In the second installment of our This Woman portrait and interview series, This Girl Laughs… co-producer and actor Beth Thompson chats with the coolest stage manager in Portland.
Nicole Gladwin has been serving small Portland theatres with spunk and excellence for more than 15 years. By the time This Girl Laughs, This Girl Cries, This Girl Does Nothing opens on February 9th, she’ll have done more than 30 shows in the CoHo theatre space -so this whole game is old hat for her. Yet she still brings joy and curiosity into each show she touches.
Nicole and I met doing a small devised piece with Many Hats Collaborations more than a decade ago. We were both performers in that little dance piece that took place in the bathrooms of Portland Center Stage during the JAW festival. That was the last time Nicole played the role of performer, opting instead to focus all of her energy on stage management.
“The thing I love about stage managing,” Nicole tells me, “is being in the middle of the web that we create. I get to put my fingers in everybody else’s pie, but I’m not ultimately responsible for any of those creative decisions. I just get to help shape and guide them and think two steps ahead about how everybody’s work is going to integrate together. And every project is different. The difference is the people you work with, and I love that. I keep doing this and I’ve been doing it for so many years because I learn something new with every group and with every show and with every story that we tell. It’s so creatively fun to get to throw yourself into something so hard and then you get to walk away from it, move forward and go on to the next thing. I love the finite nature of it.”
She continues, “You look back on some things that you did ten years ago and you’re like, ‘Oh my god, that’s still in my heart so much,’ and other things you struggle through and you’re so glad to leave it behind. But you take things from that, too. And no other job I’ve done in any other industry has that kind of through line and opportunity to change and grow and learn.”
Having worked with Nicole for years, I remember a time when she was making the decision to pull back on the number of shows she did a year. I asked Nicole to tell me about about that time when she shifted her priorities.
“One of the things that I love about this play is how much time passes during this story. I find a lot of parallels in my life and the path of all the women whose stories we are telling in this play because, well, aging is great. You couldn’t pay me to go back to my twenties and do it over again. I love getting older. I feel more and more myself every year that I age. And, I’m better at saying ‘no’ to things I don’t want to do and being selective about how I spend my own energy. And that’s probably what has changed my working path.”
“I don’t feel that I have as much to prove anymore in working in theatre in Portland because I’ve been here a long time, I know a bunch of people and I am not supporting myself with this job. I totally have a day job that supports me. So I get to say no to projects that don’t excite me or groups of people I may not be enthralled about the idea of working with. And that’s a luxury, absolutely. But, being able to say no and being able to throw myself all the way in on projects I do want and give them all of my attention is wonderful. So, I do less (stage management) work now than I used to, but with intention and with great excitement that the things I am working on and the people I am working with are where I want to be. I mean once this becomes a slog and I’m not having fun anymore, why? Why would I do this to myself? I want to have fun. That’s the kind of work environment I want to foster. Absolutely I want everyone to work hard and do their job and I’ll tell you if I think you’re not, but with the ultimate goal that we are having a good time. I mean it’s called a play for a reason.”
Although the stage management scene is Portland in chock full of ladies, the theatre industry is dominated by male leadership. One of the things I’ve been curious about in moving through this interview series is how being a woman in a male dominated industry has shaped these magnificent women in their individual path. Nicole’s experience reflects ways many women, including myself, have negotiated that dynamic.
“I feel lucky that at the collegiate program that I went through (at Portland State University) there were a lot of returning students in my cohort, so I went through that program working with a really wide variety of ages. And, I think it was really great to get out of undergrad and to not only be used to working with 22 year olds. Because working on my first season out of college, one of my professors was a designer of mine and I had to be a taskmaster with him. But I was comfortable doing that. Looking back now I think that was an advantage to come straight out of school and not be aware that I was the youngest person in the room in a position of authority.”
“But, you know, as a small woman and as someone who wasn’t super experienced, for years I dyed my hair darker because I didn’t want to be the flighty blonde chick. And I was aware of that. Now that I’m approaching 40, I feel comfortable going blonde and going girlier and performing a little more femininity than I would have earlier in my life because I was looking to be taken seriously. Until I had a resume behind me I made an effort to not be super giggly and to be not the young girl in the room.”
“I try really hard to be an advocate for the other women in the room. No matter what we’re doing, even if it’s just a goofy fun play that isn’t getting into people’s emotional muddy parts.”
“Our industry is competitive by nature, and I think it’s really easy for actors to get competitive against each other. A part of that is just number of roles. And, a part of that is just the nature of auditioning. But, I think that the Portland theatre scene seems to have a good sense of support within the industry. People are happy for other people’s successes. You know, I’m not interested in catty competition. Let’s make more work for more people instead of stabbing each other in the back to get the few roles that are out there. “
Great plan, Nicole. I’m on board.
Portraits by Lava Alapai