Vertigo at the crossroads

After 21 years of sending postcards from the edge of the middle-class American sensibility, the scrappy theater has reinvented itself again

For two decades, Theatre Vertigo has been sending postcards from the edge of the middle-class American sensibility. It’s developed a reputation for gritty, rough, challenging, neurotic, and hilarious theater – often at the same time. Some of the most thrilling pieces of art on the Portland theater scene have been crafted on the Vertigo stage: Hellcab, Freedomland, 99 Ways to Fuck a Swan, The Adding Machine, A Maze, American Pilot, to name just a few. Despite its small size, Theatre Vertigo is also famous for being perhaps Portland’s preeminent theater ensemble, turning its roster over on a routine basis (Vertigo alumni going on to become many of the Portland theater scene’s most prominent names) but staying committed to the ensemble model, eschewing even an artistic director.

But two years ago, Vertigo reached a moment of crisis. The company was known for turnover, yes. But eleven members, for a variety of reasons, all decided to take their leave at once. Of the four who decided to remain, none had been there more than a year. The future of Theatre Vertigo was very much in doubt.

From left: Joel Patrick Durham, Paige Rogers, Jacquelle Davis, Samson Syharath, and London Bauman in “A Map of Virtue,” opening Friday, Oct. 26. KKelly Photography

Now Vertigo is presenting its first mainstage production in more than a year, Erin Courtney’s haunting romance, A Map of Virtue. Just the fact of the production announces two things. One, Theatre Vertigo is still here, and still doing new plays that scare other theater companies away. Two, a new sensibility is now making the call, so that while there is still much that will be the same about Theatre Vertigo, there is still more that is different. Regardless, Vertigo has its sights set on another twenty years.

The genesis of Theatre Vertigo came roughly twenty-two years ago when Paul Floding met Nanette Pettit at Dot’s Cafe. Pettit performed with a sketch comedy troupe, Dreadnought, across the street at the Clinton Street Theater (both of these places are still around). Discussions led to the thought of creating a theater company. Both being artists, they realized they needed someone with more business savvy. That led them to Jeff Meyers, an acquaintance Floding had made only recently. Together, Floding says, the three of them became a company whose vision “was to create the kind of theater that was visceral, though-provoking, contemporary, and … left the audience a little unsteady. ” Hence, the name. “Jeff came up with ‘Vertigo’ and Nanette and I wrestled with ‘theater’, ‘company’, etc. and its placement. I insisted, maybe a little pretentiously, as I look back, on theater being spelled ‘-re.’”

At first, they were all three artistic directors. It remained that way while all three were involved. In that time, Vertigo started to build its name. Plays like The Anger in Ernest and Ernestine, Hellcab, Poona the Fuckdog and The Baptism cemented Vertigo’s reputation as an edgy, gritty theater company with an anarchic wit and no-holds-barred acting.

Eventually Floding and Meyers left. “Jeff and I felt the company would be stronger with a more traditional model, him as artistic director (given his skills and drive) and Nanette and I as assistant directors. Nanette preferred the original model, feeling it created more equity,” Floding recalls. But eventually, Floding acknowledged that he just wanted to perform, and Meyers had many other outside projects going on. Thus it was that, five years later, when Darius Pierce joined the company in 2002, Pettit was the sole artistic director.

Darius Pierce

Pierce hadn’t known anything about Vertigo at the time. He was fresh out of Brown University and, like a lot of young actors, he saw an audition and showed up. The audition consisted of two monologues and then a group interview at a bar that used to be a staple of Portland’s theater scene, the Rose and Raindrop. The one thing Pierce learned at that meeting was that they were all “great people” he felt he could work with. At that time, the group had names like “Nanette Pettit, Neal and Julie Starbird, Tom Moorman, Keith Cable, Jen Healy, Ben Plont and April Magnusson.” Melody Bridges and Camille Cettina joined the same time as Pierce.

After joining the company, Pierce saw Freedomland, his first Vertigo show, and was both gratified and relieved. “It was like, ‘Oh yeah, AND I like your work.” Freedomland remains one of Pierce’s all-time favorite Vertigo shows.

