Second rate? Second rank? A snarky dispute


Maybe you spotted it, near the end of a generally mild-mannered editorial urging people to help pay down the debt at Portland Center Stage’s Gerding Theater at the Armory, in the Saturday, Feb. 9, Oregonian: a throwaway insult guaranteed to boil blood.

“Portland has long been recognized,” the editorialist sniped, “as a first-rate place to see second-rate theater.”

That didn’t get past Oregonian reader Mary Starrs, who replied angrily in a letter to the editor on the Tuesday, Feb. 13, op-ed page, and if the original editorial hadn’t happened to run on a Saturday, by tradition the least-read edition of any daily newspaper, it might have raised more of a ruckus.

Now, there probably isn’t a writer in history who hasn’t experienced the clever line coming back to bite him on the behind, so I’m not going to toss too many pebbles at the anonymous editorial writer: glass houses and all that. Nevertheless, this particular cute line is a big mistake in a couple of ways.

First, it muddies the main message of the editorial, which is that Portland Center Stage is still almost $11 million short on its $37 million rehab of the Armory — a troubling figure that hasn’t much budged in the past year. The whys and wherefores of the company’s inability to pay off its debt — you always want to have bricks and mortar paid for before a new museum building or performance hall opens, while there’s still some excitement about the project — are fit subject for some serious analysis, but that’s another story.

Second, if the editorial writer actually meant what he or she wrote, it displays a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of local and regional theater. What exactly does “second-rate” mean? (And isn’t the reference to Portland as a “first-rate place” just another example of this city’s increasingly annoying habit of overestimating its own charms? — but that’s another story, too.)

I’ve been watching theater in Portland for more than 30 years, and if the city has a reputation as a second-rate theater town, it’s mainly because it was a Johnny-come-lately on the professional resident theater circuit — many years behind its closest neighbors, Seattle and San Francisco, which have long enjoyed bright national reputations for their theater scenes. But while Seattle Rep and San Francisco’s ACT and the Guthrie in Minneapolis and the Goodman in Chicago sparked those cities’ reputations, they’ve never been the whole story. They are only the biggest theaters among a host of companies, adventurous and derivative, talented and vanity-driven, commercial and experimental, that together create an ecology of theater in each city.

In that respect, Portland is no different. It’s worth noting that, while Portland Center Stage has had its ups and downs, it was doing national-quality work in its early years with memorable shows such as “Heartbreak House,” “Six Characters in Search of an Author,” “Pericles,” “Fences” and a towering “King Lear.” It’s also worth noting that, when Center Stage was established 20 years ago, Portland already had an adventurous scene of small companies doing intimate theater.

Was it all good? Was it mostly good? Of course not. It’s not all or mostly good in New York or London, either. That’s not to say that theater in Portland is on a par with theater in New York or London. It’s not, and no one should expect it to be. Every theater scene sins in its own ways, and succeeds in its own ways. I’ve seen tremendous theater in New York, and I’ve seen sloppy, boring, pretentious, slick, condescending pap. If Broadway is the editorial writer’s measure of “first-rate theater,” we have different measuring sticks. Yes, the best on Broadway can be marvelous, and with production values that no theater company in Portland can afford. (And speaking of affording, at $100 and more a pop, Broadway is hardly people’s theater.) But Broadway can be pretty awful, too: overly cautious, overly reliant on stage tricks, overly polished and skimming the surface. You can lose a bundle of money producing a Broadway show, and that doesn’t encourage adventurousness — unless you consider flying a helicopter onto a stage or smashing a chandelier in the middle of it an adventure.

For 10 years or so I spent a lot of time in Louisville, Kentucky, going every spring to the annual Humana Festival of New American Plays, which Actors Theatre of Louisville director Jon Jory turned into one of the premiere theater events in the nation. It was a heady gathering: some of the best actors, directors and playwrights in the country, the excitement of 10 or 12 brand new scripts, a swamp of national writers and producers, a free-flowing bar for free-flowing conversations, the charm of small-town grit mixed with Hollywood glitter. The festival has been astonishingly successful at discovering new plays and developing playwrights: Every season across the nation, theater companies produce plays that had their beginnings here.

Did that give Louisville a national reputation? You bet. (Humana’s handsome world headquarters building in Louisville also shows what you can get from a Michael Graves design if you don’t lowball it the way Frank Ivancie-era Portland did with Graves’ dismal Portland Building. Again, that’s another story.)

But I also got to know some of the locals, and the message I got — even from some who worked at Actors Theatre — was that the festival and the rest of the theater scene were two different animals. Local audiences were proud of the festival’s success, but for the rest of the year they wanted the tried and true: More Neil Simon, less Simon Gray. Yet, Louisville’s reputation was first-rate. What, then, does reputation mean? Is it mainly a matter of public relations? Of one good thing making a big noise?

You can argue that the true capital of theater in Oregon isn’t Portland, it’s Ashland, home of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. At its best the festival is world-class. At its worst it’s solidly professional. When people have asked me to compare theater in Portland and Ashland, my stock reply has been this: When Ashland fails, it fails at a higher level. I’ll stand by that. In any given year, the best theater in the state is likely to have been produced at the Shakespeare Festival.

