Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Interview - Slayden Scott Yarbrough

September 25, 2007

Technical difficulties with PDF. Word doc of the full interview here.

Full text also pasted into first post of thread.

In two short years, Third Rail Repertory has established itself as one of the leading theatre companies in Portland.

followspot caught up with Artistic Director Slayden Scott Yarbrough to find out more about this dynamic new force.

When Recent Tragic Events opened in the spring of 2005, Third Rail was an unknown quantity with no fixed address. Six productions later, they have a subscriber base, a three show season model, an established home stage at IFCC, an attic full of Drammy awards, and a growing company of top local actors.

They also have their own bowling shirts.

Grace, Third Rail’s first show of the 2007-2008 season, opens September 28 at the IFCC.


followspot said...

followspot Interview – Slayden Scott Yarbrough

September 25, 2007
Portland, Oregon

In two short years, Third Rail Repertory has established itself as one of the leading theatre companies in Portland.

followspot caught up with Artistic Director Slayden Scott Yarbrough to find out more about this dynamic new force.

When Recent Tragic Events opened in the spring of 2005, Third Rail was an unknown quantity with no fixed address. Six productions later, they have a subscriber base, a three show season model, an established home stage at IFCC, an attic full of Drammy awards, and a growing company of top local actors. They also have their own bowling shirts.

Grace, Third Rail’s first show of the 2007-2008 season, opens September 28 at the IFCC.

Followspot: Hi, Scott. Thanks for taking the time to speak with us. You must be in the thick of things getting ready for Grace.

Slayden Scott Yarbrough: Yep. We started loading-in this week which means I’ll probably be getting a cold this weekend. That seems to be the emerging pattern.

FS: But before we get to Grace, taking a cue from its playwright Craig Wright, I want to go back. Can you give us some history on your theatre background? When did the interest start, where did you study, and what has been your path since school?

SSY: Depends how far back you want to go. I’m guessing you don’t want all the gory details of my first acting gig as Polaris the North Star in 1st Grade.

My first real memory of going to the theatre was back when I was six or seven. My mother took me to a play in our hometown that must have been set in a firehouse, because there was an upstairs loft and a fireman’s pole that the actors would slide down. I was fascinated by that. I have no idea what that play was, but I’d love to find out. So if any of your readers know of a play with a fireman’s pole in it, let me know.

I grew up in Shawnee, Oklahoma where my exposure to theatre, especially professional theatre, was pretty limited. In college, I was half-way through my Junior year and had taken all the required courses and electives I could without having picked a major, so I was called into whatever the equivalent of the counselor’s office is in college and given the riot act about having to pick SOMETHING because all my remaining hours would have to be in my major. I picked theatre by default, because I had done it in high school and it had been fun, but I had no intention of doing anything with the degree. I had no discernable ambitions, apparently.

After graduating, I was hired by the University to be the Technical Director for the Theatre Department (having no detectable skills in that area). I designed and built sets, created and hung light plots, basically everything except make costumes. For the first time I saw a play from the point of view of someone other than an actor.

In the middle of that year I spent a couple of weeks in London where I saw about a dozen plays. It was at the National Theatre that my idea of what theatre was and could be completely changed. I couldn’t have been less excited when I was told we’d be going to see Murmuring Judges by David Hare, a play about the British judicial system. I didn’t know who David Hare was and I didn’t care two shakes about Britain’s judicial system. It was amazing: the scope of the piece, the spectacle, the story, the “event-ness” of the whole thing. I was back the next day to see The Wind in the Willows on the same stage. I had never seen anything like it. This huge revolving mountain that could rise and fall and split in half. I saw actors in their sixties and seventies running around in bunny costumes having the time of their lives. I remember thinking, “a person can actually spend their life creating theatre and make a career out of it?” I knew that I didn’t have the chops to make it as an actor or the artistic skills to be a designer. So, by default, I set my sights on becoming a director, since that would allow me to keep my finger in all those other pies.

I applied to LSU’s Directing program and through an administrative error was admitted into their MA program in Theatre History, Criticism, and Dramatic Literature instead. With no other offers hanging out there for me, I accepted. Four days after moving down to Baton Rouge, Hurricane Andrew swept through and flooded my apartment. I should have taken that as a sign. It was two of the most miserable years of my life and I threw myself quite a pity party. Instead of learning how to be a better director, I was spending my hours doing research and sitting in class with a bunch of brainiacs whose only goal seemed to be making sure everyone else knew how much they already knew. All my friends, who were actors and stage managers, were always in rehearsal or performances, while I was sitting in my studio apartment writing papers. After my first year I almost quit and took my toys and when home, but the head of my program sat me down and helped me work up a plan for that last year that would put me on course to be ready for a graduate program in directing. I took the rest of my academic classes that summer and spent six more weeks in London. My last year I stage managed, took classes in scene study and set design, directed a lab show, wrote my thesis, and applied to 6 grad schools. I was only accepted into one program, but fortunately, it was my number one choice: Ohio University.

The next three years were the complete opposite of my LSU experience. I was in classes with actors and directors, in rehearsals every night, read plays almost every day, spent my summers on Cape Cod doing summer stock, spent another couple of weeks in London on internship, and directed 13 plays. Because of LSU, I knew what I wanted out of my time at OU and didn’t waste a second. I had already taken most of the academic classes required by OU so I was able to substitute subjects I was interested in in their place. I loved every minute of it.