Pierce was with the company for eight years, and what made the company special, what made it different, was that there weren’t many places like it. When Pettit decided to leave, the remaining members decided to switch to a no-artistic-director model. “Vertigo held a really unique place,” says Pierce. “There are a lot of ensemble-based theater companies now. But I don’t remember there being any others like it at the time, being really super ensemble-oriented and being super actor-forward.”

But another facet of Vertigo’s makeup is why it can never become as big as other ensemble companies that have come up in the past twenty years. “It’s a beautiful training ground and educational opportunity,” Pierce says, “but the turnover means there’s necessarily a lack of continuity in terms of administration, which makes it hard for the company to grow larger.”

In 2008, two new members –– Brooke Calcagno and Robert David Wyllie ––would seek to change that and solidify Theatre Vertigo not just as a theater company but also as a business.

Brooke Calcagno

When Calcagno (then Fletcher) joined Theatre Vertigo, she had had her eye on the company for years, even auditioned for it and failed to get in. She finally made the cut in 2008. At that time, the company consisted of Pierce, Kerry Ryan, Amy Newman, Nathan Gale, Garland Lyons, Gary Norman, JR Wickman, and her future husband, Mario Calcagno. Jen Hunter and Robert Wyllie joined the same year she did. “I was a fan of Vertigo,” Calcagno remembers, “because it was one of the hippest, fringe-iest things out there.”

Wyllie felt much the same way. “ The shows they did were just incredible. Just really, really good. I loved the ensemble. I loved the material. I loved that it was a little rough around the edges in terms of production values. Even though there were some productions I liked more than others, I liked all of them.”

For Calcagno, early on, she loved being part of a team, a family. “It was an exciting opportunity to be part of something and to be part of these shows that I thought were really cool and it was all ensemble-driven and all from an actor’s perspective. I thought that was really great.”

Wyllie concurs. “’Is this really gonna feel like mine?’” he remembers wondering. “’It’s been around for a while, I didn’t found it, is it gonna feel like mine?’ And pretty much instantly, it did. Because there’s always a crisis. Either you’re new and it’s your first crisis or you’ve lived through two or three crises and you’re like, ‘Okay, that’s just how it is.’ You just roll with it.”

Calcagno agrees. There was a lot of heart, a lot of effort, but not always a lot of method to the madness. “It was just sort of a free-for-all from what I remember,” says Calcagno. “We were all all hands on deck for everything. We all had to build the set. We all had to paint the set. We all had to do the marketing.” Which, as it turns out, is not for everyone. “It burnt out a lot of people,” she remembers.

Calcagno and Wyllie, however, found kindred spirits in each other. “Robert and I really clicked in terms of being nervous about money,” says Calcagno. “Not that there was anything to be too nervous about, but there weren’t any savings. It’s not like we had a credit card or anything like that. He and I really worked to get more money in the kitty.” Of their working relationship, Wyllie says, “The two of us together were like dynamite.”

Their vision, their purpose as a team, and one the rest of the company sided with, was to make Theatre Vertigo more viable. Fundraising, season announcement galas, creating more defined roles for company members, was all part of the Calcagno/Wyllie machine. The obstacles were that it was hard to ask actors, many of whom had day jobs, to stay at the theater until two o’clock in the morning, go to work the next day, then come back and act. It was a lot. “We still asked company members to help but that started to change, too,” says Calcagno. “We got strike-down from two days to six hours. There was an evolution of giving people more specific roles. … We created a living document that explained what different jobs were. We were working more towards support in terms of producing a show. There wasn’t as much leaning on company members to get a show on its feet. Roles were clearly identified.”

Robert David Wyllie. KKelly Photography

It was a good thing the Calcagnos and Wyllie were such a good match, because within two years of Brooke and Robert joining, pretty much everyone they had joined the company to work with had left. This aspect of Vertigo, which is the source of so much of its vitality, is also one of its greatest obstacles. Wyllie says. “It’s always changing. And you as a company member have a really big part in that. But because it’s always changing it’s really hard to peg what the future holds; what’s next. You bring in new people every year and every year everyone’s got new ideas. And they’re all great ideas. Theatre Vertigo’s problem isn’t a lack of ideas, it’s a lack of careful planning and following through.”

