Thursday, March 15, 2012

about face : allen nause’s next act

Continuously taking risks as an actor, teacher, traveler, and the first and only artistic director at Artists Repertory Theatre, Allen Nause’s retirement is hardly the final act.

Those retirement plans may not go into effect until June 2013, after Allen Nause has once again guided Artists Repertory Theatre into new territory—that of another artistic director. But when he bows out, Nause will have led Artists Rep for 25 years.

Having built Artists Rep into Portland’s second-largest theater company, the advisory hand of Nause will leave creative and professional fingerprints all over the organization, yet still allow his successor to forge his or her own path as Artists Rep maintains its mission: “Artists Repertory Theatre challenges artists and audiences with plays of depth and vibrancy staged in an intimate environment.”

The reason that Artists Rep flourished under Nause, becoming a sustainable business with an annual budget of $2.2 million, was due to his ability to simultaneously work in the past, present and future. Even with the constant flow of productions in the present, Nause always stayed conscious of his company’s history while progressing forward according to Artists Rep’s declared mission and his personal creative vision. This awareness helped Nause foster dedicated actors and audiences as he sought risks and faced them head on, enabling growth for everyone involved.

Part of that development included collaboration outside his culture. An avid traveler, Nause has taught, performed and directed plays across the world—from Africa to Asia and the Middle East, in locations as diverse as India, Hungary, Vietnam, Pakistan, and Israel.

It’s the current durability of Artists Rep that makes it the ideal time for Nause to recede from the stage. “I wanted to leave the company when I was really at my strength,” Nause says, “and help move the transition, be part of that. You know, I don’t plan to really retire. I can’t imagine retiring, in the truest sense—going to Florida and playing golf six days a week.” Already planning to continue his acting, directing and traveling, Nause also hopes “to stay involved as much as I’m invited to at Artists Rep.”

At present, Nause is producing the musical Next To Normal. “I’m involved in every show that we do,” Nause explains. “I help casting. I work with the directors and designers, just to be somebody to bounce ideas off of and to give feedback.”

Define what an artistic director does.

I get to help, enable, promote the making of art. Specifically, I do that by selecting a season, hiring the directors, directing a couple of plays myself, casting, fundraising. I always like to say I’m working in the present—I always have a project I’m working on. I have one foot in the past because Artists Rep has a history, a vision and a mission, and we try to stay true to that. But we’re also moving forward, so I’m also working in the future. I really love that part of it, the strategic planning—planning for the season, planning for what Artists Rep is going to look like in a few years. That’s the overview, and then specifically, I oversee all artistic and production elements at the theater. We have an administrative head, and I’m the artistic head. I supervise all the production, technical elements, designers, actors, directors, et cetera.

Did you first come to Oregon for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival?

Yes. In 1975, I was living in New York City and I got a telegram under my door asking, “Would you come out and work at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival?” That got me back to the West Coast, which is really my love. I worked there for about three years and then went up to Seattle. I went back to Ashland in the mid-80s, back to Seattle, and then fate brought me to Portland. It’s one of those towns that I always kept going through on my way to Seattle or down to Ashland. I always really loved it, but ended up working here because my then-wife got a job in Portland. I thought, I can base in Portland and work all around the country. The only problem was that we had a six-year-old kid [laughs]. I took one job out of town and I said, “I’m not doing that again. I’m going to find a way to stay in town.”

Instead of focusing on my acting, I started focusing on my directing. I started directing at various theaters in town, and then this little company named Artists Rep was looking for an artistic director. Vana O’Brien, who was one of the founders and who’s still with the company, said, “I think you should apply for this, Allen.” And I said, “I don’t know anything about being an artistic director” [laughs]. She said, “I think you have all the right qualities.” What better way to learn but with a tiny company? I’d worked at these huge, monster companies—the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and Seattle Rep, the largest companies in America—but at this little, tiny company I thought I could really make a difference. I could really learn and it’d really be a hands-on experience. Then in three to five years I’d use that to move to another company. And I’ve just been here ever since [laughs].

I’ve heard that the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 1975 was special. You’ve been quoted saying, “If you go through and look at that company in 1975 it reads like a Who’s Who of American Theater.”

[Laughs] Right.

You were there with talent like William Hurt, an Academy Award-winning actor, Jean Smart, and Denis Arndt, who directed your first production this season, God of Carnage. Tell me about a memorable experience from that early period in your career.