After grad school, I spent six months back in Oklahoma, nine months in Portland checking it out, a year in Cincinnati, and three years in New York City. I moved here with my wife, Stephanie Gaslin, a native Portlander, in 2002.

FS: How would you describe your theatre aesthetic?

SSY: I don’t know that I really have an aesthetic as such. I like a good story. I like to be surprised. I like honesty in writing, performances and design. I like not seeing the director’s hand in things. Nothing bugs me so much as a director showing me how clever they are at the expense of the story or the actors.

I’m actually a terrible audience member. I can’t turn off the director part of my brain and as soon as it latches on to something that distracts it, that’s all she wrote. Fortunately, I bring that same critical eye to my directing. I can guarantee you I’m my toughest critic and I’m rarely satisfied with my own work.

FS: What theatrical traditions or styles do you relate to?

SSY: I guess realism? That seems to be the bulk of the work I produce. I really don’t think I have a particular style that I gravitate towards. I’m drawn to a good story and good writing. It doesn’t matter so much to me what traditions or styles a play might be a part of as long as my interest is maintained.

I think my tastes may be better defined by what I don’t like. Call the blasphemy police, but I can’t stand Shakespeare. I think there should be a 10-year moratorium on producing Shakespeare so that we can all start fresh. There are no surprises anymore in Shakespeare’s plays (in the narrative, at least). The emphasis has mutated from the work itself to “how will so-and-so actor play such-and-such scene?” Plus, that language takes such skill to pull off intellectually and emotionally. Very few actors I know of have the ability to make me forget that I’m watching somebody play Shakespeare instead of just watching a great story. This whole attitude of mine really drives Third Rail members crazy. O’Connell used to think my dislike of Shakespeare would make me the perfect candidate to direct it, but I think I may have finally dissuaded him of that. (Although, I have an all-puppet version of Macbeth that I’d love to try out.)

FS: What were some early formative shows you saw?

SSY: Besides the play with the fireman’s pole, most of my formative shows were things I saw in London. I already mentioned Murmuring Judges and The Wind in the Willows. Others are The Gift of the Gorgon, Arcadia, An Inspector Calls, The Caucasian Chalk Circle (by Complicité), Closer, and…wait for it…Starlight Express. There was this period of seven years when I spent a lot of time in London and I went to about 80+ productions. That whole experience of immersing myself in British theatre has so much to do with who I am as a director and what I value in a production.

FS: Any specific directors who have influenced you?

SSY: I would say, most importantly, Trevor Nunn. My LSU thesis was on his work with the RSC and his crossover into mainstream musicals and how that got him into hot water with the British press. Before I knew anything about anything, I saw Aspects of Love in London and read that the director of that also directed Starlight Express and had been the Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company for 15 years. This was while I was still living in Oklahoma. I could not wrap my mind around the fact that the same person was hugely successful working for the subsidized theatre as well as the for-profit theatre. Trying to reconcile those two things led me to start researching him and I found his story fascinating and inspiring. He became the artistic director of the RSC when he was 28 years old! Seeing his progression from classical plays to more populist work with the RSC to Nicholas Nickleby was really eye-opening to me. And then, how Les Miserables was an obvious culmination of his entire career, and that he was pummeled by the press for producing a “West End musical” at the RSC; the whole thing played out like a soap opera. So I’d say I’m probably more influenced by his history and his ability to work in so many styles and genres than in any specific directorial signatures. He was also gracious enough to talk with me for about an hour the day he was moving into his office at the National. It’s strange, I’ve found it much easier to gain access to British directors than to American directors. I don’t know why.

Stephen Daldry’s work on An Inspector Calls and Trevor Nunn’s direction of Arcadia sort of defined the extremes of a director’s role for me. Stephen Daldry turned what is a fairly straightforward socio-political detective mystery into an evening of spectacle and passion and chills and sorrow that absolutely floored me. The play I saw on stage wasn’t the play I had read on the page, but every choice that was made in that production was grounded in the text. It was unbelievable! I’ve never stood faster for an ovation than I did at that show. A few weeks later, at Arcadia, I had the exact opposite experience. All I saw was the playwrights’ story. I couldn’t see the director working at all. It’s an extremely complex play that was presented with such clarity and affection. Both experiences were equally influential to defining what I wanted my work as a director to be.

FS: What playwrights live in your personal pantheon? Why?

SSY: I love Stoppard and have yet to have a chance to direct him. (I did direct his 15-Minute Hamlet, but that doesn’t really count, I don’t think.) It’s funny, before that production of Arcadia, I couldn’t stand Stoppard. I thought he was just clever for the sake of being clever. But THEN, after seeing his work moving about in space and inhabited by characters, I had a 180° about face.

Peter Barnes is one of my favorites. His plays are so challenging. Great language and physicality, stories that pull for the underdog, a mish-mash of styles that are all subservient to the story. He’s rarely produced, though, which is a real shame. I think it’s because he writes the impossible.

David Edgar, Howard Brenton, Ben Elton, Patrick Marber, Martin McDonagh, Athol Fugard, Jonathan Harvey, James McLure, Peter Shaffer, Anthony Neilson, David Hare, Phyllis Nagy, Christopher Hampton, Jez Butterworth, Doug Lucie, Arthur Miller, John Guare, Conor McPherson.

