Marissa Wolf

Top 10 things I learned about Chip Miller

Portland Center Stage’s Miller on dream projects and adjusting to the pandemic: “We are making something new and we are making it very, very fast.”

Chip Miller first became known to Portland audiences when they directed last season’s smash productions Redwood and Hedwig and the Angry Inch at Portland Center Stage at the Armory. But Miller and PCS Artistic Director Marissa Wolf go way back.

“Marissa is like family to me,” Miller said. “If she said, ‘Hey, I got a job in Antarctica running a theater, do you want to come with me?’ I’d say, ‘Yeah, I’ll get some coats.’”

Miller was born in Hartford, Connecticut, but moved to Kansas City, Missouri when they were six. It was there that their love of theater blossomed, and it was at Kansas City Repertory Theatre where Miller met Wolf.

Chip Miller: a life in the theater. Photo: Kate Szrom, courtesy of Portland Center Stage at The Armory.

In their most recent roles at KC Rep, Miller was artistic associate and resident director, and Wolf was associate artistic director. When Wolf was named artistic director of PCS in 2018, replacing Chris Coleman when he left to take over the Theatre Company of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, Wolf brought Miller along for the ride, hiring them as an associate producer at PCS before naming them associate artistic director in July.

While live productions are on hold at The Armory, Portland Center Stage offers a robust calendar of events with the PCS Remix program, which features virtual shows, staged readings and more, as well as other workshops and discussions available online.

To learn more about Miller and find out how they’re navigating the pandemic’s choppy waters, read on.

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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.”

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At PCS, a season for all sorts.

From "Hair" to "Hedwig" to "Emma" and August Wilson's "Gem," a broad range of stories populates Portland Center Stage's 2020-'21 season.

As is the case with pretty much every large theater company in America, Portland Center Stage is trying to broaden the variety of people whose stories are presented in the plays it produces. For the 2020-2021 season, that variety will include long-haired hippies, passionate painters, Latino wrestlers, German rock singers, ancient African-American healers, Asian-American immigrants, bayou brothers, small-town young lovers, and plenty of whatever you want to call Jane Austen’s characters.

PCS recently announced its programming for next season, and there’s something for, well, perhaps not everyone, but for many sorts of folks.

Portland Center Stage will again celebrate the holidays Austen-tatiously with “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley.” Photo: Russell J Young

Looked at another way, the ten productions that will be on offer range from musicals to satires, cultural commentaries to intimate glimpses into history, to whatever you want to call light-hearted adaptations of Jane Austen stories.

Season-ticket renewal is open now, and new season tickets become available Friday, March 13. So here’s a quick look at what’s coming (Note: The dates listed likely refer to the full slate of public performances. Official opening of each production may occur later than the first date indicated here.)

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DramaWatch: A family history in black and white

Romance, race and genealogy clash in "Redwood," a world premiere at Portland Center Stage; plus tips for the week in Portland theater.

For the past several years, something called the Kilroy’s List has attempted to shine a light on “un- and underproduced new plays by woman, trans, and non-binary authors” by polling hundreds of professionals in the play-development field. It has proven to be a rich resource. The 2017 list, for example, included Larissa FastHorse’s The Thanksgiving Play (which Artists Rep staged in 2018), Christina Anderson’s How to Catch Creation (part of the most recent Oregon Shakespeare Festival season) and Lauren Yee’s Cambodian Rock Band (also at OSF this year and coming to Portland Center Stage in the spring).

Chip Miller recalls looking at the 2017 list and noticing the play Redwood by Brittany K. Allen. “I thought, ‘I went to school with someone named Brittany Allen. I wonder if it’s the same person.’”

Brittany K. Allen and Nick Ferrucci in the world premiere of Redwood at Portland Center Stage. Photo: Kate Szrom/Courtesy of Portland Center Stage at The Armory.

