Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Resident Scenic Designer Enriched by Portland Actor Training, Too

Tim Stapleton
Tim Stapleton has been a scenic designer, as well as an actor at PAC, and most importantly a longtime collaborator of artistic director Beth Harper.

A professional scenic designer for thirty years, Tim has been a designer with several theatres in Portland, worked with the Regional Arts & Culture Council in Portland as a liaison to Social Services, and has taught for Willamette University, Central Washington University, Lewis & Clark College, and Slippery Rock University in Pennsylvania. He has been awarded four Drammy Awards, as well as a Fellowship from The National Endowment for the Arts. He has been a guest designer for The Apollo Theatre in Chicago, and The Mariko Dance Theatre in Kyoto, Japan, among many others. Tim’s original performance piece "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms" debuted at the Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center. He is also a painter. Tim received his MFA in Creative Inquiry from New College of California and has been published by Inkwater Press (www.twstapleton.com).

We’re proud to have Tim as one of three resident designers for all three shows. We caught up with him in August before production madness hit.

Conservatory Confessions: How did your first meet Beth?
Tim Stapleton: It's a bit of a blur actually. The exact date I'm unsure of. I feel as though I’ve known Beth forever. We’re both from Appalachia. She’s from Tennessee, I’m from Kentucky. I knew Beth as an actress when I first moved to Portland. I saw her perform, and she saw my design work. She then invited me to work with her.

CC: When and in what contexts have you worked with PAC in the past?
TS: Beth used to produce the Oregon Play Festival, where we did what I think is one of my favorite one act shows, called “Junk.” Allen [Nause] directed. We also did “Memory of Water” together, one of the more surreal moments in my career. More shows than I can remember. More recently I did “We Won’t Pay! We Won’t Pay!” with Philip [Cuomo, executive director and faculty member], and last year, “Big Love,” also directed by Philip. In the 2010-11 season I was an actor in a PAC show, “You Can’t Take it With You.” I played Grandpa. I loved the opportunity of YCTIWY, because of the message of the play, and the words I got to say.

CC: What do you enjoy about working in an educational setting?
TS: I like seeing the light bulb turn on for students. I think if I have any sort of knowledge about this craft or this world, I’d like to hand it over, give the gift to someone else. PAC shows people they have a choice of pursuing their own creative energy. And, there’s a world out there they can be a part of. Teaching at PAC, it becomes obvious where the school's headed. It's not just a small school. There’s a lot riding this training that will affect people’s lives. I have a deep belief in education and the betterment of oneself. I learn as much being here as I teach. It keeps me from being an old man.

Another great reason to work with students is to see their growth and know that you’ve been a part of it. My involvement, in part, is showing them the world in which they’re going to live on stage. They learn it’s not just about each actor individually; it’s about the world that they’re participating in. With the director, I work to establish a visual world. The students understand we’re leaving it up to them to inhabit. I love watching them making adjustments according to what they see in my work. It’s a process. Having been on both sides of curtain, I understand what it feels like to step through that portal on the stage and be affected by the world you enter.

CC: What’s your schematic in terms of the design of the three-show season?
TS: As a designer, what I tend to do is look at palette first. What is the tone of the play, the environment of the play, the psychology of the characters? Our approach is to design a unit set – one set on which all three plays function. So we are starting with the last play, and working backward. Because “Holy Ghosts” takes place in an empty room, once we get the architecture of that room down, we’ll be able to plug other two plays into it. So the season is something of a reduction process. We’ll start with “Reckless,” and pull away layers to find “Twelfth Night,” then pull away further to reveal “Holy Ghosts.” In other words, the audience of “Reckless” will not know the architecture of “Holy Ghosts” is right there.

One of the great things about “Holy Ghosts” for me as an artist, is that in the lobby Beth has asked me to do an exhibit of my Appalachia paintings with the aim of giving the audience complete submersion into the world. I will exhibit seven portraits, the subjects being everyday people from our homeland portrayed as religious icons. So you have coalminers, or farmers for example. The paintings will depict something to do with that person’s faith. Most likely they will begin as black and white charcoal drawings.

CC: What’s special about the “Holy Ghosts” process for you and Beth?
TS: As Beth and I have worked together for a number of years, she had a vision that we should honor our relationship through PAC as fellows. Have it speak to who we are as artists.
The people in “Holy Ghosts,” could easily become caricatures. But they’re not. They’re not clowns. They are rooted in the truth of their existence, as we all are. All of the people in that room are together with the belief that their faith in this higher power is all they need to get them through. They expound on how this has changed their lives and who they are without grandstanding – it just comes within the religiosity of the moment. Their handling of snakes, speaking in tongues, it’s all part of the belief that these actions will keep us safe, will heal us. Underneath that are the human failings we all have.

In addition to designing, I will play the role of Cancer Man – another dual role of designer/actor I last executed in “Fool for Love” at Coho Theatre with director Megan Ward.

CC: As an established artist with an impressive body of work, how do you see PAC’s role in the community and what does its identity afford you as a designer?

TS: Portland needs PAC because art can save lives. This institution has established itself not only regionally but nationally as a place that changes people’s lives. It’s important for people to know there’s a place like this in Portland, a place raising the bar for quality of life in the city. In a world where anything can be achieved with the push of a button, there’s a real chance that live theatre for younger generations could become passé. It won’t, because we’re not going to let it; there are people that still gravitate toward it. It’s at PAC, it has a voice. PAC relishes artistic voices, and there is a human need for that voice. I can’t imagine a world without artistic expression - or I don’t want to. I don’t want to imagine what that world would look like.

When you have artists like Beth, me, Michael [Mendelson], Philp [Cuomo], and all of the PAC faculty who are able to say to these students who are full of wonderment, awe, questions: ‘I was once where you are, and this is what can happen.’ It is extraordinary to discover your contribution to the world.