Obviously, Craig Wright belongs right at the top of this list.

FS: Any other artistic influences we should know about?

SSY: Not really. I’ve got a strange mix of very eclectic and scarily mainstream tastes. One of the great things about being a director is you get to discover new artists and writers and musicians on every show. One of my profs in grad school once told me “Directing is the quickest way to a shallow education.” I couldn’t agree more.

I do love Peter Hall’s Diaries. I try to read that book at least once a year.

FS: Did you always know you wanted to direct? Have you acted or written before?

SSY: No, I actually came to directing fairly late. I was 21 when I directed my first play and hated it. I was the worst communicator and everything I said felt clichéd and I had no idea why I said anything at all. It was horrible and I was miserable through the whole process. I’m only now beginning to feel like I’m a somewhat decent communicator, although I expect that will be the bulk of my own personal work throughout most of my career.

I used to act. I don’t have any plans to try it again. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone. I do get an itch every once in a while when there’s a great role that seems right up my alley. But don’t hold your breath.

I can’t stand to write. Just the process of it skeeves me out. I think it comes from all those papers I had to write at LSU. Every time I have to write a director’s note for one of our productions, it’s pure misery. I’d much rather let the play speak for itself than to have to yammer on about it. I also don’t think I really have anything to say that hasn’t already been said much better by someone else.

FS: How much theatre have you seen or made outside the US?

SSY: As I’ve said, I’ve seen tons in London, but never directed outside of the States. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t like to. I’d love to take a Third Rail show to Britain some day.

FS: Who have been some of the key mentors in your past?

SSY: My two professors at OU: George Sherman and David McClendon. George was one of the founders of Second City and has the best and most infectious laugh of anyone I’ve ever known. His improv class is legendary. I’d take it every year if I could. He also has one of the healthiest outlooks of anybody I’ve ever met who has a career in theatre. He once said “God put us here to have a good time. It’s our job to figure out how to accomplish that.” He was very practical about the craft of directing. For him, a healthy diet, rest, and alone time were just as important as script analysis (which he was no slouch at either).

David taught me about the practical aspects of starting and maintaining a career. Lots of great tools and a healthy dose of not taking any of this too seriously. The best advice he ever gave to me: find a rich girl who can support your theatre addiction. I said it was good advice, I didn’t say I took it.

FS: How long have you lived in Portland, and how did you select this city as a place to start your theatre company?

SSY: I’ve been here since the fall of 2002. I remember years and years ago, before theatre was even on my radar, seeing a piece on 60 Minutes about OSF that made it sound wonderful. That was my only real connection to Oregon early on. I did know that I’d never have a career in theatre if I stayed in Oklahoma. Plus, I can’t stand heat and humidity. It kills me. When I met Steph in grad school, we talked about Portland off and on and she knew she wanted to go back there some day. She thought it would be a great place to start the kind of theatre I gravitated towards. I took her word for it and things have worked out pretty well so far.

FS: What was the founding moment for Third Rail? How did it start? When did you get the idea?

SSY: The idea of being an artistic director of a company had been in my head since grad school. I’m not very good at selling myself as a director. I’m too shy and get very nervous around people I don’t know. So I didn’t see a huge future in freelancing looming out there. If I was going to have a career as a director I figured I’d have to become an artistic director somehow. That meant I’d have to start a company.

I knew that I didn’t want to start things up in New York. It’s difficult enough putting a single show up there, not to mention getting anyone to come see it. Also, by the time you have a show up and running, unless you have amazing contacts and backing, you’ve compromised yourself out of anything that even remotely resembles your original vision. Life’s too stinkin’ short.

I guess the founding moment for the company came the last week we were living in New York before we moved out here. I’d gone through several ideas for names that didn’t stick: Rep 11, Big Trouble Rep., etc., etc., etc. One afternoon I was standing on a platform waiting for the A-train when I looked down at the tracks and the idea of the name just dropped into my head. The subways use three tracks, or rails. Two of them are steel that the wheels of the train sit on. A long thin U-shaped paddle juts out from the side of the train and rests on the third rail. This rail is juiced and provides the electricity that powers the train. There were so many things about that image that I liked: the urban feel of subways, the industrial feel of train tracks, the electricity that is vital to powering the machine, the sense of danger, the movement and momentum the rail generates. It seemed a perfect fit. Not to mention the political implications of the third rail.

FS: How did you find your collaborators?

SSY: It’s very strange how that happened. You can call it fate or destiny or juju, whatever you want. I met Tim True at Ohio University. He was entering their actor training program the same year I was entering their directing program. We were acquaintances but not necessarily friends. Steph had been following in Tim’s tracks for years. They went to the same high school, undergrad program, and graduate school, but since he was five years older than her, they’d never met. When Steph and I moved to New York, she waited tables at Fiorello’s where she met another waiter from Portland, Michael O’Connell. Mike knew Tim from a show they did together in New York. None of us made these bigger connections while we were living there, though. Then, all of us, by completely separate paths, ended up moving to Portland within about a year of each other. I came to town with this idea of starting a company and it took about six months of meeting people and getting a feel for the city before we actually met in a room to bang around on this idea for a while. These kinds of connections and coincidences are really a big part of this company, how it formed and how it continues to grow. It’s really a little creepy to be honest.

FS: Has your original vision for Third Rail played out according to plan?

