On a bright midwinter afternoon in 2020, Jen Rowe and Brandon Woolley sat in a Pearl District cafe discussing the impending launch of their new theater company, called simply The Theatre Company. Armed with a combination of youthful energy and impressive experience, they spoke with a measured confidence, outlining their plans for a fluidly creative approach to producing, a way to take advantage of the challenges and opportunities of the moment.
“I feel like the town is full of a lot of transition,” Rowe said.
Oh, how little she realized.
A couple of weeks later, as they headed into technical rehearsals for a debut production, The Moors by Jen Silverman, to be held at Southeast Portland’s Taborspace, news spread of worldwide contagion. “Covid-19” was the new term on everyone’s lips.
“We were in tech, the week before opening,” Rowe recalls, nearly a year and a half later. “No other theaters had shut down at that point. On the second night, we found out that the NBA (National Basketball Association) was shutting down — which was kind of the signal that others followed. That was Friday the 13th in March.”
Recognizing the gravity of the situation, they decided to cancel the show. (Though just in case the scare proved overblown, or could be quickly contained in the United States, as other viral outbreaks had been, they went ahead with costume fittings.)
“Brandon had the foresight to bring a couple of bottles of wine, and we sat around and talked about this pause and how what was happening in the world was bigger than our production.”
Surely, amid the awful and ongoing damage that Covid-19 has caused worldwide, the blow to a fledgling Portland theater outfit has to be seen as a minor thing. You might still think it a bitter pill to swallow for young artists standing on the cusp of an ambition fulfilled.
Rowe and Woolley, however, just spat out that pill and got back to work.
“The biggest letdown wasn’t that our initial production got canceled,” Rowe says. “It was that everyone assumed that was such a giant loss that we wouldn’t recover — not that the show didn’t happen, but that the investment stopped, or at least fell off.
“It didn’t feel personal — it happened to everyone.”
In the intervening months — and as live theater’s long-awaited return looks again imperiled by Covid’s surging delta variant — The Theatre Company has kept rolling with the changes, from the need to adapt stage works for podcasting and video production to Woolley’s departure as co-artistic director earlier this year.
“I thought we were starting a company in a town in transition,” Rowe says. “Now I recognize we’re a company continually in transition.”
Through all the changes, the constant has been creative adaptation, the latest fruit of which is Capax Infiniti by DeLanna Studi, the second installment in The Theatre Company’s series The Playwright Initiative: Solo Works. Starring former Portland stage stalwart Laura Faye Smith and filmed at the nonprofit arts center Yale Union, the 45-minute “satirical drama” is available for video streaming through Oct. 9.
The Theatre Company’s origins go back to June of 2019, after Rowe and Woolley read together during auditions for Portland Center Stage’s production of Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley.
“I asked Brandon why he hadn’t started a company and he asked me why I hadn’t started a company,” Rowe recalled. “I said I didn’t know what I would do differently than any other company.”
Added Woolley, “And I retorted that it just sounds like a lot of fucking work!”
The more they talked, though, the more their own concept — one worth all the work — came into view.
That transitional quality of the overall theater scene meant that there was a fluid talent pool to draw from. “You think, ‘Who are the people I want to work with and how do I strategize to be part of all the different (theatrical) families so that I can work and be seen’,” Rowe said of their thinking. Rather than try to find a dedicated performance home, they decided to look for interesting site-specific opportunities, to enhance both the theatrical experience and the new company’s engagement with the community. “We’re trying to align story, space and spectacle,” is how Rowe put it.
“Once we zeroed in on this mission it all started to really make sense,” added Woolley.
It made sense, too, for the two to team up, as they found that their very different career paths resulted in a productive synergy.
Woolley moved to Portland in 2010 to work at Portland Center Stage, coming from Baylor University in Texas, where PCS’s then-artistic director Chris Coleman also had been an undergrad. Woolley cut his professional teeth at Center Stage as an associate producer, assistant director and director, eventually branching out as a freelance director with CoHo Productions, Theatre Vertigo and others. In 2018 he took a post as head of theatrical projects for the internationally renowned company Michael Curry Design.
By contrast with Woolley’s institutional bona fides, Rowe made her way in the quintessential independent theater artist mode. Not long after transferring to Portland State University from Fresno City College, she began acting for numerous companies, large and small, around the city, and soon launched her own Quick + Dirty Productions, creating periodic shows on what you might call an artful shoestring. She spent time at Portland Center Stage, too, as assistant director to Rose Riordan on a handful of shows.
