Theatre Makes Us Dizzy: An Interview with Theatre Vertigo's Kaia and Clara-Liis Hillier

Once you become aware of The Shoebox Theater, you want to know more. Like its namesake, it is on the small side—a long, narrow rectangle of a space unobtrusively tucked away on a tree-lined stretch of SE 10th Ave in Portland's warehouse & makers' district. It's a stone's throw from Shaking The Tree, a short walk from the Funhouse, and within a four-block radius of three drafthouses, yet nevertheless feels like a hidden gem—one of those secret Portland places ideal for dazzling a first date or a visitor from out of town.


Theatre Vertigo calls The Shoebox home. Vertigo specializes in staging newer and lesser-seen work, so you can always expect fresh stories and a more contemporary feel regardless of the genre. And what an array of genres! They've been on a tear for the last two seasons, producing new work often by local playwrights, ranging from horror to comedy to bittersweet human drama. Their current offering, Dominic Finocchiaro's Complex, is all three—a laugh-out-loud tale of murder and isolation set in the micro-society of a glistening, gleaming, all-inclusive apartment tower. You know, like the ones that keep popping up all over cities like Portland.


We asked longstanding Vertigo members Kaia Hillier and Clara-Liis Hillier about how they choose plays, how their shows get cast, and what it's like being sisters at the core of an indie theater institution.

Tell us about Vertigo's company mission. How do you choose projects?


Kaia: Our mission is to engage audiences through compelling, ensemble-driven theatre with a focus on producing and developing new and rarely seen works. We choose as a collaborative! This means I get to supply the company with my wishes and dreams of certain playwrights or scripts or projects, and everyone else does as well. And then it's discussion, discussion, discussion, with a focus on choosing art that helps to echo our mission and intent. Then it's voting time!


Clara: We must always keep the space in mind. The intimacy of The Shoebox, what will be needed technically for designs, and can we accommodate that with our space? And what pieces are not being seen at other theater companies? 


Do you have a wish list of new / contemporary / underproduced scripts you’d like to produce?


Kaia: Ooof! So many. Clara, you take this one! I know that we definitely want to do a MUSICAL of some sort! It has been on our dream wishlist forever! Also, Sheila Callaghan has been on our desire list for a while now and we're beyond thrilled to be able to produce her show Everything You Touch this coming Spring!


Clara: I would love to do a musical!! Ever since I was part of Northwest Classical Theater that was in the Shoebox for a long long time before Theatre Vertigo, that group also wanted to do musicals in the space and that would be my biggest dream. I also want to continue to look at Adapting familiar stories (the Greeks) and new voices to the stage. 


For the last 2 seasons, you’ve had great success with local playwrights, which is super exciting. Do playwrights pitch you their work?


Kaia: They do. We often will have playwrights submitting their work throughout the season and summer, and we will always take them into consideration. If one goes into serious consideration, like with Sara Jean Accuardi and The Delays, we discuss further collaborative steps and a show that will fit the ensemble and our mission. 


Clara: This commission process also occurred with I Want To Destroy You by Rob Handel and Carnivora by Matthew B Zrebski. We are very open to working with more local playwrights and getting their work on our stage.


Vertigo went through a sea change of company members a few years ago. From the outside looking in, it seems as if it was revitalizing. Can you tell us how you two refocused the company so successfully?


Kaia: It was difficult, and to be transparent, it is always going to be. To be a company member in Theatre Vertigo takes A LOT of work as we are the producers and administrators and it is all volunteer-based. So it's a bit of a second, or third, or fourth job for most of us. It is not unusual for the ensemble to shift every few years due to a change of career, life paths, or differing artistic desires. And for some people, the Ensemble model is just not the right fit, and that's ok! I know that when a bunch of folks decided that it was time for them to leave, Clara and I said, well, here we are! And here we go. We are going to stay and try our best to keep it alive and thriving because we had wanted to be in Vertigo for such a long time and the Shoebox Theatre is an incredibly important space to keep alive. We interviewed a bunch of artists to create a new ensemble and decided to keep our Associate Artists program running so as to keep some of our past alive (many veteran members are Associates), and to create a bigger family of sorts.