SSY: I think the only plan we had at the beginning was to not make complete asses of ourselves. We had no experience in running an organization of any kind.

One of our goals was to create a company that respected the time, interests, and needs of its members. We’ve all worked for companies that put the concerns of the artist at the bottom of the list of priorities. A life in theatre is frustrating enough without banging your head against organizational bureaucracy every time you’re fortunate enough to land a gig. We hoped that by taking control of the day-to-day planning and running of the business of the theatre that we could continue to put the primary focus on the work. So far it’s played out very well, but with the growth we’re experiencing it’s getting more and more difficult to keep up.

We also wanted to produce work that would challenge us artistically and provide an opportunity for our actors to dive into roles that they wouldn’t normally be considered for in RegionalTheatreLand. I really wanted a company comprised completely of character actors; actors who can jump into any role and make bold, honest, and appropriate choices. That’s what makes British actors so versatile, I believe. You don’t think of Judi Dench necessarily as a leading lady or a character actress in the traditional sense. She’s freakin’ Judi Dench! She can do whatever she wants to do and she’ll do it beautifully, because their system doesn’t pigeonhole actors by type. At least it didn’t. I’m not so sure how accurate that statement is for the current generation of stage-trained actors. So we try to provide opportunities for our actors to stretch outside their comfort zone. It makes them better actors and, hopefully, more marketable in the bargain.

To do that, we needed to provide a safe environment for them to work in, so that they can make fools of themselves or fall flat on their faces as they take new risks and for that to be ok. We’re still figuring out what that environment is. It changes from show to show and cast to cast. I think it’s something that we’ve been pretty successful at with our company members. There are still kinks to work out on translating that environment to actors who work with us that aren’t currently in the company.

We also wanted to make sure that we considered our audiences when choosing work. First and foremost, no matter if it’s a comedy, a tragedy, an absurdist piece, an allegory, etc, it should be entertaining. Second, while there’s no way that all audiences will like every play we choose, we want to make sure they can find little fault in the presentation. We also want to create a welcoming and accessible relationship with our audiences. Company members handle the box office phone, sell tickets, write our e-mail newsletters, greet patrons at the door of the theatre; lots of little things that will help them see us as their company. We want to build an audience that will go see a play because it’s a Third Rail production, not because it’s by a specific playwright or because it has high name recognition. It’s a very saturated market out there in terms of options for spending your entertainment dollars and I think it’s vital to our long-term success to build a strong base of audience support for the company.

FS: It seems like you reached your current operating model quickly. Are you basically where you want to be now?

SSY: We are where we are. We’ve moved beyond where any of us could have predicted we’d be at this stage of things. It’s a good place to be, but it’s also very scary. We’ve only been producing for 2 ½ years and we’re having to make choices based more on instinct than on a history of proven or failed practices.

FS: Was it hard starting your own theatre company? What are a few things you encountered along this journey that you did not expect?

SSY: It’s been very hard, but not nearly as hard as I’d built it up to be in my head before taking that first committed step. I think things have actually gone very smoothly due in large part to the fact that we were thinking long-term from the very beginning.

We met every Monday for two years before we ever went into rehearsal for a production. We spent that time doing tons of brainstorming in order to find common ground in the kind of work we wanted to produce, how we would produce that work, and how we might fit into the theatre community. We also slogged through the paperwork to become incorporated and to obtain our 501(c)(3) nonprofit designation. We worked on marketing plans and organizational duties and just tried to act how we thought “professionals” would act. And because of all that advance groundwork, we found that we’ve been able to adjust quickly to most anything that’s come up.

One of the things I’ve found to be really great about working in Portland is how generous other companies have been in helping us get started. PCS has opened their prop and furniture shops up to us for shows and let us hold one of our first fundraisers in their scene shop. ART has loaned us projectors and things for other events. We might not even be producing today if it hadn’t been for CoHo taking a risk in co-producing our first play.

FS: How far out do you plan for Third Rail? Do you have specific ideas of where you would like to take the company in the next few years?

SSY: We’ve found it really difficult to plan much further out than the upcoming season. We’re so dependent on using our subscriber base as a benchmark for anticipating audience growth which then helps us gauge how aggressive we can be in planning for show size and design needs.

We’re very conservative when it comes to growth. We don’t want to move so fast that we don’t have the organizational structure and manpower to keep up. But we also don’t want to have to pass on potentially great opportunities because we can’t support them.

Realistically, we just hope to produce work of a quality that will help us continue to grow our support base. That’s what will allow us to start planning further out.

FS: Regarding your current home at the IFCC and future growth. How well does it suit your needs, and have you thought about how you could handle a growing audience? Would you consider adding more shows to a run? At some point will you need to move to a larger space?

SSY: The IFCC has been a blessing. It suits our needs so well. It’s such an inviting building and very comfortable. It’s intimate but also allows for a fairly big stage picture for that size house.

Of course there are frustrations with the space, but that’s the case with any of the 99-seaters in town. After producing five shows there, you can almost predict which moment will be destroyed by the MAX coming into the station across the street. The lack of wing and fly space is difficult as well. The fact that one of the fire exits is on stage means that we have to design our sets with a 4-foot wide path from the house, through the set, to that door, which can be a big buzz kill sometimes. But the IFCC’s been great in that it is big enough that we’ve had room to grow but also can accommodate full houses on a successful show.

