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DramaWatch: Corrib rides a bumpy road to new leadership

Holly Griffith takes the artistic reins at Portland's Irish theater company; an outdoor "Tempest," an indoor "Holy Days," party with the Bar[d], singing "Newsies," and a Quixote for today.

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CORRIB THEATRE HAS FOUND a successor to its founder.

If you have the impression that we’ve been here before, you’re correct, but more on that in a moment.

The news, announced a few weeks ago, is that Holly Griffith is the company’s new artistic director, taking over from Gemma Whelan, who started the acclaimed Irish-focused theater in 2012. “Holly’s love of and knowledge of Irish theater and her commitment to community building, will help to steer Corrib in the years ahead,” Whelan wrote in a press release.

Griffith, although an American, had been living in Ireland before coming to Portland for the job recently. According to Pancho Savery, Corrib’s literary manager and board chair, one of the factors in the board’s choice of Griffith was her strong connections to Irish theater companies, which Corrib hopes will lead to collaborations or Portland visits from such companies. The board also liked Griffith’s prospective programming ideas.

“She wasn’t just interested in modern plays by white Irish writers but was very interested in plays from immigrant communities in Ireland, and in how that was changing Irish theater,” Savery said in a phone call this week. “That’s very much the kind of inter-cultural work we want to do.”

With the arrival of Griffith, and the April appointment of Karl Hanover to follow Adam Liberman as managing director, Corrib appears set for the second phase of its history. But as often happens with arts organizations when founders pass the baton, Corrib’s leadership handoff had something of a false start.

As you might recall, Whelan announced last fall that she had decided to retire from Corrib because she had found “the perfect fit” to take over the job. That was Justine Nakase – an Asian-American from Los Angeles with a PhD in race and Irish performance from the National University of Ireland – who Whelan had hired a few months earlier as a part-time community engagement director.

Just before Christmas, however, Whelan sent out an email to supporters, informing them that “Nakase, who we announced earlier would take the position, is no longer able to.” Later, a post from the Corrib board to the website PDX Backstage said the company had “had to dismiss an employee who had been publicly announced as the future Artistic Director of Corrib Theatre.” That statement implied that the dismissal came because the employee failed to meet standards of  conduct meant to “ensure that all employees and contractors treat each other with respect and dignity; feel appreciated; value each other’s contributions, expertise, and experience; and work together in a low-stress and collaborative manner.” The letter also expressed regret about how the company handled the matter and said that formal procedures had since been adopted to ensure better performance evaluation and feedback.

After that development was reported by DramaWatch in April, Nakase wrote to contest that account, insisting that no one at Corrib had discussed behavioral issues with her during her months with the company or in regard to her dismissal, and that the PDX Backstage posting was the first she’d heard of such a complaint.

Nakase forwarded a letter, dated Dec. 1, 2021, addressed to the Corrib board, in which she outlined what she contended were failures of board governance and what she called “the unprofessional and callous way” the matter had been handled. 

All of which sounds a bit messy and personal, and might have been. But it seems that Nakase was, at least in part, a victim of what we might call Founder Replacement Syndrome. Sometimes arts groups struggle to replace the vision, drive or charisma that’s been instrumental in putting a company on the map, but often the problems that arise are more mundane and technical, found among the weeds of workflows and decision-making procedures, intra-org communications and oversight.

Asked to help make sense of what had occurred with Nakase, Savery began with a bit of structural background: “There are two kinds of theater boards: There are boards like at Artists Rep, where it’s clear that the artistic director is an employee of the board. There are others … where you have founding artistic directors and there’s a different relationship, where the AD is the de facto board chair and the board is essentially in an advisory role.”

Overlay the image from Nakase’s letter, one of board inattention and dysfunction, with Savery’s recounting of her time with Corrib and a picture emerges of an awkward shift from one organizational model to another.

In Savery’s version of events, as in Whelan’s account last fall, Corrib didn’t go looking for a new leader, Nakase just appeared on the radar, so to speak. Taken with her expertise, Whelan first hired her for the community engagement job, then recommended her to the board as artistic director. The board signed off on the recommendation, Nakase was offered the job, but no contract was finalized.

Sponsor
Portland Playhouse A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens Portland Oregon

According to Savery, the problems arose during a period of transition and training, primarily around Liberman being dissatisfied with Nakase’s writing. In her letter to the board, Nakase wrote of an “inhospitable work environment in which my ideas and knowledge were frequently dismissed, particularly by Adam Liberman” – which sounds like the PDX Backstage allegations viewed from the other perspective. 

Eventually “Gemma and Adam came to the board and expressed that things were not going well,” Savery said. “At that point the board realized it had made a mistake: When Gemma decided she was leaving, the board did not insist on having a full-blown search.” It had simply trusted its leader on a future that leader wouldn’t be part of.

Because Whelan opted to recuse herself from further decisions regarding Nakase, the board realized “that it should operate in a more traditional way.” Savory became board chair. The board then rescinded the AD job offer, and “strongly encouraged” Nakase to re-apply. Deciding the community outreach work should be part of the AD’s job, it relieved Nakase of that post, her letter contended, to avoid a conflict of interest, rather than for cause.

