From its beginnings in 2011, Post5 Theatre has had its fingers on a vital part of Portland’s pulse. The often packed houses have swayed between a rowdy fellowship and an emotional entourage, depending on the comedy or tragedy on stage. And it’s done it at bargain ticket prices, allowing it to develop a younger and broader audience than many of the city’s higher-budget companies.
Now all of that is endangered, and the company’s survival is in question: there will be no new productions at least through the first few months of 2017. The leadership triumvirate of artistic directors Paul Angelo, Rusty Tennant and Patrick Walsh resigned early this month after announcing the company had lost its Sellwood district home and revealing that it had also lost its vital 501(c)(3) nonprofit status, which is crucial for fundraising and tax purposes. The company’s board expects Post5 to regain its nonprofit standing. But even with that, it now faces the difficulty and expense of finding a new performing space in a tight real-estate market. And it has no artistic leadership.
Earlier this year in an interview with Willamette Week, Angelo, Tennant and Walsh commented on the changes taking place at Post5 under their leadership after months of silence to the press and ticket buyers. The trio’s artistic direction was a departure from that of founders Ty and Cassandra Boice, who had come to embody what the company was about. Ty was a handsome leading man and deft comic actor with a devoted following. Cassandra was a smart and canny director with deep comic chops. Together they worked long and hard and set the tone for what became known as a scrappy, creatively populist company that was counted on for, among other things, smooth and accessibly populist Shakespeare productions. When they left, Post5’s image and reality seemed bound to change.
The new leadership group told Willamette Week that the next productions’ budgets would be conservative, but they hoped to create more sophisticated and edgier approaches to plays. The artistic directors also mentioned they’d been dealing with a few unexpected struggles, but felt they were now contained. As one of them told WW, “Every theater here is one big mistake from going under.”
After seven productions in the current season, the trio tendered their resignations on Nov. 1. Things were not, to put it mildly, as they had expected. With three months of back rent due, Post5 was about to lose its space. Angelo directed his last play there, Coyote on a Fence. The Post5 board members hustled to find spaces for their final production of the season, company member Philip J. Berns’ unique spin on A Christmas Carol. As of today, Nov. 21, the company’s website lists the play as part of its season, but the ticket link says “there are no current dates or times.”
Conversations with several key players suggest that an accumulation of small mistakes, not one big one, put Post5 in jeopardy. But the biggest may have been losing nonprofit status. In May of 2015, before Angelo, Tennant and Walsh became artistic directors, the Internal Revenue Serice rescinded the company’s nonprofit standing because the proper paperwork hadn’t been filed. Ty Boice, the new leaders say, had assured them when they accepted their positions that Post5’s nonprofit status was in good standing. That was not the case.
A 501(c)(3) allows theaters to get state, federal, and local grants and donations. While Post5 and other Portland theater companies have an audience base, it’s usual that up to half of a theater’s budget comes from donations and grants. Like many other small companies, and larger ones, too, Post5 has always worked on a tight budget, from its beginnings at MilePost5, an arts living/studio enclave on Northeast 82nd Avenue, through its budget-straining move to a partly renovated space in Sellwood. Board spokesman Stefan Feuerherdt pegged the 2016 budget as “in the neighborhood of $100,000.” That is a relatively tiny figure, but the company has found it difficult to meet it.
“Forty percent of our revenue was projected to be from donations,” Tennant said in an interview with ArtsWatch. “Unfortunately, that’s really hard to do when you don’t have a 501(c)(3). We were kind of crippled. It’s pretty amazing we made it as far as we did. With as much success as we did. Not just artistically, but strictly aesthetically. We have literally operated the entire season without the ability to take a single donation. We had people offer and we had to tell people ‘no.’ We had some people say: ‘I don’t care if it’s a donation or not. We can figure that out in the end.’ Our hands were tied. I hate to be so blunt about it. We walked into a situation that wasn’t repairable and may not be repairable. None of us were aware of this; in fact we were assured of the contrary.”
