Leading Role

5 questions with Marissa Wolf, the new artistic director of Portland Center Stage

Marissa Wolf has a tough act to follow. Her predecessor at Portland Center Stage at the Armory, Chris Coleman, is widely celebrated for super-charging attendance and transforming the company into one of the country’s most prominent regional theaters. If Wolf—who’s originally from Connecticut and worked previously at theaters in Kansas City and San Francisco— suffers from performance anxiety, she hides it well. Between tour meetings and planning sessions, this busy thespian talked with us about leaps of faith, the importance of representation, and what’s special about making theater in the Pearl District.

The Pearl: What’s it been like for You stepping into this new role?

Marissa Wolf: I’m really grateful to Chris for the incredible company that he built alongside staff, donors, and board. Transitions are both completely exciting and complicated. I’m in the weeds of programming my first season, and it’s exciting—but also scary. Everyone is really taking a leap of faith with me. What will I bring? What will be similar, what will be different? I’m looking at it as a huge opportunity to build on what’s awesome and bring some new voices.

The Pearl: What kind of stories are you most interested in telling?

MW: It matters a great deal what you put into the community. It matters what kind of representation and visibility you give to every character and story. I’m drawn to work that has political and social relevance. That said, it must be always married with work that’s highly entertaining. Both those things are closely linked in my mind.

The Pearl: What production are you most excited about this spring?

MW: One is called Tiny Beautiful Things. It’s based on Cheryl Strayed’s book. It’s just letters to and from her advice column readers. The letters ask funny, bumbling questions as well as searing, complicated questions of the human soul. Her answers reveal so much about us and our capacity for empathy and compassion.

I’m also excited about the world premiere of a PCS commission, Crossing Mnisose, by Mary Kathryn Nagle. It connects Sacajawea’s story to that of Dakota and Lakota nation descendants, who are today fighting to defend the burial ground of their ancestors from a pipeline. It’s a deeply powerful and relevant story of resilience in the face of colonialism.

Marissa Wolf PCS

(L to R) Artistic Director Marissa Wolf with cast members Juson Williams (Buster/Grady/Ensemble) and Ithica Tell (Church Lady/Ensemble).

The Pearl: What’s special about making theater in the Pearl District?

MW: I feel so lucky to be at a company that’s so embedded in the heart of a city. I love that you can get here by walking, by streetcar, by bus. The space itself just feels abuzz.

The Pearl: Where is PCS headed?

MW: I’d like it to be a space in which every Portlander feels like they belong. That takes a lot of work, but I’m excited to make it happen! –Erin Gilday | Photo by Michelle Mitchell