 

Clara: It has taken a lot of ups and downs as with any nonprofit. Our ensemble-driven model demands a lot from the team as we must figure out how to do all administrative work, finances, facilities, development in addition to our artistic work. Some love the work we do onstage and want to be part of our season without the full ensemble commitment and that's why they make great Associate Artists and Guest Artists.


How do you cast shows? Do Vertigo members call dibs on roles before you look outside the company for actors? 


Kaia: We do our best to stray away from any "Vertigo only" policy because we have found that that's not always what the show needs. And we have to think as producers first. Our process goes a bit like this: one of the benefits is that Vertigo peeps get to audition first, then Associate Artists, and then if the selected director would like to see outside artists, we bring them on in. We truly love working with outside artists: it helps us to be better and creates some beautiful shows. We can definitely say that we are interested in a particular role, or that we would like to be a designer on this show, or throw a director submission into the ring, but there are no guarantees. Which can be really hard as an actor, hah! But as we said, producers first. So we've got to think to ourselves: What's best for the show? For Vertigo? Am I really right for this show? Maybe I take more a producer/admin role for this show, etc. Putting the Ensemble first.


In what ways does your mission to produce new or rarely seen work limit Vertigo? In what ways does it benefit?


Kaia: It means that it can be incredibly tricky when we want to do classical, farce or perhaps even Greek Theatre (which Clara really wants). BUT with that said, we have a lot of freedom in choice, and that is an amazing thing. So if we decide to do a classic, there is always a way to "Vertigo it up." Which our mission allows for! We can fuse the tricky bits into something weird, f'd up, and completely Vertigo.


Clara: It is a big challenge because we often produce works that are brand new or by newer playwrights, which means we don’t have the built-in name recognition of gigantic musicals or Shakespeare. So we're always battling that obstacle. Other than that, I find it be an exciting challenge and joy to bring new playwrights, thought-provoking scripts and complicated characters to a small space where the audience truly is part of the experience and must invest emotionally.


In an alternate reality where Vertigo isn’t focused on new and lesser-seen work, what classic scripts would each of you love to produce and star in?


Kaia: Oh Man! For me? FARCE FARCE FARCE!!! I would love to do "Don't Dress for Dinner" by  Marc Camoletti. Annnd I wanna do a hyper-violent, romantic, sexy, raw, and absolutely stunning Romeo and Juliet and I think I want to be Romeo. This one has musical numbers in it, and so much more. 


Clara: Musicals, Shakespeare, the Greeks, movement-based pieces and farce!


On Being Sisters, Collaborators, & Leaders In PDX Theatre


It’s hard to imagine a more intimate rapport between creative collaborators than siblings who have known one another since birth. How does that kind of understanding of one another’s tastes and strengths shape your work?


Kaia: It makes me laugh that sometimes we communicate better as artists and producers than as sisters ;) I really love it. We are completely different. Clara is amazing with the marketing, all of the little details (she's got a lot of Virgo after all), and has a deep knowledge and experience of the non-profit world—plus she works at Portland Center Stage. And I like to bring the party element into it all! So I feel that we have a pretty good balance going on. And in Complex? It was so fun and felt so natural to speak these crazy words with one another. There is a lot of trust and non-verbal communication and understanding. Plus we were raised in a highly artistic and cultural background: our childhood was pretty much spent nightly at the opera, ballet, early baroque and classical concerts (due to our parents' careers at the time). Lots and lots of exposure to the artistic world. Our Mother, Lena-Liis Kisel (also a Vertigo board member) has been our biggest influence. She lives and breathes art and has instilled that "go-getter" attitude in both of us. 