Not that they didn’t try. They did. And so have the various iterations of Vertigo since then. But it’s difficult. “What tends to happen,” explains Wyllie, “is that you get two types of people in Vertigo: You get the workaholics, like me, like Brooke, like Mario (Calcagno) or Tom Mounsey — or you get people who just want to have an artistic home and like to be in plays. It tilts it. If you have twelve people in the company and there are five who are up all night rehearsing the shows, painting the set and then the next day they’re doing emailing and marketing and all that, and then there are other people who show up for the company meeting once a month and then they’re in plays, it’s hard to find a balance and it’s harder to keep the balance once you have it. It can lead to tricky decision-making. We’re all supposed to have a voice and we’re all supposed to have a say but if these five people over here have been doing all the work, they start to feel like their voices are a little more valid. They’re more well-informed than the others.”

There was another phenomenon in place that could make being an ensemble-driven, artistic-directorless theater company difficult. By this time Vertigo had a justified reputation for several years of exciting, risk-taking theater, and had become something of a Portland star-making machine. Which was great for prestige but not necessarily great for the company. “Some people used Vertigo as a stepping stone,” says Wyllie. “They pretty brazenly were just there to work with a specific set of directors that would help them move on to bigger and better things. It was really frustrating to see people come and go in that way. Whereas I was like, Vertigo is the destination. I wanted to get here, now I’m here. I want to take this company to a certain place.”

Making things still more difficult was the gorgon that always besets small, nonprofit theater: Money. “The thing is,” says Wyllie, “you don’t get paid in Vertigo unless you have a position in a show. You don’t get paid to be a company member. You only get paid if you’re an actor or a designer or director on a show. You don’t get any kind of stipend or salary as a company member. You’re a volunteer. People can come and go, really, whenever they wish.” Because all members were essentially volunteers, it was hard to maintain discipline. “People could just ‘peace out’ if they wanted to,” says Wyllie, “and it happened all the time.”

Aside from the typical small-theater and ever-changing-ensemble issues, in 2013 a new obstacle arose. Theatre Vertigo lost its space. After being in various found spaces, and then the Russell Street Theatre and then the Electric Company, Theatre Vertigo had landed at Theater Theatre on Southeast Belmont Street. The company stayed there for nearly a decade, sharing the space at different times with Integrity, Fuse, Triangle, and Profile theater companies. But in 2013 the lease ran out and the building’s owner decided to turn the two theater spaces into warehouses for his tea company. Theatre Vertigo was suddenly without a home.

For a while things looked pretty bleak. Profile landed on its feet fairly quickly, turning up at Artists Rep. But the remaining slots that the Rep had left in its Arts Hub didn’t really suit Vertigo’s needs. Grant Turner of Northwest Classical Theatre Company stepped in to save the day, offering to share the Shoe Box Theatre. It was a great temporary solution, Wyllie thought. But “within a year,” remembers Wyllie, “Grant was like, you can take over the lease if you want, but otherwise, bye.”

Robert Wyllie, Paige Jones and Matthew Kerrigan in Theatre Vertigo’s 2013 production of “Mother Courage.” Photo courtesy Theatre Vertigo

On one hand, the Shoe Box was a savior. On the other, it was, according to Wyllie, a “money pit.” “The location of Theatre Theater had been great. That was a great space for artists. There was always something being performed or rehearsed. There were all the flyers that would be out front telling everybody about all the shows going on everywhere. Everybody that was a theater artist was in and out of that place at some point. You’d be like, ‘Hey, what are you doing? ‘I’m doing such-and-such for Vertigo.’ ‘I’m doing such-and-such for Profile.’ ‘I’ll come see it.’ We had the Blue Monk across from us. That was the Vertigo bar. We’d always send our patrons there, we’d have parties there, they’d advertise for us, it was a great symbiotic relationship. You don’t have that at the Shoe Box. You only are on that street to go see a play at the Shoe Box. No one’s on a date walking by, ‘Here’s this dark, poorly lit street; let’s go see a play!’”

