Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Interview - Grant Turner

November 7, 2007

See first comment in thread for interview.

Interview conducted by new followspot contributor "The Listener".

Thanks, Listener!


followspot said...

followspot Interview – Grant Turner

November 7, 2007
Portland, Oregon

Guest Interview

In a mixed light-industrial and residential neighborhood in southeast Portland, on 10th between Hawthorne and Division, stands an unassuming shotgun space that calls itself the Shoebox Theater. The lobby is longer than the performance area, which measures just 10 x 20 feet, including whatever space the audience takes up.

This has been the home of Northwest Classical Theatre Company for the past 2-1/2 years. When it first moved in, the troupe tended to place its audience at one end, and could get about 26 seats into five narrow rows on several risers. In the past year, however, NWCTC has opened up a backstage area to get a little more acting or audience space, and sometimes put a single line of seats down each long wall so that the stage is utterly surrounded. This has put as many as 38 chairs into a warm, intimate space where a murmur carries the length of the theater.

Local papers have taken increasing notice of what’s been happening in the Shoebox, and regulars on Followspot have generated lengthy threads in response to recent productions, so it seemed about time to interview the company’s founding artistic director, Grant Turner.

Followspot: What was your first exposure to Shakespeare?

Grant Turner: The first time I did it was in middle school, and I didn’t understand a bloody thing I was saying. I went to Harold Oliver Middle School, which is in the Centennial school district, and we did a truncated version of Hamlet. I played Francisco. I took a Shakespeare class in high school, and muddled my way through that. Being the actor that I was in high school, I figured, oh sure, I can memorize this stuff. ’Cause I think we got extra credit if we memorized “to be or not to be”; and I faked about three-fourths of it, you know. I didn’t understand a damn thing I was saying, so it was just the rote action of memorization. In college, we had various sessions where we worked on texts.

But it wasn’t until 1989, and it was December, our winter break. And I went and saw Henry V with Kenneth Branagh. And I sat in that theater, it was actually at Cinema 21, and again, I didn’t understand a damn thing. And about halfway through the movie, like a rocket, it just hit me in the face: I knew exactly what was happening, I knew who was who, I understood the whole thing. I didn’t know what they were saying, but suddenly it all became clear, in their action, in their interpretation, and the way they illuminated certain words. And I thought I’d really missed the boat. Up until that time, I was really leaning toward musical theater. ’Course, I can’t sing or dance, but that wasn’t gonna stop me! But it was the direction I was heading as an actor; those were the things that motivated me, were musicals. Unfortunately, Eastern Oregon State College didn’t do a lot of Shakespeare. They did a production of The Tempest, but I was in two other productions at the time, so they wouldn’t let me be in it. So it wasn’t until I got back to town and I was stage managing for the Oregon Stage Company, which Gary O’Brien used to run, and he did As You Like It, and I co-stage managed and I played Silvius.

FS: And this was what year?

GT: Oh, that would have been ’92, maybe ’93. And that’s when it started, that’s when I finally got to dive into my first real Shakespearean production. I did a couple shows at Tygres Heart. I did Hamlet, where Leif and I met. He was Hamlet, I was Guildenstern. And I did Othello, where I was Gratiano. And again, Leif was Iago in that. I was Mercutio at Northwest Children’s Theater—the first production they did. They did Romeo and Juliet I think in 1996, and I was Mercutio in that. And they did Midsummer Night’s Dream in ’97 or ’98, and I was Snug in that. So I sort of piecemealed together a fairly decent resume in Shakespeare, and then we started in the summer of ’98.

FS: More than any other theater company I know of in town, NW Classical reminds me of The Little Engine That Could. How did it come about?

GT: I’d always wanted to operate a theater company. I’m of the mind frame that every actor living should run their own company, or at least produce their own production of something. I think it’s illuminating to see so many different facets of how a play gets put together. As a producer/actor/guy who does a little bit of everything, you develop an appreciation for what other people do. I’ve certainly worked for theaters where the stage manager has a very specific role and in a lot of ways is looked at as a second-class citizen. I mean, we thank them in the programs for their hard work, and acknowledge them at the end of the show, but our true bond is with our fellow actors. God forbid, you’re a costumer in this community: I can’t believe they get even the emotional acknowledgement for the work they do, as much as they deserve. And I think that’s where the value [in running your own company] is: It tends to illuminate just how hard every single task is, and (I will probably get chastised for saying this, but) it tends to illuminate how easy the acting aspect is. I mean acting is . . . I almost want to say the easiest component of the whole piece. And so that’s why I think every actor should do it. And it goes beyond that, ’cause I’ve had countless actors come up to me and say, “I would love to play Hamlet someday,” and I say, “Put on a production of Hamlet, and you can play him tomorrow.” “No, no, no, I couldn’t do that.” I don’t know why they couldn’t do it; if this means a lot to you, then that’s what you need to do.

