From the Stage to the Street: The Kid Bringing Free Theater to the Public

From the Stage to the Street: The Kid Bringing Free Theater to the Public

By Matt Foley


Because this is some of the least bothersome stuff you’ll have to step across on the sidewalk.

By Matt Foley

In this occasional series, OZY takes to the streets and neighborhoods across the globe to ask a simple question: “How was your day?

Steven Rathje
Portland, Oregon

My day has been busy, but great. I’m a psychology major at Stanford University, so mornings mean class — usually a lecture and research labs, followed by an English course. Playwriting is my passion, so I always make time to do some creative writing. After that, it’s emails and other administrative things. Tonight, I’m relaxing with friends. It’s 86 degrees in Palo Alto, so I try to take advantage of the weather. 

Growing up in Portland, I was heavily involved in the local theater scene at a young age. Both of my parents are lawyers, but they’ve been incredibly supportive of me and my passions. My grandmother was a local actress, and when my grandfather took me to see one of her plays, I knew that I wanted to create those stories. I was enamored with the whole process and production. 

I started doing some professional acting in middle school, but playwriting really inspired me. I wrote my first play at age 13, a murder mystery called Fight Call. My brother writes music, so we collaborated. It was a musical about a group of actors who kept dying off while putting on the play Macbeth.  My writing has evolved a lot since then, but that was the fun stuff that my teenage brain came up with.


Toward the end of high school, one of my scripts was published by Samuel French Inc., which gave me an inside look at the publication process and the difficulties that working playwrights face in trying to get their work published and produced. So many companies, especially those that are struggling financially in today’s theater market, only commission established playwrights — they don’t want to take a risk on emerging talent. So the summer before my freshman year at Stanford, I decided to change that.

Steven Rathje offers a stage to emerging playwrights.

Steven Rathje

Proscenium Journal started with the simple goal of providing emerging playwrights an opportunity to gain exposure to a wider range of audiences. It’s a free literary journal for publishing plays. I started it on a whim, but quickly learned that there was real demand from playwrights to share their work. Submissions were flying in — about 200 the first month — and I had to commission volunteer readers to help me review and select the works. We’ve published six issues so far, but after that first year, it was obvious that we could do more. Besides, plays aren’t just meant to be read; they exist to be seen.

This summer, the third annual Proscenium Live, a free theater festival of live plays, will be underway in Portland. The first year, I received a summer project grant from Stanford and partnered with a local theater company, the Portland Shakespeare Project, to use their space and test the experiment. Three hundred audience members attended, and we were named one of the best free events in the city. The next year, we had over 700 in attendance. This year, thanks to the OZY Genius Award scholarship, we’ve commissioned three playwrights to produce original works for the festival, and we’re hiring more actors and staff to grow the event. The potential is there, and everything is coming together to make Proscenium Live bigger and better while maintaining open access to the public.

As for what’s next after Stanford, my future is a little hazy right now. I’m never going to quit playwriting, and I’ll continue working with my mentor — Michael Mendelson, the artistic director at Portland Shakespeare Project — to help make Proscenium Live a major event where young playwrights can be discovered. But, I might also go for my Ph.D. in psychology. To me, careers in theater and psychology go hand in hand. Both fields examine closely what it means to be human, and what it means to exist in the world.

I guess discovery is where I’m headed.