interview: Brian Weaver – Portland Playhouse

Number four in the series. Brian Weaver moved to Portland in 2008 with his wife Nikki and brother Michael to start a theatre company. For the 2012-13 season, PP will put on five shows (and one reading) in its new (again) home in the old Mt. Sinai Church on NE Prescott, starting with the downtown musical hit from New York’s Public Theater, BLOODY BLOODY ANDREW JACKSON by Alex Timbers and Michael Friedman.

Hi Brian. Could you say a little about how you got involved in theatre originally. Were there some key experiences when you realized a life in the theatre was for you?

Actors came to my seventh grade cafetorium and performed Twelfth Night. I was hooked. I thought about going to college for Religion, but then I followed a cute girl into a theatre audition and I forgot about God.

What actors, directors, playwrights or specific productions have influenced your aesthetic?

Peter Brook, Theresa Rebeck, Kevin Coleman, Anne Bogart, Theatre De Complicite and everything I saw at the National Theatre one summer… I love plays that tell a good story, with strong characters that actors can really delve into. It is really important to me that audiences be able to connect with a play, no matter how profound it is, or how unusual. And I love funny plays, too.

How was it that you picked Portland as the home of your future theatre? Had you been here much before moving here?

A couple of times to visit my cousin. It was a cheap place to live. But now, of course, Portland has become far less of an abstract idea and Nikki and I are proud to call it home. We have been embraced by the Portland community in every way.

Things must be busy over there in NE right about now as you get ready for BLOODY BLOODY. How long have you been back in the church?

Three of last season’s productions were held off-site until, in April 2012, Portland City Council voted to re-designate the church as a Neighborhood Arts Center. At issue was the question of whether what we do is “retail” or “commerce.” I can tell you truthfully that with the amount we rely on foundations, sponsors, and individual donors to help us stay afloat– in addition to the fact that we are a nonprofit organization that makes decisions based on merit and significance to our community, not on the potential for profit– it most certainly is not!

You performed in your current space for a few seasons, and then last year you did several shows elsewhere, including in some larger theatres like the World Trade Center and Imago Theatre. What was it like performing in more traditional theatre spaces? Is it good to be home?

One thing that makes Portland Playhouse unique in the city is our ability to really immerse the audience in the performance. From the moment you step inside the church, you are in the world we’ve created for you. BLOODY BLOODY ANDREW JACKSON is especially like that– we’ve redesigned the space once again so that the entryway is very small and the performance hall is a sensory experience. It is a bit harder to have such command of the total space when you’re not in your “home” theatre.

Bravo. One of the defining features of PP is the closeness of the audience to the show. That intimacy seems to be at the heart of your success. When you think about where PP is headed in the future, do you plan to stay in a smaller space? Or would you like to move to a larger venue?

We’re not averse to a change of venue, and we are open to new opportunities. That said, the intimacy you mention is literally part of our mission: “Portland Playhouse is dedicated to producing quality, intimate, performances in which the interaction between artists and audience is paramount.” So whatever happens in the future, we’ll continue to cultivate our signature atmosphere.

Your WE THE PEOPLE season looks interesting. Could you say a few words about how you put these shows together and what you’d like people to know about this season’s offerings.

We were drawn to the plays for a variety of reasons, but the “throughline” of the season really is about “We the People”– about where the personal meets the political. The season ranges from big, broad comedy about a political personality (BLOODY BLOODY ANDREW JACKSON) to a poetic, feminist imagining of what the world would be like without gender differences (LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS). And everything in between.

You have made a fast transition from new upstart company to established mid size theatre. What types of challenges do you face in PP’s current position?

Our growth has been accompanied– and really been made possible–by a growth in our community of supporters: donors, subscribers, volunteers, ticket buyers, etc. We are constantly striving to expand that community still further, and make sure it is as diverse– and reflective of Portland as a city, and particularly of our area of the city– as possible. That quest will never end, I think.

In your experience, which is harder: putting on a great show or bringing in an audience to see it?

They go hand in hand. A great audience gives so much energy to a performance. Actors will tell you that they need the audience as much as the audience needs them.

What have you learned about how audiences hear about and select shows? What is the best way to reach people who may not know about you already?

Portland’s theatre community is robust and well-informed, and we love welcoming regular theatregoers and theatre artists to our shows. But our work in the neighborhood has given us the opportunity to reach beyond the world of people who are already interested in the art form. Particularly we have found that people venture to Portland Playhouse from outside the theatre “world” in connection with August Wilson’s work, so we are proud to have a production of Wilson’s piece KING HEDLEY II coming up in December.

Do you have any specific theatrical ambitions or dream projects that you would like to see PP realize in the years ahead?

Continue to do great work, and build our community.

Now. About that little show going up next week at the church. What should people know about BLOODY BLOODY ANDREW JACKSON? It seems such a perfect fit for your audience. Is it gonna be loud?

Let’s put it this way– we sound-proofed the windows. As Jackson quips in the play, “I’m wearing tight, tight jeans and tonight we’re delving into some serious, serious shit.” Come one, come all!

Thanks, Brian!