Think Out Loud

Northwest Classical Theatre Collaborative showcases ‘Happy Days’ in former Victoria’s Secret space

By Allison Frost (OPB)
Aug. 16, 2023 11:56 p.m. Updated: Aug. 17, 2023 8:54 p.m.

Broadcast: Thursday, Aug. 17

Diane Kondrat plays the main character  Winnie in the Northwest Classical Theatre Collaborative's production of "Happy Days" at Lloyd Center. Chris Porter portrays Winnie’s seldom seen or heard husband, Willie.

Diane Kondrat plays the main character Winnie in the Northwest Classical Theatre Collaborative's production of "Happy Days" at Lloyd Center. Chris Porter portrays Winnie’s seldom seen or heard husband, Willie.

Courtesy Anna Ardizzone.


The Portland-based Northwest Classical Theatre Collaborative has a mission of bringing the art to underserved communities and performing in nontraditional spaces — like prisons and homeless shelters. And it’s deliberately financially accessible as well, with $10 ticket prices well below most admission prices for similar kinds of productions. Its new show “Happy Days” is a 1961 classic by Samuel Beckett, the late playwright best known for “Waiting for Godot.” Northwest Classical’s production is in a space that was once a Victoria’s Secret at Portland’s Lloyd Center shopping mall. Director Patrick Walsh joins us to talk about the production and the theatre’s mission, along with lead actress Diane Kondrat, who’s on stage for the entire 90-minute play.

This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. The Portland-based Northwest Classical Theater Collaborative has a mission of bringing theater to underserved communities in nontraditional spaces, places like prisons or homeless shelters. Its latest show is no different. It is in Portland’s scrappy, struggling, Lloyd Center Mall, in the space that used to be a Victoria’s Secret. The play is “Happy Days” by Samuel Beckett, a one-act tour de force that is nearly a one woman show. Portland actress Diane Kondrat is that woman. She plays a character named Winnie who is stuck, waist high at first, in a mound of sand. She alternates between boredom, anxiety, grief and good cheer. The play came out in 1961 but has particular resonance in our pandemic age of social media and climate change fueled fires. Diane Kondrat joins us now, along with Patrick Walsh. He directed the play, and he is the executive artistic director of the Collaborative. It’s great to have both of you in the studio with me.

Diane Kondrat: Thank you so much.

Patrick Walsh: Thank you for having us, Dave.

Miller: Patrick, first. How did you come to put on this new production in an old Victoria’s Secret?

Walsh: Yeah, I mean, Northwest Classical Theater Collaboratives mission is kind of to make theater accessible and bring it to different audiences. Unfortunately, since the pandemic, we haven’t really been able to fulfill that mission. So the board and myself from the last, really year, we’ve decided, in this time, everybody is really underserved. So, especially in Portland proper, how are we able to bring art and bring people to this place? And basically I called the Lloyd Center and they were super game to be able to put this play on. And then we kind of just moved forward. And so the last year has been producing, it’s been figuring it out, it’s been casting, it’s been rehearsing, it’s been doing tech rehearsals. And we’re just really lucky to be able to partner with the Lloyd Center on this as well.

Miller: So you called them and they were very excited. I mean, clearly they’re doing all kinds of things to try to figure out what they are and how they can not cease to exist. What was it like the first time you walked into the closed store?

Walsh: I got a tour of all the spaces that were available. And when I went into the Victoria’s Secret, this big gust of wind kind of comes at you because nobody’s been in there in a while and you just walk in and I was like, oh God, this is perfect, this is perfect.

Miller: Why? What did you see that made you say that?

Walsh: So much space that we could use. Like so many ways to make the themes of “Happy Days” make sense. So much of what Winnie talks about in the play is that I’m being watched and also like what my worth is, like as a woman, as a human being in this place and what that means as you get older too as you like age out of a certain archetype. And so just seeing that, thinking about all the people who used to use this space, walking around, looking, watching. I was just struck by it. I was like, oh, this is going to be perfect. This is gonna be absolutely perfect.