There’s something about acting and theater... I think when most people see someone on stage they go, “Those people must be so confident, self assured and having fun.” But the opening night of Much Ado About Nothing when I was playing Benedick (Benedick comes on late in the first scene, so I’m waiting backstage), I just remember absolute fear, believing I could not walk out on that stage. Then my cue came and I just had to go. You walk into the fear. In retrospect, I understood that in order to actually move ahead and grow as a person, you need to look at your fear and walk into it. There have been times in my life since then when I think, oh, I’m too afraid to do that, or, why do I think I could do that? I just find the courage to walk into it and that’s where most of my growth has been, as an artist and as a person, when I’ve actually done the things that are the toughest for me.

Have you experienced anything like that recently?

I experience it all the time. Every time I face a new production as an actor. You still have self-doubt and you wonder if you’ve got the stuff to really do this role. Every new show as a director, it’s like you’re going into unknown territory. The thing about really good artists is that they’re not repeating themselves. Each project, you’re going into new places of discovery and that’s scary because we like to do what we know. But good artists go some place they’ve never been, and that’s scary because that implies risk and risk means you could fall flat on your face [laughs].

Speaking of unknown territory, what was going through your mind when you accepted the job as Artists Rep’s first artistic director?

I thought, what the hell am I doing? They’re going to catch on to me any day [laughs]. Nobody goes to school to be an artistic director; there’s no program. Essentially you’re hired for your artistic taste, your ability to have an artistic vision, and your leadership abilities—the ability to inspire other people. And then, the nuts and bolts of it, you learn on the job. It was a perfect thing for me because I’ve absolutely loved it, especially the visioning part... the looking out to “Where can this company go?” Within the very first weeks I was thinking, what do I want this company to look like in five years? And I remember saying to myself, “As soon as I feel that this company isn’t moving forward anymore, then I’ll probably do something else.” But the company has kept growing, it’s kept moving ahead. I feel confident now that I can pass it on to the next person and they can take it even further. It’s been an amazing growth. We started as a company with a budget of about $125,000 to now $2.2 million, and we have our own space—two theaters. It’s just been this slow, steady growth because we’ve been committed to a longtime mission that’s been pretty clear for us.

You helped build Artists Rep into Portland’s second-largest theater company, where you’ve stood for some 10 years now. As the number two player in town, you’re currently balancing in this theatrical middle ground—you don’t have the budgets, stages or productions that Portland Center Stage has, but you’re not on the bottom rung anymore. How do you plan to maintain the intimate, thought-provoking performances that challenge audiences as you continue to grow, reaching a large enough audience to sustain your future operations?

We have this attitude that we try to do a lot with a little. If you looked at what we actually budget for sets and costumes, we actually create quite a bit with a little. We have that attitude, but we always like to say we’re fiscally conservative but artistically hungry, risky. I think it’s articulating a clear mission, knowing who you are, and staying true to that mission. It’s also important that you don’t rest on your laurels. We always have to have things we’re shooting for and working towards. Staying true to our mission has held us in good stead.

And what is your mission?

To challenge audiences and artists with plays that matter, that are about our lives. Plays that are premieres—to Portland or a world premiere—or a classic that’s reimagined. The part that I keep coming back to when I’m looking at work is this: How does it challenge us? How does it make us see ourselves as human beings in a different way?

Artists Rep has been selected for numerous awards during your tenure, but how have these achievements affected your life?

Awards are nice and I’m always touched and honored, but we don’t work for awards. The “Shakespeare in American Communities” grant that we got from the NEA was exciting. It enabled us to do something that is a part of Artists Rep—it’s not in our mission per se, but it’s a part of our character—and that’s international collaboration. We were able to do this project with a Vietnamese company, where we had American actors working with Vietnamese actors, each bringing their own culture together and creating a piece that had us look at each other’s culture. By looking at each other’s culture, it told us more about ourselves. We were able to tour that, not only in Vietnam, but in five states in the United States and here in Portland. It was life changing for all the actors who worked on it; it was life changing for me. And the people who saw that production—it was an eye-opening piece for them.

How was it life changing for you?

For one thing, I got to go over and live in Vietnam for five months. I had to work with all these cultural differences with these actors, these incredible actors over there, but we certainly had cultural differences that we had to confront. And when you confront cultural differences, it really tells you a lot about yourself. You really see yourself in a new way. It pushed me in every way possible: artistically and as a human being. I made bonds with people there that I still have today, and it started me on this path of doing international work. I recently did a piece in Pakistan, and I’ve worked in Jerusalem and India. Artists Rep has taken three international tours.