FS: So, back to the summer of ’98.

GT: It was a fairly easy decision for me to say I’d like to have a theater company of my own. Now, I don’t have any money; I don’t have any connections; I certainly don’t have anything really to hang my hat on – it’s not as if I was the leading actor in the community and I knew I would have an audience base if I made this choice. But that’s never really motivated me either. I’ve never really worried if people were going to be out in the audience or not. So I guess in a way it made it a little easier. My wife Nicole – at the time we weren’t married, but we were living together – my wife was assistant stage managing for Midsummer Night’s Dream at the children’s theater, and I just mentioned to her that this was something I wanted to do and would she be willing to help out in any capacity? And she said yes she’d love to, which I think was a great thing for her to say, ’cause it immediately put me in a position, at least in my head, where I couldn’t back out. We opted to do The Taming of the Shrew, and John Monteverde directed. So I shouldn’t say I had no connections; John was my first and most important connection early on, ’cause he directed it.

FS: You met him through Northwest Children’s Theater?

GT: Yes. He allowed us to rehearse in his costume room; he actually loaned us our costumes, and didn’t charge me any money to direct the show. So that allowed a guy like me, who had no money, to put on a play. Interestingly enough, I opted to do it outdoors because I figured that would be the cheapest venue. I don’t know if you’ve ever shopped around performance spaces in town, but they are spendy, they really are. And I understand a young ambitious theater company and the frustrations they face, because it is tough to get started, for that very reason. Because you have to pay for the performance space, you have to have insurance, or people won’t even touch you. So I decided to go outdoors. And the park actually turned out to be far more expensive than I really could afford at the time. If I had perhaps approached it far earlier in my mind, I could have leapt that bridge when I came to it, but because I sort of waffled so long, by the time I made the realization that it was gonna cost me so much (I think it was in the range of $500 to $700), we were opening that weekend. And I didn’t have it. So we just sort of made the decision that – you know, the press had already been sent out that we were going to be there – we just made the decision that were going to do the show, and if they wanted to arrest us, they could. So right off the bat, we were kind of this clandestine, under-the-radar theater company.

FS: And this was in Terry Schrunk Plaza?

GT: No, this was in Couch Park, up in Northwest, just two blocks down the street from the children’s theater. I had edited the play down to about an hour 15 minutes, and eliminated as many characters as I could, and morphed a lot of characters into one, so I think it was a cast of eight. I was Petruchio, and Nicole my wife was Bianca, and a girl named Lucy Smith was Kate, but she has since left town. Steven Jones was there, and his father, Ed Jones, was Baptista. Ed Jones went on to become a judge. He was a lawyer at the time, and he was the one who told me, what are they gonna do, arrest you? And if they do, what great PR! So he’s the one that kind of prodded me into making the final decision. And he was right: they didn’t arrest me and I’ve since learned that any press is good press.

Then we did Macbeth in’99, in the Shrunk. I know I get slammed for it all the time, and people pick on me for the noise, but it’s a federal park, so it was free – couldn’t really pass that up! And it is a great location; it is pretty, and I don’t know, I learned pretty quickly how to project in that space. I agree there are actors that don’t quite solve that conundrum, and it can hinder a play – I’m the first one to admit that. But I always thought that the benefits of that park outweighed its negative aspects.

Then we did a couple of Chekhov one-acts, The Bore and The Proposal, and that was at the Firehouse, where Portland Actors Conservatory is. And that was kind of our home for the next couple of years.

FS: Now, I can imagine that other companies that are about where you are, or maybe a little earlier in their evolution, one of the biggest questions on their mind is: How do you do it? How do you do six or seven shows a year?

GT: (Chuckles.)

FS: How do you make that happen? You’re evidently not really looking for grants.

