An Interview with The Armory’s Fuhrman and Wolf

Written by Marty Hughley. Photos by Christine Dong.

Cynthia Fuhrman (left), Managing Director, and Marissa Wolf (right), Artistic Director of Portland Center Stage at The Armory.

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n 1988, when the Oregon Shakespeare Festival agreed to open a northern branch in Portland, one of the staff members sent to launch the project was a young PR and marketing whiz named Cynthia Fuhrman. In 2017, after holding various positions within that company—which spun-off in 1994 as Portland Center Stage—and at other organizations, Fuhrman became Managing Director of PCS. In the late summer of 2018, a young director and play-development specialist named Marissa Wolf left Kansas City Rep to replace Chris Coleman as Portland Center Stage’s Artistic Director.

Together, Fuhrman and Wolf will lead what has become one of the most prominent regional theaters in the country into its fourth decade. Shortly after Wolf’s arrival, they each sat down with Artslandia to talk about how they arrived at this point and where they’re ready to take things. The following is excerpted from those conversations.

Artslandia: What drew you to theater and to the kind of work you do?

Cynthia Fuhrman: When I was in high school, I had a teacher who took us to OSF on a field trip; that was the first professional theater I’d ever seen. Then, I went to college in London and saw tons of theater there. The summer I finished my master’s degree, at Southern Oregon State College, I was living in Ashland, didn’t have a job, and had no clue what I wanted to do. The way I occupied myself that summer was going to different park talks at the festival where they’d have staff members outside the Lizzy (the Elizabethan) talk about what they do. There was a guy talking about writing press releases, working with the press when they visited, occasionally teaching a class about Shakespeare. I thought, “I could do all those things.”

Even though I’d been a theater fan, it never occurred to me there were jobs in theater other than being an actor or making costumes. He mentioned that he was moving at the end of the summer, and I thought, “Oh! Job opening!”

Marissa Wolf: It goes back to when I was 3 years old, and I saw Goldilocks and the Three Bears performed for a children’s theater in Connecticut. My parents tell me that I was completely riveted; I barely blinked. And that, after the play, I cried because it was over. Then, in what I think was my early director coming out, I made my mom act it out with me over and over. She tells me that I kept saying, “That’s not the right line!”

All of my earliest memories are of me knowing I would be in theater. Like a lot of directors and producers, I started as an actor, because that’s what you see and what you think theater is at first. I just consumed as much theater as I could—read, watched, did a lot of plays in my public schools. It wasn’t until college that I realized I was a director. That was a powerful time, learning to look at, shape, and question a whole world onstage, instead of just one character. Even as a young person, the questions of why this is relevant, why must this be told onstage now, felt immediate to me. I felt frustrated as an actor, feeling like I wasn’t positioned in the room to ask that question.

I am so much a new-play director. I love to bring a playwright’s work to life, to honor what’s on the page and make it live and breathe in the room. I find that collaboration exhilarating, as the playwright and director work together to make the play sing.

A: Has theater been a conducive environment for you as a woman?

CF: I started working in theater 36 years ago. Looking back at the first eight or nine years, I think it was not friendly to women. Even though my first boss in Ashland was a woman, the powers she reported to were all men. It was the ‘80s, and I think there still was a lot of sexism: Men rule; women are pretty. I don’t think I was ever disrespected for what I could do in my job, but it was very much a male-run organization. That was partly the times. I left to go to StageWest, in Massachusetts, and the Artistic Director there was Gregory Boyd, one of the most prominent Artistic Directors ousted in the past year—he was running the Alley Theater in Houston—because of #MeToo. In 1988, while I was working at StageWest, a group of staff, both men and women, met with the board to complain about his leadership. We didn’t have the language then. People didn’t say things like “toxic environment,” “sexual harassment.” But it was not a pleasant place to work; people felt uncomfortable, threatened. And in those days, nobody knew how to respond. It was just, “Well, we’ll talk to him.” Then six months later, he gets one of the top jobs in the country, and he’s there for 32 years.

