In theater, actors step into the shoes of the characters they play, creating imaginary worlds where archetypes might be foregrounded, shuffled, or remixed in service of dramatic vision. While plenty of theaters still assume a circumscribed approach to casting, Portland Center Stage (PCS) pushes the proverbial envelope. The artistic team is working to carefully consider and question what possibilities exist within a given script and cast, shining a light on what might be shifted and shed, not only onstage, but within the society that it reflects.
Here, gender is always acknowledged as a performance.
As PCS prepared to mount its current production of the Shakespearian classic A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I connected with actor Treasure Lunan about their role in this production and their work as a genderqueer actor in Portland. Treasure has worked with PCS for about five years, coming on board during a changing of the guard in artistic leadership—namely, the addition of visionaries Artistic Director Marissa Wolf and Associate Artistic Director Chip Miller. For further insight, I also spoke with Chip—who directed casting for A Midsummer Night’s Dream—about their innovative approach to casting and how this informs the nature of Treasure and other actors’ work at PCS.
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“I love it here,” said Treasure, gesturing to how welcoming PCS has been toward BIPOC, trans, and gender-nonconforming performers. “Sometimes, you do feel like you have to hide an aspect of yourself to acclimate and to assimilate. It feels really nice to be able to just walk in the building and know that wherever I’m at, there will be space held for me.”
Treasure shared that they have never felt as supported in their intersectional identities at work as they have at PCS. “I can be openly autistic, openly ADHD, openly queer and have that all honored here” they said, adding, “not just honored, but supported.”
Accommodations make a world of difference for Treasure as a neurodivergent person. In the past, when they experienced a moment of autistic burnout, the team at PCS provided them with space in a dark quiet room for recovery. “It takes a lot of the stress off. It relieves a lot of burnout that I would otherwise have of having to mask all the time while I’m here,” Treasure emphasized.
Camaraderie certainly aids this dynamic. In speaking with both Treasure and Chip, I also learned that these team members share a special mutual admiration for one another. Treasure affectionately described Chip as an “angel on earth,” while Chip described Treasure as an incredible person with a big heart.
“Casting always begins with the lens a director is bringing to the storytelling and then finding the performers that help communicate that lens. Often, gender is crucial to that lens, but sometimes, it becomes a secondary consideration,” Chip noted near the start of our conversation about casting.
Chip has cast and directed Treasure in a vast variety of roles at PCS—these include a school girl in an African school, a robot, a 285-year-old ancestor, Clarence the Angel in It’s a Wonderful Life, and, now, Lysander in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. “Treasure’s ability is so expansive,” said Chip. “When you have someone so talented, why would you limit what roles they could play?”
This question enters Chip’s work from the realm of personal experience: “I know in my own gender journey, there was a moment where I was like, why would I minimize myself? There are so many possibilities of who I can be every day and how I can be every day, and why not live inside of that possibility, instead of some rigid idea that feels claustrophobic?”
When it comes to work at PCS, Chip asked themselves, “Why be stuck inside of doing things the way that they’ve always been done when there’s possibility that can be really life-changing for people?”
They have long been concerned with sussing out possibilities and facilitating the creation of interesting stories in theater. When Chip began work in casting, they were especially interested in shaking up the racial makeup of casts. “How do I dig into a text and find out what the text can actually handle and if a choice will be supported by the text, or if it will crunch with the text?” they mused of this process.
“And sometimes that crunch is really delicious. Sometimes you have a character who has historically been played by a white performer, and you have them played by a non-white person. You have a character that’s always been played by men and have them played by a non-male actor. And that crunch actually becomes the point of a thing or the commentary.” Chip maintains that the biography and profile of a theatrical character does need to entirely match that of an actor.
This kind of openness also allows for actors to step into roles they may otherwise never have been given the chance to inhabit. In the case of Treasure, I was surprised to learn that they had started acting professionally only a few years prior. PCS was a big break for them.
Treasure dreamed of becoming an actor since third grade, when they ordered an acting book from Scholastic that inspired them to pursue the craft. However, when they prepared to go to college, their mother encouraged them to focus on work that would be more lucrative. As a result, from the ages of 19 to 32, Treasure “did everything but acting.”
“I was just really trying to find something that would be kind of fulfilling but also make money,” they recalled.
But after experiencing a bad breakup in 2018, Treasure decided to return to their passion for acting as a way to reconnect with their life dreams. They auditioned for a play at Deep End Theater and made the cast. This experience furnished them with the confidence to brave auditions at PCS, a much larger theater, with a friend. As non-equity actors, Treasure and their comrade waited for six hours at a PCS audition while all the equity actors went first. They expected to be sent home after such a long wait, but Chip and Artistic Director Wolf allowed the two to audition last with one caveat: They could only perform a single monologue.
“I did a very popular monologue,” said Treasure. They recited from Fences by August Wilson. “When I was done, Marissa slapped the table and said, ‘That’s how you make a minute matter’.” In the end, Treasure went home, cried, and promptly booked three shows with PCS.
Since that time, this theater has been their mainstay in Portland, setting a high standard as a work environment. Sometimes concerns arise for them during the creation of a production—perhaps relating to the overwhelming whiteness of Portland’s audiences or to their own intersectional experience—and they know these concerns will always be received and prompt discussion from the artistic team. “If something doesn’t feel right, I’m going to say something. It can’t be helped,” they said laughingly. “Within the walls of this establishment, I feel very comfortable saying if something makes me uncomfortable, if I don’t agree with something. And I’ve always felt that people are receptive to that.”
Chip indicated that each instance of an actor’s discomfort must be handled case-by-case with the overall goal of arriving at a sense of felt safety. “Even when you’re playing a villain or you’re playing someone who just does terrible things, it has to be a safe experience to inhabit,” they mused. “We ask people to do incredibly vulnerable things onstage and it is the prerogative of the theater to accommodate as many of the performers needs as possible to ensure that they feel secure in the sometimes uncomfortable things they are asked to do.”
“It’s really about listening to the performer,” Chip continued. “Also holding true to your vision, and knowing that your vision can shift and still work.” Sometimes, this entails giving performers agency to decide their own gender presentation.
For A Midsummer Night’s Dream, certain cast members were given the option to choose their pronouns for the performance. Treasure opted to stick with Lysander’s original Shakespearian pronouns—”he/him”—without adding any performative masculinity to the role.
“For me, it feels very subversive to stand in my center as ‘he/him’ and play him the way that I’m going to play him, as a person who identifies as feminine,” explained Treasure. In their estimation, the general populace often marries conceptions of genderqueerness with androgynous presentation. Their approach to Lysander unsettles this kind of assumption: “I don’t want to deepen my voice. I don’t want to change my mannerisms. I want to be ‘he/him,’ and I want to be as flamboyant and as feminine as I naturally am,” they said proudly. “You probably still will see ‘she/her’ but that is not going to change who he is, who Lysander is.”
Theater reflects socialization back to audiences, asking questions about the nature of reality. In Chip’s estimation, this equates to playing “pretend for a living”—a kind of pretend that is cast with the patina of realness and unrealized potential at once. In this space, as Chip puts it, “the most interesting story wins,” and dynamic actors such as Treasure participate in this victory.
Read ArtsWatch contributor Darleen Ortega’s perspective on Portland Center Stage’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.