Miller: Diane, can you describe “Happy Days” for people who are not familiar with it?

Kondrat: It’s non-linear. It’s poetic. It’s intensely emotional. The highs and lows of the amusement park ride that Winnie’s on, go very fast and you don’t see the turns coming, so it’s a real visceral experience for people. Opening night, there was a skating party in the mall and some people who saw the show didn’t even hear the music because they were so focused on Winnie and, and the show. But you could hear it. It was a lot, but it didn’t matter because you try to figure it out as an audience member. You’re feeling all this stuff, but you’re also wanting it to make sense. So you go on a real ride with a master writer.

Miller: I’m totally intrigued by your saying that the audience is trying to figure it out, because they don’t know what’s going on. It’s one of the things that I liked about it. At no point does Beckett tell us why your character is stuck there. I mean, for example, we don’t find out that this is punishment for something that she’s done. She’s just there and she has to deal with it and we as the audience have to deal with it. But you as a performer, does it help you to come up with some back story to think about why you’re there?

Kondrat: We talked about this in rehearsal. Those kinds of questions are so big that it almost doesn’t serve. I do have understories for a lot of what happens to her and why she feels the way she does. But as far as history goes, who knows? Is she there for a month? Has she been there for 1,000 years? Who knows? And Beckett, like you said, is not one to answer such questions. So those are the big sorts of ideas that none of us have answers for in the world. Why things are the way they are. Why is some person plagued with disease and somebody else rich, rich, rich and happy and has nothing wrong? I don’t know, just that way.

Miller: As an audience member, it seems that one of the challenges for you, as a performer here, is just threading the needle between humor and horror. I mean, and real horror, being stuck, maybe forever. We don’t know. How do you balance those two poles?

Kondrat: My favorite form of theater is dark comedy. And so I like that anyway,

because when things are very, very dark, you better be able to laugh your head off, because if you can’t, then you have to make another even darker choice. So for me, it just seems natural to turn on a dime like that, emotionally. It’s just that Winnie does it faster than me and she’s far more optimistic, as Patrick can attest, than I am as a person. So, I’ve met people like this. It isn’t me who, when faced with horrific situations, brightens up and carries everyone with them. And that’s what Winnie’s like. Except she doesn’t have a lot of people to carry, except for Willie.

Miller: Does it feel authentic? I mean, is it real good cheer or is it forced?

Kondrat: It’s necessary for her. And in that, yes, it’s real because she would feel it if it wasn’t real, right? It wouldn’t do the job for her. It wouldn’t save her if her enthusiasm wasn’t actual, not to say she doesn’t fall back down the mountain. But she’s always, well, “let’s push that boulder out of the way and put the picks in the wall and keep going” because she has to, that’s her job that Samuel Beckett has given her.

Miller: I read in Oregon Arts Watch that you drew on your background in clown technique for this role. What is clown technique in the classic theater sense? And how did it help you?

Kondrat: Clown is a sacred art that I wish I could become cogent in before I die. I’ve taken some workshops with some masters, but my work in the past has been verbal. Clown work is a lot more physically based in a lot of situations. So, since she’s from the waist up only, in the show, until things get worse, the timing of gestures and the imagery in gestures has been the biggest thing that I’ve relied on to illuminate the script. Also because Beckett very clearly has said that he actually loves clowns and loves what they do. And of course, they illuminate a basis of humanity that goes beyond language. So you’ve got all this language from Beckett. And then I try to bring physicality and timing that can support that, so you have an even bigger picture of emotionality. It’s not just talk. There are times like when words fail, when he says, what do you do when words fail? You have to figure out some other way to be funny.

Miller: Patrick, how did you change the space to make it what you wanted?

