interview: Michael Mendelson – Portland Shakespeare Project

For interview number six, we talk to Michael Mendelson, Artistic Director of the two year old Portland Shakespeare Project. Mendelson is a perpetually busy actor and director, appearing frequently in productions at many Portland theatres including Artists Repertory Theatre (where he is a member of the ensemble), Profile Theatre, Northwest Classical Theatre Company, and more recently his own company, Portland Shakespeare Project. Originally from Detroit, Michigan, Mendelson moved to Portland in 1991. He is currently playing Iago in Northwest Classical Theatre Company’s production of OTHELLO, directed by Bill Alexander.

Michael Mendelson.

Hello Michael. Let’s talk first about your new company. You have just finished season number two. How has it been going over there?

Portland Shakespeare Project is developing so beautifully. We have had two very successful seasons, hitting both artistic heights and in terms of patrons. We’re extremely grateful for this right out of the gate. And we’re very excited about our third season. We begin general auditions this week and have some great announcements in store for the community just around the corner.

Can you talk a bit about the scale of the undertaking that starting a theatre company like this entails. Had you done it before? Was it what you expected? What didn’t you expect about the experience?

I had never done anything on this scale although I had produced before but only a single show. It gave me an idea of what it takes and made me aware that my gift is artistic and not business oriented. Was it what I had expected? I think things rarely are. All I wanted to do was create with a family of artists really good classical work and make an impact with the high-level of artistry I knew we could bring to the stage. I believe we have done that at Portland Shakespeare Project and will continue to push ourselves to even greater heights. What I hadn’t expected was the desire by the community both artistic and theatre patrons, to have work like ours present in the already lush landscape of theatre produced here in portland.

What are your hardest challenges with the company right now?

Selecting a season and balancing the art with our capabilities.

What have you really been pleased with in the first two years?

Everything. Mostly I’ve been pleased with the working relationship I have with our Executive Director Karen Rathje. We have a very symbiotic relationship and are great foils for each other. I think it’s this relationship that, in a very large way, has allowed us to grow so well and consistently. In a thoughtful manner.

What are some of your near term goals?

To produce a fourth and fifth season and more…expand our education program and grow our audience. To become a player on the regional scene if not national/international. To grow our Equity contracts. And, to continue to supply our community with paying opportunities to create art.

Building an audience seems to be as much of an art form as putting on a show. Have you gotten any new insights into this area of theatre starting up your own company? How do you reach people when you start a new venture?

I think we have been lucky in that the theatre going community knows me and the work in which I’ve been involved through my years in Portland. So, I think there was some interest and excitement right from the start. Marketing, of course, and word of mouth are the big factors that play into getting an audience but I believe the quality and consistancy of the work is the reassuring factor that keeps folks coming back and brings new audience into the fold.

In your opinion, is the total theatregoing audience in Portland increasing, decreasing, staying the same? Can you summarize any trends of note you have seen in the last few years?

I think the audiences are growing and with a demand for a very high level of work. There is no room for just getting by now or for the idea that “it’s good enough.” The folks who are moving to Portland are from cities where there is a high expectation for the arts and what I think they are seeing and experiencing is that theatre that happens in Portland can be on par with or exceed theatre that happens anywhere. Great Art is Great Art.

How do you see trends toward site specific and non traditional spaces impacting performance of the classics? Often it seems like a lot of the most exciting contemporary theatre is not in traditional theatres. Is your ideal venue for performing the classics a traditional theatre, or does it all depend on the specific production and what you are trying to achieve?

I think non-traditional spaces are very intriguing. And it would be great for Portland Shakespeare Project to begin thinking about that for some project in the future. I see Portland Shakespeare Project having our own home. I love the New Theatre in Ashland, in which theatre can be imagined in many different layouts. I think it’s great to have both options a traditional space that can be transformed into a non-traditional space.

Can you tell us anything about your upcoming season at Portland Shakespeare Project? What’s on tap?

I can tell you it’s going to be exciting and you’ll hear more about that in the not too distant future…..It’s hard to keep a good secret in this town.

Especially with all the damn theatre blogs around… The classics seem to be doing pretty well these days in the American theatre. Is that the case?

I think so. Shakespeare wasn’t a writer for his time but for all times…I’m just quoting somebody famous with that but it is true. Although I believe there is privilege in presenting and performing the classics and not a right. I believe in the hands of the unskilled it does a disservice to the work and diminishes the experience for the audience.

Now. You are part of what sounds like a very exciting show over at Northwest Classical. Bill Alexander, formerly of the RSC, is directing OTHELLO. Can you give us some background on how that came about?

Grant Turner initially had asked me if I would like to direct the project, however for various reasons that was not something that was going to work out. I had let the project go and then he came back to me and asked if I would be interested in playing Iago. My immediate question, before I said yes was, who’s directing? He said this guy from across the pond, Bill Alexander. I said yes immediately.

It must be rather thrilling to work with a director like that in such a tiny space. How’s the experience so far?

Working with Bill has been a complete inspiration. It has changed me in a biological way and into a level of understanding that I had been looking for. It has changed the way I see theatre, it has deepened my understanding of the language, the text and how to use it, and the way I teach. Sort of like a jolt of energy and a major tune up.

That sounds amazing. The Shoebox is one of those spaces that allow you to do closeup in theatre. Are there specific ways that the small size of the performance space have shaped either the tone, volume or other aspects of the show?

Yes, all of the above. This is a dangerous play, a horror story if you will. A plan goes horribly wrong and spins out of control and to feel it so viscerally and so close will be quite the experience.

Can you say anything about what to expect in this production? Is there any particular focus or concept?

Yeah, the concept is to tell the story that Shakespeare wrote. What an idea. I would say the focus is on the relationships and the text.

The current run sold out before it opened I believe. How do the rest of us poor schlubs without tickets get in to see it?

The current run has sold out and there doesn’t look like there will be a chance to even add a show. So, go to the theatre and get there by 7:00, get put on a wait list. If it’s true that 10% of an audience doesn’t show up for some reason there will be 3.8 seats available on any given night. It’s worth the risk.

I’ll risk it. What’s next for you after OTHELLO?

My work with Artists Repertory Theatre kicks in. I will be reprising my role as Sherlock Holmes in SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE CASE OF THE CHRISTMAS CAROL – which is selling already very, very well. If you couldn’t get tickets last year do not wait this year. Then RED HERRING by Michael Hollinger and TEN CHIMNEYS, all three at Artists Rep. In TEN CHIMNEYS I play Alfred Lunt. Cannot wait. Then in June Portland Shakespeare Project begins rehearsals and we open the second week of July. So it’s a full year. I’m looking at projects already for the 2013-2014 season. I’m very lucky and grateful. It’s a great time in Portland for theatre. So many of us are working very hard and accomplishing amazing things. Here’s to our community!

I couldn’t agree more. The golden age is now. Thanks, Michael. See you soon on one stage or another!