I had a chance to sit down with the new artistic director of Portland Center Stage, Marissa Wolf. As you’ll see from this interview, though she’s been at her job a short time, she’s having a big impact on the Portland Theatre scene
Francesca Piantadosi: What got you interested in the theatre?
Marissa Wolf: I saw my first play when I was three years old. It was Goldilocks and the Three Bears. My mother said I was theatre. But for me, it feels like I’ve loved theatre for as long as I can remember.
Of course, I also envisioned as a very young person, that I would be an actress… and also an architect and also a professional cellist. These were all the things I had grand visions of… Multiple career paths that magically all rolled into one Renaissance woman.
I was so lucky to have a family that would support the excitement and enthusiasm and be able to nurture that in me. Growing up we saw a lot of children’s theatre. By the time I was in middle school… I grew up in Connecticut…my parents started taking me to productions at the Long Wharf and Yale Rep. When I was in high school, we were driving to Providence, Rhode Island to Trinity Rep where my family became very close to that company of actors. That’s when Oskar Eustis was running it.
I don’t what it is about theatre, why any one person is drawn to in theatre. It’s a beautiful mystery, isn’t it? For me, I felt most alive when I was watching theatre or performing. I did lots of little community theatre shows as a kid. I took it very seriously. I also did after school theatre at my public school. We did not have a theatre program. I felt transported and shaken to my core I can still remember searing moments of performances I watched in high school or professional productions at amazing regional theaters. Those things cracked something open in me and showed me what is possible.
FP: Who tried to talk you out of being a theatre artist?
MW: I would say …everyone… except my parents. I happen to hail from two people who work in humanities. And so, they were deeply nurturing to my brothers and me. All three of us have ended up in the arts. They were deeply nurturing and also took me very seriously, even at the age of three. Even in elementary school they took me seriously and told me “Go do it.” That is a very privileged position to be in. They come from a world in which art and critical thought is an integral part of living in the world and understanding sociopolitical systems. But, other than them everybody tried to talk me out of it.
It really bothered me growing up. Adults are always asking kids “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I always said, “an actress” because as a kid, you think actors are theatre. Then every single adult (like clockwork) would say, “Don’t quit your day job” or “Better marry a rich husband.”
It’s really crazy to think about saying that to a kid, who is, after all, answering your question; and is sharing their ambition, and vision of themselves. Then you poo-poo it.
There are a couple of things I feel now about that. One is, I had a lot of confidence when I was a kid. I remember every time that was said to me and I thought, “Wow! That person doesn’t know what they are talking about.” The thing is, everyone can be in the arts. Even as I grew up, I began to be in some circles where people were making their lives as working artists. I said to myself, “Oh you can do this thing. It takes chutzpah and tenacity, but you can do it.”
FP: What was the first thing that happened in your career that made you feel validated as a professional?
MW: That is a very interesting question. I think maybe one of the first major moments was going to college. I was a drama major at Vassar College and so that felt like I was shaping something for myself, in a program that was excellent. They took young people so seriously, as the next vanguard of the art. And also, because it’s liberal arts, they really pushed students to be critical thinkers… to question everything and also to bring a wealth of knowledge from history classes, from religious studies classes or psychology. There was this wonderful wellspring of thought and questioning. So that was a major moment for me. And I would then say surviving my twenties. That whole thing, year by year, I was taking off another onion layer and excavating the ways in which I faced the unknown. It was really scary and hard. Yet each year I kept going.
FP: Did you have to have a “day job” and direct at night?
MW: Absolutely! My first day job was a preschool teacher, in a wonderful Jewish preschool in San Francisco. I was working part time in the morning. It was such a great program. They gave me health insurance… and just enough to pay my rent. I was interning at three different small theaters in San Francisco doing all sorts of things. I was dramaturging and assistant directing and associate producing. All kinds of things at once. That sort of became my path.
Initially somebody recommended Crowded Fire to me. I looked up their mission and said “Oh, wow. That’s exactly what I believe!” That theater “can and should be in this world.” And then I saw one of their shows. I immediately sent a formal cover and resume to Rebecca Novick, the Artistic Director. I didn’t hear back from her, of course. She was busy running a company. I followed up her a week or two later. She said, “Oh, I saw your resume. It looks interesting. What are you actually interested in? Because you listed acting and directing.” I told her I was interested in directing. She said, “Okay, why don’t you do some research on our upcoming new play called Slow Falling Bird by Christine Evans.” I was over the moon. To be given something to do on a world premiere was amazing. I was particularly excited because Crowded Fire was paying for my book purchases. I did a ton of research and shared it with Rebecca. She was impressed with the work and invited me to be her assistant director on the show. That was my first toehold, and from there I was invited to become a company member. That felt huge. I was really proud of that.
I also interned for Playwrights Foundation. They were amazing. They liked my work so offered me a job as an associate producer for the Festival. I said yes to that, and then a lot of opportunities came. I took them on even as I was working for the preschool. Similarly, I worked for Fools Fury Theater. I was an intern again. It’s a good way to get in. And eventually I was invited to be a company member there as well.
I guess the question is how do you build a life when you are 22? You go ahead and do it. And then you figure out how to pay your rent and health insurance.
I don’t want to mythologize that moment because it was painfully hard… and intensely lonely. I was profoundly overwhelmed, tired and always questioning whether I was going to be able to get up this mountain and actually make a life in theater.