Miller grew up in Kansas City, then studied theater at NYU. Deciding against doing “the New York thing” after school, Miller began to look for regional-theater opportunities and quickly landed back home at Kansas City Rep, soon serving as casting director for the play-development department led by Marissa Wolf.
Allen, it turned out, was the same person that Miller had known in New York, and Wolf and Miller soon slotted Redwood into a reading series at KC Rep. Several months later, Wolf headed West to become artistic director at Portland Center Stage — eventually bringing both Miller and Redwood along as well. 

Miller, who joined PCS in April with the title associate producer, directs the world premiere of Redwood, opening Friday on the Armory mainstage. Among the actors: Brittany K. Allen.  

Redwood examines the fallout from modern genealogical testing in the life of an inter-racial couple. Meg Wilson and Drew Tatum have recently moved in together when they find out their relationship goes back further than they’d thought. Undertaking a deep dive into family history, Meg’s uncle Steve Durbin finds the descendants of the family that owned the Durbins during slavery. And yep — it’s the Tatums. Complications ensue. 

It’s a rich premise, providing entry to a host of relevant issues about the growth of DNA testing and online genealogical research, the ongoing legacy of slavery in American life, potential complications in mixed-race relationships, and so on. 

“I think it’s about how the history of oppression would affect a modern-day couple, and how ancient power dynamics…influence the present,” Allen said in a 2017 interview promoting a developmental reading at the Lark in New York. 

However pertinent the play’s social themes, Allen isn’t about to get bogged down in self-seriousness. “I get excited about plays that move and shake and have a lot of glitter and nonsense in them,” she said in that same interview. Sprinkled amid the fraught conversations and family dynamics are hip-hop dance classes, direct address from characters to audience, and even some ancestors appearing out of the ether. 

Chip Miller, associate producer at Portland Center Stage and director of Redwood. Photo: Kate Szrom/Courtesy of Portland Center Stage at The Armory.

“She’s found this landscape where the most theatrical moments are when we go inside the minds of the characters,” Miller says, talking in a conference room at the Armory earlier this week.

Miller, 29, speaks of the production and the issues that inform it with an easy fluency. I mention my own cynicism about the value of genealogical DNA testing, about the muddling of biology, culture and personality that its marketing suggests, and the director’s response encapsulates the play’s core question in an intriguing way: “What does this information change? Does a deeper understanding of heritage affect the performance of identity on a daily basis?

“We’re always looking for narrative, always looking for meaning,” Miller adds. “This DNA stuff is just a device to tell a different, newer/older story.”

Opening

Halloween is behind us once again, but how’s this for horror: “…from the creators of Les Misérables…”?
OK, I’ll grant you that for many folks that counts as an invitation more than a warning, and in any case the musical Miss Saigon has quite enough of a track record on its own. An updating of the Madame Butterfly template to 1970s Vietnam, the show was a smash in the West End and on Broadway in the 1990s. Now it’s back in a touring version for Broadway Across America, coming to the Keller. 


Earlier this year, when he opened a small performance studio called the 2509 in the daylight basement of his Northeast Portland home, Lewis & Clark College theater professor Stepan Simek established boundaries. “Everything is allowed,” he said with a wry smile, “except amplified music and Bible study.”
And yet now here he is directing a play called The Christians that addresses doctrinal disputes within the community of a suburban megachurch, and reportedly is not satirical but, according to an article in The New York Times, “true to life” and “liturgically precise.” Sounds like a project that might call for a little…Bible study?
Simek describes the Lucas Hnath play, which won the 2016 Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding New Off-Broadway Play, as “sort of a ‘chamber play’ (albeit backed by a twenty-five-member church choir).” And while DramaWatch usually doesn’t track school productions, Simek’s track record and his enthusiasm merit an exception. “There are some remarkable student actors’ performances, the choir is rocking, and the play is excellent, really excellent,” he wrote in an email. “It MAKES YOU THINK.” 