Throughout the process, it seems clear in retrospect, clarity was lacking. But with Corrib’s staff and board leadership at last realigned, its vision should return to normal.

Opening

“Holy Days,” a drama set in Dust Bowl Kansas, opens at 21ten Theatre, in th old Shoebox Theatre space. Photo courtesy 21ten Theatre.

THE SHOEBOX THEATRE WAS a wonderfully apt name for the place it designated, a long, narrow space in Southeast Portland. Formerly the home of Northwest Classical Theatre Company, Theatre Vertigo and numerous renter productions, it had room – depending on the staging employed – for an audience of at most about 40, and that coziness was its defining characteristic.

The new name of the spot, the 21ten Theatre, spiffy spelling aside, isn’t as descriptive or as memorable. But the company now operating there, led by well-respected theater artists Ted Rooney and Brooke Totman, is a welcome addition to the scene, presenting classes and workshops as well as shows. Its second stage production is Sally Nemeth’s Holy Days, about the struggles of a family amid the Dust Bowl. Directed by Rooney, the cast includes Mary Krantz, Lindsae Klein, Grant Davis and the reliably terrific Nathan Dunkin.

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Calista Rodriguez and John Mikhail Duggan in “The Tempest.” Photo courtesy Bag & Baggage.

SUMMER SHAKESPEARE IN THE PARK, anyone? Hillsboro’s Bag & Baggage presents what might be the richest of all the Bard’s works, The Tempest. This production, featuring a bilingual adaptation by TS McCormick and director Yasmin Ruvalcaba, even offers you a choice of parks, opening this weekend at Rood Bridge Park before moving on subsequent weekends to Griffin Oaks Park and then Shute Park.

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“Don Quixote de la Center,” Donald Bareford’s contemporary stage adaptation of Cervantes’ classic, is set in a group home for senior citizens in La Center, Washington. Photo courtesy Magenta Theatre.

OREGON ARTSWATCH FOCUSES, of course, primarily on Oregon arts. But there’s nothing wrong with a quick trip across the Columbia. The lure currently at Vancouver’s Magenta Theatre is Don Quixote de la Center, a new riff on Cervantes’ storied gentleman, written by David Bareford.

Weekender

The three Bs: Berns, Bradshaw, and the Bard. Photos courtesy CoHo Productions.

“THE BAR[D] PARTY inhabits restaurant and pub spaces, dynamically immersing their audience in the ‘hot detonation’ of Shakespeare’s poetry and characters, all while directly involving them in the action at every turn,” reads a show description on the CoHo Productions website. Leaving aside the question of what “hot detonation” might mean, I’ll guess that The Bar[d] Party: UNPLUGGED is so named because CoHo is not a bar. But in any case, it’s a two-part event, with a “community social-hour mixer” on Friday setting the groundwork for a Sunday performance. Ringleaders of this artistic circus are Orion Bradshaw and Phillip J. Berns, both former stalwarts with the now-defunct Post5 Theatre. 

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FRESH OFF HIS TOP-NOTCH work on Third Rail’s recent stripped-down and spirited production of The Music Man, director Isaac Lamb leads Broadway Rose’s teen summer workshop presentation of  Newsies, the Disney musical about an 1899 strike by New York City newsboys.

One night only

From left: Dylan Hankins, Melody Wells Benitez and Paulina Jaeger-Rosete in “Mijita Fridita.” Photo: Kat Leon

WELL, NOT NIGHT, in the case of Mijita Fridita at Milagro, but one afternoon. In any case, this will be the lone showing for the general public of a play by Ajai Terrazas Tripathi, relating the childhood of famed painter Frida Kahlo. This performance will be recorded for use with Milagro’s educational work in the tri-county area.

The flattened stage

FOR THOSE WHO THINK “prestige television” was created by HBO, here’s a nice reminder of glory days gone by.

The best line I read this week

“But you must know, your father lost a father; that father lost, lost his….For what we know must be and is as common as any the most vulgar thing to sense. Why should we in our peevish opposition take it to heart? Fie! ‘Tis a fault to heaven, a fault against the dead, a fault to nature, to reason most absurd; whose common theme is death of fathers, and who still hath cried, from the first corse till he that died today, ‘This must be so.’”

– from Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, by William Shakespeare.

(R.I.P. Robert C. Hughley, 1926-2022)

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

Editor

Marty Hughley is a Portland journalist who writes about theater, dance, music and culture. His honors have included a National Arts Journalism Program fellowship at the University of Georgia, a fellowship at the NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Theater and Musical Theater at the University of Southern California, and first-place awards for arts reporting in the Society of Professional Journalists Pacific Northwest Excellence in Journalism Competitions. In 2013 he was inducted into the Oregon Music Hall of Fame for his contributions to the industry. A Portland native, Hughley studied history at Portland State University, worked at the alternative newsweekly Willamette Week in the late 1980s as pop music critic and arts editor, then spent nearly a quarter century at The Oregonian as a reporter, feature writer and critic. His recent freelance work has appeared in Oregon ArtsWatch, Artslandia and the Oregon Humanities magazine. He lives with his cat, and dies a little with each new setback to the Trail Blazers.

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