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Interview: Richard Toscan, champion of contemporary audio theater

The eminent arts educator and former dean of PSU’s School of Fine and Performing Arts shares his long journey that led back to Portland and imparts his advice for the city’s current arts scene

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Interview: Richard Toscan, champion of contemporary audio theater

Richard Toscan’s eventful life in the arts seems to follow cycles. Four decades ago, he pioneered a revival of audio theater. Thirty years ago, the longtime dean of the University of Southern California’s renowned theater program came to Portland and, before departing five years later, became a major player in the city’s arts scene, heading Portland State University’s arts college, and serving on major institutional boards.

Now, the cycles have turned again. Supposedly in retirement, he’s back in Portland — and once again involved in the current resurgence of audio theater. And he’s sharing what he’s learned over a half century of arts leadership — including lessons for his chosen city as it reinvents its arts scene.

Toscan at Cannon Beach after his retirement and return to Portland. Photo credit: S. Walker

Academic Track

Toscan, who grew up in Manhattan, discovered the magic of theater early, when his arts-loving parents took the six-year old to a Broadway production of Porgy and Bess. “I still remember being totally amazed at the songs, and the turntable stage,” he says.

Actually, his instinct for the arts might have started much earlier — before he was born — as he learned many years later. While he was working in Hollywood, his mother revealed that his  grandmother had been a screenwriter in Hollywood in the early days of sound movies. “Maybe it was in the genes.”

He studied theater in college and then in graduate school, receiving his doctorate from the prestigious theater program at the University of Illinois, where he was especially interested in European avant-garde theater, contemporary painting, and sculpture. From then on, “I spent most of my career with one and a half feet in the academic world,” he says. 

In 1970, Toscan joined the drama faculty at the University of Southern California , specializing in theater history and dramatic literature. He mentored students, including LeVar Burton (whom he recommended for his breakthrough role in Roots) and playwright/poet/Black Arts pioneer Paulette Williams, who soon changed her name to Ntozake Shange. 

At various times during and between two separate stints as theater dean, he was managing the school’s theater program, writing his own plays (several produced in Los Angeles), becoming a founding member of a new play development program, producing stage shows including an adaptation of Dr Faustus starring magician Harry Blackstone’s tricks, serving on the board of Los Angeles’s International Contemporary Art Fair, editing articles for London’s Theater Quarterly, judging new play and screenplay competitions, and more. He also worked with various television and movie producers and served as Associate Dean of USC’s School of Cinema-Television. 

He also somehow found time to write several plays and screenplays of his own. Just Another Country Song and November Wives were both staged in Los Angeles, while docudrama adaptations of psychoanalytic case histories aired on Los Angeles public radio. 

Receiving the NCAA Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Arts, 2013.
Photo Credit: A. Andrews

From the Stars to the Ears

Toscan’s most enduring California creative achievements came in radio theater. During his first stint as dean of the theater school, Toscan hired legendary director/actor John Houseman as Artistic Director to set up a Bachelor of Fine Arts program. The two began working together on independent projects. Long before he became known as a crusty law professor on the television show The Paper Chase, Houseman had been a trailblazer in early radio theater, most famously with his partner Orson Welles in the legendary Mercury Theater. 

The medium had drastically declined in the wake of movies and television. And Toscan and Houseman thought even the few remaining radio dramas, mostly adaptations of stage plays, failed to take advantage of radio’s unique capabilities of sound, music, and imagination. Once, Houseman brought in a stack of recent radio theater recordings and tried to listen to them with Toscan. The old master couldn’t stay with any of them for more than a few seconds. 

The pair decided to try to bring creaky radio theater into the modern era, adapting stories by Raymond Chandler, Ed Bullins, Hood River native Damon Knight, and others for broadcast on the university’s KUSC radio. Their innovative use of live ambient sound effects – really borrowed from the Golden Age of radio drama — and other forward-looking techniques earned praise and broadcast by National Public Radio.

At that time NPR chief Frank Mankiewicz was trying to expand the audience for the network’s then-struggling news programming by adding entertainment offerings. It was a natural move for someone who is the scion of Hollywood royalty —  the son of screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, who co-wrote Citizen Kane (as recounted in the 2021 film Mank) and the nephew of Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who directed All About Eve, Cleopatra, and many other classic films. Impressed by KUSC’s new radio theater offerings, he turned to Houseman and Toscan for advice. 