Much about the life and genius of William Shakespeare remains mysterious, yet we do know that he didn’t base the plot of “Romeo and Juliet” on personal experience. But so what?  Lakewood Theatre presents Shakespeare in Love, adapted from the 1998 film, which imagines romance as creative  inspiration — and why the Bard isn’t remembered for writing “Romeo and Ethel.” David Sikking directs a cast led by the terrific Murri Lazaroff-Babin as Shakespeare.

The flattened stage

While we might not really know so much about Shakespeare’s love life, Shakespeare’s lovers — that is, the ones he created on the page — we know. And we know they sometimes took some rather odd advice from those around them. Would that more modern psychotherapy been available to them! Perhaps something like this:

Quick hits

Among the questions that face us when contemplating Follies: The Unofficially Best Ever Variety Show, Stephano Iaboni’s recurring physical-comedy showcase: Who or what could make it official? Sid Caesar?

In any case, Iaboni’s guests for the latest installment include Michael O’Neill, who recently toured Palestine as part of Clowns Without Borders.

Kevin meets TED

TEDx Mt. Hood, a localized baby brother of the famed TED talks, takes over the theater at Roosevelt High this Saturday. The hook for theater lovers? Kevin Jones, actor, director and co-founder of the August Wilson Red Door Project, will be among the speakers.  

Closing

Bakkhai at Shaking the Tree. Photo: Meg Nanna.

Bakkhai, a version of the Euripides tragedy adapted and directed here by Shaking the Tree’s Samantha Van Der Merwe, is, in the words of ArtsWatcher Bob Hicks, “a neatly contrived roller-coaster of a show, a smooth and sometimes scary fun ride that starts where it starts and carries on, with no breaks, to its bitter and propulsive end.” With just a few more chances to catch it this weekend, that end feels more bitter still.


Penning a tragi-comedy about something called Acquired Toilet Disease might seem an odd response to the AIDS-related death of a loved one, but for a writer as skilled as Paula Vogel, it worked, with The Baltimore Waltz. Of Profile Theatre’s soon-to-close production, Broadway World’s Krista Garver said “this bizarre, extravagant fantasy was the only fitting way to deal with a grief too deep to bear.”

Best line I read this week

“The poorer practitioners of any craft are often, like clumsy magicians or awkward liars, more revealing than their betters. Even more than the masterpiece, the worst art serves as a crucible in which a period’s superficial veneer is melted away to reveal the bald assumptions, the prevalent ideologies, the crassest commonplaces of the times. Shakespeare is universal; it is with a Thomas Kyd or a Cyril Tourneur that we encounter a true Elizabethan.”

— from The Imperfect Art: Reflections on Jazz and Modern Culture, by Ted Gioia.


That’s all I have for now. I’ll try to do better the next time.

2018: A roller-coaster arts ride

Baby 2019's raring to get rolling. But first, a stroll down memory lane with Old Man 2018 and his slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

Well, that was the year that was, wasn’t it? Old Man 2018 limps out of the limelight with a thousand scars, a thousand accomplishments, and a whole lot of who-knows-what. The new kid on the block, Baby 2019, arrives fit and sassy, eager to get rolling and make her mark. She’s got big plans, and the ballgame’s hers to win, lose, or draw.

New kid on the block: 2019 rolls into the picture, fit and sassy and ready to start fresh. (Claude Monet, “Jean Monet on His Hobby Horse,” 1872, oil on canvas, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.)

On the Oregon arts and cultural scene, 2018 entered the game with similar high hopes and then handled a lot of unexpected disruption, holding his ground and even making a few gains even as his hair grew thin and gray. He can retire with his head held high, if he’s not too busy shaking it from side to side over the things he’s seen.

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ArtsWatch Good Reads 2018

2018 in Review, Part 9: A Fab 15 of ArtsWatch well-told tales worth a second look

Marc Mohan wonders if it matters that the Oscars are a flop. Martha Ullman West revisits the Big Apple of her youth. John Foyston considers sleek cars and fast motorcycles at the art museum. John Longenbaugh starts a podcast “for some very stupid reasons.” Maria Choban and Brett Campbell relate the fascinating tale of a Sri Lankan engineer determined to build the first Pandol new year’s shrine in America. David Bates dives deep into the strangest epic poem you’ve never heard of. Laura Grimes recalls a day of traffic jams, lost glasses, Ursula K. Le Guin, and … pickles. TJ Acena talks gentrification with performance artist Penny Arcade.