We’re aiming for the day when demand requires that we add shows to a run. The tricky thing with the IFCC is it’s become in such demand that you don’t have the wiggle room to extend a run. Additional performances can be added during the run, but by the time you learn that you need to do that, there’s very little time to publicize it.

It would be great if audience size dictated that we move to a larger space. But then the question becomes “where”? Also, once we move out of a 99-seat house, then we’re locked into substantial increased Equity costs. So I guess the short answer is, we’re looking down the road for when that may become a necessity, but for right now we’re hoping the IFCC continues to house us.

FS: What is the hardest part of your job? Selecting the plays? Producing the shows? Directing? Building an audience? What parts of your job do you struggle with?

SSY: The sheer volume of tasks to keep track of is pretty daunting. We’re still basically a volunteer organization so we’re dependent on squeezing tasks into the bits of spare time we find in our regular lives. Also, having a 6-month old boy in the middle of last season makes any spare time that much more valuable for me.

Now that we’re in the middle of our seventh show, I think I’ve become pretty good at balancing the roles of producer and director. I’m able to leave either role at the door when I need to. However, because I spend substantially more of my time as producer, I never feel as prepared as I’d like to heading into rehearsal. I always wish I had an extra week of prep time to spend on the script.

The most frustrating part, and this has really surprised me, is play selection. I have a list of at least 150 plays I’d like to direct and very few of them have been appropriate for Third Rail for one reason or another. Either the cast is too big, or we don’t have the right actors in the company, or the tech demands are too large, or a million other things. And trying to find a combination of do-ability and material that seems to fit our sensibility has been maddening. We’ve created a small group within the company to help me with reading and evaluating plays and it’s been extremely helpful so far.

FS: Where do you feel you personally need to develop the most artistically right now?

SSY: I have a terrible eye when it comes to costumes. It’s such a personal element for the actors and I inevitably suggest they be costumed in the exact piece that will make them the most uncomfortable. It’s awful.

I’d also like to have a better sense of movement and how that can help tell a story. I’d like to take an extended Viewpoints training course just to see if I could find ways to use it as a tool. I’ve worked with other systems based on Viewpoints but I lose interest quickly. It’s very difficult for me to work on a task or project without any discernable goal. Just “exploring” for its own sake bores me to death. I need to see some applicable use in a project quickly or I get really frustrated. That’s my own personal hang-up.

FS: Tell us about a specific directorial choice you struggled with on a past production and how you resolved it successfully.

SSY: The beginning of Recent Tragic Events was a real challenge that I didn’t really see until we were heading into tech weekend. The play opens with a stage manager addressing the audience and then begins with a knock on the door. The play takes place on a blind date in Minneapolis on September 12, 2001 and once we moved into the theatre I found that it took quite a while to really empathize with the characters and what they were going through. It had been almost 4 years since September 11 and that day was already starting to lose some of it’s emotional impact because we’d been dealing with it through a mass of rhetoric and filtered through other events (the war in Iraq, Homeland Security, terror this and terror that).

The characters in the play watch coverage on the news through the whole play, so I decided in the blackout between the stage manager’s speech and the start of the first scene, to bring up the “TV” light that illuminates the room in a faint blue wash. I then compressed the events of that day into about 90 seconds of source audio from radio and television broadcasts and then underscored the last 30 seconds with a musical theme that was then repeated at the end of the show. It was sort of like getting emotionally sucker punched and was a risky way to start a play that is essentially a comedy. But it really helped set the tone, not only for the play, but also for Third Rail. We were taking a big risk with that show and we weren’t going to shy away from it and play it safe.

Every once in a while I’ll play that cue and it still sends shivers through my body.

FS: What about a directorial choice that, if you could go back (there’s Mr. Wright again) you would do differently?

SSY: I don’t know if you would necessarily call this a directorial choice, but if I could, I’d take back all my work on Dirty Story. I thought I did a terrible job on that show. The actors were great and they put up with a not insignificant amount of directorial angst on my part. I couldn’t nail down a consistent style for the play and the first act is such a long cipher and I couldn’t find a way to make it active or coherent enough for my tastes. And the second act takes such a massive right turn into a completely different world. I thought the play was a real mess and that I had taken all the success from Recent Tragic Events and flushed it right down the toilet. The night before we opened I e-mailed my parents and told them to cancel their plane tickets because the show was going to be a complete and total failure. And then we hit opening night and the show received one of many standing ovations and I was at a complete loss. I didn’t know what show they were all watching but it wasn’t the same one I was seeing.

FS: So far you have directed every Third Rail production. Is that likely to stay the same in the future? Are there any plans to add additional directors to the company?

SSY: Pretty much I’m going to keep directing until we have a big stinky flop of a play. Then, once the pressure is off a little, we’ll maybe explore other options. I wouldn’t mind a break, to tell you the truth, but it really feels like I should stick with it. If we were to start adding more plays to the season we’d have to bring in other directors. Some of the actors in the company have shown an interesting in directing. It would be nice to keep things in house because we seem to all have a pretty good shared aesthetic.

FS: Will you be adding any more actors to the company this year?

SSY: Too soon to tell. We have a working sketch of a system about bringing on new members, but it’s always evolving. I don’t anticipate having a very good answer to that question until the end of the season.

