interview: Matthew Kern – defunkt theatre

Interview number five. Matthew Kern has been Artistic Director of defunkt theatre since 2010. Before that he worked as an actor around town and also as a piano player. You may remember him as the house pianist for the downtown Nordstrom back when they had live music. He currently plays on the Portland Spirit, Hobo’s and at many a wedding and holiday party. A graduate of the Dell’Arte School of Physical Theatre in California, and Bard College in New York, he has appeared locally with Artists Repertory Theatre, Tears of Joy and several now truly defunct theatres.

Matthew Kern as Lenny in THE HOMECOMING by Harold Pinter. Photo: Andrew Klaus.

Hi Matthew. Can you start by telling us about defunkt’s transition from the leadership of James Moore to the present. Many knew defunkt as the home of avant garde work like DOCTOR FAUSTUS LIGHTS THE LIGHTS, Mac Wellman’s plays, and many others. Today your season looks somewhat more traditional than in the past. Can you catch us up on the series of events for any who (like myself) may have missed the story.

James moved to Vermont a few years ago. The company was facing an uncertain future, and Lori Sue Hoffman asked me to join the company and asked founding member Grace Carter to return after a few years of concentrating on other projects. The first show the three of us really worked on together was 4.48 PSYCHOSIS which was a great success for us on many levels. It organically developed from there as the three of as co-artistic directors with some fabulous company members and the most dedicated core group of regular guest artists and volunteers that anyone could hope for.

As far as traditional vs. avant garde, I hear what you are saying but I’m not sure I entirely agree. THE HOMECOMING is a classic, but I would argue it is the most fundamentally provocative piece defunkt has ever presented to an audience. In the past couple of years we’ve produced Sam Shepard, Sarah Kane, and David Mamet, all playwrights that defunkt has visited in the past. So there’s a nice through-line there. If there’s a shift, it’s a more focused exploration of sexuality and gender politics. THE CHILDREN’S HOUR is a classic but it was absolutely groundbreaking when it appeared on Broadway (in the 1930’s!) depicting a gay character in a play that also included children. So we feel it’s a natural progression and growth of the original mission.

Say you were in some far off place where the inhabitants have not heard of defunkt (if such a thing is possible). How would you describe your theatre to them?

Theater without a net. We perform the highest quality of plays in an intimate, in your face, unapologetically theatrical style. We love the theater and the things that it can do that are unique from any other art form. It literally brings people together. And we want you to walk out feeling differently than you walk in, and then go and talk about what you just saw. And hopefully still be thinking and talking about it in a couple of weeks..

Do you have an ensemble now at defunkt, or how are you organized?

Lori Sue Hoffman, Grace Carter and myself are co-artistic directors. We all bring different skills to the table, but we share a common vision for the company and usually agree. And when we don’t it’s a sign that it’s something we really need to talk through. It’s lovely to work with people who make you better at what you do every day. We have a few other wonderful company members, but there are many people who are not technically part of our company that are so central to what we do that it’s hard to imagine defunkt with them. Emily Stadulis has designed lights for every show since PSYCHOSIS and Bill Tripp, our set designer, has been integral to our success over the years. He just designed perhaps his most ambitious set ever for THE HOMECOMING. I’m such a performing/text-oriented person it’s fascinating to work with people who approach the work from a visual perspective. It’s a privilege to work with such diversely talented, smart, generous people. Forgive me if I’m a bit verkelmpt, I’m coming out of tech week for THE HOMECOMING and it’s been deeply moving to see so many people pour their hearts and souls into this work. It truly does take a village. And I’m a resident of a fabulous village.

Your current season lineup looks fabulous. The two plays you are doing together at the end of the year sound very interesting. Can you talk about that project, HERSTORY/HISTORY?

Yes, absolutely. We knew we wanted to work with Jon Kretzu. I’ve known him for years from working at ART and he directed me at Tygres Heart for those of you who remember that. This project was his idea: to do two of the earliest depictions of gay characters in mainstream culture (THE CHILDREN’S HOUR and THE BOYS IN THE BAND) in repertory. We jumped at it, as it’s a fascinating idea and completely in line with what we do. The idea is to do THE CHILDREN’S HOUR in our space and THE BOYS IN THE BAND in another space that feels like the apartment the show is set in, with audience seated as if they were guests at the party, and use real lights and sound. Almost like an installation. It’s a wonderful concept; we are still ironing out the details, but are really excited about it and working with Jon is inspiring and great fun. The shows will be running during Pride next year, which is very gratifying to me. And we’re working with kids for the first time! There are four young girls in THE CHILDREN’S HOUR. It’s cool to be around their energy, the next generation of theater artists.

What living playwrights are you most interested in?

Well as those who know me are well aware I am a very big fan of Martin Crimp. We did his ATTEMPTS ON HER LIFE last year which is a play I adore. I never get tired of Sam Shepard. It’s really interesting to be working on Pinter right now because I can see how strongly he influenced the playwrights that followed; Shepard, Mamet, Kane, etc. They are all brilliant in their own right, but without Pinter I ‘m not sure any of it would have happened. I’m always reading plays, seeking out new people. IN APPARATI by James Moore is still one of the strongest pieces of material I’ve ever had the pleasure of working on. I’ve been reading a lot of Christopher Shinn’s work lately. So not all the good people are dead.

As you travel around the country or world and see theatre, what other companies appeal to you?

I grew up in the D.C. area and visit there regularly and am a fan of The Studio Theater and Wooly Mammoth. Obviously Dell’Arte in California has had a major influence on me. And frankly, I find inspiration in a lot of theater that’s happening right here in Portland these days. So much good stuff happening around town.

