All Ted Rooney really wanted to do was to run a little acting studio, but the ideas took over.
Although he recognizes that his most sparkly career credit came as Dell Morey, a recurring character on the TV hit “The Gilmore Girls,” Rooney should be a familiar face to Portland theater fans as well, having starred in shows at Artists Rep, Profile Theatre, Corrib and elsewhere. Several years ago he and a business partner, Robert Blanche, started teaching screen acting at a studio on Southeast Third Avenue and Pine Street.
After Blanche’s death, Brooke Totman joined him in that business, and it was she who, in 2021, talked him into taking over the space on Southeast Tenth that had been called the Shoebox Theatre, after the Covid pandemic ended the life of its tenant, the scrappy ensemble company Theatre Vertigo. Totman sold him on the notion that they could rent out the space for performances, thereby subsidizing their teaching. But once in the brick-lined building with its cozy, 40-seat blackbox stage, Rooney started thinking differently.
“I had never had an ambition to start a theater,” he said, sitting by the front window on a recent afternoon. “But I just had so many ideas.”
And so came 21ten Theatre. (Totman, meanwhile, co-starred in 21ten’s production of Christopher Durang’s Laughing Wild but is no longer involved with the theater company, though she still teaches acting classes at the site.)
Among the ideas already bearing fruit is a series of what he’s calling Bare Bones productions. “There are so many actors who are trained but who are just sitting around,” he observed. So why not find some shows that can be done simply – just a few actors, minimals sets and props and other design elements – get them on their feet at 21ten, then let the actors take them around to other places?
“At heart, we’re all storytellers,” he said. “My idea is to serve the actors, to put up the show and then just put it out there.
His first such production was called Here We Are Again Still, a play, by the Irish writer Christian O’Reilly (whose moving Chapati also has been staged in Portland), built around three characters on a park bench, discussing their fractured lives. After it played at 21ten, Rooney took it to Coffee Creek Correctional Facility, a women’s prison in Wilsonville. “I’ve never had an audience so engaged, so reactive,” he recalled. “What I hope to do is to have a quiver, so to speak, and just keep putting more plays in it. And the actors can just pull one out when they have a place to do it.”
Next into the quiver is 52 Pick-up, opening this weekend. Written by TJ Dawe and Rita Bozi, it’s a fairly straightforward relationship story given a modernist twist. The play consists of 52 short scenes (sometimes very short), each given a name; the names are written on playing cards, which the actors shuffle after the manner of Lucy Van Pelt – that is, they simply toss them into the air. Then they perform the scene in whatever order dictated as they pick up the cards.
The randomness serves a purpose, according to director Gavin Hoffman. “We’re being told this story in memory. And in the memory of any past relationship, it’s never easy to pin down cause and effect in retrospect.”
For rehearsal purposes, Hoffman re-ordered the script into a linear chronology so that the actors – Rooney students Annie Trevisan and Brian Pater – “can experience a rational emotional arc.” Then after working that way for a couple of weeks, they’ve let the cards fall where they may.
“Every scene is a short play, in its own weird way,” Hoffman said. “As an actor, it’s about maintaining your presence in that moment. It’s fun, but it takes a serious look at the amorphous nature of memory and the heightened emotions of relationships.”
As promising as the Bare Bones project and 52 Pick-up in particular sound, even more exciting is the main series of productions Rooney has planned for the 2023-’24 season.
The season will start in the fall with Taking Care of Animals, which Rooney said is to be the world premiere of “a Coen Brothers-style comedy” by a young, Brooklyn-based playwright named Jerrod Jordahl. “He’s an up-and-comer,” Rooney emphasized. “He’s going to be known.”
The season’s tentpole, coming in January, arose from a chance friendship with Alex Hurt, the son of the late, celebrated actor William Hurt. (Portland theater fans might recall Alex Hurt from a 2011 production of Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land at Artists Rep, his first time performing with his famous father.) Rooney met the younger Hurt doing a small scene together in a film, and they subsequently realized a shared fascination with the Caryl Churchill play A Number. Hurt will co-star, alongside the always-terrific Bruce Burkhartsmeier, directed by Third Rail Rep co-founder Michael O’Connell. “This is not something I instigated,” Rooney says of such a dream-team coming together. “It just fell into place.”
And how else to follow up than with one of the greatest plays of all time? Next spring will see a production of the Chekhov masterpiece Uncle Vanya, directed by a recent transplant to Portland, Chris Connor.
More Bare Bones shows also will be forthcoming, and the 21ten space remains a popular rental for independent producers and other small companies.
Here’s hoping Ted Rooney’s ideas keep coming.
Where We Belong, Madeline Sayet’s musing on Shakespeare, language and her Mohegan tribal identity, begins a seven-week run at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. Directed by Mei Ann Teo and starring Jessica Ranville, this likely is much the same show as played several months ago at Portland Center Stage.
Rebecca Lingafelter, the multifaceted marvel whose work you may know from Third Rail Rep, Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble, or the like, directs a project that arose from her day job – as a professor at Lewis & Clark College. I Think of You, as an event description on the Portland Center Stage website states, “draws from Lewis & Clark College’s Inside-Out Prison Exchange class, a course on the history of crime and punishment in the United States that integrates incarcerated students at Columbia River Correctional Institution with Lewis & Clark undergraduates.” Student writings and other histories are woven into a performance piece, directed by Lingafelter and presented in the Armory’s Ellyn Bye Studio.
The Will to sing
Portland Opera gets in on the summer Shakespeare action with “Opera à la Cart: selections from Roméo et Juliette”, bringing pieces from the Charles Gounod score to Pioneer Courthouse Square on Thursday for your lunchtime entertainment.
The Salt and Sage production of Macbeth, winding up its run at Shaking the Tree, mostly reminded me of some prior personal prejudices – that the play isn’t as thematically rich as Hamlet or King Lear, not as gripping a presentation of the will to power as Richard III, that all that witchy business (unless done with extreme invention and subtlety) is pretty silly. Yet this version is well worth seeing for the titanic clash of (ArtsWatch contributor) Bobby Bermea in the title role and Paul Susi, bringing both dramatic and moral clarity to the role of Macduff.
And, sadly, the woods have come, so to speak, for other productions, including the quixotic musical Man of La Mancha at Clackamas Rep, Crave Theatre’s Our Dear Dead Drug Lord, and the Atelier Festival workshop production of Ritual Treatment at the Back Door Theatre.
From a piece in The New York Times about the prominence, in news and politics, of former theater kids: “I don’t think it’s like the awesomest personal quality that I have, that I want people to pay attention to me,” said Chris Hayes, host of “All In With Chris Hayes” on MSNBC. “But we live in a culture that really rewards thirst.”
“‘Pick me, look at me’ is the dominant cultural ethos,” Mr. Hayes continued, adding that theater kids’ joining the professional world is “like releasing an apex predator into an ecosystem.”
The flattened stage
The best line I read this week
“Emotions really exist at the bottom of the personality or at the top. In the middle they are acted. This is why all the world is a stage, and why the theatre is always popular and indeed why it exists: why it is like life even though it is also the most vulgar and outrageously factitious of all the arts. Even a middling novelist can tell quite a lot of truth. His humble medium is on the side of truth. Whereas the theatre, even at its most ‘realistic’, is connected with the level at which, and the methods by which, we tell our everyday lies.”
– from the novel “The Sea, the Sea,” by Iris Murdoch
That’s all I have for now. I’ll try to do better the next time.