GT: No. I’d say the secret is don’t spend a lot of money, but I think people would be surprised how much money I end up spending for each particular show. I can’t tell you how many times I hear that I don’t spend anything, and then I look at my account books and wanna cry, so obviously that’s not the secret. But the miracle of this theater, if I can say it’s a miracle, is that it has almost become self-supporting. It makes enough in a particular show to keep the doors open, the heat on, and the electricity running. And then I have various theatrical angels that, uh, just like what they see, and without any provocation or any indication of how the money may be spent, give me a check here or there. Even though I’ve since become a househusband and caregiver to my infant baby girl Anne – I still work two nights a week to make additional money to contribute here. We’ve got stuff like the Wall of Fame [people buy bricks on the wall of the lobby] and raise funds that way.

You have to keep the doors open to make money, and if you make money you can keep the doors open. So the way we’ve structured this particular season, you’ve got four weeks on, four weeks off, four weeks on, four weeks off. So if Show A makes enough money to pay rent for that month and the following month, then you’ve got this perpetual cycle where you’re always one month ahead. And then I collect whatever money I can, through my outside sources and through my job, and that money goes into production values. Now, obviously, were a show to be a horrendous failure, I would be in trouble. I’ve got enough of a bank account built up that I would be okay in an instance if one particular show failed miserably. But if I had three failures in a row (laughs), we would have to reconsider our scale. But I certainly am surprised how many people say to me, how do you keep the doors open. ’Cause it hasn’t been that difficult, really.

And I think a lot of it hearkens back to this notion of doing the theater that you want to do. I mean, I suppose if I had to do what I thought was commercially viable theater, and I did nothing but Agatha Christie every season, all season, maybe I would make more money, maybe I wouldn’t. I think part of our audience base appreciates the fact that they can see a Titus Andronicus and they’ve never had an opportunity to see it. Or a lot of people like the fact that they got to see A Midsummer Night’s Dream in a small, intimate setting, because name one time you’ve seen a “Midsummer” in anything but a large proscenium stage with a production value of, you know, a quarter of a million dollars.

There’s a certain something to us doing the plays we want to do, as we want to do them, that is enticing to our audience base. To me, that’s been the most exciting thing about this whole process. I knew that there would be certain actors that shared my opinions about how theater should be performed. I knew that I could continue to put on plays with the amount of money that I make, and keep the doors open. But I’ve been amazed at how many loyal customers we’ve managed to build in this environment, and it’s easily the most exciting thing for me. I’ve got people that come in, and I know them by name; it’s like a family affair. You mentioned the Little Engine That Could, and I think that there are people that see us that way, and they’re going to support us any way they can, dammit, because they really like what we do, and that’s a wonderful thing. I certainly enjoy when a regular customer comes up to me and explains what this theater company means to them. That means a lot to me.

In the first few years I was a lot more frugal, if you can believe that. I worked forty hours a week, I would put some of my money aside toward my living expenses and whatever bills I had, and then everything else I had would just go toward the theater. And I would save up my money and I would get all of my ducks in a row, and when I had enough money to pay for the space, to pay any actors salaries that I had, and to make any production costs that I might foresee, then I would put on a show. So I was never at a risk for losing money. That’s the first rule of success that I would give to any young production team out there, is don’t spend beyond your means, ’cause that’s immediately how you’re gonna go up in flames.

As a result, we would do two-week runs, we would do runs where literally – we did Timon of Athens one year, and I think we ended up managing to do only four performances, because my usual performance space wasn’t available and I had to go back to the service center where the children’s theater is, and they were considerably more expensive. So it limited how much money I could spend, so we were able to eke out four performances. And the Oregonian forgot to mention us our opening weekend, so we were performing to like crowds of seven. And it was tough.

FS: It was roughly once a year?

GT: It was one indoor show and one outdoor show. For a good six or seven years. Then we got a phone call from the Magdalen Theater Company, and they had this space over in Chinatown, and they couldn’t afford it. And so they wanted to see if maybe we would come on board, pick up some of their expenses, and as a result they would allow us to use the space a couple of times a year. And by that time, we’d gotten to a point where I had enough cash in my war chest that I could do that. But they went belly-up really fast after we came on board. I can’t speak to their specifics, but I think that they were closer to throwing in the towel than I realized, and I think we were there maybe four months, when she told me that the landlord was going to kick them out and that she didn’t think she was going to keep the company going much further.

FS: So Caesar was the only show you did?

GT: We did Caesar and Twelfth Night. And then we made the leap in faith to come here.

FS: How’d you find this space?