So, Ashland is first-rate and Portland is second-rate, right?

Hold on.

Ashland theater is fiercely focused. It does what it does very well. Whatever I end up thinking of individual shows, I need my Ashland fix.

Portland theater is sprawling, provisional, restless, wildly fluctuating between the occasionally brilliant and the sometimes embarrassingly bad. It is, and has long been, a scene where the distinction between professional and amateur is fuzzy and often of little consequence. (Then again, at times it’s of extreme consequence.) It’s both extremely ambitious and unambitious: It’ll try almost anything, but it doesn’t often take the time (or maybe have the talent) to push it into excellence. Over and over I’ve been beguiled by the quirky imagination of some of the city’s little companies, and vexed at their unwillingness or inability to shape those bright ideas. Yes, there are some mediocre actors on the city’s stages. Sure, the city could use some first-rate directors who have both splendid imaginations and the technical skills to bring out the best in a show. Show me a city that couldn’t use better actors and directors. I dare you.

But the best of what happens in Portland is very good: the consistently fine work of Third Rail Rep, some of Artists Rep and Center Stage, the occasional shows at the likes of Profile and Vertigo and Miracle Theatre that hit it just right, some of Sojourn’s socially minded work … it can pop up anywhere. And who can dislike the idea of Oregon Children’s Theatre producing a fresh version of “Treasure Island” with live music by that seminal pirate band, Captain Bogg and Salty?

The city has a long history of excellent visual and new-vaudeville performance, from Ric Young’s old extravaganzas as Storefront to the continuing fine work at Do Jump and Imago. Storefront and other companies were Johnny-on-the-spot during Sam Shepard’s brilliant years, putting up feverish productions of his plays almost as soon as they were out of his typewriter. The great Peter Fornara’s moving theatrical circus created some scarily good work. I remember a hilarious version of Feydeau’s “A Flea in Her Ear” (in the John Mortimer translation) at Portland State University’s old summer stock, and a superb version of Noel Coward’s “Design for Living” at either New Rose or early Artists Rep. New Rose and playwright Charles Deemer produced some terrific things together. The likes of Gaynor Sterchi, Mary Marsh and Edris Morrison pushed the history of excellence even earlier. And for roughly 60 years, the old Portland Civic Theatre was recognized as one of the finest community theaters in the country.

So where does all that leave things now?

Theater is everywhere in Portland, on both sides of the river, and mostly in little low-tech performing spaces that thrust actors and audience almost in arm’s-reach of each other. (In that respect it’s a lot like Off-Broadway 20 years ago, and Off-Off Broadway now.) Between Center Stage’s JAW play-development program and Andrew Golla’s Portland Theatre Works and a host of independent projects, you can hardly turn a corner in Portland without bumping into a new play. You can wish more of the new plays had more literary distinction, but it’s tough to dislike the energy. Theater’s the original do-it-yourself art form in a proudly DIY town. That makes it intensely democratic, as quirky as a yodelers’ convention, and often charming in its earnestness and unexpectedness. It also makes it frustrating for its sense of incompletion. Too often just getting the show up is the main point; exploring its extremities and bringing it clarity and depth are afterthoughts. Portland is a process town, and everything’s provisional. In that sense I agree with the editorial writer: I’d love to see a higher percentage of truly finished shows at the top of the feeding chain (and for that matter, all the way through the chain).

But, second-rate? What does that mean? Portland theater is what it is, and what it is is a reflection of its city. Is Portland itself, then, second-rate?

No. But it is second-rank. That’s no insult. (And yes, I know we’re the darlings of the national media right now. That’ll pass.) Greater Portland is something like the 25th biggest market in the country, and that means it’s not as complex or varied as a New York or Chicago or Los Angeles or Philadelphia or Atlanta or Houston: It’s not as much of a city as those places. What we gain in “livability” (and I believe, with no irony intended, that this is one of the easiest, pleasantest places in the country to live) we sacrifice in a lot of cultural ways. We’re a curated town, a one-of-everything town: one art museum, one opera company, one big symphonic orchestra, one ballet company. One and done: What more can we need? Ask yourself that when you’re visiting New York or L.A. or even Seattle/Tacoma and you have more legitimate museum choices than you can keep up with: There’s a richness in multiplicity that simply doesn’t exist here. That’s OK. The town will grow, and more will come. When you’re second-rank, you try harder. Or at least, you should.

The Oregonian’s editorial writer seems to have bought in to the one-and-done theory of cultural completeness: If only Center Stage can pay off its debts, all will be well. Immediately following that risible line, “Portland has long been recognized as a first-rate place to see second-rate theater,” the editorialist continues: “Portland Center Stage, in its 20th year, is determined to bust out of that division and play in the major league.”

What major league? Theater by its nature is intensely local, and if the rest of the nation never knows that a production in Peoria or Eugene or St. Louis or Phoenix or San Jose or Omaha or Portland is national-class, does that change the reality of the achievement? I share the hope that Portland Center Stage gets better: I hope that every theater everywhere gets better. But as important as it is, Center Stage is hardly the only game in town. With its dizzying variety, theater in Portland may be the most truly urban arts scene in town. First-rank things can come out of second-rank places.

And there’s nothing second-rate about that.