October 29, 2013

Truth of Text and Magic on Stage: Artistic Director Adriana Baer serves the Play at the Profile Theatre

Photograph by Leah Nash

It was through an article in the Theater section of The New York Times that I discovered Adriana Baer. Here, she talks about her move from New York to become the Artistic Director of the Profile Theatre in Portland, Oregon, in addition to the power of storytelling on stage.

On being a theater director

When and how did you initially encounter the experience of theater? And did this play a role (pun surely intended) in your path toward becoming a director of plays? If not, how did you arrive at what you do?

I grew up surrounded by the arts. My dad was a conductor, a producer, and an arts consultant. The first production I remember seeing was The Beggar’s Opera in Los Angeles when I was 3 or 4. But I started as a dancer—ballet—and then to acting, and from there, like many directors, found “the other side of the frame.” I realized that when I read plays, I was reading them from the perspective of the audience, not of the character I was most likely to play. I imagined the whole event. That led me to directing.

Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare, Columbia Stages: set design by Stephen Dobay, lighting design by Paul Toben, costume design by Kevin Thacker. Photograph by Carol Rosegg

From William Shakespeare (“All the world’s a stage”) to Carl Sagan (“The earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena”), the stage is a construct that’s embraced in many ways. What does the stage—the concept, the force—mean to you?

The stage is a magical space. Whatever the physical room is—a black box, fancy proscenium, street corner—the act of one person performing for another transforms that little plot of land into a world where anything is possible. It’s a place for communication, communion, ideas, arguments. But it’s a safe place, protected. Anything can be brought up, looked at, felt, and released. It’s a place of transience. Of ideas and “aliveness.” So I think of the stage as the vessel through which I get to bring stories to life and offer them to a group of people in that single moment. Theater is different from other art forms because it is fleeting, temporal, and changes completely based on who is in that particular room at that particular moment. No performance is the same because the act of “theater” is an energy exchange between actor and audience.

Woyzeck by Georg Büchner, The Cutting Ball Theater: set design by Mellie Katakalos, lighting design by Rob Melrose, costume design by Raquel Barreto. Photograph by Rob Melrose

What is the theater’s purpose or obligation in our society, the world?

I think this is both enormous and simple: To Question.

Who are your theater-related influences?

Robert Woodruff, Anne Bogart, Rob Melrose, Georg Büchner, Henrik Ibsen, Tennessee Williams, Gustav Mahler, Egon Schiele, Peter Sellars, the circus.

How important is it for you to follow your instincts?

If I did not, I could not do my job. It is my most vital tool. When my work is bad, boring, disconnected, I can usually trace that back to the root of not trusting my gut.

Speaking of instincts, moving from New York City to Portland, Oregon, was a gutsy move. What are some self-discoveries from this journey so far?

It’s probably not a move I would have made without a job that allowed me to make the transition. New York is very seductive. It tells you that it is the only place where “real work” gets made and that to “make it” in New York is more valuable than “making it” anywhere else. This is a lie. I have an East Coast metabolism: I move fast, am Type-A and ambitious. Being back on the West Coast (I’m from Northern California) has allowed me to balance out. It’s awesome. Portland, the nature, the people, force me to slow down, and I actually feel more creative in this environment where there is space to dream and create.

The Road to Mecca by Athol Fugard, Profile Theatre: set design by Alan Schwanke, lighting design by Kristeen Willis Crosser, costume design by Jessica Bobillot. Photograph by Jamie Bosworth

Profile Theatre’s mission to dedicate a season to one playwright is notable. Is this approach unique to your theater or is it a pattern among theaters? And how do you curate/select in accomplishing this mission?

This is not typical. There are only two other theaters we know of with similar missions: Signature Theatre in New York and Eclipse Theatre in Chicago. What’s most important for me in picking our featured writer, and then the plays in our season, is finding a writer with a varied body of work. The fun part is finding plays that span a writer’s lifetime and seeing how s/he has changed or not over time. How the work has grown and morphed. I have to make sure to give my audience a really nuanced season (not all the same kind of play) and pieces that are in dialogue with each other. I want my audience to have a deep experience with our featured writer’s work whether they come for one play or six.

Do you direct for an ideal theater-goer or a particular audience?

I direct what I would want to see. I direct to the truth of the text—sometimes that’s more abstract, more violent, more straightforward—but whatever it is, ideally I’m serving this play now. I hope that if I do my job well, the audience will come along for the ride. That if they don’t like the play, they don’t like the best version of the play. I direct for a smart, thinking audience. An audience that leans-in.

What are the major differences between directing for theater compared to directing for film?

You know, I have never directed film before, so I can’t really speak to that in specifics. But I will say that in the theater, you have to take care of the whole picture all the time, while in film you can cut away, control the audiences’ gaze. In the theater, each person in the audience can be seeing the stage in a different way, looking at a different part of the room. So I have to keep tabs on every aspect of the whole event.

What were essential activities/steps you took to start and establish yourself as a theater director? And why were these activities/steps important?

I trained as an actor—so I know what it’s like to actually do what I’m asking my actors to do. I also have a BA in Liberal Arts—it’s really important to me and my work to be a good reader, a good writer, to know a lot about history and art history and music. These all factor into being a good director. I have directed in lots of different kinds of spaces. I also have an MFA in Theatre Directing (from Columbia University) where I studied with incredible mentors. Life experience is also pretty key.

How do you get the word out about what you do?

At Profile, we rely heavily on word-of-mouth, social media and traditional marketing strategies, like mailing and print media. The very best marketing is good work, so we always start there.