Walsh: Well, I mean, just to start off with, we had an excellent design team like Molly Stowe on lights and Kira Bishop on set and Jessica Cruz on costumes. So we basically closed off the entire thing and most of it is behind plastic sheeting, so when you walk in the front door, you’re immediately . . . and there are sounds that are coming from behind the sheeting, there’s like lighting that’s happening to kind of put the audience into a journey. And like we’re going to watch this play, we’re taking you out of our world and we’re moving towards something else which leads to this area in the back that we’ve curtained off with red curtains and that is where Diane starts the play, kind of buried up to her waist.

So we’ve really transformed the entire space, but we’re not trying to hide it’s a Victoria’s Secret at all. I mean, it’s part of that. We’re saying that this woman was in this place and this earth kind of came up and grabbed her, at some point.

Miller: Patrick, sometimes an audience member has to stretch a little bit to find contemporary resonances with older works of art of various kinds. With this play, you don’t have to work at all. It’s painfully inescapable that the resonance of climate change is one of the reasons. We could talk about others. In one scene, Diane’s character, she’s stuck in this hellscape that is getting unbearably hot and all she has to withstand this sun, perhaps, is a measly umbrella. What were you going for in that scene in particular?

Walsh: I mean, I just think [of] the existential dread that we’re all going through right now, particularly in a string of 107-degree days that we have to deal with. It’s not so much that the scene is so much about her not being able to let go, or her not being able to like move forward, this idea of stasis. But also the idea that we can’t, that all of us, all the time are facing like, what are we gonna do about this heat? What are we gonna do about these problems? What are we gonna do about homelessness on our streets? And that you can feel really frozen and stuck. And so, as we were moving through, that was something that we talked about all the time. I think we all feel so trapped, so isolated in an age of climate change and in the time of COVID and we were trying to bring out that existential ennui for the whole audience.

Miller: And Diane, I mean, one of the biggest themes that your character is grappling with or painful emotions is just, is anybody listening? Can anybody hear me? At one point, there’s another character, this husband character who talks a little bit, grunts sometimes, makes various bodily noises. And all your character wants is some acknowledgement, often that he’s there. I mean, literally will he just move his little finger? It’s like a “like” button. Is anybody hearing me? I’m screaming into the void.


What is it like to be a performer who’s asking, “can you hear me?”

Kondrat: Playing Winnie is a wonderful gift. And there are times . . . our tickets are $10 and so there are people who have bought tickets. I talked to somebody the other day who said, “I love this because it’s in the mall.” No idea about the show. No idea. For some people, about theater etiquette, we’ll call it. So I do see things, I hear things from the audience and sometimes I hear nothing. Beckett is mystifying, and in those moments when there is nothing, then her plight comes completely into my heart.

Miller: Because hearing nothing is different from hearing an engaged audience that’s being quiet?

Kondrat: Yes. And, particularly in this space, one of the things . . .  we’re in like a little keyhole in the rectangle of Victoria’s Secret. So the acoustics in this space are fabulous. You not only have the potential to echo through this big rectangular space, but you can almost be as if you’re on the radio, in this space, you can be really quiet. So I have both things and when no one’s listening, as she says, in the second act, that is what I find so wonderful, eyes on my eyes. There’s nothing to replace the connection between human beings in the real world. And that’s why theater still exists, in spite of movies, in spite of the internet, in spite of everything else, we learn as human beings by story and by shared emotional experiences. So it’s really fabulous to have an audience and it’s horrifying to have none, to feel the emptiness, which certainly was my situation at the end of rehearsals when we’d done all our work. And it was like, OK, we’re ready for somebody to come and it’s like, nope, nobody’s here. It’s illuminating, I’ll say.

Miller: Patrick, my understanding is that you were working in theater in New York City when you came out to direct your first production for Northwest Classical Theater Collaborative. What was that experience like for you?

Walsh: I mean, I’ve stayed, so it was great [Laughter].

Miller: It was a disaster. Never came back [Laughter].

