Roz Sullivan-Lovett– It’s a dark and rainy evening in Northwest Portland’s warehouse and storage district, and in my car, the only person more anxious than me is my mother. As we park at the curb in front of a dingy, low-roofed warehouse and watch the lights came on, she insists on waiting until I call her to leave the premises, uncomfortable with the building, the neighborhood, and the dark. I finally step out into the cold, her warnings trailing behind me, and tug open the glass door out front. The room that greets me smells of sawdust and dirt; uncovered concrete floors and uninsulated walls are much in evidence outside the cluttered, dark offices to my right. Set pieces belonging to the Oregon ballet are piled to the ceiling all around the main space: dusty chandeliers, swan boats, and thrones. Standing around a table laden with brightly-colored snack packages are ten or so people; the majority of the cast of Noises Off, Third Rail Repertory Theater’s winter production.
“Are you our observer?” A cast members asks, and as I affirm, a dark-haired young woman dressed in a down jacket, a colorful skirt and thick black leggings detaches herself from the group and introduces herself as Olivia Murphy, the stage manager of the production. I introduce myself and she gives me a nod.
“Nice to meet you. I’d shake your hand, but I’m recovering from pinkeye,” she tells me. The cast breaks into laughter. “Welcome to the theater,” someone says, “Have some pinkeye.”
Portland’s first theater was built in 1872, named the New Market Theatre and sponsored by local merchant and land owner Alexander Ankeny. Soon after, in 1889, the Portland Opera house opened, providing entertainment for a more upper-class crowd (pdxhistory.org). Portland rarely had more than a few theaters in business at a time in these days, a fact now wildly subverted; the city has 92 separate companies today, many small and independent, like Third Rail. That’s a quite a large amount for a city of Portland’s size, though not all of the companies can be considered professional (Murray); Portland’s artistic scene has been booming in recent years due to the artists flocking in to take advantage of the city’s reputation as a place with a funky, alternative arts scene became more widespread (Plagens).
In the years of Portland’s first theaters, America’s organized arts scene was finally picking up after decades of touring vaudeville groups and minstrel shows. In this “gilded age” of theater, the last thirty years of the 19th century, melodrama became very popular, as did Civil War dramas and romances. Despite the slightly ridiculous style of melodrama being produced, acting styles were creeping towards the more realistic performances that would dominate the American acting scene in the twentieth century. Due to growing numbers of actors and increased reports of poor pay and mistreatment, the Actor’s Society of America, later called Actor’s Equity, was founded in 1894 ((Dictionary of American History). This union is key in the rights of theater workers and the separation between semi-professional and truly professional theater. The Actor’s Equity Association negotiates wages, working hours, and working conditions for actors and stage managers, as well as providing pensions and health plans to members (Actorsequity.org). It is rare for actors to get artistically fulfilling, well-paid work without an equity card, though most work for some time before they are allowed to join the union (Murray).
In the early twentieth century Oscar Wilde and other farcical, witty playwrights were popular, but The Great Depression showed a surge of interest in highly political plays (Dictionary of American History). Theater was slowly becoming less of a diversion and creating more of an impact on its audiences. After World War II, Tennessee Williams’ heartbreaking and often distressing plays spiked in popularity as well; audiences wanted to think about their world and their country as much as they wanted to laugh and forget about their problems. In the later twentieth century, the Vietnam war and Civil Rights Movement created a fantastic time for plays fraught with political and social commentary (Dictionary of American History). However, a new playwright’s experimental work is logically never going to find its way immediately to the main stage in a large theater. Controversial plays have always begun in small theaters, even in countries with laws in favor of artistic freedom. Independent, artist-run companies are the birthplace of experimental plays, the new risks of the artistic scene. Third Rail follows this tradition with strange, off-beat, and often macabre artistic choices.
I follow Murphy as she completes the usual stage manager’s tasks in a given rehearsal, such as moving scenery, checking cables, and making sure the space is clear, plus a few unusual ones: she spends quite a bit of time plugging in heaters, trying in vain to make the huge room a comfortable temperature. The actual set is towards the back of the warehouse, and is quite impressive. It stands two stories high and rotates to show the ‘backstage’ of the play produced within the plot of Noises Off. The whole of Act II takes place ‘backstage’, while Act I’s view is only ‘onstage’. As I help her remove some large wooden frames from the wings of the set, Murphy tells me that the actors have only just started blocking act II, and thus much of the rehearsal will be sussing out blocking, rather than drilling scenes, as it might usually be. Another unusual element is the set itself. Normally, I learned, Third Rail rehearses in a much smaller space with the planned set marked out in tape on the floor, but the size and complicated nature of this set requires it to be built to rehearse on; looking up at it I can see that it would not fit into the average rehearsal hall. The ‘onstage’ side of the set is bare and undecorated except for a floral-print covered couch and a coffee table with an old-fashioned telephone and few knickknacks on it, mysterious to me, as I am unfamiliar with the play apart from an online summary I’ve read.