Can you mention any productions you have seen over the years that had a strong influence on your aesthetic?

This may surprise you, but the piece of theater that most influenced me was Lily Tomlin’s one woman show THE SEARCH FOR SIGNS OF INTELLIGENT LIFE IN THE UNIVERSE. I saw it when I was 14 at The Kennedy Center in Washington and it had a profound impact. It was a Broadway production but it was one person playing many characters, young old, male and female. No props. No costume changes. The show is all about how everyone is connected. And that to me is what theater is about; bringing people together to experience something as a group. We are not as far apart as we feel. She revived it in the early 2000s and I drove to Seattle to see it. And it moved me just as much as an adult.

defunkt has always been a place that makes unforgettable theatre on a seemingly zero budget. How do you do it? And has anything changed in your funding model over time?

Thank you. It isn’t a zero budget, it just feels that way sometimes. We are dedicated to accessibility for our audience which is why we offer so many pay what you can performances, etc. But we’ve been able to do that through grants, and the support of our audiences and individuals who are invested in the work we do. The lack of money has many times lead designers to do brilliant, innovative work that they might not have done at another theater where they could have just bought things. We are working to diversify our funding, but we will never lose sight of the possibilities for inspiration that thinking outside of the box can provide. Lori Sue won a Drammy for designing a show with all found object costumes. Zero budget, but it was absolutely inspired. So that’s a good example of that. And we are absolutely committed to remaining accessible to everyone. We do not turn people away for lack of money. If theater is to survive in the 21st century, it needs to be a regular, accessible part of people’s lives. Not a once a year $100 extravagance for those that can afford it.

How much of your budget is covered by ticket sales?

I believe the official number is 63%.

How would you describe your current mission at defunkt, and is it any different than it has always been?

The mission is the same. It’s a great mission and is what draws such talented people to work with us. That said, I think theater companies always reflect the people who are leading them at the time. Lori Sue and Grace and I are drawn to explore gender roles and sexual identity a bit more directly than defunkt has in the past. We put women in Glengarry Glen Ross last year without changing one word of dialogue, which was fascinating. I think THE HOMECOMING is an oddly feminist play in its own strange, written by a heterosexual white man in the 1960s kind of way. Obviously, HERSTORY/HISTORY is a big statement about the history of how gay people have been depicted in mainstream culture. But all of that completely fits with the mission that defunkt has always had. So I would say the mission evolves and grows to reflect those who are serving it at the time.

Does defunkt have any relationships with theatres elsewhere around the country?

Through email, yes. We hear from people all over the world. We are actually focusing right now on building our relationships with other theaters here in Portland. I’ve been hearing from a lot of other folks about the need for us to work together as a community to build the audience for theater in Portland, rather than competing for the same audience that already goes to theater. I couldn’t agree more. Yes, there’s more competition all the time, because there’s so much great stuff happening. But what a lovely problem to have, right? I think there are lots of people in Portland, particularly young people who would love the theater if we could just get them there. But they are growing up without it in the schools, so it just doesn’t feel part of their lives. So I’m excited about looking for ways to work with other companies to build the audience for all of us.

What are the biggest challenges you face in defunkt’s current configuration?

Oh, probably the same challenges that face most theaters. Funding, resources. We are very small so we all wear many hats. We like that, but it can be tricky at times. Fortunately , we have great volunteers that step in and save us when we get too overextended. But the challenges are universal ones; money, hours in the day, who’s going to do that type of challenges.

The defunkt space is one of those classic old Portland venues, of which there seem to be fewer and fewer every year. Will the Backdoor be around for a while longer (we hope)? Any plans for changes there?

We certainly hope so. We are in a new lease situation with the owner of Common Grounds. It’s great so far, he is now selling wine which is a wonderful thing for our audiences if you ask me. It’s a quirky, wonderful theater space and we’ve worked hard the past couple of years to improve it, and we are working closely with Common Grounds to make the whole facility work as a whole. So the changes are good ones.

You guys have always seemed to bring in a good audience without doing very much to advertise. But it looks like you may be doing more marketing now. Can you describe your approach to marketing. What have you found works the best?

Word of mouth works best; simply doing work that excites people and gets them talking about it. We’ve been very fortunate to have Holly Andres shoot the poster images for several of our shows. She’s a big deal; she’s had her work in Time Magazine, etc. She’s a good friend of Grace’s and of defunkt’s. This poster for THE HOMECOMING is really striking and evocative. David Poulshock , who is on our board is a filmmaker and he shot these very funny interviews with the actors from THE HOMECOMING in character. We’re rolling those out this week on youtube and facebook. Social media is a big part of everything these days. I think the fundamental question for each show is who is the audience for this specific show, beyond the people that would come see anything we do, and how do we reach that audience?

Do you have any big plans or dream projects for the future for defunkt?

Yes, but they are secret. Top secret.

Gotcha. Now. About that quiet little comedy you have opening tonight. THE HOMECOMING must be one of the most exciting plays of the 20th century. What can we expect from this production?

A stellar production of one of the greatest plays of all time. As I said before, this is one of the most shocking, provocative pieces of theater ever written; it’s hard to believe it’s nearly 50 years old. There’s no need to “do” anything to it. Paul has done excellent work directing this show, and our designers have outdone themselves. I love working with this cast, it such a treat to work with people who care as much as we do. And the show is funny! I think people hear Pinter and think it’s going to be serious and intense, which it is at times. But it’s fundamentally a pitch black, sexy comedy.

Thanks, Matthew. defunkt is truly an inspirational place. Have a great season!