GT: I’d met Fred Walton, who was Tom’s father – Tom, who was my closest confidant here in the theater. Fred directed Caesar and it was a big success, and it got his creative juices flowing. And so when we were at that moment of dire straits where we realized that having a home was valuable to us, because we had seen just in that four months what it allowed us to do, he hopped in his car and drove around to every opening, every building, every listing in the paper that he could find. Of everything that we had seen, this was the most immediately performance ready. The guy that ran it before was teaching an acting for film class here, so it was actually set up like a movie theater, when you walked in the door. Any sort of performance space that one could imagine – and you did have to imagine it at that point – seemed ridiculously small. But I don’t know, I just sensed that I would be able to at least bust out of a 12-by-12 performance space, which to me seemed enough to get our story told, and enough to accommodate some degree of audience. So we made a leap of faith. It was a little expensive, it was probably more than I wanted to spend; and signing a three-year lease, you know, you do have to take into consideration that if you’re wrong, you’re really screwed.

FS: That was what, 2003, wasn’t it?

GT: Yeah. Well, maybe it was 2004. We’re just going into our third year right now. But so far, it’s been remarkably successful. I should knock on any wood I can, not that I’m superstitious, but—

FS: You like it here, don’t you?

GT: I do, I like this a lot. I mean, it’s interesting. We performed over in that space on Fifth, over in Chinatown. Slightly larger, much more cavernous – it had very high ceilings. I think the very first show we did there was Caesar and the very first review we got for that play ripped the performance space as this cold, lifeless cardboard box. It never occurred to me that a space would get a review, but it did! So when we came into this performance space here, I was somewhat trepidatious, because I certainly didn’t want it to get blasted. And when Fred suggested the name Shoebox, I wasn’t sure that was a good idea, knowing that we had a history of performing in cardboard boxes. But I think the audiences have immediately warmed up to this. Occasionally the critics will comment on the size, but they usually follow that up with some sort of acknowledgement of how we use the size to our advantage.

This is the first year that we’ve kind of opened it up to other performance companies: BrainWaves was just here in September, and they really enjoyed it – they’re coming back. In fact, for all intents and purposes, every weekend that we don’t have a show, from this point on, somebody else will probably be in here. John Duncan’s New Group Theatre Company, that did Extremities last year, is going to be in here twice, and then BrainWaves is coming back in March, and there is an improv group that’s going to be in here two weeks in December. I get phone calls at least once a week, if not three or four a week, asking me about this performance space.

FS: How did nonprofit status change things for your operations?

GT: It didn’t change it one bit, other than I don’t have to pay property taxes. It goes back to what I said about having money in pocket before you spend it. I’ve always been leery about reaching out to somebody else to help me out, because you don’t want to become accustomed to that. I don’t want to do a season where we have $75,000 worth of a budget and the next season we don’t, and have to suddenly scramble. So I haven’t used that status as much as I probably should have. It’s funny because every year rolls around and the IRS sends me their tax forms and I have to say to them I didn’t take anything in, therefore I’ve got nothing to claim. And we always quibble about, well, why are you a nonprofit organization if you don’t take money, and I explain to them, someday I probably will, but it’s just a tough thing for me to do. It’s easy for me to see the advantages of having other people’s money, and it’s easy for me to see the disadvantages (chuckles). You know, if I’ve got other people’s money, can I really do a Timon of Athens/Comedy of Errors double bill? Maybe so, maybe no. But when it’s your money, and you’re not concerned about whether you get a return on your investment, then you can do the projects you wanna do. So I guess that’s my take on it.

FS: Many of your Shakespeare productions have cut a lot of script. You do streamlined productions. Someone might perceive that as being disrespectful to Shakespeare, and I’d like to hear how you respond philosophically.

GT: (Laughs.) Philosophically is probably different from practically! ’Cause from a practical standpoint, it’s not even an issue. Philosophically, I could say, you know, Shakespeare probably cut his own texts. Historically throughout the years, there have been truncated versions of Shakespeare that have been more successful than Shakespeare himself.

Practically, I have no choice. Right from the get-go, with Taming of the Shrew, it was going to be very difficult for a novice company with no money to pull together 25 people. Now we’re at the Shoebox Theater, a theater that can probably hold 14 people – certainly not comfortably, but could probably hold 14 people. Shakespeare and his company probably had no more than 14 people on stage at a given time. But there’s only so many times you can go to that well. The whole concept of Henry V (for a non-conceptualist company it’s probably silly to say we had a concept), really was players putting on a play. And I made no bones about it: I had the actors hanging out in the lobby, we made it very clear when one actor was changing from a character to another character – we tried not to hide that – and it worked, I thought it worked very well for that play. But you can’t do that every time, because then it just becomes—

FS: Shtick.

