The van is scuzzy beyond belief—definitely a down-by-the-river number—and five Portland theatregoers may be having second thoughts as they climb aboard. The doors close. The engine starts. And somewhere within the van’s darkness, something vaguely human stirs.
From there, The Reformers’ The Van gets dark. In some ways, it sums up The Reformers’ aesthetic: original plays that “explore theme of fear, dread, and the unknown.” Fortunately, they’re funny people, and their dark plays are well-laden with humor.
Once upon a time in Portland (the Nineties, to be exact—a sort of a golden age for small, scrappy theatres), an extraordinary indie theatre appeared—The Other Side. Sean Doran helped found the company, and Charmian Creagle moved to Portland to work with the theatre. Work with it she did, directing critically lauded productions of Ubu Roi and Machinal. The Other Side became a hot ticket.
Inevitably, scenes shift, and The Other Side went the way of all things. Charmian and Sean left for New York, where Charmian worked with Elevator Repair Service, Clubbed Thumb, and Looking Glass, and Sean worked with La Mama and other companies. By 2009, they had become restless. New York wasn’t giving them what they needed, and they had a couple of kids whose upbringing they had to consider. Hence, they moved back to Portland, founded The Reformers.
What they did not have was a theatre space, which have become increasingly scarce during Portland’s growth binge. So they used what they had and staged their first plays in their garage (granted, it’s a big garage). The experience worked well and started them asking what else might make a theatre: a house, a shopping mall, a van. And the shows emerged: The Turn (an adaptation of Turn of the Screw), Haunted House, Yes No Goodbye, and LER (a twisted version of King Lear). As they produced in unusual locations, they particularly focused on the patrons’ experience, cultivating the richness of small audiences. Though The Van could only seat five, The Reformers kept the piece short and ran it multiple times each night.
Sean and Charmian have written many of The Reformers’ scripts, but Caitlin Nolan joined the group in 2016, first working with them in The Van. Caitlin and Sean have developed a writing partnership, with Charmian advising on scripts, but all three write and act; hence they term The Reformers an experimental, performing arts collective.
The work continues. In 2020, they’re presenting The Landlord’s Game—a story of two Lizzies: Lizzie Magie, who invented the game that became Monopoly, and Lizzie Borden, who took an axe.
I asked them if something about Portlanders allowed them to do theatre that might not work elsewhere, expecting them to say something about the independent arts scene, but instead Sean noted: “They got in the van.”
STEVE PATTERSON’s plays have been staged across the U.S. and in Canada and New Zealand. In 2008, his drama Lost Wavelengths won the Oregon Book Award. Steve served as the Dramatists Guild’s Co-Representative for Oregon. He lives in Portland, where he’s working on a ghost play: An Actively Uninhabited House.