It’s late August and Scott Yarbrough is at the CoHo Theatre in Northwest Portland, getting a play called Radiant Vermin up on its feet. He paces around, watching, occasionally stopping actors Chris Murray and Kelly Godell with suggestions while he tries to figure out the most effective way for them to move about the stage.
Sometimes it’s just about where and how they’re standing: “Chris, I think you need to stand at a little more of an angle to Kelly, there,” he says.
“I’m just trying to, y’know, be in love with her,” Murray explains.
“Yeah, but it’s looking a little pervy.”
Even though blocking is the night’s focus, though, Yarbrough can’t help fine-tuning what already feel like perceptive performances: “That scene has to be about their denial of the atrocity of what they’re doing,” he tells them at one point. “Because if they recognize that, it’s hard for the audience to shift back into compassion for them… It’s a tonal shift. Put that in your hoppers and think about it, and we’ll work it later.”
On a break, he points out that this is the same place where, in 2005, he directed his first show in Portland, Recent Tragic Events, which instantly put a new company called Third Rail Repertory Theatre on the local arts map.
“It’s fun to be back in the room.”
Radiant Vermin, about a young couple who find themselves in moral hot water when they’re given a free home to renovate, is a Scott Yarbrough play.
Though, to be clear, it is a play by the British writer Philip Ridley. Yarbrough directed a production of Radiant Vermin that ran in September at CoHo Theatre. But you couldn’t call it a Scott Yarbrough play because he put his own idiosyncratic stamp on it; that’s not the kind of director he is.
Still, it’s very much a Scott Yarbrough play, in that it’s great example of the kind of play that Yarbrough loves — smart, funny, a little dark, language-rich but unpretentious, idea-driven yet with a surprising emotional payoff, aware that comedy and tragedy grew up in the same bedroom. And it’s also the kind of play Yarbrough excels at directing, burrowing into the text for all its challenges and opportunities, bringing something to the stage that’s solid, clear, seemingly lit from within and moving like a living thing itself.
“I was really, really pleased — the direction is really tight,” said the veteran Portland actor Michael O’Connell after catching a dress rehearsal. “It kind of felt like, ‘Scott’s back!’”
Theater fans should hope that he is. For the past decade or so he’s been arguably the finest director working regularly in Portland. Certainly there are directors more likely to be described as visionary and inventive — say, Shaking the Tree’s Samantha Van Der Merwe. If you judge directors by their knack for big concepts and bold-stroke stage imagery, you’d likely have leaned toward Chris Coleman, who recently left Portland Center Stage for Denver. But Yarbrough’s work has been unsurpassed for its consistent sense of mastery.
Yarbrough was artistic director of Third Rail from its inception, directing all the shows in its early years. Those productions took advantage of the stellar acting ensemble that formed the core of the highly collaborative company, but what really distinguished them was their scrupulousness and cohesion, a sense that both the whole and every little part had been thought through and lovingly assembled. Character interpretations, design elements, pacing and so on, all worked together for storytelling with an at once global and granular rightness.
In the words of the actor Duffy Epstein, “There’s never anything clunky, it’s always smooth sailing.”
To say that Yarbrough is “back” now doesn’t mean he’s rebounded from a run of sub-par work; just that he’s back to stage directing as his main focus. For a variety of reasons, his role at Third Rail grew more managerial over the years and his directing credits came less frequently. He parted ways with the company earlier this year. That’s sad as the end of a great legacy with Third Rail. That’s exciting as the beginning of broader availability for the strongest director around.
Brought up in the word
“The main thing to know about Scott is that he grew up in Oklahoma as a preacher’s son,” says O’Connell, who was one of Yarbrough’s co-founders at Third Rail. “While everybody else was bucking hay and playing football, he was home reading books. For him, story is always key.”
Though Yarbrough’s father, Slayden A. Yarbrough, has served as a Southern Baptist pastor, he was as much professor as preacher. (The younger Yarbrough formerly used his full name, Slayden Scott Yarbrough, for theatrical credits — that formal-sounding mouthful perhaps giving rise to the teasing nicknames from O’Connell, “Scooter” and “Slay-Slay.”) An only child, Scott was born in Waco, Texas, where his dad earned a doctorate in religion from Baylor University, and grew up mostly in Shawnee, Oklahoma, where the elder Yarbrough taught church history and ethics at Oklahoma Baptist University.
“One of the things about Scott that’s so lovely,” says Maureen Porter, who joined Third Rail a decade ago and succeeded Yarbrough as artistic director several months ago, “is as he talks about those early days, this charismatic personality comes out, someone who’s done all these great things telling how he started out as this quiet, bookish boy.”
“He was left alone a lot growing up and I think he spent a lot of time reading and watching movies,” says actor and dialect coach Stephanie Gaslin, Yarbrough’s ex-wife. The two met in the late 1990s at Ohio University and after moving back to Gaslin’s hometown became prime movers in the creation of Third Rail. “He also worked at a movie theater growing up, which he really loved.”
Yarbrough recalls that his main exposure to live theater during his youth was “a touring production of Camelot starring a drunk Richard Harris….My original career plan was to be a film editor.”