The world’s overflowing with stories, and in 2018 ArtsWatch writers grabbed hold of a bunch worth a second look. Here, for your enjoyment, is a Fab 15 of tales well told.

 


 

The Oscars are dying. So what?

March 9: “This year’s telecast drew record low ratings, down a whopping 20 percent from last year’s already dismal numbers,” Marc Mohan wrote in the wake of this year’s television debacle. “… As someone who religiously watches, and even generally enjoys, Tinseltown’s annual festival of self-love, I find myself, perhaps surprisingly, not the least bit perturbed.

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DramaWatch: Building a bigger, broader audience

Portland Center Stage's leaders talk about diversity and inclusion on the stage and in the seats; plus, the rundown on a host of theater openings.

For Cynthia Fuhrman, enthusiasm about Portland Center Stage is part of both her job and her nature. Even so, about a year into her tenure as PCS managing director — and three decades after she helped found the company as an offshoot of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, she really is…well…enthusiastic.

“Chris left us in better shape than we’ve ever been in,” she said in a recent interview, referring to longtime artistic director Chris Coleman’s departure earlier this year for a similar post in Denver. “We don’t have any accumulated debt. We have a $3 million mortgage on the building that’s completely manageable; right now, we’re scheduled to pay (it) off in 2029, but that might happen earlier. We have a growing audience. And we have a higher national visibility than we’ve ever had. For all that to be the platform that he hands over to somebody is kind of amazing.”

Marissa Wolf, Portland Center Stage’s new artistic director, has something to say to her people. Photo: Tess Mayer/The Interval-NY

That somebody is Marissa Wolf, who was hired in August as Coleman’s successor and started her job in the company’s picturesque Armory headquarters on Sept. 15. Not long after Wolf’s arrival, I sat down with her and Fuhrman, in separate interviews, for a forthcoming Artslandia article. That piece focuses on the arc of their careers as women in theater who’ve risen to top leadership positions.

But our conversations also included discussion of PCS and the audience growth that Fuhrman mentioned.

Furhman expounded on the topic in response to a question about what results PCS has seen from a Wallace Foundation grant in 2015, part of a nation-wide audience-building initiative.

“It’s always a question of cause and effect, but we have to give some credit to the Wallace grant,” she said. “Over the past three years our audience has grown, between 4,000 and 6,000 tickets annually. Last year we had 132,000 admissions and three years ago we were at 120,000. The move to the Armory 12 years ago brought down the median age of our audience. When I came back to the theater in 2008 our surveys showed that our median age was around 49. That’s dropped to about 45. A lot of our growth has been in the target age range for the grant, which was 30-45.

“The one thing that’s completely obvious is that a year ago we started this new subscription model for people under 35 called the Armory Card. It’s an idea we stole from Steppenwolf (Theatre in Chicago) — a highly reduced discount ticket on a refillable-card model that unbounds you from a lot of the traditional subscription restrictions. We originally ordered 200 from the card supplier, hoping we could sell those in the first year. We sold 700.

“Another big thing tied to the grant is the Northwest Stories series. We’ve produced one of the commissions, Astoria, and have another this season, Crossing Mnisose, but we’ve branded other shows that have that connection — Oregon Trail, Hold These Truths…Those shows have been selling above average, which is nice, but we found during the artistic-director search that it’s really caught other theaters’ eyes nationally.

“We’ve heard the conversations over the years of regional theaters being homogeneous, all doing the plays that were on Broadway last year. But PCS, over the last several years, has not been doing that as much as other theaters are. And that was noticed. Lots of artistic director candidates said, ‘I love that you are doing plays tied to where you live.’”

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