Clara: Kaia is incredible, giving, and so extremely passionate about our work. She is very optimistic and focused on getting the work done. That's why I love working with her both onstage and off. We don't often get the opportunity to perform together so it has been a treat to share that energy onstage. Of course, we get on each other's nerves and we know exactly what buttons to push ;) but I trust her with everything and can be more open with her than most people. If we weren't raised as children of artists who knows if we would have this level of passion and loyalty to a small theater company, but I've seen both my parents work from nothing to create beautiful art. Our mother ran huge music festivals as a young artist, wife, and mother, and I aim to be like her now with my little girl.


As leaders, how do you two invite the many artists you collaborate with into that sort of deep rapport?


Kaia: Hopefully we do! We often disagree, and we hope that are able to communicate in any struggle that comes our way. But really? It is all Ensemble-based. Everyone in the ensemble is equal. Everyone gets a say, even if it doesn't end up "their way". I would say that everyone in our current ensemble (Adriana Gantzer, Jacquelle Davis, Devon Roberts, Tom Mounsey, Heath Hyun, and London Bauman) makes it work. We all believe in this model, and that is what will keep Vertigo alive. Well, that and money.


Clara: Our current ensemble is so strong and excellent at communication, sharing the many jobs and supporting all the work that happens at the Shoebox.

You’re one of the few independent theatre companies with a dedicated space. Can you tell us a little about the practical benefits & concerns of running The Shoebox?


Kaia: I am so glad we were asked about this. We are currently fighting to keep our space alive and have a Go Fund Me Campaign happening. With rent prices skyrocketing, we are struggling to make our monthly rent. We want to keep it alive! We are a popular rental in town, and with us gone, there goes another space. We want to be an art hub and a safe and exciting space for all artists in town. We are also in DIRE need of repairs and upgrades. It is a funky space and we want to make it even more accessible for all. It costs us over $40,000/year just for the space itself. The benefits are endless: A versatile space that all art mediums could utilize. A space for exciting night events. A daily space for other Portland communities. A beautiful theater to make beautiful art. Endless benefits.


Check out our link on our Facebook page or our website:

https://www.gofundme.com/f/save-theatre-vertigo



You’re both involved with other theatre companies as well as stuff like JK Squared. How do you budget time and prioritize projects?


Kaia: I don't sleep! HAH. It's tricky and it is all about balance and learning when to say no. I have learned SO much about time management by being a company member at Vertigo. But it's also so exciting. Vertigo allowed Jacquelle and me to create JK Squared and we are forever grateful for that. As an ensemble member, you get that opportunity to utilize the space and the ensemble—it almost makes you start brainstorming more and more and gets those creative juices flowing. So, I see what will fulfill me as an artist and how do I make sure that happens in tandem with my Vertigo responsibilities. Sometimes I slip and fail, but the ensemble is there to catch me. Plus: My planner. My planner has saved my life. I love you, my planner. 


Clara: Ha! So true, this is a huge challenge. I’m still learning how to say no and prioritize;) Now with a new baby, everything has changed. I love being onstage but the majority of my time is actually spent teaching theater and dance, directing and choreographing high schoolers and doing arts education outreach so truly every part of my life is grounded in the theater first. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

 

You each have 3 genie wishes to be used on the Portland Theatre Scene. What do you wish for? (No monkey paw catches.) 


Kaia:

1. The ULTIMATE theater "pub crawl". Where one show takes place in one night at each different theatre space in town.

2. The ULTIMATE theater party! Where we have a block party with all of us just getting down and dirty. We'll host! 

3. I have always wanted a "series" of shows: so perhaps Vertigo does the first episode, then Shaking the Tree does the second, then Rutabaga Story Company, etc. 


Clara:

1. Spaces! Artistic spaces And more spaces for all the smaller theater companies!

2. Funding! So we don’t have to rely only on ticket sales.

3. Getting more young people to the theater to see the great work happening all over this city. 


Complex runs until October 26th and is an absolute blast. For more information about their 2019-2020 season, visit theatrevertigo.org/