GT: Yeah, it becomes the norm. In Titus, for example, I think there are maybe one or two actors that end up doubling or in some instances quadrupling, just to fill out some of the ranks, but all the major characters are played by a solitary actor. So then you have to cut – to make that work, you have to cut. Plus, you know, I am a firm believer that theater in the 21st century is not what it was in the 16th century, and audiences have different expectations. It would be very hard to get an audience to sit through a four-and-a-half-hour Hamlet. I don’t think I’m the only director that’s come to that conclusion. When I say that our goal is to put the author’s work ahead of the director’s particular spin, I think that can still remain true with an edited text.

But I also suppose that there are people that would say, and they’re probably justified in saying it, that … you know, Hamlet is a perfect example. I read somebody once describe editing Hamlet as pretty much putting your concept on it, because Hamlet is your cut: If you cut out the politics of it and focus on the family values, then you are in effect defining who Hamlet is in that play. And I think that’s true, I mean, you can certainly say that. Again, Titus is a good example: Titus has two sons that tend to fall into, um … heh, they literally fall into a pit, but they tend to fall into Aaron’s trap and are sent off to die. We’ve eliminated one of them and incorporated them into one son, and I suppose somebody could very rightly say that there’s a certain poetic value to it being two sons. We reference in the text that he has 25 sons, and if you count those as two, you can see that he’s lost two more, and therefore it takes on that much more resonance, and I suppose that it’s probably a valid point. But from a practical standpoint, it just . . . it seemed easier.

FS: Do you think there’s any Shakespeare play that you couldn’t really do here, either because of the space or because of your company resources?

GT: I’m dying to do Troilus and Cressida, and I’m fairly convinced that I will do it this coming summer, outdoors. Ideally at the park in West Linn where we wrapped up our season of As You Like It. I love Troilus and Cressida and I can’t see it being done here. It’s one of those few plays where the cast is so huge and it kind of has to be huge. I mean, even “Titus Andronicus” which is a cast of 25 on paper, we managed to cut down to about 13. But it would be very hard to do that with Troilus and Cressida. But other than that, no. It’s funny, I find out through grapevines long after decisions have been made, and in many instances long after performances have trod the boards, that people said, “What? Henry V in that space? What are you, crazy?” And it didn’t occur to me that I was crazy; I mean, to me it didn’t really seem that it was going to be a problem at all. It requires a whole new approach; I don’t want to say you have to be more creative, ’cause I think that’s a subjective statement, but it requires a different type of creativity, to scale things down, as opposed to build things up. But anything can be done. In my opinion.

FS: Is there any modern, new, contemporary kind of play that you’d like to do, that you wouldn’t have any qualms about throwing into Northwest Classical?

GT: Yeah, I don’t want anybody to think that I’m a Shakespeare snob per se. I definitely feel that Shakespeare is the greatest playwright of all time, but there are other plays that I enjoy doing. We did Ghosts last year, and what an enormous experience that was. I’d really gotten into this habit of memorizing Elizabethan texts, and it was quite a challenge to memorize, for lack of a better phrase, contemporary English. I actually think that was the most important thing we did last year, was Ghosts. I don’t know that a lot of people saw it; it did okay, it certainly broke even. But in terms of who we were as a company I think hands down that was the most important play that we performed last year.

FS: What did it do to you, for you?

GT: Well, what I’m about to say is very subjective, so take it all with a grain of salt. For the most part, Shakespearean characters tend to wear their emotions on their sleeve. There’s not a lot of subtext in Shakespeare. If somebody feels strongly about something, they’ll say it. If somebody says something, they’re probably not lying unless they pulled you aside at some time and said, “I’m going to lie here.” I mean, there are emotions that are simple and real and identifiable to a 21st century audience, but at the same time they’re delivered in such a way that is less familiar to us. So then you do a text like Ghosts where, you know, nobody comes right out and says “you have a venereal disease.” We talk around it for three frickin’ hours. And so that’s a whole new approach to me, to sort of suppress what you want to say, and to discover what that triggers in you emotionally when what you want to say is this and what you have to say is this, and when your reaction to something is this but you have to filter it through this. Just a lot going on there that I tended … I don’t want to say I forgot about, or that I was ignoring as an actor, but I was very strongly reminded that there’s that whole different skill set. And I think it illuminated the next directing project I did, which was Henry V.

FS: Did the cast kind of have to be reminded of this in rehearsals, ’cause they were used to doing Shakespeare? Was there a shift at the time?