“A few of those we’ll switch out before the run,” Murphy tells me when asked about the permanence of the set pieces. “The couch, though– if you come see the play when we open, which I’m sure you will after this– that’s the one we’ll be using. But most of the smaller things we’ll change out. Like, we’re obviously not using the TV.” She gestures to one of the knickknacks on the table– a tiny ceramic model of a television set. I see what she means once the rehearsal starts: Noises Off is one long theater joke, and the plot includes a disastrous production of an English country house farce, in which one of the characters wants nothing more than to sit and watch her black-and-white TV.
Murphy is the busiest person in the room in the before-rehearsal period. Her assistant stage manager is another woman named Jory Bowers; while watching them set up a small podium and microphone onstage I am struck by how young they both are: twenty-five at most. Murphy has been working in the Portland theater scene for just two years, but gets a lot of work. “In a perfect world, I’m working one (show at a time), it’s usually two, right now it’s three.” She got her job on Noises Off because she knew Third Rail’s production manager through another show; she simply asked him if he had any shows for her, and found that he did. This appears to be a common trend in Portland’s theater business; connections are just as important as talent (Murphy). With Portland’s relatively small professional scene, this is even more true, but in larger cities connections are terrifically important too, as directors tend to call up actors they know, rather than having an open call, when they need to cast a role. The network-heavy nature of the business makes people happy to help each other out; I contacted Murphy through Chris Murray, an actor who met while taking classes at Portland Center Stage. He was more than happy to hand me Murphy’s number, and she greeted me comfortably when I texted her out of the blue.
As 6:30 draws ever closer, the cast starts its warm ups, noisily stretching, shaking out limbs and joking with each other. All of the actors seem to be in good spirits, even slightly hyper; I’m surprised by the casual immaturity of their chatter. It seems at first that their performers’ nature might get in the way of their onstage work, as each seems eager to have the conversational spotlight. I wondered how it must be to balance the solitary nature of auditioning and networking in the theater business with the heavy teamwork of working on an actual production.
Scott Yarbrough, the director of Noises Off and Third Rail’s artistic director, takes his seat behind a small table facing the stage. A tall, grey-haired man with wire-rimmed glasses, Yarbrough is as bundled up as his actors, wearing a blue knit scarf and leather jacket to fight the still-chilly temperature of the warehouse.
“You leave me anything to work with?” He asks David Bodan, the actor who lead the warm-ups. “Oh yeah,” Bodan responds, grinning. “They’re primed.”
As the actors start up, their sheer talent becomes apparent, as does their familiarity with each other. My initial ponderings about the teamwork of the production resolve themselves as I see that any attention-hounding the actors might be given to during their free time is stowed onstage– their acting allows the attention of the audience to slide comfortably from subject to subject, no one trying to steal the spotlight from anyone else. In theaters operating with a yearly ensemble, as Third Rail does, actors end up seeing more of each other, since the theater doesn’t bring non-company members into shows nearly as much as the patchwork casts of standard theaters (Encyclopedia Britannica), and thus the actors grow closer and more comfortable with each other, although naturally the company drops and adds members from year to year (thirdrailrep.org). This comradarie exemplifies itself best in a running joke among the cast and crew: one of the characters in the show, a dim but well-meaning young man named Freddy, often tells other characters “You know how stupid I am about ____”. The blank is filled in with things like “talking to women” or “awkward situations” in the play, but as the rehearsal unfolds and the actor playing Freddy, Spencer Conway, trips over the cable attached to the on-stage podium, one of the other actors laughs and says, “Well, we know how stupid you are about cables.” The level of familiarity the cast has with each other also allows them to give each other feedback without hurting anyone’s pride and even offer advice to directors, as I am surprised to see them occasionally do. At one point during the slow blocking process, an actress raises her hand and says, “Can I just throw an idea out here on how to get this done?” Everyone immediately turns to her as she suggests that they “do a bit of a reader’s theater thing with the blocking.” Yarbrough nods and the actors take up their places again, reading aloud from their scripts and meticulously timing their movements with certain words in the monologue of the leading lady.
