BWW Interviews: Spotlight on Portland Playhouse Artistic Director Brian Weaver
Theater in Portland is booming. There is exciting theater happening all over the city, and in the midst of it all is the burgeoning Portland Playhouse. The company has an established a strong reputation of putting on high-quality productions such as ANGELS IN AMERICA, GEM OF THE OCEAN, and most recently Tarell Alvin McCraney’s THE BROTHER SISTER PLAYS. I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to speak with Brian Weaver, the artistic director of The Playhouse.
Debbie Lamedman: Portland Playhouse is only about 4 years old. How have things progressed for The Playhouse in these first few years?
Brian Weaver: It's been a rapid growth process for us over these past four years. We've doubled or tripled both our audience and our budget every year we've been around, which is crazy since we knew a grand total of three people in town when we arrived. When we founded Portland Playhouse, we were focused on creating a neighborhood space where people from our community could hang out and have a good time. Portland has a vibrant bar culture, and we wanted to create a playhouse in that same feel, a casual, local venue where people could enjoy each other's company, have fun and see a play. I think there was a degree of populism ( I’m prepping for BLOODY BLOODY ANDREW JACKSON now…) in our views when we started in the sense that we weren't simply interested in creating a space for "high art," but in creating an eclectic atmosphere for our friends and for our neighbors and for the people living all around us. For our first show we offered free Cheetos and Miller High Life -- not your traditional "night at the theatre" by any means!
We originally moved to North Portland because we could afford it. Then, when we started, we were focused on choosing plays that would appeal to people in our age group, people in their twenties and thirties, and we were also focused on choosing plays that would appeal to the people living around the theatre, plays that would tell their stories. This was how we got started on our August Wilson programming, which put us on the map, and from there everything has just taken off. After more people started coming and realizing that they could have a good time getting some popcorn and free beer and seeing one of our shows, then we started thinking in terms of the greater Portland theatrical landscape. Now that we've made a little bit of a name for ourselves in that way (PP was named “Best Theatre Company in Portland” by the Portland Monthly) we're even starting to think in more national terms as well.
When it comes down to it, artists everywhere, be it in Portland or New York or internationally, are always looking for a little bit of space and time and money to create something. At Portland Playhouse now, we're really interested in creating that kind of space, in the way that larger regional theatres are attempting to do all over the country, but on a smaller scale. We want to be a place where playwrights, directors, and actors are coming to create something fresh and unique, and we think we're in a position to do that.
DL: How does The Playhouse fit in with the current theatre scene in Portland?
BW: The theatre scene in Portland is totally exploding. Dozens of people are moving here ever day, from New York, from all over the country, so there's this sense of super-saturation with so many artists doing exciting new work. Everywhere you look there's a new company starting, in a garage, in a warehouse, in a storefront--it's fantastic! It reminds me of what I imagine Greenwich Village was like in the 1940's with the Abstract Expressionists. I think Portland theatre is poised on the brink of something very similar to that. In general the Portland aesthetic -- the foodie culture, the coffee/beer culture, the green-building culture -- is sweeping the country and becoming nationally relevant in an exciting way. PORTLANDIA came out and suddenly all the national papers were talking about "putting a bird on it," when five years ago if you mentioned Portland east of the Mason-Dixon line, the response would most likely be, "You mean Maine?" It's been a huge change, but now the city is fast becoming such a national mecca for art and culture, and that's great to see.
DL: What can Portland theatre-goers look forward to for your next season? How do you go about choosing the play selections?
BW: They can look forward to so much! We're doing our first musical with BLOODY BLOODY ANDREW JACKSON, which opens our season. We've also commissioned our first play, by Christina Anderson, who is absolutely brilliant, and that is hopefully going to start a much larger commissioning program for us in the coming seasons. We're doing a play of Quincy Long's, THE HUNTSMEN, that I think is experimenting with theatrical style in a smart way and in a way that will be engaging for our adventurous audience. To end the season, we're also engaged in our first collaboration with a devising company: we're teaming with Hand2Mouth Theatre to create an adaptation of Ursula K. LeGuin's first novel, THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS.
For us, it's important to be reinventing ourselves, and I think our upcoming season does that. I think it's really eclectic and will surprise and excite people in a lot of different ways. We're constantly trying to change the pattern, to reshape the mold. Now that we've hooked in a loyal, devoted audience, we're trying to push their theatrical boundaries in new ways, and we're trying to introduce them to new writers. This season alone we're introducing Portland to four exciting new voices in Anderson, Long, Helen Edmundson, and Alex Timbers, and that's something we want to keep doing. We want people to know that they're going to have a good time at Portland Playhouse, an intellectually and socially stimulating experience, and that they're going to see new work and new artists that will surprise them. We reconfigure our space for every show we produce, and I think we try to reconfigure our mindsets with every play that we choose, as well. The only constant is the beer and popcorn.
As for play selection, I really try to open myself up to as widely diverse a group of influences as possible. I'm constantly seeing plays, reading plays, and getting play recommendations from friends. For me, I'm interested in choosing plays that people are passionate about. We used to have an open submission policy, and we still do in Oregon, but now we only solicit scripts out of state through agents. We're lucky enough to get 300+ scripts a season to peruse, and usually we find about forty that we seriously consider, and it's great to be in a position to choose from such an amazingly diverse selection of material from all over the country.
DL: Can you discuss a little bit about the struggle and ultimate victory in securing a home base for Portland Playhouse?
BW: Starting a theatre is pretty much impossible, but we lucked out when we found a landlord willing to let us use his space for free at the start, only asking for ten percent of the box office after we opened our first show. We fixed up the building, a Baptist church, but we were still technically performing illegally because we had no permit. We flew under the radar for about two and a half years, but then we had our biggest hit yet in Ma Rainey’S BLACK BOTTOM, which sold out before it even opened. That brought us to the attention of the city of Portland at large, and we received a cease and desist order. We were cited for running a commercial sales business in a residential zone, but over the next year we garnered support from the neighborhood association and from hundreds of citizens, and we lobbied the city to overrule the decision. The Bureau of Development Services declined our application, but then we appealed to City Council, and they overruled the Bureau and granted us permission to perform in the church again.
It was a precedent-setting decision for the city of Portland. Historically, anything performing arts related has been relegated to commercial retail sales areas, and so by appealing to the city and getting designated as a community service organization, which allows us to perform in a residential area, we've opened the door for companies to perform in any of the hundreds of vacant or closing churches in residential neighborhoods throughout Portland.
Part of the city-wide development plan in Portland is focused on decentralizing art and culture. Historically, resources have been put into building a cultural zone downtown, but this year that's really shifting, and resources are being used to spread art and culture throughout neighborhoods.
DL: What are the goals for Portland Playhouse for the next 5 years?
BW: We just want to keep having fun and doing the work we've been doing. We want to keep constantly reinventing ourselves, and we want to figure out a way to make a living as artists, both for ourselves and for artists everywhere. We've had a great first four years, and we want to have an even better next five.
For additional information on Portland Playhouse and their upcoming 2012-2013 season, visit www.portlandplayhouse.org.
Photo Credit: Jared Birt