gloria Estefan get the full stage-bio treatment in the touring Broadway show On Your Feet! Humble beginnings, courageous struggles, world-wide fame, blah blah blah — with dancing!

For Defunkt Theatre, Andrew Klaus Vineyard directs Daniel Talbott’s Slipping, a play about a gay high-school student uprooted from San Francisco to Iowa.

The Portland Utrecht Network, which manages relations between ArtsWatch’s beloved hometown and its Dutch sister city, presents Rietveld’s Daughter, about the family of architect and furniture designer Gerrit Rietveld, a principal in the 20th-century art movement called De Stijl.

Twilight Theater continues its “The Play Is the Thing” season with Peter Weiss’ Marat/Sade.

Philip Pelletier’s Frogtown Live!, a kids’ dance-party primer on blues, funk and soul, splashes down in Lakewood for a single show Sunday afternoon. The great singer Andy Stokes is one of the stars, so it has to be worthwhile.

Free and informative make a good combination. So should the Oregon Historical Society and actor Joe Wiegand, who team up to present An Evening with Teddy Roosevelt, with Wiegand recreating the Rough Rider himself, at the First Congregational Church.

Ann (almost) everlasting

I keep preparing to give Ann, the one-woman biographical play about former Texas governor Ann Richards, a nod as it comes to its closing weekend — only to double-check the Triangle Productions website and find that the show has been extended yet again. Must be the charm of its star, Margie Boule. In any case, you now have until Nov. 3 to catch it.

Closing

Ordinary rendition: Benjamin Tissell (from left), pianist/music director Eric Nordin, Seth M. Renne, Quinlan Fitzgerald and Kailey Rhodes in “Ordinary Days” at Broadway Rose. Photo: Broadway Rose

Hard-core haters of musicals often point out how artificial it is to have people just burst into song in the middle of dramatic situations. In Ordinary Days, the wonderful little Adam Gwon musical about to end its run at Broadway Rose, things feel almost the opposite — the songs carry so much of the story, and feel like such natural expressions of the characters, that it’s almost weird when anyone just, y’know, talks. So there goes that artificiality excuse. Go check this one out!

Meanwhile, the Stephen Schwartz/Roger Hirson musical Pippin at Lakewood Theatre closes shop on Sunday.

Best line I read this week

“I ordered a chicken and an egg from Amazon. I’ll let you know.”
— on the chalkboard that sports commentator Woody Paige keeps above his shoulder on the ESPN show “Around the Horn.”

That’s all I have for now. I’ll try to do better the next time.

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