Starting Over: Point to point

Portland Center Stage's Cynthia Fuhrman shows that when the navigating gets hard, the pragmatic go point-to-point

Like many of those who still have a job but are working from home, Cynthia Fuhrman, the managing director of Portland Center Stage, has taken to Zoom, “seeing the faces and talking to more people than ever.”

“I talk to people all day,” she said as we talked by telephone (not Zoom).

All those meetings are exhausting. Generally, she says, she suffers from really bad insomnia. But now? “I am sleeping better than ever, I am sleeping like a champ!” 

One of those early Covid-19 virtual group meetings had a big effect on how Fuhrman has managed Center Stage’s response to the pandemic. She managed to sneak into a short lecture by Nancy Koehn, a business historian at Harvard Business School, who was addressing the problem of crisis management to an audience of (mostly) art museum leaders.

Cynthia Fuhrman, Portland Center Stage’s
managing director/Photo Gary Norman

The primary takeaway for Fuhrman? That we are operating in a  point-to-point navigation situation. 

“We don’t have a playbook here,” Koehn says in the video. “We all have to ask ourselves, can I get comfortable with ambiguity and confusion and uncertainty and much less than perfect information…in order to navigate from point to point? …We’re going to make a lot of mistakes, but we’re going to quickly pivot, respond, do something different, learn—and keep heading for the next point. And help our people do that.”

These are some of the basic procedures of American pragmatism, the lack of which has determined much of the disastrous federal response to the pandemic. And I view Fuhrman, who has worked since the early 1980s in various capacities at the three largest theater companies in the Northwest, as a quintessential American pragmatist. I think you have to be pragmatic to work in the arts, maybe because the most practical people I know are artists (and maybe engineers).

The list of Fuhrman’s attributes would include mastery of the details of how theater nonprofits operate, openness to the new ideas always percolating in the field, the ability to adapt to changing circumstances, and a deep belief in the importance of theater—and the arts—to a healthy society, a belief she communicates in an engaging and convincing way. From my point of view, she could have (and should have) been running a big theater company since the early 1990s. In short, yes, she can navigate point-to-point when none of the usual charts, navigation devices, and traditional wisdom work.

That doesn’t mean we know how Center Stage will emerge from the pandemic or the economic shambles it is creating. Big organizations can be the most vulnerable. And Fuhrman understands that, too.

*****

“Everybody is on the ropes,” Fuhrman said. “It’s an existential moment.”

We know what the end looks like—for an arts group or almost any other organization, commercial or not.

At some point there is no pathway forward, no point you can reach, because you run out of money and/or can’t pay back money you owe. You can’t pay rent or mortgage, you can’t meet payroll or payroll taxes. You’ve consumed the seed corn you need to mount another play (or concert or exhibition). And when a company reaches that point, Fuhrman said, “we send up a final flare” that we need help immediately, and then “we’re gone.”

It happens a lot in Portland: None of the theater companies that were here when I moved to the city in 1979 still exists. None of the dance companies, either. Portland has done a terrible job of creating an environment where arts organizations can succeed: The support for the arts here has been barebones when it hasn’t been non-existent. And when a company nears the end, the City (let alone the State or County) has no policies in place to help them out, even if it’s just to give them some hospice care. This is disgraceful, especially for a city that relies so heavily on its creative, tech and knowledge economies for its economic existence.

Chantal DeGroat, Dana Green and Lauren Bloom Hanover in “Macbeth” earlier this season at Portland Center Stage./Photo: Kate Szrom/Courtesy of Portland Center Stage at The Armory

To keep from swirling into nonexistence, “we’re making hard choices on how to stretch our resources,” Fuhrman said. Center Stage has trimmed its staff from 100 to 18, for example.

Center Stage is by far the largest theater company in Portland, and second-largest in the state behind the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. After Chris Coleman left the company at the end of the 2017-18 season, the board promoted Fuhrman to lead the business side of the operation, and hired Marissa Wolf to take over Coleman’s artistic director duties. Their first season together was off to a great start before the pandemic hit. When I talked to Fuhrman a few months ago, the company had already reached its income target for ticket sales, which accounts for roughly 60 percent of the company’s total revenue, with three-and-a-half shows to go (“The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” had to close in the middle of its run).

