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.
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.
1. MILLER CAUGHT THE THEATER BUG EARLY.
“My older cousin did impressions when we were kids and his impression of my mom was, ‘Who wants to go to a play?’ From seeing Ben Vereen in A Christmas Carol in New York to creating a theater program at their church, Miller had lots of great early memories of the theater.
“I feel really lucky that I was exposed to so much theater at such a young age. It felt like, ‘Oh, this is how you tell stories. This is how you can get out all the feeling and have a place where you could dance, a place where you could sing, a space where you could be loud.’”
2. A PANDEMIC MEANS YOU HAVE TO GO WITH THE FLOW.
“I think one of the gifts of being at PCS is that we have the infrastructure that has allowed us to pivot. That doesn’t mean that it’s been easy,” Miller said, singling out “the heartbreak of having to lay off staff members.”
“The job requirement is to be flexible to the needs of the company and the artists as they come up. Knowing that things can change at any given moment. Depending on what happens in the next week or two, we might have entirely different restrictions about how we can gather, how we can do anything like that.
“As we learn new flow, we also get new abilities. A lot of us are taking on different titles in our job.”
3. PCS WORKS FROM A SPACE OF ABUNDANCE.
“Marissa constantly reminds us to work from a place of abundance. And so even though we don’t have as many resources as we have had in the past, we still have quite a few resources.
“I think it’s so easy to work from scarcity because, let’s be real, in this country, the arts aren’t funded in a way that anyone can really feel an abundance. I feel quite lucky to have a full time job as an artist because so few artists can. And that is a structural problem of the way this country values art, the way we see artists, the way we treat the work.
“So what do we do in this moment when we can’t do big elaborate sets and costumes?” Miller says we need to “remember that it’s about using our imagination and creating something out of nothing. And with that, there is always abundance.”
4. THEATER IS EPHEMERAL. DIGITAL IS PERMANENT. THAT’S A “HUGE, HUGE SHIFT.”
“Theater is an ephemeral act; theater exists of and for the moment and then it’s gone. I will never see Ethel Merman play Mama Rose in Gypsy, but I can tell you all about it because the stories that have gestated for so many years [are] about remembering an experience. And there is something really strange about making that pivot to making art that’s permanent, art that is finite. That has been a huge, huge shift.”
Miller said this shift raises different questions. “What will people think of this when they see it in twenty-five years? It’s just not a thought you have when you’re directing a play. You do wonder how a play ages, but you don’t really think about the physical production being a thing that lives on for so many years.”
Also complicating things is the change in audience. In theater, “Your audience is very limited because you have a finite amount of seats. So suddenly the art is finite, but the audience is infinite, it’s such a different relationship between art and audience.”
5. DIGITAL OFFERS THE POWER OF DISLOCATION.
“When you’re directing on stage, you have one frame and you can control where in the frame the eye is going, whereas in film you get to move the audience every three seconds if you want.
“You can dislocate an audience far more quickly in film then you can in theater because you’re literally going into other rooms. Art that is most exciting to me makes me reconsider where I am. What a special thing to be able to suddenly question where you are.”
Miller pointed out that the church they grew up in used all the gifts of live performance: lots of singing, dancing and a sermon, “which is in essence a really long monologue that’s telling a story that has a climax. We rarely tell stories in just one way, so how can we utilize the multiplicity of ways to tell stories? You have to trust the art because it knows how it wants to be told and you just have to listen to it.”
6. PCS IS “MAKING SOMETHING NEW AND MAKING IT VERY, VERY FAST.”
A lot of Miller’s day-to-day work during the pandemic is about constantly reading plays and talking to Wolf about what kind of art they want to produce. “It’s a mix of both frequent conversations with the artist and helping them on much shorter timelines than we usually have as they create pieces from scratch, and also trying to communicate all that as much as possible to the rest of the staff so that we can create the scaffolding to support that project.
“How do we make these works of art from scratch in two months? It’s a really exhausting and exhilarating process because we are making something new and we are making it very, very fast.”