FS: We all have hopes, plans, ideas for the future that range from the very doable on the one hand to the wildly ambitious on the other. Do you have any long held theatre dreams, or any type of “one day I’d like to…” aspirations? What are some of those longer term projects or shows that, if all goes well, you would like to achieve?

SSY: I’d love to take a Third Rail show outside of Portland. Not touring so much as working with other regional companies to bring in a show for one of their slots. That would provide more work for our actors and help raise the visibility of the company to a more national level.

I have lots of projects that we’re just too small to do or won’t fit in the IFCC. I’d love to do more work by Peter Barnes. We’ve had a love/hate relationship with a play of his called Dreaming. I’d also like to try my hand at his play The Bewitched and take another stab at Red Noses, my thesis at OU.

I’d like to try McDonagh’s Leenane trilogy in rep. I’d like to do Preston Jones’ Texas Trilogy. I’ve put some teensy-weensy feelers out to Carlos Kalmar about the possibility of doing Stoppard’s Every Good Boy Deserves Favour with the Symphony. I’d love to be able to afford to bring Craig Wright in to get to know our actors and then commission a play specifically for this group. David Edgar’s Maydays, Stoppard’s Hapgood, an amazing play by Peter Shaffer called The Gift of the Gorgon, a scarily good play by Phyllis Nagy called The Strip. The list could go on and on.

I’d also love for Third Rail to become known as a company that takes big risks and that our audiences are up to going with us no matter where we take them.

FS: How do you work with a dramaturg? Is a dramaturg on hand during the rehearsal process? What has your dramaturg been doing on Grace?

SSY: I’m still figuring out how to work with a dramaturg. I learned the value of doing research in grad school and that’s a hard part of the process for me to give up. Much of the time I have to do a lot of background reading before I really clue in to what it is about a play that resonates with me.

Karin Magaldi has been our dramaturg since Dirty Story and she’s been very helpful. Basically I talk with Karin before we go into a show about the themes and ideas and images in the play that I’ve been having trouble digesting. She’ll then start gathering info from a wide variety of sources and compile a large binder full of material for the rehearsal hall. She sits in on rehearsals when she can, but she’s a busy theatre person in her own right.

For Grace, she’s found some great images and stories about the bombing of Hamburg, background on real estate flipping, and the secret life of evangelical Christians. It’s a really tough play that has so many ideas and themes and questions (and very few answers) that she’s also the lucky devil who gets to hear all my anxiety about whether I can make the whole thing balance out once you have actors moving through time and space. That’s a thankless job.

FS: You are adding a new offering this year: staged readings. You are doing Craig Wright’s Lady on Oct. 21. This sounds exciting. Can you tell us any more about this new format?

SSY: We’re trying to provide other opportunities for outreach to our patrons. Readings give our audiences a chance to experience additional work by our favorite playwrights, or for us to test out the response to a play we’re considering producing down the road, or to present guilty pleasures, plays we’d love to do but don’t yet have the cojones to put them in our season. We’ve also started implementing a series of panel discussions based on themes of the current production. Our first one was for A Lesson from Aloes and it was a fantastic event. I was as proud as I’d ever been to be a member of Third Rail that night.

FS: What to you is distinctive about the Third Rail ethos? Describe a little about how you work together, how you make decisions.

SSY: I think the key to what has made Third Rail successful organizationally and artistically is the feeling of ownership that we all have of the company. Our names are on the bottom line. If something isn’t happening like we think it should, it’s up to us to make it right.

We’ve all been around the block. We’ve had professional training, worked in regional theatre, in New York, summer stock, Shakespeare festivals, touring shows, educational theatre, children’s theatre, you name it. And there’s a very strong sense that if we’re going to put the amount of time and energy into this venture that we have done and will continue to do, then it had better be a pretty substantial payoff. We know that payoff isn’t going to manifest itself in buckets of cash. That payoff comes from a sense of pride in your work, a sense of contributing to your community, and a sense that the work you’re doing matters.

We’re a pretty democratic organization. Luckily, and I don’t think this is by accident, we all have very similar sensibilities when it comes to what we love about theatre and what drives us crazy. Most company decisions have been unanimous. We’ve rarely needed to take a vote on company business. Ultimately, all artistic decisions come to me for the final ‘yea’ or ‘nay’, but these decisions are made with substantial input from the company.

FS: I have heard Third Rail goes on an annual retreat. How long do you go for, and what do you do?

SSY: We usually go for about four to five days, but we are only able to get the entire company there at the same time for a couple of days. Last year our main goal was to create a full production calendar for our first full season. This summer we came up with a huge list of all the tasks that have to get done over the course of a season and then worked out a plan to distribute those responsibilities equitably among company members.

We also read plays, look at financials, talk about short- and long-term goals and dreams, take stock of what worked and what didn’t the previous year, etc. There’s also lots of eating, marathon games of RISK, Off-Road Croquet Tournaments, horseshoes, dueling ukuleles; pretty much anything nerdy has a place.

As a company, we’ve had to make sure to schedule time to just hang out, because as much as we see each other over the course of the season, it’s a very rare occasion that all of us are in the same room at any one time. So we carve out as much recess as we can, because we don’t get much chance to play during the year. The retreat helps facilitate this.

FS: Do you wear the shirts?

SSY: And nothing else.

FS: You have taken a liking to Irish playwright Connor McPherson, whose play Shining City is the second in your 2007-2008 season. His language is very conversational and broken up – it’s intensely specific to time and place, i.e., Dublin. Lots of “ems’, “ums”, and “you knows”. Do you foresee some intense dialect coaching ahead on that show?