So that’s the kind of environment I started in, but I think that’s changed radically over time—although there are still things to change.

Of the LORT (League of Resident Theaters) companies—and we’re one of those—two years ago, 14 percent were led by female Artistic Directors. As of now, that’s 38 percent, and it’s changing almost daily. There’s a generation that’s starting to retire, so there are lots of openings.

So it’s interesting to me to think about how the field is going to change now that we’re seeing not only more women in leadership but also the generational change that we’re finally making room for. What kind of energy are they going to fuel each other with?

MW: I will say that when I was starting out, trying to figure out how to build a career, with the goal of being an Artistic Director at a LORT theater, I looked around the country and felt a bit demoralized by the lack of female leadership. And that number (of Artistic Directors) shrinks way down when you talk about women with children. I knew I wanted a kid, and I have one now. I spent a lot of time thinking about it, asking questions, and seeking mentorship and models. Now, I’m proud to be part of this cohort of new female leadership across the country. We’ve all been talking to each other for 10 years.

It’s a really powerful, thrilling moment to look at each other—across the nation—and say, “Now, let’s do this together.”

A: When did you start to see running a company as both a goal and a possibility?

CF: I remember Liz Huddle, who ran PCS its first four years, was the first person who told me, “You should run a theater.” When we split off from OSF, we were on skeleton staff. My last year in that stint there, my title was Director of Marketing & Communications / Dramaturge & Literary Manager. I think Liz saw someone who was an administrator and had a business mind but also had a strong connection to the work that goes onstage. My reaction at the time was, “I don’t want to run a theater!” Because the management side, I felt, was so removed from the art—dealing with money, donors, contracts. What I loved about doing the marketing and public relations was that I felt those were the administrators who were closest to the art, dealing with the artists to try to interpret for the public what they were trying to do. Later, when I was at Seattle Rep, my mentor there, Ben Moore, approached the Managing Director job as more of a producer, and I began to see that you could do that job without losing the connection. But it was only about four years ago that I began to think, “Maybe…”

“I’ll give Chris credit. After Greg Phillips left in about 2009, we didn’t have a Managing Director, and Chris was the sole head of the organization. He had to rely on us as a team, and I started diving in with him more on bigger-picture strategy, planning and ideas, and I realized that’s a great way to support artists as well.

An Artistic Director has to wear a lot of hats—director, manager, fundraiser, play whisperer, inspirational leader… Which of those roles feel natural to you, and which are more of a stretch?

MW: The body of work I’ve done in my career has been deeply linked to being inside institutions, companies. I find that directing and producing are tightly wedded. As a leader in a company, you get to put your money where your mouth is to say “This matters.”

I cut my teeth at Berkeley Rep as a directing fellow, and not only was I assistant directing every project but was also assistant to the Artistic Director, who was my mentor, Tony Taccone. Seeing that balance from within felt really exciting—seeing what a theater company can be doing in its community and what conversations it can be lifting nationally.

As for what I have to put more thought into, I think right now it’s how do I open up an expansiveness to meet the size and scope of this company and take care of the company on every level—staff, art onstage, board, donors, community.”

What would you describe as the current identity of PCS, and how do you see that changing?

MW: From the moment I came out to start interviewing here, it was obvious to me that PCS is already living its mission to inspire communities—with the excellent art onstage, innovation of programming, audience engagement, education and community programs, the way the building feels completely alive and abuzz during JAW (Just Add Water). And I think the building is a celebration of what the theater is in the community. I love that it’s in the heart of the city, that you don’t have to have a car to get here. It’s a fully living creature here. Where it’ll go…? I’m excited to build on what is here and create the next chapter with Cynthia, to continue to work toward PCS as a place where all Portlanders feel they belong.

Holiday Shows at The Armory

Music and stories come together in the cozy celebration of winter. Don’t miss Portland Center Stage’s great line-up this season!