Despite his early love of movies, that might seem an odd early direction for someone now known for his dedication to text more than image. But Isaac Lamb, a Third Rail company member with a background in film, thinks it’s apt. “Having known him for more than a decade, I think that would’ve been a really great job for Scott,” Lamb observes. “That’s constructing narrative: essentially, you’re re-writing the movie for the final time.”
Yarbrough went to Ohio University with plans to spend two years there, then go to film school on the west coast. But a trip to Los Angeles changed his mind. “I went to check it out and that was so not me,” he recalls. Staying where he was meant he had to choose a major, and he thought theater would be easy. “Pretty soon I realized, ‘this feels right in a way the visit to California didn’t.’”
Becoming tech director for his college theater gave him a different perspective on the scripts he was reading, and a trip to London, where he saw plays by David Hare and Alan Bennett at the National Theatre, gave him a sense of how affecting stage productions can be. But figuring out the next steps after college meant taking stock of himself.
“I thought, ‘I’m not a good enough actor, and as a designer I don’t have the technical skills. Directing feels like the place where I can fit into all of this,’” he recalls. “I began to see my role as the conduit between the audience and the material….I don’t think I’m a visionary director. But give me a script that engages me and I’ll make a few hundred new fans of that script.”
He went on to Louisiana State University, where he got a masters degree in theater history, theory and dramatic literature. It wasn’t the most fun he’s ever had. “All of my friends were doing shows; I was home writing papers.”
Riding the Rail
Yarbrough and Gaslin later moved to New York, and while she was waiting tables she met O’Connell, a West Linn native who’d previously acted alongside Tim True, who’d also attended Ohio University. So grew the web of connections that led back to Portland and to the creation of Third Rail, for which the friends took inspiration from such noted companies as Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Co., Philadelphia’s Wilma Theater and especially Washington D.C.’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre.
It was Yarbrough who hit upon the name, an idea he’d had a few years before at a New York subway stop. “I looked down and saw the third rail in the track and all the associations just hit me,” he told The Oregonian in 2008. “Momentum, electricity, danger, a driving force.”
The idea was for a largely self-contained company, with actors, designers and other artists also handling managerial and business aspects. It would emphasize quality over quantity, carefully choosing and crafting just a few shows per season. It was an Equity company from the outset, a sign of its commitment to professionalism. And though for practical reasons Yarbrough, as producing artistic director, was “a leader among equals,” as he puts it, collaborative spirit and collective process was at the company’s core.
“Early on, we made a point that egos and individual needs were going to be checked at the door in favor of the needs of whatever story we’re working on,” Yarbrough recalled in that 2008 interview. “I didn’t realize at first how important that would be to our identity; it was just a nice theoretical idea, but it’s paid great dividends on stage.”
Along with top-shelf acting, Third Rail distinguished itself with consistently smart programming choices, plays by the likes of Craig Wright (Recent Tragic Events, Grace, The Gray Sisters), Martin McDonagh (Lonesome West, A Skull in Connemara, The Beauty Queen of Leenane) and Conor McPherson (Shining City). Glowing reviews and Drammy Awards became the company’s regular harvest. There were dizzying heights, such as Terry Johnson’s Dead Funny in 2008 and Anthony Neilson’s The Wonderful World of Dissocia in 2011, but for several years it was simply a given that each new Third Rail production would be excellent.
Soon it wasn’t just Third Rail’s reputation that was on the move. In 2008, the company left North Portland’s little Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center for the World Trade Center Theater downtown. That space was great for audiences, but company members grew tired of its technical limitations and the problems posed by daytime business events in the same auditorium and weekend weddings just outside of it. A step up to the Winningstad Theatre in 2011 was expected to cement Third Rail among the front rank of Portland theater companies. It proved instead to be both an awkward fit and an overreach. As Yarbrough succinctly puts it, “Everything became exponentially more expensive and more difficult.” A cost-saving move a few years later, to Imago Theatre’s eastside space, was no panacea either.
Over the years, it wasn’t just the location that was changing. Key early figures such as True, Valerie Stevens, John Steinkamp and Gretchen Corbett left the company, even as it expanded its ranks. Consensus remained the watchword, but, as O’Connell notes, “It wasn’t as easy to find one voice.”
Of particular relevance for Yarbrough, other folks wanted the chance to direct. As successive new locations complicated the production and management aspects of his job, his outward-facing (and personally rewarding) work as a director grew less frequent.
“It ended up just not being a good fit for me anymore,” he says. “I didn’t have the time to cultivate — through reading and relationships — the kind of work I was excited about. It got to a point where the frustrations outweighed the satisfactions.”
Though he admits he’s “having to relearn how to be a freelance director,” he’s already started building up those creative satisfactions again. Radiant Vermin — something he proposed for Third Rail a couple of years ago but didn’t get the necessary buy-in — was a big, surefooted first step.
“From the organization, there’s an enormous respect and gratitude for his contributions,” Porter, his successor, says. “There wouldn’t be a Third Rail if not for Scott and Steph. Without him, it does feel different. And boy, are there big shoes to fill! My hope is that he will direct for Third Rail again at some point.”