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“How,” the latter wondered, “can we develop an audience for contemporary radio drama?” Recalling the national uproar over Mercury Theater’s ’s notorious 1938 broadcast of War of the Worlds, which vaulted him and Welles to fame, Houseman suggested: “Create a scandal!” 

Nothing so scandalous ensued, but it did inspire Toscan to ask: what would be the least likely popular story to tell in audio — one so seemingly inherently visual that it would draw media coverage just for its sheer bizarreness?

Star Wars, of course! The second film in the original trilogy had just appeared, so public consciousness was primed and curiosity piqued. And many news purists in and outside NPR were indeed scandalized, or at least vexed, by the notion that public radio would devote precious airtime — normally reserved for the kind of intellectually and democratically nutritious, but noncommercial fare that public broadcasting was created to promulgate — to a highly commercial franchise. Star Wars creator George Lucas was also skeptical — so much that he sold the rights to the radio revivalists for a dollar. 

But Toscan and Houseman were more interested in modernizing a classic art form than selling R2D2 action figures. They thought the different nature of the two media, film and radio, demanded a different approach from the original or the series would fail, as had so many other too-faithful radio adaptations. With Toscan serving as story editor and executive producer, new scenes were created and dialogue and sound effects replaced visuals. 

It worked. When the 13-part series aired in 1981, NPR’s audience jumped 40 percent in a single week and the network received 50,000 letters. NPR went on to adapt the second and third parts of the original trilogy, against Toscan’s advice. He didn’t need more evidence — he knew audio theater had a future as well as a past. 

Along with his NPR triumph, Toscan’s radio dramas went on to be broadcast throughout the world by the British, Canadian, and Australian Broadcast Corporations. The NPR collaboration led to another, even longer-lasting partnership. It’s where he met his soon-to-be wife Sharon, then working in NPR’s public relations operation. “Over 40 years together and all due to George Lucas.”

With his spouse, Sharon Walker, on his retirement celebration in 2010 as VCU’s Arts Dean and Vice Provost. Photo Credit: B. Reynolds

Portland Bound

Despite Toscan’s eventful two decades of California successes, he recalls that “after all that time in Lotusland, we started thinking about leaving the LA desert for someplace where water fell from the sky.” Even though the USC theater school was by then often rated in the same exalted stratum as Yale and Juilliard among top American theater training programs, “I was getting restless in the academic part of my life with only being able to deal with theater, when I was also fascinated by the visual arts.”

That’s when Portland State University called, with an offer that included heading a school of both performing and fine arts — and abundant rain. Other attractions: the city’s new Arts Plan, a portfolio to better connect the school’s arts programs to the city’s homegrown arts scene, in keeping with the university’s broader mission to both draw from and contribute to its urban environment. 

That setting — so much more livable than LA’s car-centric sprawl — also drew Toscan and his wife north, like so many before and after him. He was enticed by Portland’s celebrated short, walkable city blocks, relatively accessible mass transit, and what was then a “vibrant and semi-experimental art scene,” he recalls. “Theaters, the opera, and the ballet were doing pretty edgy work for a city of that size. They had artistic directors who were pushing the envelope in really interesting ways, in tune with what was going on with major companies on the East Coast — yet not alienating audiences.”

He also marveled at the city’s energetic gallery scene. “When we finally moved here,” he recalls, “our first arts stop was Elizabeth Leach’s gallery, where we bought a wonderful small Lee Kelly piece that has traveled with us back and forth across the country.”

The city was much smaller than today, rents and other costs were lower, financial pressures less intense on both large and small companies. “It was like the early days of Off-off Broadway,” he says, “when the money didn’t go into the buildings, but into the plays.”

Not to say there weren’t challenges. Toscan also served on the board of what’s now called Portland5, the performing arts centers that were then struggling to draw audiences to an area that had become what Toscan calls a “war zone” on the South Park Blocks, which had become a mecca for hoodlums, homeless people, anarchist violence, and drug dealing. He worked with local businesses to “clean up that part of the city and make it feel safe for audiences to come down to the symphony, the art museum, and the theater,” he remembers. He also helped pull the organization back from the brink of financial disaster. 

As founding chair of Portland’s Downtown Cultural District, Toscan worked with the city to better define and promote the south downtown arts core. And he advised or served on the boards of Portland Baroque Orchestra, ArtFair Seattle, Imago Theatre, and Tygres Heart Shakespeare Company.