How do you attract work and clients?

As a freelance artist, I really stuck by the adage “work begets work” so I worked as much as possible. I also worked at many different theaters around the country—spreading my network wide.

What is your definition of growth, as it relates to business?

Running a not-for-profit theater company, there is the base-line financial growth and financial health and sustainability that consumes a huge part of my day-to-day. When I think of how this happens, it’s about doing on-mission work that is relevant, expanding the dialogue with more and more audiences. Ideally, we have an audience demographic that mirrors the demographic of Portland. That’s what we’re growing towards.

How would describe your business’ work culture? And why is it important?

Creative, loud, fast, honest. The honest part is crucial. We all work hard and for not enough money. So we can’t let petty issues bog down the workflow. We have ideas a lot and throw them out with as much fervor as we brought them up. Fearlessness is key.

On creativity, design, working

Design writer Alissa Walker wrote an article called “Women in Industrial Design: Where My Ladies At?” Where are the Ladies in Design/Development/Strategy at?

Being a woman in the theater definitely makes me ask “Where the Ladies at?!” As this article points out, yes, it’s getting better. But I can count the number of female artistic directors I know on two hands. Female playwrights are underrepresented across the board—there were not many female writers who got traction until about 20 years ago. The majority of well-known American plays are written by men. Women writers are not household names. Where are the ladies on stage? Where are the roles for women? Where are the women being nominated for major awards? Yes, we are making progress, but we’re still a long way from parity. The female Artistic Directors who came before me speak of the fight they had to get where they did and to prove themselves in the “boys club” of the regional and commercial theater. I am glad they had the courage to start paving the way. Being a leader in my field allows me to start making changes really actively. Looking for ways to bring in more female voices, designers, directors, etc. Looking for ways to better reflect the demographics of our diverse community.

How do you handle disagreements while you’re working?

As a director, it is firstly my intention to listen and ask a lot of questions. To discuss a lot. But at the end of the day, I am not afraid to just “be the decider.” This is, after all, what my job is. I think a lot of young directors make the mistake of trying to be “well-liked” and are afraid to make decisions that might be disagreed with … but that’s what actors and designers need sometimes: clear framing and structure in which they can play.

What part of your work is particularly trying, and how do you deal with it?

As an Artistic Director, the fundraising is exhausting. I’ve been working recently with my team to come up with creative fundraising ideas and schemes. If I can be creative in it, I get energy from it. When it’s just “scarcity thinking,” it’s really grueling and shuts down my ability to get joy from what I do.

What is your workspace like? How does it contribute to doing the quality of work you want to do?

I have two workspaces: the office and the rehearsal room. My desk (above) belonged to my dad (that’s him in the black and white photo behind my computer from when he was the General Manager of the Pickle Family Circus in San Francisco). I try to keep things pretty neat, since there’s always so much going on. Good lighting and a stack of books is most important (usually books by or about our featured writer right now). Also, I surround myself with trinkets and photos and postcards given to me by friends and mentors and family. It helps make my corner of a very uninteresting office space feel more “mine.”

The rehearsal room can really be anything—but luckily in our new residency at Artists Repertory Theatre, I get to rehearse in big, clean rooms with natural light. (This is huge! Many theaters have terrible rehearsal spaces, terrible lighting, etc.) There’s always coffee or tea. A table for the stage manager. I tend to be moving around a lot when I direct, so even though I love having a dedicated spot for everything in my office, when I’m in rehearsal, I never want to sit in the same place for too long. It’s really important to have designated, clean, and calm rehearsal space. Boring in this case is good! We let our imaginations fill the room.

What tools do you use and recommend to work on ideas and make them grow, to collaborate and get things done?

I think there’s a very simple answer to this but an important one. In order for everyone to do their best work, they need to feel like they’re on the same page. The best way of doing this is through lots and lots of communication. Shared drives, shared images collections, etc., are also super important. Basic structure and scheduling can go a long way in letting people’s left brains take a backseat and allow the creativity to come into the room.

How do you stay creative? What are some of your sources of motivation/inspiration?

I love this question. I listen to a lot of music, classical especially. I love that I can hear a story without any words. Being a theater-maker, I rely really heavily on language for my story-telling so it’s really helpful to get out of that for a while. I also love museums. I wrote my undergrad thesis on German Expressionism and love that work and the Surrealists especially. I also like to get out of any building and go outside and wander through nature. This gives my brain some space. I also like to cook which is completely unrelated to any project but is really creative. It also wakes up senses we don’t usually use in the theater—smell and taste.

What is your definition of bad design?

Inauthentic work that is based on a “cool idea” instead of on grounded collaboration with a text. I think you can make beautiful work with 3 cardboard boxes and a flashlight, and terrible work with a million-dollar budget. So it’s not about resources in that sense. It’s about nuance and honesty.

If a person approached you and said, “I need to promote myself”, what’s your advice?

Be authentic. Get a great website. Meet as many people as possible. Have a clear message about what kind of work you want to make and why. Have a personal mission statement. Be fearless.

How does the city of Portland, Oregon, contribute to your work? And what makes Portland special for startups/business/creativity-at-large?

Portland IS our work. We make theater for a Portland audience so everything we do is in conversation with the city and the people who live here. Portland is willing to take risks, to say yes to new ideas. I like this. It’s a city that is filled with smart people who like to read and like their minds to be stretched.

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All images courtesy of Adriana Baer.

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Typeface of quotation is Rotis (1988) designed by Otl Aicher.

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