GT: It was definitely a shift at the time. And we’d talked a lot about it going into it. We always strive for a believable scope with our Shakespearean productions. But in general, those people are dealing with emotions and events that the average human being will never touch. With Titus Andronicus, our current challenge in the rehearsal process is to find that balance between being believable and sincere in a playing space that’s the size of somebody’s living room, and yet grasping your mind around the fact that your son has just been beheaded! So in Shakespeare we tend to err on the side of slightly larger than life. And in Ghosts we had to err on the other side. But it illuminated so much, ’cause then I could see those moments in our Shakespearean work that were too big, that had to be pulled back.

It’s my goal now to try to temper every season with at least two other non-Shakespeares. That was the formula that sort of developed last year. We’re doing it this year with the Sherlock Holmes and then we’re doing Oscar Wilde, “The Importance of Being Earnest.” John Monteverde came to me with that suggestion, and seeing how it fit into our desire to have some different playwrights, it made perfect sense to me. I’d love to do really anything by Chekhov. Chekhov is another one of those playwrights, though, where you have a cast of 17 to 20, and a little less easy to cut and amalgamate characters, so I shy away from Chekhov, but I would love to do some Chekhov.

It’s tough when you sort of ascribe yourself as a classical theater company; it does kind of limit those names that you can draw from. I mean, certainly, I could do a Harley Granville Barker sort of thing, and everybody’d go “who the hell is that?” and not come see it. I could limit myself to the Chekhovs, the Ibsens, and the Oscar Wildes of the world, and get an audience. At the same time, I would never want our moniker to limit me. So if somebody came to me with a project from a new playwright who wrote something that I thought had something to say, I would certainly approach it. For me to give you my list of authors that I would do … I’ll give it to you, but it will sound silly, ’cause it’ll just be a who’s who of who’s written a good play in the last 200 years. But I’d love to do some Mamet, I’d love to do some George Bernard Shaw – I actually would love to do Arms and the Man; that’s a project that I’ve been wanting to sink my teeth into for years. I love Eugene O’Neill. But again, you talk about plays that are monstrously long. You think I had a hard time memorizing Ghosts, try memorizing The Iceman Cometh! He’s got a lot of plays, and a lot of them fascinate me, but I don’t know that anyone’s gonna pay money to see anything outside of his big three.

FS: Northwest Classical has always had a sort of warm, familial, regular-faces kind of casting, but I’ve noticed at least two things in a couple of recent years. You’re getting a lot more young folks moving over from NW Children’s and/or Blue Monkey.

GT: Yeah. Blue Monkey, actually, their first year – John had scratched my back years ago, so this was my way to scratch his. Now he had his own fledgling company, and he needed a space where he could meet with his interns regularly and he could rehearse if necessary, so I had that space for him and I was able to provide it. And he didn’t have any money, so it was actually his managing director at the time that came up with the idea of, how about, in lieu of charging us rent, we’ll let our interns run your tech, or our interns will be your house manager for a particular show. They need a tech credit in order to complete their internship through us, and we don’t have enough shows to keep all of them busy. So, like Sara Simon, who’s in our company, was the stage manager for And Then There Were None, and then as we were about to embark on Henry V, she wasn’t in whatever production that Blue Monkey was doing at the time, and I had enough people in my company say: you should cast her – she’s fun, she’s very nice, we really like her. So I said sure, what the heck. I’ve always been of the mind frame that if somebody wants to be involved, if somebody is passionate about the kind of work that we do, that it would be silly for me to turn my back on them, regardless of their skill level or regardless of their resume. It comes from: you can’t get your feet wet without getting onstage, and you can’t get on stage unless somebody like me gives you chance.

FS: The other thing I’ve noticed is you’ve had a couple marquee names in the last year. You’d worked with Leif back in the ’90s, but what about Paul Angelo – how did he get roped in here?

GT: I think you just throw a character like Macbeth on the table, and that pricks up people’s ears. It was an open casting. I may be wrong on the specifics – you know, somebody might have approached him; he might have contacted Brian, who directed it, beforehand and said I’m interested.

FS: So you’re gonna do a Holmes story next. Is this the first time you’ve done a script?