In 1996, family needs drew Toscan back east, and he accepted a position as Dean of Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of the Arts. In his 14 years there, Toscan founded the Cinema Program, developed a new VCU art and design campus in Qatar, spearheaded the overhaul of the university’s arts facilities, and served as vice provost for International Education, significantly expanding the university’s international education programs.

Reviving his old graduate school interest in design, he helped create a new school of visual arts. Toscan’s efforts led the school’s dramatic rise to the very top position in the US News & World Report’s rankings of American university arts programs.

He also headed the International Council of Fine Arts Deans and served on the boards of Richmond Ballet, Theatre Virginia, and the Richmond Arts Council, the city’s equivalent of Portland5.

At the VCU French Film Festival as Vice Provost for International Affairs, 2006, the major showcase for contemporary French cinema in the US.
Photo Credit: VCU

PDX Redux

In 2010, after four decades in arts education administration, Toscan was ready to retire and devote himself to his own work. But retire where? He had ties to Richmond and to major cultural centers in New York and Los Angeles.

But he and Sharon returned to Portland, for the same reasons the city had attracted him in the first place, and “all those great memories of the city and friends here,” he explains. He has devoted his last decade here to sharing much of the wisdom he’s gleaned over a rich and rewarding 40-plus year career in the arts. 

Toscan’s first major project after resettling in Portland was turning lessons gleaned from his many years of teaching and making theater into a book: Playwriting Seminars 2.0: A Handbook on the Art and Craft of Dramatic Writing with an Introduction to Screenwriting.

Playwriting Seminars 2.0, the widely used textbook he wrote after returning to Portland in 2010.

But his main interest has been audio theater. A San Francisco-based theater organization asked Toscan to lead a workshop on the subject, and the more he explored the current state of the art, the more excited he got. He also discovered that the Star Wars radio series — whose 40th anniversary is this year — had made him sort of a legend in the audio drama field, inspiring hundreds of young creators to get involved in audio theater. He’s become a consultant and coach, and last month led a workshop in audio theater for Portland’s PDX Playwrights. 

Toscan’s enthusiasm about audio theater’s contemporary promise radiates from those workshops and in his ArtsWatch interview. New technology and the advent of a new platform, podcasting, have democratized audio theater, making it more powerful and accessible than ever. Anyone can create a podcast using widely available software and hardware and upload it to a streaming site. There are no gatekeepers. Toscan cites shows like The Bright Sessions (literally produced for an entire season in creator Lauren Shipman’s bedroom), Limetown, and Homecoming that went on to wide popularity. It’s got to be gratifying to see an art form that he played no small part in revitalizing and again reinvigorating American theater.

Reinventing Portland Arts

ArtsWatch asked Toscan, in his own words, for his thoughts and opinions as arts leaders rebuild Portland’s post (we hope)-pandemic art scene in what he calls  “a time of reinvention.” 

Portland’s arts assets

  • A large, loyal audience for the arts in the metro area that likes edgy stuff and is willing to take a chance on new things. They don’t have the attitude of ‘I don’t want to see anything I haven’t seen before.’ Portland has a reputation for being open to new ideas.
  • A really good complex of arts spaces that are either owned or rentable by major companies. A lot of these facilities are in the downtown core, so once you know how to get to one, you know how to get to the others. That’s not the case for all cities. 
  • A great rapid transit system. If you live on the east side or in Beaverton, you don’t have to drive into town and find parking. That takes away some of the hassle. 

Portland’s arts challenges

  • Two years of government encouraged anarchy in downtown. Young folks in their 20s may not see it as an issue, but people who are older feel downtown is not safe, between the pandemic, loss of retail, stores boarded up. It’s probably the number one issue confronting arts organizations that perform in downtown Portland: how to bring back a sense of normalcy to downtown. And the ripple effects of what’s happened downtown have spread to the east side, impacting Black communities there as much as the Pearl [District]. I don’t know how you can run a performing arts or visual arts scene successfully when you have this environment. It is a sad and troubling development that the mayor and city council are so ineffectual and seem unwilling to address this issue. It’s not like Portland is an outlier. San Francisco hasn’t solved it, nor has Seattle. My concern is that if Portland doesn’t deal with this problem,  it may go the way of Richmond, where all the small businesses moved to the suburbs and took the audience with them.

