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?