The cheerful Portland Center Stage volunteer summed up actor Wade McCollum's status as Portland theater royalty when she picked up the phone to page him: "You must be here to write another rave about Wade."
Wade McCollum, 28, has enjoyed his share of raves in his stop-and-start stint this past decade as a Northwest-based actor and musician. Since coming to Portland after graduating from the Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts in Santa Maria, Calif., McCollum has starred in productions of Bat Boy: The Musical at PCS and Hedwig and the Angry Inch in both Portland and Los Angeles. Along the way, he's picked up a few Drammy awards.
But McCollum is scheduled to leave Portland, and the West Coast, to chase the dream in New York City, departing—"not moving, but searching for new collaborators in a new city"—with his partner, Noah, as early as this January. WW asked McCollum in an exit interview about his thoughts on the Portland theater scene that he's leaving behind.
WW: Can a theater artist make a living wage in Portland?
Wade McCollum: There's an enormous amount of people here who create for art's sake. You've got your day job and you're doing your creative work, too. Everybody should feel they have the vision to create their own art form, but the only money coming into the arts is from individual donors, and that's mostly coming to Portland Center Stage. Portland has only so many theaters that pay—two, maybe: Portland Center Stage and Artists Repertory Theatre. And barely at ART.
What do you make?
It ranges. I was making $7 a show in Los Angeles. I've made $130 a week. There is no average Equity wage: I've been paid between $7 a show and $1,000 a week. God knows I've lived in the car for most of the time I've been a professional actor.
How would you rate the Portland theater talent?
Talent is hard to rate. There are these people doing it because they love it, but there's also a lack of technique and professionalism and true training here. Portland needs a really good conservatory-level theater training program. Portland Actors Conservatory doesn't quite cut it. If there were two or three other professional, Equity-level companies, then yeah, people could live here and could create a real yearlong acting life. Portland is a tiny little town, but it dreams big. Portland is a gestation place. But the media attention isn't here. The national, international network thing isn't here.
Why are you leaving the West Coast?
To be in a place where the grid is set up in a larger way. It's hard for people to understand that I don't really live anywhere. I'm going to New York City and I'm staying for some time. It's not necessarily a "move," per se. I want to plug projects into a larger grid and find new collaborators.
OK, what's next?
I'll be taking 10 days of meditation and service, and I'll be working on One [McCollum's new musical-in-progress]. After that, Noah and I will be driving to L.A., packing up his apartment—we might sell it all—and we're gonna go to New York. That's the plan. I feel like it's time, and there's some sort of romantic idea of what it means to move to New York and be an actor. I've won my awards in L.A. and Portland, and made some contacts in New York, and it's just where everybody is. I really feel successful. If I died, I'd be, like, cool. In most of my waking hours I'm working on things that help; I'm trying to create art that's in service.
Will you ever come back to Portland?
I'll always consider Portland home. Noah and I would like to buy something here. I just for the first time in my life went to the dentist, and I didn't have any cavities. I just did my taxes for the first time this year—I've really been a gypsy social outcast. Portland feels like a place that is safe, and a place where I feel welcome. I'll miss the oxygen.
McCollum's current starring role at Portland Center Stage is as German transvestite cultural icon Charlotte van Mahlsdorf (and 34 other characters) in I Am My Own Wife. The play runs at Gerding Theater Studio through Dec. 31. Tickets, $16.50-$59.50, are available by calling 445-3700.