Both had amassed big stores of connections and credibility, and the pair’s theater peers were expecting big things.
As it turns out, those expectations shouldn’t have changed just because of the Covid pandemic.
“In previous generations, the focus was on getting specialized; that was the recipe for success,” Rowe observes. “Now it’s more about being adaptable and learning to do as many different things as you can. Adaptation is something I’ve taken to very fondly.”
Throughout a conversation about the company’s past year and a half, Rowe repeatedly makes reference to a pair of “books propping up my laptop when I have a Zoom meeting,” contrasting guides to the zeroed-in yet flexible approach the times have demanded: Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, by Cal Newport, and Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, by David Epstein.
Despite the setbacks and complications, Rowe and Woolley were committed to figuring out how to move down whatever paths forward they could envision.
So after it became clear that not just The Moors but a fall staging of Caryl Churchill’s Vinegar Tom would have to be canceled, Rowe and Woolley reached out to the rights holders of the plays, seeking permission to adapt them as podcasts. Though it took several months to get the approvals, the results fully justified the initial excitement about the company. Though set in the 1840s, The Moors brought a modern perspective to its mostly female characters and their issues with sexuality, self-actualization and power. Rowe says she acted in a production of Vinegar Tom 15 years ago, and she directed the audio version with a clarity and emotional incisiveness that brought out all the contemporary relevance of a Crucible-like examination of superstition and patriarchal oppression.
More ambitious, especially for a fledgling company, is The Playwright Initiative: Solo Works, six freshly commissioned plays being produced as short films for online streaming. Writers were given a simple set of parameters — one actor, one location and 40 minutes running time, with a one-week workshop for honing and rehearsal — and Rowe and Woolley set about learning how to apply their stage directing skills to (pandemic-restricted) video production.
The series launched in August with The Broken Heart Spread, by Portlander Claire Willett. Presenting the working life of “a modern-day witch,” as Rowe describes the character, the play preached self-acceptance and self-care through a series of Tarot card readings, as the character conducts Zoom consultations with her clients. The result was a bit like watching a New-Age Ann Landers write an advice column, but benefited from a warm, well-honed performance by DeLanna Studi, who has starred in recent years at Portland Center Stage.
Woolley directed The Broken Heart Spread as his last major creative work for the Theatre Company. Life changes, including an expanded role as events manager for Blizzard Wines & Vineyard in Hillsboro, led him to step away from company leadership in March, though he remains on the board of directors.
With Capax Infiniti, Studi continues her involvement, this time as writer. Her play, inspired by a downtown Portland mural by artist Faith47, stars longtime Portland favorite Laura Faye Smith (through she’s now transplanted to Los Angeles) as “Karen,” a marketing exec presenting a Zoom keynote speech for a conference called “Empowered Women Empowering Women.”
As she mixes a Manhattan or three, Karen tells how she pulled herself up from a lower-class upbringing and stormed the corporate ranks by transforming herself into “the ball-busting executive who sold her femininity to become one of the boys.” The painting “Capax Infiniti” (Latin for “holding the infinite”) — a woman, seen from the back, her hands clasped together behind her — is an iconic image for Karen, a source of strength and self-confidence. But as the whiskey works its wiles and her story delves into family trauma, white guilt, confused responses to the contemporary racial-justice and other related matters, her power-suited facade begins to crack and the image becomes a more complicated presence.
Due over the coming winter and spring are works by Ren Dara Santiago, a young “Fila-Rican” playwright from Harlem; the renowned Egyptian-born Seattleite Yussef El Guindi; Emily Gregory, co-founder of the Portland new-works lab String House; and Idris Goodwin, director of the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center and the writer of the 2018 Oregon Children’s Theatre hit And in This Corner: Cassius Clay.
“Ideally, in the fall of 2022 there’s a TBA-style festival where all six of these are presented in live performances around the city over a couple of weekends,” Rowe says.
Of course, she’s well aware that the most ideal plans may be those most subject to change. So while she’s prepared to find yet more ways to expand her range, for the moment she’s happy digging into the deep work at hand.
“Right now I am finding so much inspiration and safety in producing film. There’s so much stability there. We all love live theater. But I don’t want to have to worry about anyone’s safety just for the sake of a performance, for entertainment.”