Another major turning point for me, kind of a point-of-no-return-turning-point, was getting the Bret C. Harte Directing Fellowship at Berkeley Rep. That was the first time in my whole life that I was doing theater full time, in a professional setting, at a major regional theater. It was a great program because they give you housing. Even then, I had to hustle. I had housing, full time work and a small stipend every month. But we all hustled. I did a ton of catering jobs, because they pay well.
FP: Roughly what year is this?
MW: I was there for two seasons, 2006-2008.
FP: What was the first job where you were sort of the boss?
MW: That was Crowded Fire.
FP: And how did that come about after Berkeley Rep?
MW: I applied to graduate school. And the interesting thing is I was like “Oh God, how am I going to do this? Now I’m in theater full time and there’s no looking back. How in the hell am I going to do this when I have to pay for housing again?”
I decided “Graduate school makes sense.” I was applying to both Ph.D programs in theater as well as MFA programs because I couldn’t quite figure out where my life was heading at that point. Both my parents came from academics and I love theory. I love what it can do for the arts. I thought maybe I will explore the dance between theory and practice. I did get into a program I was excited about at first but ultimately felt an academic situation just doesn’t make sense.
I get asked a lot whether young directors should go to grad school or not. I say it has to be a match. If you are hungry for grad school and you find a mentor at a program that is a match for you, then go. But, a lot of the directors who I am really close with, who are like ascending in the world by leaps and bounds, don’t necessarily have MFAs. So, it is so personal. I ultimately come to ascribe my graduate training as Berkeley Rep. That was on the ground training. I was assisting every single director in those two seasons and that was an incredible thing.
So, there are multiple paths. No one path is for everyone. Which, of course, makes it harder. I used to wish “Oh if only I was becoming a doctor, I would know that I had to go to med school, and then do a residency.” But with theatre there is no clarity.
FP: When was it that you felt that you had found your path?
MW: Basically, when I decided I was not going to go to the program I got into.
FP: Were you scared?
MW: I was super scared! And right then Rebecca said, “I’m leaving Crowded Fire. The board is going to open it up and do a search.” I was more scared then, because I thought, “Oh, no! I can’t deal with more heartbreak. This is too hard, too painful.” But that is where the prick of ambition comes in. I cannot not go out for this. It’s too incredible, I’ve been a company member…I have to get this board to take a risk on me. And they did. That was a major transformational moment. Because then I was suddenly an Artistic Director. I went right from a mentorship with Les Waters to the opportunity to run my own company and apply what I learned.
Then I was absolutely terrified in a totally new way. But I was thrilled. I knew I could do it. It’s important to note too that in building a life, I did then have to take another part time job in theater, because Crowded Fire could not pay enough to live on. I took a part time job as Education Director at Berkeley Playhouse, which was then a fledgling professional children theater. It has become a major house in the Bay area. I did that for a year. Then I was able to parlay that into a teaching artists job. So it’s important to call out how one actually does these things. It’s not like I got Crowded Fire and then the heavens opened and everything was revealed. Or that then I lived comfortably and knew exactly what I was doing. That’s not true.
FP: What is the biggest challenge in taking over Portland Center Stage?
MW: It has been an amazing eight months so far. It’s been some of the most exciting and impactful work of my life. Every day I feel deeply privileged and thrilled to get to do this job. Each time I walk into the Armory, I can’t believe I work here. It’s amazing. I think the challenge is the learning curve is very steep when you are a new Artistic Director. In a way, there is no way through but through. I’ve been on a very deep listening tour for about six months. Every week, I’ve been doing half hour meetings with local artists, whoever wants to come in. A lot of folks have shown up… actors, designers, professors, producers, all kinds of folks. And this is in addition to meeting with every single donor and every single board member one on one. Then there are meetings with members of the community, community leaders and other non- profits. Plus the learning curve of what is happening in this community already, where Portland Center Stage has been. I need to deeply understand the history to value it and build on top of it. And you just can’t know until you are inside of it. And until you are talking and wrestling and understanding. Also, season planning is really hard when you are new to the company. Like I have all these ideas and I’m so excited, but how does it actually work here? Is it possible here, on these stages with the number of contracts we can afford? That kind of thing. So it took me a long time, longer than it will in the future to be able to put the puzzle together, how a season would work.
FP: Do you feel like you have your legs under you?
MW: Yes, I do. I think I’m at the beginning of feeling that way. And especially launching into a new season, the 2020 season that will be my first opportunity to plan. I am having a deep relationship to each project. I am feeling more settled here and my family is feeling more settled. We are moving to the neighborhood where we actually bought a house….it takes a lot of time. Plus there were a couple of contracts I had to fulfill at Kansas City Rep. So there were big chunks where I was travelling. I’m finally beginning to descend to the earth in a way.
FP: What are you hoping we will know about you after we see this season?
MW: I am hoping that audiences are excited to come on this journey and essentially would love to build a kind of community wide engagement and conversation and excitement around the work so that people say, “Yes!” “Yes, I am going to show up for Portland Center Stages work. Because even though I don’t know the title, I know I’m going to have a great experience.” I think people already feel that way. They’ll hopefully trust in me and my programming. And that can only happen from knocking it out of the park with these projects. I’d like for people to feel that there is something for everyone. There is humor, there’s music, there’s energy throughout. I would love for folks to be seen on stage, I would love for folks to feel enlivened and startled by the conversations on stage, by the thoughtful negotiation of the personal and political of our time and in ways that are intensely compelling, and exciting on stage. Ultimately, I’m hoping to build a trust this season, a contract with Portland audiences. I want to say, “Come check out what is happening here, this is a place you belong. And this is kind of a kick-off moment to celebrate our differences and the ways in which we can come together.”