There’s a surprising amount of physicality in Noises Off; I expected sheer wit more than physical jokes in a farce, but most of the humor seems to feed from how the actors hold themselves and look at each other. Yarbrough’s intervention is rarely needed; mostly, the actors just seem to know where they should be on stage. Despite this, they run the first half of act II many, many times before they finally get to the part they haven’t blocked. A ten-minute break is called and the actors wander off to the snack table. As they enjoy their break, Yarbrough stands and paces the stage, looking up at the set. He spends the entire ten minutes in various stages of planning: mapping out where set pieces will stand with Murphy, discussing clothing options with the costume designer, who appears and disappears so quickly that I don’t even catch her name, and puzzling over scripts. Break over, the actors return and rerun the first part of act II, and I’m astonished by how polished it suddenly seems. Moving on, the actors begin the hitherto unblocked silent part of act II, in which the play-within-a-play starts and the audience is treated to the goings-on backstage. Due to the play running on the other side of the set, the characters must stay absolutely silent so as not to disturb the fictional audience. Things quickly devolve into an utterly ridiculous chase scene between three quarrelling members of the cast beneath the backstage stairs. It’s extremely technical work, and I start to see why the rehearsal runs until 10 o’clock at night; a shorter amount of time wouldn’t be of any use. The blocking begins to move more smoothly as the actors repeat it, though it is still not without its hitches (“You know how stupid we are about mime,” Yarbrough sighs at one point).
By the time this silent scene is running smoothly it is 8:30 pm, and I leave at the next
ten-minute break. Murphy asks if I have a ride home and I assure her that I’ll be fine, but all the same Murphy asks Spencer Conway to accompany as I head out the door onto the dark, deserted street. He pulls a pack of cigarettes from the pocket of his peacoat.
“So, did you get enough material for your article?”
“Definitely. Thanks for having me,” I tell him as my mother pulls up to the curb. “There’s my ride.”
“Ah, and I’m smoking,” he says, shaking his head. “Getting pretty adult in front of your mom.”
My experience watching Noises Off’s rehearsal could not have come about had I not had previous contact with one of Third Rail’s core members, Chris Murray. Originally hoping to interview Murray, I contacted him by email and found myself trapped in a web of back-and-forth contact that never seemed to end in actually setting up an interview date due to Murray’s busy schedule of long rehearsals balanced with an infant daughter. When I finally scheduled the phone call, he didn’t pick up, then called me back a half hour later, cheery and laughing at the accident. Having met Murray two summers ago, I was used to this gung-ho attitude, but not enough to be cynical to it. Any impatience I felt about the frustrating process of contacting him was quickly melted away by his charm.
Murray joined Third Rail’s core ensemble in 2009, after performing for the company in A Skull in Connemara, an extremely macabre Irish play in fitting with Third Rail’s off-beat offerings. When asked how he went about becoming a member, Murray recounts his process quite directly. “I went to see a few of their shows, then I approached them, wrote them letters, just kept trying to get them to put me in the company.” This was slow-going, but while doing some graphic design work for the theater, Murray took the opportunity to get to know everyone he could, networking as only a professional actor can. He was called in for a cold reading for the role in Connemara, and was hired, though as a non-company member. A few non-company members are in each show at Third Rail, though the season’s plays are selected with the company in mind. After Connemara, he says, “I hounded them some more. At one point I wrote up a list of reasons they should put me in the company, like, benefits for them, benefits for me… They finally caved.” He laughs, a sound I hear quite often over the course of the interview; Murray is habitually in a state of manic good-humor, and rarely goes more than a minute or so without making a joke of some sort. Continuing on, he tells me how working with Third Rail differs from working on productions in larger theaters like Portland Center Stage– it mostly has to do with who has the power. Third Rail is “artist-driven”, so the financing department is never in charge of artistic decisions, such as casting or even which plays are produced.
“Sounds great,” I say.
“Yeah, it’s the shit.”