SSY: Absolutely. Fortunately we have an amazing dialect coach in the company, the lovely and talented Stephanie Gaslin. She’s done all our dialect work so far (Connemara/Galway Irish, 3 separate South African dialects, and German) and will be doing work on both Shining City and …Chickens. And thank goodness we have her. I can barely distinguish between Irish, Scottish, and British. She has an amazing ear, a great bedside manner, and extremely high standards. She doesn’t let folks get lazy in their sounds. The cast is usually terrified when she sits in on rehearsals.

FS: Do you have any favorite playwrights you would like to do but fear their work is too “out there” for audiences?

SSY: Not really. I’d like to take a crack at Sarah Kane (Cleansed) just to try to figure out how to make her plays work off the page. She has such terrifying imagery and action in her plays that I wonder if they can even be presented in a way that resonates beyond shock value. So for me, I’d almost rather work on one of her plays in a purely workshop situation just to explore how to stage them with an element of real humanity.

There’s one play by a German playwright that the founding members have been dying to do since early on. The newer company members think we’ve lost all sense of taste and decorum in wanting to do the play. It’s part Ayckbourn, part Albee, part Tarantino. Keep your eyes open and fingers crossed because it may end up in our Reading Series.

FS: How does the Portland theatre scene feel to you now? Is it going up, down, sideways? When you compare Portland to other cities, what is distinct about the theatre scene here, if anything?

SSY: I’ll probably raise some hackles with this, but it seems to me that theatre is the poor, red-headed stepchild of the arts community in Portland. Music and dance have such great followings in this town. And with the success of the Portland Art Museum and the number of galleries that are popping up all over the place, visual art seems to be doing quite well. The performance art/DIY scene, which some theatre seems to fall into, gets great visibility from T:BA every fall. The move to the Gerding by PCS has been given lots of space on the pages of the Oregonian and hopefully that translates to theatre being on the radar of more Portlanders that before.

I don’t think we have to just sit back and accept our place in the current hierarchy. But the only way we’re going to move up is to create work that is of a more consistent quality. For some reason people are much more willing to go to a club to hear a band that they’re unfamiliar with than to go see a play of any kind. We’ve got to keep working to create a buzz about theatre in Portland, but we also have to back it up with work that is of a consistently high quality.

FS: If you could change anything about the current theatre landscape in Portland, what would it be?

SSY: Boy, do I wish training played a bigger role in this city. I believe training is invaluable and, as a director, it shows me two things: that a person has made a serious commitment to begin learning the skills necessary to creating and maintaining a career in professional theatre and that I’m going to have at least a similar working vocabulary with that person. Experience is also extremely important. Being a natural born prodigy would also help things. But for most of us who haven’t been treading the boards since the Seventies and who are mere mortals when it comes to talent, training can really make a huge difference. From what I can tell, there is only one graduate program in theatre in all of Oregon; the University of Portland’s MFA in Directing. And, unfortunately, that doesn’t have an MFA Acting program to go along with it.

Training is an important element with Third Rail. We’re trying to hold workshops on every show that will either give us an introduction to skills we don’t have or that will help us on the requirements of the current production. On Number Three, Philip Cuomo worked with the actors for about a week on the physical world of the play. The clarity and size of that work went a long way to defining the world of the play. This fall the whole company is taking a 10-week course in Alexander Technique. Steph will probably provide classes for dialects at some point. And so on and so on.

FS: How connected are you to the larger US theatre community? Do you see many shows in other parts of the country?

SSY: Not very connected unfortunately. I’m trying to change that. Third Rail was just accepted as a TCG Member Theatre this summer and I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to attending their annual conference for just that reason. And in terms of seeing work around the country, except for our honeymoon, day trips to Seattle and visiting my parents in Denver and friends in Vegas, I haven’t been out of the Portland/Vancouver area in the last five years. How sad is that?

FS: Grace will be the third Craig Wright play you have done. That can’t be a coincidence. What is it about Wright that attracts you? How did your relationship with him begin?

SSY: One of the things I love about Craig’s work is that he has the ability to take huge universal ideas (time, fate, faith) and present them from two different perspectives simultaneously. He creates very intimate stories of people who have to confront these big ideas while at the same time providing context for these ideas as seen from the far reaches of the universe. I find it a trait that is uniquely his own.

In my director’s note for Grace I wrote: “Craig writes plays that are dangerous in ways that sneak up on you and linger for days. His plays look at the rules we create for ourselves in order to live our lives as best we can and then proceed to smash those rules to get at the terrifying, wondrous, lonely and unsettling reality of what it means to be human." His plays make you rejoice at the possibilities of life and weep at the pain you will be made to experience along the way.

I first met Craig in the summer of 2001. His play, The Pavilion, was being produced at the Contemporary American Theatre Festival where I was working as the assistant to the artistic director. Part of my job was to attend rehearsals for all four of the plays as the eyes and ears of the artistic director and I found myself spending most of my time in rehearsals for The Pavilion. I would tear up in rehearsals all the time. I’d never been affected by a play like I had been during that process. The Festival also presented the first public reading of Craig’s play Orange Flower Water which I was given the opportunity to direct. So the day of the reading, I talked with Craig about the play over breakfast and then spent the afternoon with him in rehearsals and then the play was read that night. It’s a great great play and I’d love to direct it as well at some point. Anyway, I haven’t seen him since, but we’ve had some correspondence by e-mail for Recent Tragic Events and The Pavilion and have spoken several times over the course of rehearsals for Grace.

