Thursday, April 21, 2011

Dennis Bigelow, boards of directors and the death experience of Portland Repertory Theatre

Dennis Bigelow directed The Miser in Portland in 1988./Set+photo: Carey Wong
By Barry Johnson

Yesterday in discussing the Intiman Theatre situation, I mentioned the closing of Portland Repertory Theatre in 1998, the last time a professional Portland theater company closed its doors for good.

Portland Rep was the second largest theater company in the city when it closed, one of two fully professional, Equity houses, after Portland Center Stage. It had a long, strange history, beginning as the Mark Allen Players with a penchant for Neil Simon comedies and gradually evolving, after Allen left,  into a sharp, urban company that produced excellent versions of recent New York hits.

When it closed, its artistic director was the late Dennis Bigelow, whose life in the theater is a cautionary tale: Mommas don't let your babies grow up to be theater people. Bigelow came to Portland Rep to pick up the financial pieces after its previous artistic director Geoffrey Sherman ran up big deficits in an attempt to force the board to match its rhetoric about wanting a national class company with a much more significant fundraising effort than it mustered. Sherman escaped left for Meadow Brook Theatre in Michigan, and Bigelow's careful stewardship began.

UPDATE: I received the following email from Geoffrey Sherman disputing this brief account of his tenure.
Alas, I did *not* run deficits at Portland Rep to challenge the board or anyone else. I was made producing artistic director and was able to get my head around the accounting methods used up to that time, I discovered that the theatre had been capitalizing props, sets, costumes, furniture etc., thus, I am sure inadvertently, overstating the positive side of the balance sheet by many thousands of dollars. I checked with several managing directors at other theatres to discover that none of them used this form of accounting.

This discovery meant that Portland Rep. was suddenly running a sizeable deficit, without any help from me! These *facts* were shared with the board of directors at that time.

It should also be noted that I was totally committed to the company, even building our experimental theatre with my own hands (and that of a willing staff) to try to encourage the board to move the entire operation to our warehouse in the NW to capitalize on what I thought would be major development of the area.

I therefore find the notion of ‘escaping’ to my next job insulting. Since you published your erroneous remarks without attempting to contact me, I would be grateful for an immediate retraction, before I am forced to seek legal redress.
I apologize for any insult perceived by Geoffrey Sherman, and I can see how he saw one in the word "escape," which I have "neutralized" above. I remember Sherman himself telling me that he wanted the board to step up to the financial responsibilities that being a national class theater entailed. Only the books from the time would help us understand what exactly happened with the company's deficit during Sherman's tenure, which the staff and board said was around $500,000 when Bigelow took over.  I have no reason to believe that Sherman ever had anything but the best interests of the theater at heart. 

Bigelow was on his way toward a successful turnaround (in my opinion), when the board decided to pull the plug on the company in the middle of a show.  They said it was a prudent financial decision; most of us looking at the situation from the outside thought they'd just lost their nerve, because the problems the company was having had to do with cash flow not its underlying health, which though precarious, wasn't dire.

Bigelow asked to meet with me after the board decided to close the theater.

I was The Oregonian's theater critic at the time, and we'd talked back in October of 2007, when the company publicized its poor financial situation for the first time -- and raised a significant amount of money to keep the doors open. Bigelow had been the first artistic director of Portland Center Stage, when it was still affiliated with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. After Henry Woronicz became artistic director in Ashland, he decided to divest the company of its northern branch, and he fired Bigelow, who had been a favorite of his predecessor, Jerry Turner. Bigelow's achievements at the company were big ones -- smart seasons, affecting productions, enthusiastic crowds, and I think Woronicz was wrong to torpedo OSF's Portland experiment and to let go of Bigelow. Maybe we'll get into it all another time, if anyone's interested.

I was shocked by Bigelow's appearance the day we met. He was pale and haggard. He chain-smoked cigarettes down to the nub and drank black coffee in between drags. His hands shook, so the cup and saucer clinked with each sip, and he had a hard time lighting a new cigarette. In the story I wrote, I rarely quote him, because he wasn't speaking in sentences or even words sometimes. Fortunately, the staffers with him were articulate and could speak for him.

I bring this up simply to indicate that each "story" -- from the Detroit Symphony, the Philadelphia Orchestra, Intiman -- leaves a trail of unhappiness that word like "distraught" can't adequately capture. Yes, Bigelow was distraught. Also angry and hopeless and lots of other emotions. It's not just institutional history -- or the end of institutional history in Portland Rep's case. It's also personal history. My own anger at the time was fueled by seeing Bigelow, a gentle soul and a fine director, reduced to this condition.

I think I blamed the board at the time, and I still think that if they had been more experienced in working with arts groups, Portland Rep's board, most of whom were new members, if I remember correctly,  would have made a different decision. But something that Bill Bulick, the executive director of the Regional Arts & Culture Council at the time, said still rings true. The public also bears some responsibility. We say that we want creative people among us, that we want to be surrounded by artists making and performing great art, but we aren't really willing to pay for it. In the broadest terms, maybe the board recognized that reality and acted on it. 

In the aftermath, lots of good actors left town, because they couldn't find paying work. Both Artists Repertory Theatre and Portland Center Stage picked up some of the shows that Portland Rep would have produced. Other companies started up, and a new generation of theater people moved to town or came of age. The depression caused by the company's death lasted a couple of years, and people moved on. We can't say what would have happened if the company had continued. I think it would have thrived. I think that Dennis Bigelow would be alive today making fabulous theater. I think the city would have been better for it in lots of ways. But I don't know for sure.

