At the turn of the year, Portland’s Readers Theatre Repertory passed the century mark, turning “100 productions old.”  And in May, when its 10th season ends, the company, formed to tell “small stories with big ideas at their heart,” will have staged over 208 performances, starring over 250 of the Pacific Northwest’s finest actors in over 500 roles.

“And it all started with a dream,” says co-founder and director Mary McDonald-Lewis, “launched in the long shadow cast by September 11th.”

In the fall of 2001, five theatre folks gathered in an Irvington living room to craft RTR: a small company dedicated to honoring the written word of the one-act play; to staging one hour evenings of smart, affordable theatre in an intimate space.

Ten years later, the directors and others involved with the company look back at RTR’s beginning, and the journey to its 100th anniversary.

“We were going for the ‘campfire,'” says co-founder and director Doreen O’Skea, who created RTR along with theatre family Bob Martin, Matthew Martin, Mooch Martin and McDonald-Lewis.  “Secrets and truths,” she explains. “Stories that sneak into your heart and soul, and make your life somehow better.”

Blackfish Gallery in Portland’s Pearl District opened its doors to RTR for the premiere production in November, 2001.  Both organizations loved the idea of an $8 ticket, $3 of which is provided to the gallery.  Ten years later, the ticket price remains $8.  That first night fifteen people came, mostly friends and family.  Now the house is often standing room only, and Blackfish considers RTR a part of the gallery tribe, with the two organizations often collaborating on visual and theatrical productions, including a city-wide festival, “MythFest,” that sprung from an RTR-Blackfish partnership.

Director’s notes in RTR’s first program detail its mission: “…history tells us this.  Since the first campfire, we have gathered to hear stories.  They have explained ourselves to ourselves, and cast a light of their own on problems large and small, questions critical and trivial, on characters heroic and villainous… beyond mere illumination, stories provide a warmth and comfort we have always needed, and always will need.”

Over time, some founders moved on to other projects, remaining emeritus at RTR, and directors Jamie Miller, David Berkson, Wendy Wilcox and Jason England joined the company.  Today active directors are Berkson, England, McDonald-Lewis, Bob and Mooch Martin, and Wilcox.

Co-founder and director Bob Martin says RTR isn’t your typical staged reading company, with static, black-clad readers on stools at music stands, reciting the work.  “We have one read-through and two rehearsals during the week, and our actors are up on their feet performing that Friday and Saturday night.”  Martin says actors and audience members appreciate the energy and artistry the setting creates.  “We provide actors with an experience like a writer’s journal or an artist’s sketchbook, a place to stretch, experiment, practice, and hone their craft.”

Longtime audience member Art Kohn says “I think it is the most reliably good theater in town.  It is astounding what they can do with two rehearsals.  RTR allows the audience to observe the real craft of acting.”

Director England agrees. “We give actors the challenge to create a full character in a short time, and give the audience the opportunity to be part of the little discoveries artists make during the first week of rehearsal.  This can get lost in a longer production.  It’s exciting, surprisingly polished, but still real, a little raw, and very rare.”

Even with lights, music, sound effects, costume and props, RTR uses minimalist staging.  “We have some black stools, a few music stands, and two benches,” explains director Berkson.  “They’ve been everything from bars to bedrooms, graves to catacombs.”  Adds director Wilcox, “And, we can move the gallery’s walls, which creates a new space for us every month.”

RTR staged most of its shows at Blackfish Gallery, with special productions mounted in libraries, senior centers, schools and other theatres.  “These were tumultuous years,” says Bob Martin, “and they still are.  We use our storytelling to respond to it.”  In the face of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the company produced “What I Heard About Iraq” as a part of “The Pacifist Potential.”  To respond to torture, Harold Pinter’s “One for the Road” was staged, with an expert on the topic leading a talk-back following.  Tea Bag-era patriotism was challenged at the main branch of the public library with a contemporary adaptation of the Declaration of Independence.  “And we explored forgiveness,” Bob Martin says, “by participating in the Forgiveness Project, a world-wide theatre event.”

As the stories continued, “The RTR Family” grew.  “That’s what we call our audience members,” explains Mooch Martin.  “So many of them have been with us since the beginning, with new friends joining us every month.” This includes Portland’s most devoted theatergoer, Kay Olsen, who can be found in RTR’s front row every month.  “As an avid theatre patron I’m always happy when I’m able to include Readers Theatre Rep into my monthly experience, ” she says.  “Never knowing what I’ll find — laughs, tears or maybe simply an hour or so of an unknown playwright.  Every time the pure pleasure of our talented pool of actors astounds me!”

Stories, the company believes, are a collaboration between the teller and the listener, and in the intimate Blackfish space, that compact is even more evident.  Actress Jane Clark is also a steadfast audience member.  She says “Readers Theater Rep consistently presents some of the highest quality theater in Portland.  I love being part of the Readers Theater family.”  Clark, who performed in her native England, made her Portland debut at RTR.

Ten seasons and over 100 productions pack plenty of memories for the company members.  Director Berkson says “Adapting Raymond Carver’s stories for the stage was particularly memorable. It was especially cool to be able to be in touch with his widow, Tess Gallagher, about how he approached his work.”  For director Wilcox, it was staging stories during a winter storm. “During a Christmas show the lights went out, so out came the cell phones and flashlights, and the show went on.  As if by magic the words held us in the room and the stories became illuminated in the darkness.  For a moment I thought, should all of our shows be done in the dark?”

“For me, it was our fully-staged production of ‘Address Unknown,'” McDonald-Lewis says.  A story about the rise of fascism written in 1939, it was adapted from a book that shocked the world with its prescience.  “I directed Tobias Andersen and Michael Mendelson, and the whole company pitched in to produce it at the Winningstad Theatre.”  The show, a critical hit, featured Holocaust survivors and scholars in talk-backs after every show.  Reflecting on his experience, actor Mendelson says “‘Address Unknown’ had an impact and a life all of its own.  The piece could not be contained.  It was one of those magical projects that brought community together for one of the most powerful and immediate theatrical experiences I can remember… RTR in its simplicity can allow for something so compelling to happen the audience doesn’t want to leave their seat.  It will always live in my top ten, ever.”

“Our own stories have changed through the years.  Some of us lost parents, and others got married,” says Wilcox.  “One of us got single,” adds McDonald-Lewis, pointing to herself with a grin.  Wilcox continues, “Two babies were born, and one daughter started college.”  Bob and Mooch Martin smile, Mooch saying “We’re grandparents now.”  One director moved to Hollywood to seek his fortune, two others advanced their careers in academic institutions.

“No matter how far we’ve traveled from our first production, ten years ago,” says O’Skea, “we still circle back to that fire, calling to us in the dark.”  Conclude the notes in the program dated November 9th and 10th, 2001: “We hope to use that ancient firelight to unite us–actors and audience–to inspire us, and to brighten the darkness that is at least one part of our human condition.”

Readers Theatre Repertory begins its 11th Season on September 9th and 10th, 2011

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