GT: I’ve written a one-act about Edwin Booth, who was an actor I admire. I don’t even really consider this one so much of a script, really. When we conceived of this notion, it came originally from the success we’d had with the Agatha Christie plays, and the desire to continue to have some sort of winter murder mystery, ’cause they do remarkably well. You know, I think it’s counter-programming: it’s something else to watch during the holidays that isn’t A Christmas Carol or A Tuna Christmas. So it was a fairly easy leap in logic to go to Holmes, because I like Sherlock Holmes, and from a costuming standpoint we’ve got a lot of Victorian costumes, so it was a fairly practical decision to make. But I knew right from the get-go, if I were going to adapt it, that I was going to be as faithful to the text as I possibly could. So it’s not really much of a write; I mean literally, if the text says, “Watson said, ‘Sherlock, put that down,’ ” I just cut the “Watson said.” There is a bit of narrative here and there, because there were details of information that you had to get out. So Watson will describe something to Holmes or vice versa, but there are only a few little moments that I padded with my own dialogue, and that was because Bibi [Walton], who is going to direct it, was pretty adamant that she wanted the Mrs. Hudson character in the play. So I added some stuff for her. Although ironically, in “A Scandal in Bohemia,” the maid at the time is Mrs. Turner.

FS: You’ve got Leif for Holmes and Chris Porter for Watson. Who else is in the play?

GT: Uh, there’s the King of Bohemia, Irene Adler, and Norton, the guy that she marries. And then I interpolated from “A Study in Scarlet” the sequence where Watson and Holmes meet. So the beginning of our play is like the first three lines in the text of “A Scandal in Bohemia” but then Watson sort of catches himself and says, you know, perhaps I’m speaking before my horse to market; let me tell you how I met Sherlock Holmes. So I’ve also added Stamford, who is Watson’s friend who introduces them.

FS: Every company has some great war stories, but Northwest Classical has some real doozies.

GT: We once did a production of Measure for Measure at the Firehouse, and we had a snowstorm that morning. In fact, Richard [Reiten], who was Escalus, was trapped back East because of the snowstorm. So I had to memorize Escalus’s lines that morning. And I was very excited that I pulled it off, and I was all set to go. We had two people in the audience! But somehow that was back in our “the show must go on” mind frame. And we’re like, what the hell: we’re here, they’re here – let’s do it. And one of the guys was Richard’s friend. And once he saw that Richard wasn’t in it, he left at intermission! So we did the second half of Measure for Measure for one guy. But you know, I was proud of myself, ’cause I’d memorized these lines in like eight hours’ time.

FS: There was another incident where you had to step in for somebody. Why don’t you tell the story about the arrest?

GT: Yeah, well, that goes back to “all press is good press.” ’Cause this story got picked up on the AP wire and was in the New York Times. I still stumble upon it on Shakespeare Web sites that are from Europe; I once pulled it up online and the text was all in Japanese . . . and there was the mug shot! We were doing Henry VI, part 1 at the Terry Schrunk Plaza, which coincidentally was the first show I felt really good about something we had done as a company. I was pretty pleased with how that play turned out. We had an actor who was playing Lord Talbot, and he was off rehearsing a fight sequence that he had – brandishing a sword outdoors – and an undercover police officer happened to be walking by at the time. I can’t possibly guess at what his attitude was or how he presented himself, but at any rate, he asked the actor to stop doing that. Now, I can sort of hazard a guess about the actor in question, who is a friend of mine, and I say this with all affection, but he tends to not like to be told what to do. So I can see him bristling at the suggestion and challenging a person that he probably did not perceive as an authority. I imagine the conversation went something like “you shouldn’t have that sword out here,” “well, screw you; you can’t tell me what to do.” And the guy got on his cell phone, called his buddies who were in the courthouse right across the street, and they came over and grabbed him and hauled him away – literally minutes before the play was about to begin.

And we had two lawyers in the cast at the time, and they rushed up to the police and said, just let us get through two hours; we promise you that nothing will happen, we’ll take him to you personally. But they didn’t buy it, and they hauled him off. I was much more gung-ho back then than I am now; now, I probably would have said, well, how about if we just put this show to bed. But for whatever reason, I said let’s figure out a way to make it work.

So I grabbed a script and I went out in front of the audience and said, “You have just seen, or been witness to, what is probably one of the most amazing things you’ll ever see in live theater. We just had an actor who was arrested minutes before we open, and I’m gonna step in. I’m also playing another character in this play, so when I have this script in my hands, I am Character A. When I don’t, I am Character B. Now, when I am Character A, who is involved in a lot of stage combat, I am not probably going to be able to pull that off, so when we get to that point we will stop, I will walk you through the action, and then we’ll move on from there.” So you know, we’d get to this fight scene and I’d say, “Stop. Here they fight,” and then I would sprawl myself on the ground and we would pick up from where we left off. Not to use a Shakespearean pun, but you can’t imagine a more horrendous comedy of errors than that.

