Portland Center Stage (Portland, OR)

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Five dancers in red dresses facing front having just finished a twirl

The Shark girls extol the virtues of "America" in Portland Center Stage's production of West Side Story (left to right: Courtney Laine Mazza, Ivette Sosa, Dayna Tietzen, Kristen J. Smith, and Anna Kaiser). Photo by Owen Carey.

Portland Center Stage was one of 13 theater companies to receive an American Masterpieces grant in 2006 to support a production of a classic musical, in this case, West Side Story. In this interview the company's managing director, Edith Love, shares the importance of the NEA grant to the company's hit revival of the award-winning musical.

NEA: Can you please give a brief history of Portland Center Stage?

EDITH LOVE: We were founded as part of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 1988, sort of the northern outlet of it. We became an independent organization under Portland Center Stage in 1994.

NEA: Why did you apply for an NEA American Masterpieces grant?

LOVE: We moved into our new home last October, and my artistic partner, Chris Coleman, was really searching for something that he thought would be the right production to open our new building. He hit upon West Side Story--for one thing, it was the 50th anniversary of West Side Story's first opening, and because it combined for us the old and new. It's a Shakespearean play--based on Romeo and Juliet--and we started out as the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. We have a commitment to doing musical theater. Chris thought West Side Story was one of the best masterpieces in the canon of American musical theater and that it was exactly the right production to celebrate the opening of our new building.

The production opened our theater on September 26 and closed on November 10. There were more than 30,000 people in the audience. There also were 25 people on stage and 15 people in the orchestra. And that's what the grant supported--it was much larger than anything we'd produced before.

NEA: How important was the NEA American Masterpieces grant to realizing your production of West Side Story?

LOVE: Well, the grant enabled us to produce something that PCS could never have produced artistically on our own. It is twice the size of the average production that we do. And it brought such excitement to the community for the opening of our new building. It was a really big deal, not only was the building welcomed by the community as something terrific but the production was probably the best received play in the history of the theater. It totally sold out weeks before. We played to something like 99.8% of capacity. We extended [the run] a week, longer than we had ever planned, and then we couldn't go much further because we were starting to lose actors. We were totally sold out three weeks before we closed.

NEA: Was there any type of educational or community outreach as part of the production?

LOVE: We brought all sorts and kinds of students in to see this production. We have a group of teaching artists that really work with the kids at workshops before they come and see the production. It really prepares the kids to see the play. In this case, not only did they look at the Shakespearean background, but they really looked at gang-related things . . . .It was a fascinating workshop. We went into schools and some of the kids came to us before they saw the show. We also had a very comprehensive study guide, which is on our Web site.

We played to 43 schools and then we did 22 lecture-demonstrations/workshop symposiums. We did a total of 49 performances. We played to 31, 436, which included 2018 children and youth

NEA: Your season is mix of straight plays and musicals. Did the success of West Side Story make you more excited about doing more musicals?

LOVE: Absolutely, and what is wonderful for us is that Chris Coleman really loves musical theater, and [we were able] to do a musical in this way with a big cast and a big orchestra and production values and then to prove that we could get more than 31,000 people in Portland to come and see it.

[The American Masterpieces grant] was a great opportunity for us to put something on our stage that we never dreamed we could have afforded to do, and to really do it in a way that we were extraordinarily proud of. So it enabled us to do justice to the musical, which was so terrific.

[Editor's note: The NEA American Masterpieces initiative was featured in the 2007 / Volume 2 issue of NEA ARTS.]