Yarbrough’s secret weapon for directing is, of all things, typing. “Transcription. That’s the part of my process that is probably my most important: retyping the script, slowing it down and intentionally acknowledging every word. Transcribing it once, I’ve found, has about the same value as reading it 10 times.”
Talk to other artists about Yarbrough and his fealty to the text is something that’s mentioned over and over again. He’s practically a theatrical strict constructionist.
“He really believes in the power of the playwright and the craft of the play,” says actor/director Isaac Lamb. “We used to jokingly do impressions of Scott in the rehearsal room — just the sound of him turning pages. If there’s uncertainty or a question about any moment, we go back to the play and we find our answer there.”
While reading and typing get him deep into a play’s language, listening is what helps him put audiences in touch with that depth.
“I’ve learned an enormous amount from Scott in terms of how to dissect and communicate a text,” says Philip Cuomo, a Third Rail company member as well as producing artistic director for CoHo Productions. “How to listen for that operative word, the pacing, and the musicality of the language that he teases out so beautifully. He has a great sense of humor and comedic timing. And he knows the adjustments to give an actor to make a line land.”
“He’s a very aural director,” Porter says. “He loves music and has that ear for what it evokes, and for the details, the rhythmic intricacies of it.” Adds Gaslin, “For the first few weeks of rehearsal, he’s pacing around barefoot, his head in the script, listening for rhythm and intonation and emphasis, then looking at the visualization of it later.”
Despite his fierce focus on text, his productions aren’t lacking in visual interest. Partly that’s what Kristeen Willis Crosser, a designer and production manager who worked three seasons with Third Rail, calls his “inherent way of seeing a space, which a lot of directors don’t have.” Partly that’s an advantage of the collaborative approach baked into not just Third Rail’s democratic ways but Yarbrough’s thinking.
“When I’m preparing for the first production meetings, I’ll probably write down five or six ideas for each of the main design elements in a show,” he says. “But then, if I open up an environment where everyone in the room feels comfortable, Vegas odds are that one of the other ideas on the table — probably about 30 of them, now — is better than any of mine.”
Yet, as always, there’s a backstop. “Whenever we would get off topic and start thinking about doing something because it’s cool, he would ask, ‘How does that serve the text?’,” Crosser recalls. “That question came up 20-30 times in each design process.”
Then, of course, there is the work with actors.
“Scott is a real actors’ director,” says former Third Rail regular Jacklyn Maddux. “He knows exactly what he wants, and he lets you find it. He guides gently. He doesn’t what we call ‘results you’ — he doesn’t give you an emotion to play. He really wants you to discover the specifics, the moment-to-moment work that makes it real and alive. He also created a very safe space to rehearse in, where you felt that you could experiment.”
Bruce Burkhartsmeier recalls his first show with Yarbrough, McPherson’s Shining City. “I had what amounted to a 35-minute, seemingly rambling monologue, and Scott had the task of staging this emotional, guilt-soaked breakdown. As any director would, he wanted to keep it visually interesting for the audience throughout this long, long speech. He initially envisioned having me being up and about, at one point throwing darts at a dart board as the distress unspooled. After a few attempts, he sensed that I was uncomfortable with that movement and suggested that maybe we should just stick to the psychiatrist’s couch for the entirety of the monologue — a good chunk of stage time. This is a dangerous thing to do, of course, but with his guidance we navigated every possible nook and cranny of that five-foot couch as a playing space, with only McPherson’s words as our compass. It was a courageous and bold choice, but it was also an indication of the trust he had in an actor’s instincts — a quality all great directors have.”
In 2011, Yarbrough cast Duffy Epstein as a disagreeable right-wing antagonist amid the familial and political tensions of Bruce Norris’ controversy-courting The Pain and the Itch. “I had the best time,” Epstein recalls. “My only complaint is that I was given one of the best roles I’ve ever had and one of the best directors I’ve ever had — for just 11 measly shows!
“He’s such a nice man — kind, caring, sensitive. And that personality shows in his direction.”
Epstein recalls struggling with a scene in which his character berates his young girlfriend, who at that point is perhaps the play’s most sympathetic character. A nice man himself, Epstein kept holding back. “But Scott pulled me aside and explained that I really had to lay into her in that scene, in order for the rest of the story to really work. And that just opened things up for me….It was never a personal thing: ‘I don’t like that.’ It was: ‘I don’t think that serves the story we’re trying to tell.’ When you played it according to his notes, it always felt right.”
True to Yarbrough’s original vision of himself as a director, as a conduit and advocate for the audience, actors repeatedly mention his attention to how the play flows from the view of the seats.
“He delivers the story to the audience so clearly and cleanly — which is something I sometimes try not to do, in my work,” says Cuomo, whose approach is more predicated on physicality. “But the lesson gleaned from Scott is I’m super-conscious of what the audience will receive from moment to moment.”
Consistently, those moments hold together exceptionally well, carrying audiences along on journeys that feel engaging and, more often than not, profound.
As Gaslin puts it, “He can see all of the pieces of what it needs to be in the end. And he can communicate that to others and be patient for it to become what he saw from the beginning.”