But another difference between small and large theaters is that the budget is smaller and the equity laws tighter. “We run into overtime sooner than they do,” Murray says. The amount of time that actors can legally be kept working varies depending on their paychecks and the budget of the show. Larger theaters also get first dibs on shows, but this generally isn’t a problem, since Portland’s independent theaters lean towards small, experimental productions. Third Rail’s artistic-driven organization keeps artists in town, though its mission statement suggests that it is not a solely artist-serving company:
The mission of Third Rail Repertory Theatre is to provide a dynamic artistic home for theatre audiences in Portland by fostering a professional local company, which, through collaboration and discipline, brings to life exceptional stories that provoke dialogue, encourage empathy, and inspire curiosity (thirdrailrep.org/).
“A lot of actors get to a certain point in their careers where they need to leave,” Murray tells me. “Directors and designers, too.” The comparatively small size of the city is just limiting for artists, and no matter how quirky and thriving the arts scene in Portland is, working here is never have the magnitude of working in New York or Los Angeles. But in semi-professional theaters like Third Rail, there are interesting, artist-driven projects and decent pay for actors and directors. It’s not exactly living-wage-level, but the company is not “Paying anyone in $25 Victoria’s Secret gift cards. Which, you know, makes up much of my wages, normally. The costume designers, the stagehands– even if you’re just holding the door open for people, you’re paid.” Like most theaters, Third Rail’s budget comes chiefly from donors– it’s impossible to run a semi-professional theater solely off of ticket sales.
Independent theater has changed quite a lot since Murray first began working in Portland, a fact which surprised me, since he’s in his mid thirties and therefore has only been working professionally for so long. “It’s easier for actors to get equity now, and smaller theaters can get equity actors more easily, and there’s a lot more experimental theater. But there’s- well, it’s like the digital camera debate, you know? When digital cameras came out and suddenly everyone could make a movie with their friends in a week and take it to a film festival. The good stuff started being drowned out by all the shit, and the people who worked on their projects for years didn’t get any recognition.” Murray feels that there’s low-quality theater all over Portland, especially in Shakespeare productions. Even though more people are now going to plays, he says, interest is easily killed off by bad direction and acting. This happens often in people’s first experiences with Shakespeare; a crummy production in a public park can lead people to assume that Shakespeare and, by extension, theater, just isn’t for them. This lessening in crowds can make it difficult for good companies to stay in business, and for Shakespeare productions to be taken seriously by professionals and audiences alike.
“I’m glad I got Hamlet done back in 2008,” Murray says thoughtfully. “Definitely couldn’t do that now.”
The stylistic trend of American theater curves steadily towards darker subject matter and themes. It started as an escapist art form, meant to divert audiences from reality, but as acting styles have moved towards the realistic, performance has slowly become more dedicated to representing all elements of the human experience (Dictionary of American History). Sometimes this means a one-man show ending in suicide, sometimes it means glitzy dance numbers, and sometimes it means three people chasing each other around a set of stairs in total silence. Theater is about people– not actors, but the story. Every show is the product of the creative collaboration of a group of talented people, people who, as I learned from my visit, are all unique to the point of bizarreness. It seems impossible that so many large, excitable personalities can come together and make a show run smoothly, but that’s the miracle of the art form, and that’s what small theaters like Third Rail celebrate: the placement of art and creation over anything else.
Back in the warehouse, hugging myself against the cold, I remember watching Yarbrough line up his actors at the edge of the stage, facing the set, shoulder to shoulder. They look like soldiers, straight backed and tall, about to take on an insurmountable enemy.
“This is our Everest, ladies and gentlemen. As we get closer to the top, the men, our balls will drop–” One of the actresses mutters “I want to drop balls too,” and everyone breaks into laughter. Yarbrough grins and continues, “We will stride our way strongly to the top.” Poetic waxing over, he falls into a more comfortable tone. “So, we’re gonna just run it up to the dumbshow. I don’t know if any of you remember blocking act two, because I certainly don’t, but we’ll handle it.” The cast laughs again as they disperse, moving to their places backstage, mumbling lines and shaking out their legs, checking in with each other, preparing to plunge into collaborative art.
“We done pussyfootin’ around this thing?” Yarbrough calls out, and work begins.
Actorsequity.org | Actors’ Equity Association History and Awards. actorsequity.org | Actors’
Equity Association History and Awards. N.p., n.d. Web. 4 Dec. 2013.
Murray, Chris. Personal Interview. Nov. 5, 2013.
Murphy, Olivia. Informal Interview. Nov. 6, 2013.
Plagens, Peter. “Our Next Art Capital: Portland?.” The Wall Street Journal [New York] 2 May
2012, sec. Arts and Entertainment: n. pag. http://online.wsj.com/. Web. 5 Dec. 2013.