Walsh: Yeah. I mean, I love it here. I love it here. I love the audiences. I love the people. I love the fact that every other place that I’ve ever been to before, like the first word you always hear is ‘no’ from somebody if they don’t want to do something, right? Like if I called a mall in New York, they would just tell me to go away. But it’s like here, I called the Lloyd Center and they’re like, that sounds great, we would love to help you with that. And everybody’s like that here. As long as you bring them an idea, people are so willing and kind to help and they’re so game for anything.

So my first experience coming out here, almost nine years ago now, was just absolutely fantastic. And I’m just so happy to be here and be part of this community, even while we’re all kind of dealing with all these things that are happening around us all the time.

Miller: What have your experiences been like in mounting productions in prisons in Oregon?

Walsh: Well, I have two experiences. One is that we tour shows and I’m also kind of a long-term volunteer at the Department of Corrections. So I’ve directed adults in custody in three plays up at Two Rivers Correctional in Umatilla.

Miller: So, adults in custody, both as audience members and as actors.

Walsh: Yes, sir.

Miller: Do any stories stand out from both of those different versions of making theater?

Walsh: I think just in natural, like when you’re making theater in a traditional space, you ask all the time, like is anything that I’m doing . . . a lot like Winnie, like you’re screaming into the void, like is the way that I naturally participate in the world affecting anybody? And the thing that I will say is that before I started doing this sort of work in non-traditional spaces, I would say I had one moment ever of being in a rehearsal room or seeing a show of what I would just call true transcendence. And you don’t know me very well, Dave, but I never use that word. And when I would go up to Two Rivers or when I would do these shows in prisons or shelters, there would be two or three of those moments every single time.

Miller: Why? Why was it hitting people differently? And why were you picking that up?

Walsh: I think mostly because what I have learned is that the people who benefit the most from the arts traditionally have the least access to it. And the way that people like to bury or burrow into their lives to find resonance. I think when we live in a large urban center, we take it for granted that we can go to the museum, we can go to Portland Center Stage. We can see shows if we want to. For so many of our audiences, they had never seen a play before. They’d never seen a play, they’d never been to a museum, they never heard a musical instrument outside of maybe an acoustic guitar. And so being in that room, being in those rooms and being able to facilitate that growth, through artistic engagement and connection, is something I’ve never had in a traditional theatrical space.

Miller: It sounds like a lot of what you’re talking about is maybe first-time audience members. What about first-time actors?

Walsh: Oh, yeah. I mean, we did Hamlet up at Two Rivers and we split up Hamlet into seven different roles and there was one guy who was Hamlet and he was illiterate. I mean, he could not read, he had never learned to read. He was a 40-year-old man and by the end of it, he had memorized everything perfectly. And he delivered theatrical language like that, like he was born to it, and I still get goosebumps when I’m talking about it now. It’s like those moments of transcendence, those memories that I have. Because now when people ask me, are the arts important, I can give them 100 concrete examples.

Miller: Diane, we have just a minute left, what’s going through your mind in the 30 seconds before the curtain opens, when you know you have 90 minutes where it’s you - you are the show?

Kondrat: I can’t tell you my trigger. It’s a secret, but it is an imaginary circumstance that fuels her emotional life in the first moment. So I spend that time preparing to be fully present emotionally, when the bell rings and the lights come up and I can’t tell you because…

Miller: I didn’t even realize it was a secret. But you are in her head already and in a way that helps propel you as her for the next 90 minutes.

Kondrat: I’m playing around with the nerve I have for the whole first act. I must, I need, I have to. I can’t tell you what it is, but it’s an overarching emotional motivation.

Miller: Well, it worked, whatever it was.

Kondrat: Oh, yeah.

Miller: I will not ask you what it was.

Diane Kondrat and Patrick Walsh, thanks very much.

Kondrat: Thank you.

Walsh: Thank you so much, Dave.

Miller: Diane Kondrat is the Portland actor who plays Winnie in “Happy Days.” It’s on right now at the old Victoria’s Secret in the still alive Lloyd Center Mall. Patrick Walsh is the executive artistic director of the Northwest Classical Theater Collaborative.

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