I think this is so important because I feel the world is shrinking—our communication today is amazing, and we’re not nearly as isolated as we were 20 years ago—and it’s really important that we get out there and work with people. It’s when we work one on one with another culture that you really begin to understand that other culture, and you find the humanness in each culture. You find the things you share, celebrate your differences, and solve problems together. That’s what we do when we create theater—we work together, we solve the problem of getting this play up. The problems are magnified a hundredfold when they’re cross-cultural.

Even though you’ll be involved with Artists Rep and the selection process of a new artistic director, retirement must mean you’ll be looking forward to traveling more.

I do plan to do more of that. One of the things that I always try to do when I do international work is find a way to bring some of it back here. For example, bringing the Vietnamese piece here. We brought over an actor from India to be in one of our productions. I’m trying to get a Pakistani actor to come over and be in our next season.

You’re also considering returning to Pakistan in the future?

Yes, but that’s not finalized yet. The State Department is interested in me going there so we’re trying to work that out. That would be next year.

Tell me about your past experience there.

My experience was fabulous. I worked with a young company in Islamabad. I directed Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple in English. They were eager to learn because there is almost no training. They were very interested in an American approach to the work, and I worked a lot on bringing some of the kinds of approaches to the work that I use here—basic acting stuff for us, but it was stuff that they hadn’t been exposed to there. I found them very welcoming, kind, enthusiastic people.

What was the biggest challenge you faced?

Again, the cultural differences. I had a really short time to do this fairly big project. There’s a different attitude toward time, so a 6 o’clock rehearsal start time didn’t necessarily mean that. But the problem
for me was a 10 o’clock end time was absolute because that’s when the electricity shut off [laughs]. So if we started 15 minutes late, I couldn’t go 15 minutes over.

What is special about live theater?

It’s ultimately risky. Anything can happen.

Risk taking has defined your career to some extent.

When you sit down and there’s a live actor in front of you, the potential is endless. In a movie, as brilliant as they are, it’s always going to be the same, every time you watch it. But every performance is different. The audience makes it different. It’s that communication between the two; it’s a very special thing. They’ve been doing the death knell on theater since movies came in, and then television, but I think theater just keeps getting stronger because nothing can replace that live experience.

What’s special about the current theater community in Portland?

One of the gratifying things about Portland is there’s a lot of smaller companies right now that are doing really interesting, challenging work. There are three or four of them that could go on that path to creating an institution that has some longevity and growth. Sometimes we see companies come and go. I never wanted Artists Rep to be one of those companies. I felt it was more important to build a company that could be sustained beyond me, and I think there are some young companies right now that are laying really good groundwork. There’s just great work being done and new people moving here all the time.

People think that we’re all in competition, but it really isn’t that way. The more successful other companies are, the better it is for us because it attracts artists. It keeps the community vital. We can’t employ all the actors here, so they have other places to work. It enriches the community.

You’re leaving behind some pretty big shoes to fill. Have any advice for your successor?

[Laughs] I’m really excited about the next stage of Artists Rep and being part of that. Back when I came to Artists Rep in ‘88, it was such a small company. The company now has an opportunity to do a national search and get someone that’s a really good fit. What’s important is for that person to have one foot in the history [the past], and certainly their heart in the present. But also looking to the future, they need to have their own vision that grows out of who we are now, where we’ve been, and where we’re going. And that’ll be different from mine. The only advice I would have is, continue to take risks and be true to the mission of the company and true to your own vision.

Could you possibly envision the next person to be here for 25 years as well?

Yes, I can. It has been, for me, a truly gratifying company to work for. This company is going nowhere but up and better and stronger.

And how do you hope to continue to grow after your retirement?

I’m going to continue to act, and I have continued to act as long as I’ve been here. That’s really been good for me and good for the company because I give myself that ultimate risk occasionally. It’s really great [laughs] for the big things, the risk and the creativity, but also the small things... I get to see what actors go through to work here—what the dressing rooms are like, if the heat’s not working. I always tell people when we start rehearsal, “I’m not the artistic director anymore. I’m just an actor.” And I really feel that way. The biggest thing for me in the next few years as I transition into retirement, will be focusing more on myself as an artist, moving away from some of the administrative stuff. I’ll be able to work at other companies and direct other places. I enjoy doing all those things because each is a challenge in a different way.

What’s your next acting role?

I’ll be auditioning [laughs].

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Read this interview in About Face Magazine.

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