Vertigo at the crossroads

For two decades, Theatre Vertigo has been sending postcards from the edge of the middle-class American sensibility. It’s developed a reputation for gritty, rough, challenging, neurotic, and hilarious theater – often at the same time. Some of the most thrilling pieces of art on the Portland theater scene have been crafted on the Vertigo stage: Hellcab, Freedomland, 99 Ways to Fuck a Swan, The Adding Machine, A Maze, American Pilot , to name just a few. Despite its small size, Theatre Vertigo is also famous for being perhaps Portland’s preeminent theater ensemble, turning its roster over on a routine basis (Vertigo alumni going on to become many of the Portland theater scene’s most prominent names) but staying committed to the ensemble model, eschewing even an artistic director.

But two years ago, Vertigo reached a moment of crisis. The company was known for turnover, yes. But eleven members, for a variety of reasons, all decided to take their leave at once. Of the four who decided to remain, none had been there more than a year. The future of Theatre Vertigo was very much in doubt. From left: Joel Patrick Durham, Paige Rogers, Jacquelle Davis, Samson Syharath, and London Bauman in “A Map of Virtue,” opening Friday, Oct. 26. KKelly Photography Now Vertigo is presenting its first mainstage production in more than a year, Erin Courtney’s haunting romance, A Map of Virtue . Just the fact of the production announces two things. One, Theatre Vertigo is still here, and still doing new plays that scare other theater companies away. Two, a new sensibility is now making the call, so that while there is still much that will be the same about Theatre Vertigo, there is still more that is different. Regardless, Vertigo has its sights set on another twenty years.

The genesis of Theatre Vertigo came roughly twenty-two years ago when Paul Floding met Nanette Pettit at Dot’s Cafe. Pettit performed with a sketch comedy troupe, Dreadnought, across the street at the Clinton Street Theater (both of these places are still around). Discussions led to the thought of creating a theater company. Both being artists, they realized they needed someone with more business savvy. That led them to Jeff Meyers, an acquaintance Floding had made only recently. Together, Floding says, the three of them became a company whose vision “was to create the kind of theater that was visceral, though-provoking, contemporary, and … left the audience a little unsteady. ” Hence, the name. “Jeff came up with ‘Vertigo’ and Nanette and I wrestled with ‘theater’, ‘company’, etc. and its placement. I insisted, maybe a little pretentiously, as I look back, on theater being spelled ‘-re.’”

At first, they were all three artistic directors. It remained that way while all three were involved. In that time, Vertigo started to build its name. Plays like The Anger in Ernest and Ernestine, Hellcab, Poona the Fuckdog and The Baptism cemented Vertigo’s reputation as an edgy, gritty theater company with an anarchic wit and no-holds-barred acting.

Eventually Floding and Meyers left. “Jeff and I felt the company would be stronger with a more traditional model, him as artistic director (given his skills and drive) and Nanette and I as assistant directors. Nanette preferred the original model, feeling it created more equity,” Floding recalls. But eventually, Floding acknowledged that he just wanted to perform, and Meyers had many other outside projects going on. Thus it was that, five years later, when Darius Pierce joined the company in 2002, Pettit was the sole artistic director. Darius Pierce Pierce hadn’t known anything about Vertigo at the time. He was fresh out of Brown University and, like a lot of young actors, he saw an audition and showed up. The audition consisted of two monologues and then a group interview at a bar that used to be a staple of Portland’s theater scene, the Rose and Raindrop. The one thing Pierce learned at that meeting was that they were all “great people” he felt he could work with. At that time, the group had names like “Nanette Pettit, Neal and Julie Starbird, Tom Moorman, Keith Cable, Jen Healy, Ben Plont and April Magnusson.” Melody Bridges and Camille Cettina joined the same time as Pierce.

After joining the company, Pierce saw Freedomland , his first Vertigo show, and was both gratified and relieved. “It was like, ‘Oh yeah, AND I like your work.” Freedomland remains one of Pierce’s all-time favorite Vertigo shows.

Pierce was with the company for eight years, and what made the company special, what made it different, was that there weren’t many places like it. When Pettit decided to leave, the remaining members decided to switch to a no-artistic-director model. “Vertigo held a really unique place,” says Pierce. “There are a lot of ensemble-based theater companies now. But I don’t remember there being any others like it at the time, being really super ensemble-oriented and being super actor-forward.”

But another facet of Vertigo’s makeup is why it can never become as big as other ensemble companies that have come up in the past twenty years. “It’s a beautiful training ground and educational opportunity,” Pierce says, “but the turnover means there’s necessarily a lack of continuity in terms of administration, which makes it hard for the company to grow larger.”

In 2008, two new members –– Brooke Calcagno and Robert David Wyllie ––would seek to change that and solidify Theatre Vertigo not just as a theater company but also as a business. Brooke Calcagno When Calcagno (then Fletcher) joined Theatre Vertigo, she had had her eye on the company for years, even auditioned for it and failed to get in. She finally made the cut in 2008. At that time, the company consisted of Pierce, Kerry Ryan, Amy Newman, Nathan Gale, Garland Lyons, Gary Norman, JR Wickman, and her future husband, Mario Calcagno. Jen Hunter and Robert Wyllie joined the same year she did. “I was a fan of Vertigo,” Calcagno remembers, “because it was one of the hippest, fringe-iest things out there.”

Wyllie felt much the same way. “ The shows they did were just incredible. Just really, really good. I loved the ensemble. I loved the material. I loved that it was a little rough around the edges in terms of production values. Even though there were some productions I liked more than others, I liked all of them.”

For Calcagno, early on, she loved being part of a team, a family. “It was an exciting opportunity to be part of something and to be part of these shows that I thought were really cool and it was all ensemble-driven and all from an actor’s perspective. I thought that was really great.”

Wyllie concurs. “’Is this really gonna feel like mine?’” he remembers wondering. “’It’s been around for a while, I didn’t found it, is it gonna feel like mine?’ And pretty much instantly, it did. Because there’s always a crisis. Either you’re new and it’s your first crisis or you’ve lived through two or three crises and you’re like, ‘Okay, that’s just how it is.’ You just roll with it.”

Calcagno agrees. There was a lot of heart, a lot of effort, but not always a lot of method to the madness. “It was just sort of a free-for-all from what I remember,” says Calcagno. “We were all all hands on deck for everything. We all had to build the set. We all had to paint the set. We all had to do the marketing.” Which, as it turns out, is not for everyone. “It burnt out a lot of people,” she remembers.

Calcagno and Wyllie, however, found kindred spirits in each other. “Robert and I really clicked in terms of being nervous about money,” says Calcagno. “Not that there was anything to be too nervous about, but there weren’t any savings. It’s not like we had a credit card or anything like that. He and I really worked to get more money in the kitty.” Of their working relationship, Wyllie says, “The two of us together were like dynamite.”

Their vision, their purpose as a team, and one the rest of the company sided with, was to make Theatre Vertigo more viable. Fundraising, season announcement galas, creating more defined roles for company members, was all part of the Calcagno/Wyllie machine. The obstacles were that it was hard to ask actors, many of whom had day jobs, to stay at the theater until two o’clock in the morning, go to work the next day, then come back and act. It was a lot. “We still asked company members to help but that started to change, too,” says Calcagno. “We got strike-down from two days to six hours. There was an evolution of giving people more specific roles. … We created a living document that explained what different jobs were. We were working more towards support in terms of producing a show. There wasn’t as much leaning on company members to get a show on its feet. Roles were clearly identified.” Robert David Wyllie. KKelly Photography It was a […]

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