interview: Adriana Baer – Profile Theatre

For number three in our interview series we talk with the new Artistic Director of Profile Theatre, Adriana Baer. Adriana arrived in Portland in July to get ready for Profile’s 16th season, which features South African playwright Athol Fugard.

Hello Adriana. Can you tell us a bit about your own background and theatre history. When did you first get involved in theatre? Where did you study? What were some early experiences that influenced you to go into the theatre?

Like many directors and administrators, I started as an actor back when I was a kid. I studied classical ballet, voice, and acting. By the time I was nearing the end of high school, I realized that I was reading plays from the perspective of the audience and not the actor so I started directing. My first full production was Frank Wedekind’s SPRING AWAKENING which I directed in high school with students the age of the characters. I was precocious to say the least! I went to Sarah Lawrence College and studied arts administration and directing. Following graduation, I was hired as the Associate Artistic Director of The Cutting Ball Theater in San Francisco, which I left after three fabulous seasons to return to New York for grad school. I received my MFA in directing from Columbia University and then spent the next few years freelancing and touring – and then I got this position and very happily moved to Portland!

Do you see yourself as coming from any specific theatre tradition or style?

I guess my background is a pretty equal mix of classics and new work – particularly experimental plays. I studied a huge amount of German Expressionism and have directed a number of plays in that world. I would say, first and foremost, that I am a “language-based” director. For me, the text is the launching pad. I like poetic texts, heightened language, and plays that require a lot of muscularity.

What playwrights and directors have influenced you?

Peter Sellars, Robert Woodruff, Robert Wilson, Garry Hynes, Anne Bogart, Ivo Van Hove, Georg Büchner, Anton Chekhov, Tennessee Williams, Shakespeare, Heiner Müller, Karen Finley, Sophocles, Suzan-Lori Parks.

Tell us about your last role before coming to Profile.

I was the Staff Repertory Director for The Acting Company – which means I was the road director for two productions of Shakespeare that we toured to 32 cities and Canada over 6 months. I put the shows into all the different theaters, gave pre and post-show talks, and taught master classes. I traveled by bus with the crew and cast. And I ate as much Southern BBQ as possible!

As you look at your new job, what do you think is the harder challenge: creating great theatre or bringing in an audience to see it?

I wish I could say that the greatest challenge was the work itself – that’s the fun part, of course. But if I’m being honest, the marketing and getting an audience to “buy in” to our unique mission, and to take a risk on a playwright they might be unfamiliar with, is the harder part!

Can you tell us about any recent or planned improvements to Profile’s facilities?

There are a number! We just replaced our old theater seats with new seats – chairs that can be moved around. This flexible seating allows for a more creative use of the space, and improves our usability for renters. We also transformed our back dressing room into a lobby into which we are going to install a bar. Look for that to open this winter. We’ve also been doing behind-the-scenes improvements to our rehearsal space and dressing rooms.

Profile has stayed true to its mission of one playwright a year. Will that remain the case going forwards?

Absolutely. I really believe in Profile’s mission. In addition to our “one playwright per year” focus, I have introduced the In Dialogue Series in which we produce new plays that are in conversation with the body of work of the featured writer. I think you can look forward to the mission that Profile is known for with an expanded interpretation of that mission. New translations and adaptations are also in the mix for future years.

This year, Profile is featuring the South African playwright Athol Fugard. How would you describe Fugard’s style of theatre?

Rooted in place. Poetic. He takes a tiny microcosm of the world and shines a light on it so it reflects out a much larger meaning.

Have his plays changed in any important ways since the collapse of apartheid?

On the surface, it seems like they might lose their immediacy. But unfortunately, our world is still grappling with issues of social injustice so they are just as powerful today as they were when they were written.

As you look at audience dynamics and the ever shifting social patterns that influence arts attendance, what do you see? How does the theatre-going public of today differ from 10 years ago? How do you see it changing going forward?

I think the biggest change is how people make plans. We are no longer a culture that thinks “long term” – so selling subscriptions is harder. The flip side of that is that the quick sell, the single ticket sell, is much more prominent than a decade ago. This is a challenge for small theaters that rely on that subscription income at the beginning of their seasons. But as we all start thinking about changing the way we think about ticket sales to encourage and reward last-minute ticket purchases, I think we’ll find it a fun and energizing shift. We need to be as accessible and affordable to younger patrons as the movies are without jeopardizing our quality of work. If we can stay ahead of the technology curve (with ticket apps, mobile websites, etc.), I think we will see an influx of younger audiences. Of course, we also have to put forward programming that is dynamic and work that is strong – this is the best way to get audiences to come to the theater!

How would you characterize Profile’s approach to marketing and branding?

What I love about the brand that Profile received from work with WK12 (at Wieden+Kennedy) last year is that it is text-based. We are a theater that focuses on the writer, so we focus on words as our brand. I love that text can be as strong a visual as a picture.

Do you have any specific goals for Profile in the next 5 or 10 years?

My biggest goal is to grow our staff to include a full time Education Director and Dramaturg, as well as a few other key positions. I’d like to continue commissioning new work by our featured writer when possible, and to start commissioning new adaptations and translations. You’ll see our supplemental programming taking more of a front seat. This season, we are launching Inside Out: Community and School Tour in which we are touring our last production of the season, My Children! My Africa!, to local high schools and community centers. I’d like to continue to expand our education and outreach programming.

Thanks, Adriana. Enjoy your first year at the helm!