I wrote a lengthy analysis of what happened at Portland Rep for The Oregonian. Its focus is narrow, narrower than I would attempt to do today. And I wish it had more numbers, the financial nitty-gritty. But I think it gives a decent idea of how intractable the argument between the board and the staff became at the end.

Maybe my biggest regret at the time? Bigelow was planning to do "A Winter's Tale" with Gretchen Corbett as Hermione and her daughter, Winslow, as Hermione's daughter, Perdita.  Gretchen had been wonderful in Molly Sweeney earlier that season, and Winslow had burst onto the scene here brilliantly in Arcadia the year before. It just seemed perfect to me. And it never happened.


cynseattle said...

It was such a heartbreaking time. The board at Portland Rep showed a lack of vision in closing that theater when they did; there was no indication that it wouldn't be able to continue its successes in rebuilding as a company.

And thanks for writing about Dennis. As someone who worked with him first in Ashland back in the early 80s, and then joined him in Portland to start the OSF branch here, he was not only a great boss, but also a great friend. I know anyone who saw his work also knows what a gifted artist he was.

There is a bit more wackiness around his removal from OSF/PCS than shown here. He was actually ousted two years before PCS separated from Ashland; after that, we entered a sort of no man's land for two years in an "integration" model with Ashland, ultimately leading to the final decision from OSF that having a Portland branch didn't fit their business model anymore. A very odd time, and very difficult. I am grateful to OSF that they had enough vision and stomach -- rather than simply take the easy path of pulling the plug on the Portland company -- so we were given the time to sort out how to move toward being an independent company, and given support in doing that. I'm sure it would have been less of a headache to the board and staff at OSF to just close Portland down. I do remember Jerry Turner, who was AD at OSF when the Portland branch opened (and Dennis' most significant career mentor), once saying that he envisioned opening the Portland company as the seed of a theater that would, ultimately, become separate from Ashland. Interesting that his vision is what ultimately happened, although in a less benign process than he probably expected.

Thanks for writing this story Barry... I think there is much more to say about it, and Dennis, and pleased to see so many people still think about it.

p.s., I know you don't say it's a Rep production, but just to clarify, the photo of "The Miser" that Dennis directed is from our premiere season as Portland Center Stage/Oregon Shakespeare Festival. And yes, that was the actual name of the company our first season in Portland, what a mouthful!

Barry Johnson said...

Cyn,thanks so much for clarifying the history of that rather complicated arrangement -- between Oregon Shakespeare Festival's Portland outpost and the mother ship in Ashland. I'd completely forgotten Woronicz's integration phase -- maybe because I was never certain it was on the level back in the day. But Pat Patton wouldn't have come up here just to wind down the company, I don't suppose.

I think you're right to balance OSF ledger, too. Would Portland have developed an important regional theater company without OSF's help. Maybe, but it's far from certain.

Diana said...

This article is a misrepresentation. Geoffrey Sherman did not "run up a huge deficit.." He worked very hard to leave the company with no deficit when he was offered a better post in 1995. A woman on the board took over hastily. Have you checked your facts? What you have written is presented as common knowledge. I suggest it is gossip/sour grapes. It is damaging. I have contacted Geoffrey Sherman and he will be in touch. If anyone was a careful steward it was Geoffrey. I deeply resent your misrepresentation. "Geoffrey Sherman ran up big deficits in an attempt to force the board to match its rhetoric about wanting a national class company with a much more significant fundraising effort than it mustered. Sherman escaped to Meadow Brook Theatre in Michigan, and Bigelow's careful stewardship began."

Barry Johnson said...

Diana, If we had Portland Rep's books at hand from that period, we would have a way of checking how big the deficits were. Here, I was repeating Sherman's account of his strategy in a conversation with me at the time. By the end of his tenure, he may well have been attempting to balance the books. Please have Geoffrey re-send his message to me, though -- I've had a little hiccup and I'm not sure it got through.

Diana said...

Again, I'll pass this on to Geoffrey. A $500,000 deficit is huge given the smallness of the operation. I'm not sure that that amount is attributable to Geoffrey Sherman. I remember him raising money up to the last minute to make a clean slate for the next person who would run the company. It is sad that Dennis went into a 14 year decline as a result of the demise of Portland Rep. Not as great a loss as Portland Center Stage I would have thought. I'm sorry very sorry to hear he died.

Barry Johnson said...

Diana, The amount comes from the board and staff of the time. Without the books, it's hard to be definitive about how much of that Geoffrey inherited. And anyway, in his note, he says that the company's bookkeeping didn't give him a good picture of the company's actual financial condition when he started.

But really, I don't blame Sherman for the company's financial problems or the decisions that were made during his time there. The board ultimately has control of these things. I was simply explaining the rationale. Sherman apparently doesn't remember it the way I do, though.

Jesse Merz said...

Thank you for this stunning article, Barry.
I loved Dennis and PRT.
All I'll also say is that I am a Portlander who now lives in Michigan.
Great blog!

Glynis Wood-Alberts said...

Dennis was my mentor and boss at the Sacramento Theatre Company. I saw many of his shows at the Portland Rep and OSF Portland. We lost a great gift to the world of theatre when we lost Dennis Bigelow.

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