Vertigo’s audience capacity had been cut to a half or a third (depending on the show and seating arrangement) of what it used to be because the Shoe Box was so much smaller than Theatre Theater had been. Much of Vertigo’s audience didn’t follow them in the transfer. They had to take over the lease, which was also expensive. And the Shoe Box, as anyone who’s ever worked there can attest, came with a host of challenges. When the Calcagnos got married Wyllie knew that was it. “Mario and Brooke were fantastic members but as soon as they wanted a kid, I knew they were gone.”

Wyllie was now with a new group, and they revitalized and kept Vertigo afloat, but his days were numbered. “My soul felt tired after eight years. Theater’s always going to be a fight. It was hard to realize that this wasn’t good for me.” He did his best to leave Vertigo in the best shape possible. “I wasn’t gonna be one of those people that says, ‘Hey, peace out, yo.’ Because so many people had done that in the past. That’s not gonna be me. I’d given my all for eight fucking years and I’m gonna leave it as good as I can when I’m done.”

And this is the brutal – and wonderful – truth about Theatre Vertigo. It’s not for every theater artist at every station in life. Typically, because it demands so much and gives so little back in terms of concrete benefits or salary, it tends towards younger members. Because of its structure and makeup, the exact right kind of artist is the hardest thing to find. People have to want to work really hard for not a lot in return. They have to have a genuine passion for the art form. They have to be a team player. They have to be willing to sacrifice. In order to get over all the obstacles that come with being a small, nonprofit theatre company in an alleyway in Portland, it takes a special kind of artist.

Clara Hillier

“It was a weird transition,” says Clara Hillier, “because I’d wanted to be part of Vertigo for like, ten billion years” – and then everybody left. “We were given this company and it was like, either we stay and find new people to build with or we let it disappear. It was a huge weight on the shoulders. A theater company that had been around for, at that time, nineteen years and has won a ton of Drammys and had amazing people that are some of the greatest performers and directors of our theater community in it and done such great work for so long, do we let that go and all that history? Or do we find the energy and the excitement again?”

When the smoke of the mass exodus cleared, there were four Vertigoans left: Clara and Kaia Hillier, Nate Cohen, and Tyler Buswell. The Hillier sisters were the veterans at a whopping one year of Vertigo experience. However, anyone who knows Clara Hillier knows that she is an exceptionally bright, talented, self-contained, and organized young woman. As a group, they decided to keep the train rolling. But they also sought outside help. “The four of us had a lot of long nights of discussion with some board members,” remembers Hillier. “We sat down with Dan Murphy from Broadway Rose and he gave some advice on what it’s like to start a company from scratch and give your life to it and if we needed to end it or what we needed to look for in new company members. He was wonderful at giving critique and just being straightforward. He didn’t sugar-coat anything.”

The next step was finding new members. “What we did a little differently from when we had all auditioned for the company,” continues Hillier, “was that we held a group interview. We just sat on the front porch of my house with a bunch of food and we discussed theater and what we believed in and what playwrights we were interested in, what people’s artistic principles were, how they work in a group. All the time, the group of us were watching to see how people interacted, who was stepping forward as a leader, who was maybe not easy to talk to, who stepped away from everything. That was the moment where I was like, ‘Oh yeah, we can keep doing this.’”

After finding new members and rebuilding the company, the new Theatre Vertigo made a startling decision. It decided not to have a full stage production for an entire season. “It was hard,” says Hillier. “A lot of people were very confused by it and just assumed it meant closure and failure.” On the other hand, many people who had produced before, and understood the pitfalls and trials of being a small theater company, looked on the move as a wise one. The purpose was not solely financial, explains Hillier, but also respectful to the new members. “My goal was to be financially responsible. But also, even though we had a season selected, I didn’t want to hand the new members four plays that we had already picked out. I didn’t want to be like, ‘Welcome to Theatre Vertigo, you’re an amazing asset, here are the plays we are doing,’ and have them not have a voice in that.”

