Steffen Silvis: The Interview 

For years, Willamette Week theater critic Steffen Silvis has loomed over the Portland arts scene with reviews as uncompromising as they are heartfelt, and as irascible as they are well-spoken. But as the month of June winds to a close, so does Silvis' decade-long reign at the WW--he's been laid off. Fascinated by this turn of events, I, the theater critic for the Mercury, offered him a sort of exit interview, a chance to sound off on his work, his life, and Portland theater as he transitions into a new stage of life. True to form, he was candid, funny, and on the state of theater in Portland, as refreshingly honest as ever.

Let's start with a background check--where are you from?

I actually grew up north of Vancouver, so I am pretty much a native. I lived right out in the sticks. When I graduated high school I came here and did a couple years at Portland State, until 1985, and then I transferred to the University of Washington. From Seattle I ran off to Europe and I was in Europe for 10 years. Then I came back… to a city that was theatrically dead. I remember asking someone within a few days of returning to Portland, "How many revivals of the Odd Couple can one city host?"

Did you always aspire to be a critic?

No not really. I knew Oregonian arts writer D.K. Row who at that time (the mid-'90s) was writing for the Willamette Week. He dragged me to the office and I met Audrey Van Buskirk, who was then the arts and culture editor. I chatted her up for about two minutes. And that was it. Two nights later they dispatched me to the Paris Theater to see this play called The Monkey's Paw, which is still one of the worst things I've ever seen in my life. The play closed prematurely the next week, after the review came out.

Wow, the power of the printed word. Have you relished your reputation as a particularly hard-nosed critic?

My idea was that I should set a standard, however subjective that standard is, and if those standards weren't being met I would say so. [Critics are] really the only ones who have the public's ear when it comes to theater, and I think that we have to make a case for theater, and when we see a failure being perpetrated in the name of theater it is incumbent upon us to stand up and say, "this is bad. This is wrong."

Why does theater in Portland have so much trouble meeting your high standards?

If you're a young artist coming here, you are advancing to what? Portland Center Stage? Artists Repertory? Is that enough? No. It can't be. The best thing about Portland is that it's still an affordable city for young artists to come to and try to find a voice and try to pick their way through it all and see if they're meant to be real artists or not. Those who get the experience and find their voice have to move on--indeed do so, usually to bigger cities where they can probably survive.

Portland's a small town. Do you feel uncomfortable when you have to encounter someone you've bashed publicly in print?

I can't be bothered with it. My first play was produced in London. I remember racing down to the news stand and picking up a copy of Time Out to read how untalented I was. There was a momentary feeling of wanting to shit oneself to death, and then the next thought was: they're absolutely right. My thinking is, I've been mauled by critics myself, and you take it or you don't, and if you can't take it, then you're not in the right profession.

Did you leave the Willamette Week on good terms?

Oh absolutely. They've been very fair to me, and I'll say this about them: they always allowed me to write in the style I wanted to write in. Not like at the Oregonian where you have to dumb everything down. The writers there are handicapped by the fact that the paper insists they write to some fictitious trailer park in Gresham.

What are you going to do now?

I'm doing a lot of writing. I'm almost done with a play and I'm writing a novel with my friend--we've decided we're just going to write potboilers for a while and make some money. It's come to that. My unemployment goes until October and I think I'm going to have to get an extension. I'm having such a good time.

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