But remarkably enough, the audience stayed and I still get people talking to me about that: “I saw you play, years ago, and you were really good!” It says a lot about our theater community, I think, that they were able to embrace that convention. We saw that the audiences were going to support us and let us take them along on our journey, no matter how bumpy the journey might be. So it was actually a really great moment for us as a theater company. We still laugh at it to this day; not only did it provide us fodder for years to come, with a funny story to tell at a cocktail party, but it made me see just how interested the city of Portland was in having somebody tell these stories. And how willing they were to accept some of our warts in order to hear these stories told by us.

FS: Is there anything else that you feel people ought to know about this company, or what you do? You have a mission statement; how would you, in your own words, say what Northwest Classical Theater stands for or hopes to do?

GT: I guess the most important thing is that people realize, and this really is prefaced by the acknowledgement that we tend to get a lot of feedback on Followspot, which is what this interview is for, so I suppose this is an appropriate forum. Nobody should ever feel that we are unaware of our own particular shortcomings or failings. I’m probably my biggest detractor. Any final product of ours, I tend to see the glass half empty. I always feel like we left something on the table. That’s not to say that the process wasn’t fun and the attempt wasn’t noble, ’cause I always feel like it is, and there has yet to be a show that we’ve staged, no matter what backstage headaches may exist, that we didn’t enjoy doing. And that’s certainly key to who we are as an organization.

You know, the company, everybody that’s here, are people that are here because they enjoy this atmosphere. I can’t offer a lot of money, I can’t guarantee you that 17,000 people will see you perform. What I can offer you is a chance to work on some interesting texts with a group of people that are similarly minded, and I can guarantee you that we’ll have a fun time doing it. And that seems to register with people.

But I don’t want people to think that … you know, there was a comment about us being the RSC of the United States. (Chuckles.) That is flattering, although part of me thinks that might be somebody just pulling my leg. I don’t think anyone that knows me well doesn’t know that I admire the RSC a great bit, so I tend to think someone was laughing at me and not with me, but that’s all right. But I don’t want anyone to think that I am not aware that we are not where I’d like to be.

I think our verse speaking could become stronger. For a company that claims to be concept-less, I think that … no concept is a concept, I guess is what I’m saying. And I think there are those plays that perhaps we conceptualize more than we probably should have. Henry V in its final incarnation versus what I initially had in mind, was far more conceptualized. And fortunately for me, I was smart enough to catch on to that prior to opening, and I trimmed a lot of the stuff that I had sort of layered onto it that didn’t really support it.

But I think that’s true of every play we do, that we tend to perhaps lather it on with maybe one extra thing that we probably could have jettisoned. You know, we certainly miscast, we certainly – probably like any actor, any other acting company – probably have an inflated opinion of our own personal abilities. So I just don’t want anybody to think we’re na├»ve about that. I get the impression sometimes, reading Followspot when I do, that people think we’re haughty or cocky, and I hate to think that, ’cause I don’t think we are, and I certainly try not to be. I think we’re fairly aware of who we really are. So I think it’s important to get that out.

I_Heart_NWCTC said...

I love you Grant. You and NWCTC are so awesome. THANK YOU FOLLOWSPOT for posting this precious interview.

~Adoring fan (I wish I knew you guys personally!!)

Ted Douglass said...

I appeared in 3 of of NWCTC's pre-Henry VI shows at Shrunk Plaza. It was scrappy and fun back then, even if the shows weren't quite firing on all cylinders.

I could not be happier to see the company take off, as it has in the last couple of years.

My sincere congratulations to Grant & Nicole for getting to see all of their very hard work pay off.

Grant really is probably the nicest guy working in theater in PDX.

And more congrats to Grant and his director Deanna Wells on the wweek pick for Titus this week.

hannah lorain said...

thank you so much, followspot, for conducting & posting this interview. it is really helpful in understanding the nwctc and getting to know them better as a company. i also really appreciate their company motto and ideals for their shows. nwctc, you are needed, and we are grateful for your work.

TJ said...

i recently saw a northwest classical show for the first time and was very impressed by the company. very warm and friendly but very dedicated. grant seems like a very interesting guy. thanks for this interview.

Gundo said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Me said...

Well, Gundo...HE'S not...but it sure sounds like YOU are!

fighto said...
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