Artists Rep leader shows the way again with return to stage

For all the fearlessness Allen Nause has provided as artistic director of Artists Repertory Theatre, the company still counts on him to take some of its biggest risks on stage.

Take, for example, his upcoming assignment to play Willy Loman in Arthur Miller's iconic 'Death of a Salesman.'

Portraying the central character in Miller's 1949 masterpiece, a harrowing examination of one family's painful relationship with the American dream, is demanding enough.

'It's one of the biggest roles in dramatic literature,' Nause says. 'Miller doesn't write about simple little domestic problems. All the play takes place in Willy's head, and it jumps from present to past, often in one line.'

Yet the challenge for Nause wouldn't be complete if he were intimately familiar with the work. He's not.

'Not only have I never done this play,' says Nause, 59. 'I've never seen it.'

That willingness to abandon comfort zones is as much a hallmark of Nause's celebrated work as an actor as it is a key to the success of the theater company he leads.

'He is always yearning to find something new in his work,' says director Jon Kretzu, associate artistic director at Artists Repertory. 'He does not rest on laurels, which makes him very refreshing.

'ART wouldn't be the theater it is in any way without him. That's an absolute. He's pretty much symbiotic with the company. He had the vision for what to do with the theater at the beginning.'

Shakespeare's a good start

In 1988, Nause took the reins of a fledgling troupe that performed in a space at the downtown YWCA and helped transform it into the third-biggest theater company in Oregon.

An Ohio native who ignored theater until he was nearly out of high school, Nause had come to the Northwest to work at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in the mid-'70s. Over more than a decade shuttling between Ashland and Seattle, he established himself as one of the top actors in the region.

He flirted with a move to Hollywood after winning praise for his work in the 1979 feature film 'The Runner Stumbles' but stayed in the Northwest to avoid uprooting a young son, now a Portland actor.

But Nause was ready for a change by the time Artists Repertory began casting its net for a full-time artistic director in 1988. 'There was part of me that was unfulfilled,' he says. 'I wanted to be one of the people that made some of the decisions about how things are done.

'An acting role is fabulous. It's wonderful. But it's gone, never to be seen again. I wanted to be part of something that was tangible.'

Riskier fare wins

Artists Repertory was born in 1982, founded by a small group of local actors including Vana O'Brien, who would go on to win five Drammy Awards. The small company had earned acclaim, but competition from better-funded theaters kept it at a near-subsistence level.

'We were limping along,' O'Brien says. 'We went from one director to another to another, kind of catch as catch can. We got to the point where we really needed artistic continuity.'

Despite Nause's limited background as an administrator, Artists Repertory members were won over by his stage experience and his devotion to the craft.

'He had a wonderful way of talking about the acting process,' O'Brien says. 'He came from this huge Ashland operation, and yet he was so respectful of where we came from. What I remember is tremendous relief.'

Early on, Nause stood by his actors when the company's board of directors insisted on works with surefire commercial appeal instead of the riskier choices that had been the company's stock in trade.

'He had so much artistic integrity,' O'Brien says. 'Knowing what I know now, I don't know how long we would have gone on. Without a steadying hand, I don't know how we would've lasted.'

'Where the company is now is hugely a result of his artistic choices, really strict adherence to the artistic mission and the uncompromising quality of the work,' says Jill Baum, the company's managing director. 'I think his self-discipline, hard work, lack of ego and lack of pretense come into play as an actor and as an artistic director.'

Setting the standard

'When I became an artistic director, I knew nothing about theater administration,' Nause says. 'It's one of those things you learn on the job. What I really like about it is having a vision of something and moving the company in that direction and getting everybody behind it.

'You need to have a consistency of artistic product. It doesn't mean you can't take chances, but there has to be a standard.'

The company began an almost immediate ascent. The 1988 production of 'The Country Girl' garnered Drammys for best actor, best actress, best director and best production. Three plays produced by Artists Repertory between 1991 and 1996 won or were nominated for Oregon Book Awards. The company won six Drammys for best production, and Nause himself won three more for best director and three for best actor.

In 1998, Artists Repertory moved into the 172-seat Reiersgaard Theatre and more recently purchased the 30,000-square-foot building that houses it.

With its production of world tours, international collaborations and education programs, the company has cemented its reputation for artistic daring, high-quality work and community outreach.

Baum says Artists Repertory has grown from 200 to more than 4,500 subscribers and increased its budget from $100,000 to$2.2 million since its inception.

'All the work we've done at ART is trying to create a place for actors to work and grow their craft,' Nause says. The company's success, he says, is a hopeful sign in a world where live theater competes for audiences with movies and television.

'Technology is wonderful, but I do think there is a longing in us to have real experiences,' Nause says. 'It's much scarier to go to a play than a movie, because it's life. It's totally unpredictable. It's not manufactured for mass consumption. I think audiences crave that.

'There are many theaters that have sprung up. Portland is a perfect example. We have tremendous diversity of young companies, and they really add to the cultural richness of the city. The question is which ones will be able to take the next step and create a kind of financial security and Ñ here's the trick Ñ keep their artistic edge. That's always the balance.'

Challenge welcomed

Nause, who admits that acting 'has never, ever felt easy to me,' will put his administrative hat aside and his craft on display in 'Salesman.'

'I want to challenge myself and take some risks. I do feel some kind of extra pressure that if I wasn't successful, I'd let the company down. People have high expectations that shows are going to do well when I'm in them. I have to push those things aside.'

The play is a personal favorite of Kretzu, who is directing his 25th show at Artists Repertory. 'It's a play I've been obsessed with since I was a small child,' he says. 'Miller found some sort of primal energy in this play that is unlike anything else he ever wrote. This play seems to be written in blood and guts.

'I started thinking about directing Allen in this role 10 years ago. He was the perfect Willy. Allen is one of the best actors I know, and I know a lot of actors.'

Portlanders still talk about Nause's turn in the Artists Repertory production of 'Breaking the Code,' for which the actor won a Drammy in 1994, Kretzu says.

'That's still one of the most extraordinary performances,' he says. 'He was amazing in that.'

Kretzu says he never doubted whether Nause would hold his own opposite the Oscar-winner William Hurt in last year's production of 'Drawer Boy.'

'I thought the pairing was going to be dynamite and it was,' the director says. 'I was wondering whether William Hurt would be up to it.'

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