Advice to arts organizations

  • The leadership of arts organizations need to be collaborating with other business organizations that have been talking about setting up a private police force,  so people know when downtown someone’s watching out for them as they enter or leave the theater. 
  • Shift  to more intimate artistic experiences.  Audiences have been away now for two  years, so arts organizations are going to have to encourage audiences to discover what intimacy is with the performing arts. Audiences need to be reminded of what the experience of live arts is about, and that experience diminishes the farther you get from the stage. The closer you are to the performer, the more intimate it feels. I don’t think you can do that in a 600 or 900 or 1200 seat theater. You can do it in community centers and unconventional venues. Some of the larger music organizations like [Portland Baroque Orchestra] and the [Oregon] Symphony might look at the possibility of performing in smaller venues around the Metro area, where they can do intimate kinds of performances that would give audiences a sense of what it’s like to experience arts other than from the balcony of [Schnitzer Concert Hall]. 
  • It would probably make sense for [the Regional Arts and Culture Council] to start investing more heavily in community arts organizations out in the periphery and cultivating an audience there. What might happen is people start going to community arts organizations with 15-20 blocks of where they live. The new [Reser Center] performance hall being built in Beaverton may be a kind of bellwether of that. If there are areas in the suburbs where a warehouse or retail place is not being used, they could occasionally allow small dance companies or theater companies or music groups to perform there and draw a local audience.

Advice to theaters

  • Diversify audiences. When we were here in 1992-96, theatre audiences were 99.9% white — no exaggeration. When we returned 15 years later and sampled the theater scene from under 100-seat groups to Portland Center Stage, that percentage hadn’t changed. The only time we saw a Black person in a theater was for an all-Black play/cast.
  • Diversify casts and staff. For seasons and individual productions as adopted (if not implemented) by Broadway theatres several months ago and the film industry.
  • Address income inequality. Operating expenses always increase at a faster rate than earned income from ticket sales, forcing ever-increasing need for donations to fill the income gap. Leadership compensation is a major driver of that economic dilemma. Large regional theaters typically compensate their artistic and managing directors at unreasonable multiples of average staff salaries,  sometimes 10 times or more. There’s no compelling reason for this disparity.
  • Provide work/life balance for production staff. The assumption in the theatre for decades has been that work/life balance doesn’t matter. Twenty- and 30-somethings value work/life balance and flexibility in a way that never occurred to theatre workers in the olden days. That’s the driver of the [recent] IATSE strike in LA (approved by over 90% of union members).
  • Pay a living wage to staff. And thus end the “glamour industry syndrome.” Discard the view that positions in the theatre are “glamour” jobs so the compensation formula is glamour + $, resulting in minimal spendable compensation.
  • Address gender disparity. There’s an argument (likely true) that a newly graduated male Yale MFA playwright will often find production opportunities at major theatre companies while female playwrights have to have significant national reputations to make it onto a mainstage season. What we’re seeing here is likely a variant of the Hollywood excuse for poor box office performance: “But he was a Yale playwright, how could anyone know?” And discontinue the use of Big Boy Stages vs. Little Woman Stages [in which the largest-capacity stages feature works by male directors while female directors are consigned to smaller venues].

Improving arts education in Oregon

  • Training of young artists in BFA and MFA professional programs requires substantial financial resources and access to major arts centers, meaning cities/metro areas with national/international arts reputations. Resources needed in Oregon are thus far greater than elsewhere to compensate for issues of access to major arts capitals, Los Angeles being the closest. Portland has been struggling with the arts funding issue at least since the 1980s. I fondly remember the response given by a major Portland philanthropist to the question posed to her as part of Arts Plan 2000 research around 1990: “Wouldn’t you like a world class symphony, ballet, opera, theatre, and museum in Portland?” Her response: “No. We want a pretty good symphony, ballet, opera, theatre, and museum. We don’t want to encourage more Californians coming here.”

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Brett Campbell is a frequent contributor to The Oregonian, San Francisco Classical Voice, Oregon Quarterly, and Oregon Humanities. He has been classical music editor at Willamette Week, music columnist for Eugene Weekly, and West Coast performing arts contributing writer for the Wall Street Journal, and has also written for Portland Monthly, West: The Los Angeles Times Magazine, Salon, Musical America and many other publications. He is a former editor of Oregon Quarterly and The Texas Observer, a recipient of arts journalism fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts (Columbia University), the Getty/Annenberg Foundation (University of Southern California) and the Eugene O’Neill Center (Connecticut). He is co-author of the biography Lou Harrison: American Musical Maverick (Indiana University Press, 2017) and several plays, and has taught news and feature writing, editing and magazine publishing at the University of Oregon School of Journalism & Communication and Portland State University.

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