FS: Wright sounds like a fascinating guy [Note: Look for a followspot interview with Craig Wright coming next], and his own personal story is deeply tied up with religion, a central subject in Grace.

He was born Jewish and went to synagogue and Hebrew school. His mother died when he was seven, after which time his Judaism waned. At 14 he became a born again Christian, but fell out of the fold when he was 20. At 21, he started writing plays. At 29, he decided to become a minister and went to United Theological Seminary in Minnesota. Right as he graduated his play The Pavilion took off, and he decide to become a writer instead. How do you make sense of the religious aspects of Wright’s art?

SSY: I was raised a Southern Baptist. My father taught church history and spent most of my time growing up as interim pastor at one church or another. I also attended a Southern Baptist University for my undergraduate degree. So I can only understand the religious aspects of Grace through the filter of my own experience. A lot of what I saw growing up could be viewed as religious hypocrisy. That’s certainly how I viewed it. But what Craig has done in Grace, is to take actions that seem to be hypocritical and instead view them as paradox, which I find to be much more interesting. It takes judgment out of the equation and brings actions down to a level that we can all understand. Why am I here? Is there a plan for me?

FS: He has had a lot of success in the last few years writing for TV. Do you know how he splits his time now in terms of playwriting and screenwriting?

SSY: No, I’ve never discussed that with him. I know that he spent last year writing for Brothers & Sisters as well as developing his own series, Dirty Sexy Money, which premieres this week. In that time, two new plays of his were produced, Lady at Northlight Theatre north of Chicago and The Unseen at the Humana Festival. He is also working on a new commission for Northlight that will be produced in April. So it seems like it’s been a fairly even split.

FS: I want to go back. To the beginning. To Grace. This is quite a play. It has one of the most riveting first pages I’ve ever seen. It is deeply saddening, funny, lonely. How would you describe it?

SSY: That’s a pretty good description. Actually, I like Craig’s summation of the ideas in the play best: "If the best thing that ever happened to one person is also the worst thing that happened to another, is that ‘grace’?"

FS: Have you seen this play performed before?

SSY: Nope. Fortunately. The only play that I’ve ever directed that I had either seen before or worked on before was The Pavilion. I think having sat in on so many rehearsals of that previous production made me a little lazy as a director on Third Rail’s production, I’m sad to say.

FS: One of my favorite lines in Grace is a stage direction at the end of each scene: PLAY STOPS. This line, taken in the specific context of the play’s structure, gets to the core of Wright’s central concern: time. Why is Wright so fixated on time? How do you understand this preoccupation of his?

SSY: I can’t speak for Craig, but it’s an idea that comes up in a lot of his plays. In some ways Recent Tragic Events, The Pavilion and Grace feel like companion pieces to me because of their focus on how time affects our lives. We define who we are in many ways by where we were when. Our concept of time also contains the idea that it is manageable: we can save time, fix time, keep time, gain time, etc. But this idea butts up against the physical reality that “time only goes in one direction.” And this reality causes all kinds of pain and raises all kinds of questions in how we perceive our world. I find it fascinating and get overwhelmed by it if I think about it for too long.

FS: What do you think Wright’s view is of fate and destiny?

SSY: Again, I can’t speak for Craig, but I’d venture that he might say fate is cruel and destiny is looming, so make the most of what time you have left.

FS: Insha’Allah. “God willing” or “If it is God’s will”. This concept is everywhere in Grace. What is going on here?

SSY: I think in many ways ”God’s will” is the best idea we’ve been able to come up with to explain everything in life that we can’t explain.

FS: Is there anything else you would like to say about Grace, Third Rail, or anything else?

SSY: If you haven’t seen one of Craig’s shows yet, you’re really missing a voice that is unique to American playwriting.

Also, from Third Rail, I’d like to thank everyone in this community who has been so supportive of our work. We’re proud to call Portland home.

And lastly, you can call me Slayden. Or Scott. Or Scooter. Or Slayer. Or whatever strikes your fancy.

FS: One last thing. The shirts. Have you bowled in them?

SSY: Nope, but man does Portland Theatre Bowling League have a nice ring to it, or what!

FS: Thank you, Scott! Best of luck with Grace and the future. Because you can’t go back. Or can you?


Mead said...

Scott, I had no idea you were a fellow Phyllis Nagy fan -- let's talk about that!!

In addition to all you've accomplished with Third Rail, you are very generous with your time on lots of creative fronts. I'm indebted to you and so are many others here in Portland. THANK YOU.

Anonymous said...

Apparently, Mr. Yarbrough, you attended your season of theater going in London the very same (and only) month that I did.
I too was amazed by Daldry's An Inspector Calls, Wind in the Willows at the National, and Nunn's Arcadia. Also saw Maggie Smith in Three Tall Women that month and an amazing piece of Brechtian storytelling called Grimm Tales at the Young Vic. Missed Starlight Express I'm afraid, but that was quite a season, wasn't it? I can't help wondering is every season of London theater that good?
Keep up the good work Third Rail. Seems like you are on the right track (yeah, like you haven't heard that pun before.)