But the company doesn’t have substantial cash reserves or endowment income, and it has a relatively small mortgage remaining on its home, the Armory Building.

So right now, Fuhrman said, the chore is to raise enough money to keep the company operational and prepare to start up again, once the all-clear siren is sounded (and may that come soon!). That’s what most of  those Zoom meetings are about: communicating with audiences and funders. Meanwhile, the crew is figuring out how to stretch the resources they have and make them last longer, and then developing various scenarios to fit the likeliest reopening timelines. Opening full-bore in October is the best outcome, but what if they can’t open until January? What if social distancing requirements mean they can’t sell all the seats in their two theaters? The company already installed hand sanitizer dispensers and developed protocols for thorough cleaning of public surfaces, but will the temperatures of patrons need to be taken before they enter—and how would that work?

Those are all questions that MAY need to be answered. Fortunately, Center Stage has the experience and research of the other big American nonprofit theater companies—the League of Resident Theatres—to draw on, so Fuhrman and company don’t have to invent everything from scratch. But, working point to point, they will have to figure out how a temperature-taking regime would work in the Armory, if that edict comes down from Governor Kate Brown, including how to get the right equipment. 

*****

One of the big unknowns that Fuhrman and the rest of the arts community faces: What will we retain from this pandemic time, from the new cultural patterns we are creating (or having created for us)? What will the landscape look like when we reach the far shore of this?

Fuhrman listed several possibilities, starting with more people working from home (and those Zoom meetings), but all of them depended on what happens with the economy and the pandemic. And no one really knows. Organizations likely will have to be smaller and more nimble until they see how the economy has changed, and with it, people’s behavior. Fuhrman doesn’t expect efforts by state and local agencies to make everyone whole, especially since Center Stage didn’t get a small business loan from the first round of federal assistance (if your arts organization did, please let me know: barry@orartswatch.org). 

One of the premises that Fuhrman is working from: When the pandemic truly ends, people will still want to get together. In fact, they will be hungry to participate again in a social world. 

Another of her premises: People will want to see live theater as opposed to watching everything on video.

Fuhrman paraphrased an argument from her favorite author Margaret Drabble’s second novel, The Garrick Year. Video is a convenience. But there are a lot of conveniences. Frozen vegetables, for example. But no matter how good and easily prepared frozen vegetables have become, they haven’t replaced fresh vegetables. People will always want fresh vegetables, convenience be damned.

“When has the American theater not been in crisis? It’s kinda how we live,” Fuhrman said. “This is like my third or fourth one—this is the weirdest one.” 

As long as her company doesn’t spiral into a cascade of what-ifs, as long as it stays point-to-point, she’s confident that humans will want social contact and the human context that theater offers.

One of the characteristics of good leaders, Professor Koehn said, is the ability to convey hope—once they have addressed “the brutal honesty of facts.” Good leaders help us understand that we have the collective resources to deal with the crisis at hand, and from that, hope is kindled. Collective resources? That’s what all the Zoom meetings are cultivating.

Yes, the meetings that have Fuhrman sleeping like a champ. Dear Ms. Fuhrman, no offense—but I hope your insomnia returns soon!

No, I take that back. I hope you’ve left it behind, marooned in the pre-Covid-19 world.

2 Responses.

  1. Molly says:

    Love this piece, she’s really rad! One thing though, PAE has existed since 1970, but you’re not wrong that it’s hard to survive.

  2. Barry Johnson says:

    You’re absolutely right! My history scan didn’t include continuous outdoor summer companies. Portland Actors Ensemble started in 1970 with a Shakespeare-in-the-Parks production of “As You Like,” and it has continued, unabated, through last summer’s “King Lear” and…”As You Like”! I’m worried about THIS summer, but if you can do social distancing anywhere, it would be outdoors in a park. Thanks for the correction!

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