RTR in the Oregonian
Readers Theatre Repertory opened its second season on Friday, September 13th. In attendance on the following Saturday, September 14th, was Michael McGregor, who is a new reviewer to the Oregonian. On Sunday, September 22nd, the Oregonian featured a wonderful article on RTR. The article is reprinted below:
Getting a different read on performing
Readers Theatre Repertory celebrates accessibility with minimal preparation by Michael McGregor
Two nights each month on an otherwise deserted block of Northwest Ninth Avenue, soft light spills from the doorway of a converted garage. Falling between a darkened antique shop and an empty lot, it looks like a campfire, an apt if unintended advertisement for what waits inside.
The single-story building houses Blackfish Gallery, one of the Pearl’s many art venues, but the draw on these two nights is spoken art. In the tiny interior space, actors from Readers Theatre Repertory are reading to an audience not much larger than would fit around a fire.
Reacting to their listeners’ responses, they are sharing what actor Michael O’Connell calls the “golden moment” – the time between discovering a play and performing it, between thinking about art and making it, when every acting choice is still a possibility.
Theater based on reading rather than a staged performance is not unusual. Many theaters use this method now to tinker with new scripts. What makes RTR unique is its focus not on new, full-length plays but on rarely performed one-acts, and its celebration of both accessibility and intimacy in theater.
“The vision … was to create theater that was accessible in every way,” says Mary McDonald-Lewis, who started RTR last year with four others: Bob and Mooch Martin, who have worked with theaters in Kentucky and Japan; the Martin’s son Matthew, and Doreen O’Skea, a University of Portland theater program graduate.
The idea for RTR began when a Blackfish artist attended a show McDonald-Lewis and the Martins were staging for another company and asked if they would consider staging readings in a gallery. A voice actor by profession, McDonald-Lewis had along wanted to start a theater focused on words and ideas. A partnership was born.
To make their work accessible, RTR established strict criteria. Each performance would cost only $8 and last an hour so people could attend without investing an entire evening. Each play would be performed just two nights with two rehearsals so actors involved in other projects could participate. And they would keep the props and costumes simple, playing against whatever art was on the Blackfish walls.
By staying simple, RTR can offer a new show every month. They spend two weeks choosing plays, the two weeks casting, advertising and rehearsing. “It’s like putting on a party every month,” McDonald-Lewis says.
RTR’s approach has attracted interest from Portland’s theater community. In nine shows since last November, almost 50 actors have appeared in its productions, many of them Actors Equity members.
Last weekend, for example, O’Connell took a break from Portland Center Stage rehearsals to appear in RTR’s production of Tom Stoppard’s “The Fifteen Minute Hamlet.” In the same case were Tygres Heart veteran Eric Newsome and Louanne Moldovan from Cygnet Theatre.
While O’Connell was attracted to the play itself, Newsome found RTR’s experimental approach appealing. “You have to make choices,” Newsome says, “and you get to see if a choice works. You throw as much as you can against the wall and see what sticks.”
Because of its time constraints, RTR decided early on to focus on pairings of one-act plays.
“We consume one-act plays like bonbons,” McDonald-Lewis says. “The key is finding texts wtih huge ideas at their center.”
The intriguing pairings that result, often by established playwrights, draw both cast and audience. “For me the attraction is the chance to do the work,” says Moldovan, “but also for audiences to hear these authors done by decent actors.”
Marie Heim, who attended the Sept. 14 performance, says, “I like the contrast between the works but also what a thing like this allows the vast pool of talent in this town to be seen.”
Director McDonald-Lewis paired Stoppard’s play with “Terminating,” Tony Kushner’s meditation on Shakespeare’s Sonnet 75. The first is a comedy, the second a grittily contemporary look at love and loss. Both had only a bench as a prop and a white wall with a painting of a two-headed calf as the backdrop.
Given RTR’s diamond-in-the-rough approach, the shows are provisional in nature, with mixed results. For some this is the beauty. Those who need their theater polished, though, might be disappointed
In the Sept. 14 performance, Newsome brought Hendryk, the main character in Kushner’s play, to life through variations in his voice and only simple gestures. Without actions to flesh out their roles, however, the other actors often came across as wooden. For the Stoppard play, McDonald-Lewis allowed more movement, but this meant actors had to memorize some lines, violating the idea of readers theater.
Less than a year old, RTR is still discovering itself, including how to use its wealth of actors and texts and the constrictions of its space and schedule. Whatever it becomes, it should retain the feeling of a campfire gathering, a feeling reinforced at each show’s end when the cast retires to the low light of the nearby Low Brow Lounge, inviting everyone along.