7. TO WORK TOGETHER DURING A PANDEMIC, YOU NEED TO “MAKE SPACE AND HOLD GRACE.”
“We are all working differently now than we were working in September, than we were working in July, than we were working in May, than we were working in March. The fatigue of this year is something that has to be accounted for. How do I make space and hold grace for everyone else that I’m working with in the way that I want them to hold space and grace for me? Because we are all, regardless of what we are doing in any place in the world, going through a lot right now.
“We are still inside the trauma of this pandemic and it is hard to take stock of something that is still unfolding. And so what it is requiring is a level of adaptability and knowing that what was true yesterday may not be true today.
“I think that most great art is built in response to what the artist making it is going through at the time of creation. And so how do you make space for both the artist to be able to generate in response to what they’re experiencing and, with the incredible team at PCS, how do you build the support system to allow the artists the space to make the thing they’re going to make?”
8. THEATER SHOULD MAKE YOU TAKE ACTION.
One of the things Miller enjoys about working with Wolf is the way she thinks about the role of theater – not just as an art form, but also as a building and the role that that space plays in the community. “From the moment you enter the theater to the moment you leave, everything about the experience [should] say, ‘You are welcome here, this is your home, we want you to have a great time. We want you to be challenged. We want you to be excited. We want you to be delighted. And we want you to leave feeling like you have an action, that there is something that you get to take with you out of the building and into the world.’”
9. PORTLAND ENCOURAGES ADVENTUROUSNESS.
“I think audiences are different, not city to city, but theater to theater. What I love about Portland’s theater scene is the diversity of styles of work and use of space that exists here so that you have a really wide variety of works that you can engage with.”
Miller thinks this diversity encourages Portland audiences to be adventurous. “There’s a lot more movement-based work here. There’s a lot of devised work here. There is a mood for the experimental as well as a love for the places that do the big Broadway musicals. There are places that do classic plays re-envisioned. There’s such a wealth of theater companies and theater artists in Portland who are making Portland work. And that’s what feels special about Portland audiences, because they get to have such a deep relationship with these Portland artists.”
10. THE FUTURE IS ANTIRACIST.
“To be a member of this community is to be aware of the way structural racism plays a part in the makeup of the state, of the city, of the neighborhood we’re in. If we ignore our history, then we can never move forward. And part of engaging with one’s history is saying, ‘How can we learn? How can we be better?’”
In response to a BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) collective that issued a list of demands to theaters nationwide in June, PCS recently posted its antiracism commitments and promised to continue providing updates on their progress.
“It is vital for the future of an organization to address anti-racism work. As theater artists who are primarily engaged with empathy and understanding the lived experiences of people who are not us, I think that to say that we are committed to telling stories on stage, but not to raising those voices apart from being on stage would be hypocritical. And so the commitment to social justice and the commitment to anti-racism feels like it is one necessary to go forward.”
The commitment to Black Lives Matter is something that means a lot to Miller: “People saying Black Lives Matter in public … is deeply personal to me, On those days where I can’t go out and march, to know that there is someone saying publicly, ‘Black Lives Matter,’ feels really vital in the city and in this country and in this world.”
PCS often opens its doors at night to provide aid and rest to Black Lives Matter protesters. Some nights protesters come by and some nights they don’t, but Miller said “the point is to be open in case someone does come by. The point is to say we’re standing in solidarity and we’re supporting it the way that we can as a company and as a staff.”
When asked what their dream project would be, Miller said they loved new work “so the likelihood is that the project hasn’t been written yet. When I think about future projects, it’s more like, I love working with this person, and I love working with that person. How can I do a project and bring them both in the room?”
That answer – which doesn’t affix itself to any one work, actor or circumstance – demonstrates exactly the fluidity, flexibility and adaptability that theaters need to operate with right now to survive during these uncertain times. But what isn’t uncertain are their long-term goals to make PCS “feel like a home for everyone in Portland, a place where you can walk in and say, ‘I feel safe, I feel at home, I feel welcome.’
“I think that most people who find a life in the theater at some point wandered into a theater and felt seen and felt community and felt accepted for the first time in a way that was really vital. I think we all spend the rest of our careers trying to chase that feeling.”