Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Their revels now are ended

OK, I'm about two weeks late in blogging about this, and I don't live in Portland anymore, and I'm sure the people involved are trying to move on... but I can't let the complete elimination of Portland Center Stage's literary department go uncommented-upon. After all, this is to some extent a theater blog, and if I know anything about American regional theaters, if I've gotten to meet certain playwrights and hear their advice, if I can talk authoritatively about script-submissions and the workshopping process, it is largely thanks to my internship in PCS' literary department in summer 2005.

When I met Mead Hunter, PCS' literary manager, I hadn't even completed my freshman year of college. Looking for something to do over the summer, I contacted him; we chatted for about fifteen minutes and then he said he'd be happy to have me as an unpaid intern. I knew that this was a great stroke of fortune, but only later did I realize just how lucky I was. Mead is one of the most respected literary managers in American theater, and no one ever has a bad word to say about him. He is the very definition of "avuncular." I've occasionally heard him take on a waspish tone about some play or playwright, but that's because he's smart as hell and smart people can't avoid thinking critically; but his default mode is that of a generous colleague and a cheerleader for innovative theater in Portland and across the country. Under his guidance, the JAW playwriting festival became a flagship PCS event--and maybe I'm biased, but I think that 2005 was its high-water mark. That was the year that Mead kicked things up to a new level by involving the whole Portland theater community, plus the four main writers were Jordan Harrison, Adam Bock, Ebbe Roe Smith and Itamar Moses--a serious supernova of talent.

And now Mead--a pillar of PCS for 7 years, the wizard of JAW, guru of PlayGroup, and the first person ever to link to marissabidilla--has been let go. Along with four other employees, including his assistant, Megan Ward, another invaluable advocate for new plays and playwrights. And thus, the entire PCS Literary Department has melted into air, into thin air.

OK, I know these are tough economic times, and I know that my feelings are colored by my personal associations with Mead and Megan, and my sense, as an aspiring playwright, that new plays must be promoted and produced. But still--isn't this a shameful and sad development? PCS is still in some ways a theater company that is finding its voice, after its expansion and move to the new Armory theater building two years ago. But I always thought that new plays were going to be an integral part of that voice, and I thought that Portland was steadily gaining respect from the theater community (third-tier city, no more!) for its commitment to new works. And now it's like all of Mead's careful work has been so quickly written out of existence...

Were there signs of trouble before these layoffs occurred? Well, I was disappointed in the '09-'10 season announcement. Two years in a row, now, PCS hasn't programmed any works from the previous year's JAW festival, which used to be a mainstay of their seasons. And I know that people, in these tough times, want the comfort of a familiar and easily-sold title, but I was disappointed that so many of the "new" plays in the '09-'10 season are adaptations: Snow Falling on Cedars, The Chosen, The 39 Steps. Now, I haven't seen or read these plays, and am aware that they may possess multiple theatrical virtues. But because they're adaptations, they are not chiefly concerned with the playwright's voice, creativity and thought. And this flight to known commodities frightens me a little, of course.

Obviously I am only a tangential observer of what happened at PCS, but every time something like this happens, and the effects of the bad economy hit someone I know, I get a sense of vertigo. What I learned about regional theaters by interning for Mead four years ago is now becoming obsolete, due to the financial crisis--that kind of thing. In a wider context, too, I feel like a generational rift has begun to open between the people who graduated college two or three years ago, when the economy was still chugging along; and the people who graduated college in my year, or will graduate next month, and have had the economy whiplash us when we had barely even joined the working world...

7 comments:

C A Wohlmut said...

Well said.

MattyZ said...

an excellent post - my confusion over these decisions still haunts my days - and we, the members of PlayGroup, remain so very sad...

Rose Riordan said...

While I appreciate the outpouring of support of Mead and Megan I take exception to your season analysis - this year we did two brand new works that we developed. Crazy Enough by Storm Large was part of JAW and APOLLO was six year long development project that we started. The year before we did Sarah Treem's new play A Feminine Ending.

I am also discouraged that people are so willing to jump on the bash PCS bandwagon. Especially when it concerns JAW which will miss Mead but will continue - we were devoted to new work & playwrights before he started and will continue to do so now. How about some support?

Marissa said...

C.A. and Matt--Thanks. I’d been half wondering whether I should have blogged this, since I’m in S.F. now and a few steps removed from the whole situation, so it means a lot to me that you Portlanders appreciated it.

Rose--I guess what I meant is that “A Feminine Ending” was the last play you’ve produced that came through the traditional “JAW channel”--a script first encountered as a JAW submission, selected for the festival and workshopped that summer, and after good audience response, chosen for the following year's season. “Crazy Enough” and “Apollo” are a little different--you developed them because you’d worked with Storm Large/Nancy Keystone in the past and wanted to encourage their next project. (And that's a very worthy thing to do!) But PCS’ commitment, for several years in a row, to giving one of the previous year’s JAW plays a full production was one of my favorite things about its season planning. And a lot of good came out of it, IMO--it gave Itamar his first professional production, introduced Portland audiences to writers like Jordan Harrison and Glen Berger...

In this post I really tried to avoid the “bash everything PCS-related” tone that I have seen in certain other Internet comments on this situation. I would never wholly repudiate a theater company that made me a big part of who I am today! But I believe that that is what gives me the right to critique PCS from a standpoint of interested concern. And also, who I am today is a playwright: someone who wants to make a career of writing original plays--not adaptations, not autobiographical one-woman shows, not multimedia theatrical pieces like “Apollo.” That’s why I’ll freely admit a bias toward the “JAW channel” method of selecting new works for PCS. And why I’ll stand by my original statement: that if this recession is responsible for a decline in the number of ORIGINAL STORIES that are told on American stages, then that does worry and frighten me.

Rose Riordan said...

Marissa I appreciate your opinion and you are right to express it. But the tone of it sounded like PCS & JAW are DEAD now - which is not helpful to anyone. And as far as what kind of new work we choose to support or stories we tell that is our investment in artists as we see fit. I started JAW 11 years ago and have been devoted to it's development, mission and an absolute advocate for the playwrights experience. Why that would change now is a mystery to me.

Marissa said...

Thanks, Rose. Tone in Internet postings is always a hard thing to calibrate, and also I think you and I might have been approaching this from different perspectives: me trying to draw big-picture lessons ("what does this say about theater in recession-era America?") and you focusing more on the specific criticism of your organization.

By the way, speaking of you and new plays at PCS: my parents loved your production of "How to Disappear Completely" and I'm sure they won't mind me telling you so! :-)

stella said...

nice backpeddle marissa.