Portland Center Stage's New Artistic Director Wants Theater for Everyone
Last month, Portland Center Stage welcomed its first new artistic director in 17 years. Marissa Wolf, who most recently served as associate artistic director at Kansas City Repertory Theatre, took the helm from Chris Coleman, who left the city's largest theater company for a similar gig in Denver. Wolf landed the job after an eight-month, nationwide search. "When Chris announced he was moving on, I read the press release and gasped," she told Portland Monthly in late September. "This is a company I’ve been following for a long time. I really admire what Chris and the team have built here."
Wolf worked for three seasons in Kansas City, where she launched a festival of new works called OriginKC. In 2016, she directed the world premiere of Rinne Groff’s Fire in Dreamland, and went on to helm its Off-Broadway premiere at the Public Theater in June of this year. Prior to that, Wolf spent six seasons as artistic director of San Francisco’s Crowded Fire Theater, known for producing new work and up-and-coming playwrights.
We sat down with Wolf during her second week on the job to hear more. Here are a few takeaways from that conversation.
On her background:
"I cut my teeth as the directing fellow at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, and that’s where I saw what regional theater can do. I saw how Berkeley Rep was a deep part of the fabric of the community of Berkeley and the larger Bay Area, how it was promoting conversations and discourse that felt really urgent and exciting, and how it was embedded inside the city heart and fanning out into the city or inviting people in.
"At KC Rep, I directed some of the highest-grossing shows in the company’s history, [which] were more 20th-century classics. I’m excited to bring that muscle of really deeply valuing classics with a relevant lens and having a community respond to that, respond through ticket sales. [One show was] The Diary of Anne Frank. Kansas City had just experienced an act of anti-Semitic violence, so it was an important moment to forward that."
On the role of Portland Center Stage in the city:
"In an ideal world, what I’m heading towards is forwarding Portland Center Stage as a space that feels like the nexus, a cultural hub, for the diverse communities here. Flagship theaters that have been built over decades, they do owe a community. They are serving a community and should be offering a really wide range of work. I am a strong believer in the populist idea of something for everyone."
On her own theater interests:
"I tend to be drawn to work that is imagistic and has a playful structure. I also tend to be drawn to work that has a really strong ensemble muscle running through it, that is digging into language in ways that feel surprising and moving. In both my programming and directing, I want to forward plays that are at the forefront of the art form, that both offer innovation onstage and dig into questions of this moment. I’m not interested in realism or naturalism being the driving force of our entire field. I think that’s only one piece of the puzzle."
On “challenging work”:
"I’ve found people to be allergic to the idea of challenging theater, or that it’s somehow going to be dogmatic. I have a very strong belief that work that has teeth is also deeply entertaining, that these things go together. I don’t want people to feel left out. But for a project that might feel out of someone’s comfort zone, I would look for ways in which I could come and sort of hold their hand, figuratively. What are the ways in which they feel like they’ve gotten the information they need upfront about why we chose this play? About who this playwright is? Or the lens this playwright is coming from? I really chafe against the idea that “audiences aren’t ready for XYZ.” I think all audiences can see anything. You just have to sojourn together. That said, I don’t want to scare people away. I’m not interested in doing an all-Beckett season or something."