So instead they took a season to take a trip down twenty years of memory lane. “Twenty years is a huge deal,” Hillier remembers thinking. “Let’s celebrate that. Let’s look through the past, find maybe ten plays that we’re going to do staged readings of; if we can find original directors, original casts that’s wonderful. If not, we’ll find people that are new to Vertigo and put them on our stage. And then the 21st season can be something that we can all stand behind and say, ‘Yes, I helped choose that season and I’m really excited about it.’ I think that’s crucial. That’s the difference between being driven by an artistic director and being ensemble driven.”

If Clara Hillier sounds like the de facto leader of an ensemble-based theater company, that could be because she is. But it’s readily apparent that she’s perfect for that job: she completely believes in Theatre Vertigo’s mission and model. In this first season after the hiatus, even though she is easily one of the more gifted, versatile and under-utilized actors in Portland, Hillier doesn’t have a role in any of Vertigo’s three plays. Hillier waves this away. “It’s just the way it worked out,” she says, laughing.

And now, A Map of Virtue. “Map of Virtue caught everybody’s eye” says Hillier. It was new, beautiful, didn’t need a lot of different locations, and left a lot of space for a theatre artist’s imagination. “The role of the bird statue that Jacquelle Davis is playing is this open-ended role that you could direct in any way you want. She’ll have some movement. She’s the narrator/storyteller. There were a lot of plays we were looking at that were based on Greek myths. A lot of those held our interest and kept going through every single round. And I think that was something that we were really interested in.”

And boom, there it is. Something Paul Floding, Darius Pierce, Brooke Calcagno, and Robert Wyllie had all mentioned. Who the company is dictates the kind of work it’s going to do. Would other incarnations of Vertigo be interested in this strange, delicate play? Who’s to say? But this group is. And it’s a strong indication of the different sensibility that is with this group. In other words, Theatre Vertigo is back.

For artists who have moved on, there is much talk of Theatre Vertigo being a “training ground.” That doesn’t really seem to be accurate. It is a place where theater artists work at a certain stage in their careers, when a certain kind of art is calling to them and demanding that it be made.

“It was exhausting but I loved every minute of it,” says Robert David Wyllie. “It was stressful and terrifying and frustrating and amazing and wonderful all at once, often within minutes of each other.”

“I think there’s a lot of talent and excitement and drive,” adds Brooke Calcagno, “and I look forward to seeing that passion bring Theatre Vertigo back to what it was at its genesis: a group of really hard-working, driven people creating a product of love.”

Darius Pierce had some advice for the new members. “New members always come in very eager. That energy is very invigorating. But also you want to be like, ‘Don’t take that third job. I know how you feel now, but in six months you’re going to hate life.’”

Paul Floding’s advice for the new group was, perhaps, less practical but just as meaningful. “Keep plugging away, don’t take yourself too seriously, don’t be a jerk and never be afraid to be ugly, dirty, and dark.”

Samson Syharath. Photo: Gary Norman

Clara Hillier and the new Theatre Vertigo –– her sister Kaia, Gary Strong, McKenna Twedt, Samson Syharath, Paige Rogers, London Bauman, Joe Rogers, Joel Patrick Durham, Jacquelle Davis and Emilie Landman (the director of Map of Virtue) –– are all keeping their eyes on the prize.

“This year we’re just getting on our feet because we’re so new, still learning how to communicate with each other,” says Syharath. “We’re all hungry for the chance to do what we want to do. Everyone’s in the same mindset of producing the stories that we want to tell.”

“We still have a long way to go,” says Hillier. “We still need to do a lot more work on sponsorship. We’ve been actively working on grant-writing. We’ve been very conscientious about staying under budget for Map of Virtue. We’re going for it. We’re just gonna make it happen.”

But every journey begins with the first step. For Theatre Vertigo, Map of Virtue is that.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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