It’s possible that Post5’s operation was simply too lean, with too much of a revolving door on the administrative side, and nobody taking charge of the crucial business side of things. On Nov. 11, Ty Boice replied to ArtsWatch’s questions regarding who was responsible for filing the paperwork and and whether he knew about Post5’s 501(c)(3) status. “No. Not at all. I did not handle filing, licensing or finances,” he said, adding that he learned it had lapsed “just a few weeks ago.”
Feuerherdt, speaking on behalf of the Post5 board of directors, responded: “Our status was suspended because of a missed form filing, though we only became aware of it incidentally, not through any mailed notice we had record of receiving. Part of the challenge of our shoestring, fledgling company run entirely by artists was that the administrative duties change hands often (we calculated, for example, that no one person filed our annual paperwork more than once during our first four years of existence). Upon learning of the suspension, we filed the paperwork to be reinstated, and while the IRS works slowly, we have been assured our application is in order and we should expect written notice of our reinstatement, retroactive to the suspension date, shortly.”
Attorney David Atkin of The Center for Nonprofit Law, in Eugene, concurred. “Any tax-exempt organization that fails to file that report on time for three years in a row will have its status automatically revoked by the IRS,” he said. “There’s a rogue computer in the bowels of the IRS buildings in Ogden, Utah that churns out these auto-revocations every day. Literally hundreds of thousands of nonprofits have failed or forgotten to file those manual returns and had their tax and status revoked as a result of that.”
A check with Guide Star, the nonprofit agency tracking system, confirms that Post5 lost its nonprofit status for failing to file paperwork for three straight years.
Getting 501(c)(3) status back, Atkin added, is usually straightforward. “It just takes time and money. They can apply for retroactive tax-exempt status and that covers all of those donations that came in with no problem. … if a donor gives in good faith, with good intentions the money is used correctly, the IRS does not seem interested in combing through the tax returns of people who are donors to find out if they gave to a group that was auto-revoked and not reinstated retroactively.”
Many theaters operate near the red, and everyone from the actors to sound designer to directors has a day job. Post5’s 2014 990-EZ tax return illustrates how tight things can be. It reports revenue of $127,865 and expenses of $127,815. Its money came mainly from contributions, gifts, and grants ($39,464) and “program service revenue,” largely ticket sales ($77,072). Another $11,329 came from “gross sales of inventory, less returns and allowances.” Among costs, $9,075 was reported as salaries and benefits. Professional fees – what most actors, designers, directors, stage managers, and technicians receive – were $64,944.
The people who make theater work long hours and do it because they love theater, not for the pay. That has been particularly true at Post5. “I remember working really hard, and playing just as hard with the same group of wildly talented, beautiful and silly people,” actor Jim Vadala said. “I remember 15-hour tech days building the new space in Sellwood alongside Randal Pyke. I remember cleaning bathrooms and taking out the trash. Then warming up my body so I wouldn’t pull something onstage. It was a passion project for everyone involved.”
The courtyard at the Sellwood space, named after prominent Oregon arts donor and supporter Ronni Lacroute, explains as much about Post5’s five-year run as the company’s often memorable productions. Lacroute has been a steadfast supporter of Post5 and the Portland theater community. Unlike many other arts patrons, she donates to a host of productions and companies, ranging from classic to controversial, and often attends the performances. She’s involved, warm, and has a good sense of humor. Both she and fellow patron Ellyn Bye noted that the three artistic directors were upfront about Post5 losing its 501(c)(3) status.
Lacroute said in an email: “I have been a major donor to Post5 Theatre since their second season when I discovered them at Milepost 5, and I have enjoyed many of the shows they produced and appreciated their efforts to make theatre accessible to everyone and to feature diversity in all its forms on the stage. As I told Rusty and Paul when we had a meeting about the nonprofit status, I was really sad that this happened to them but since I am not motivated to support a nonprofit enterprise by the tax deduction but rather by the good work the organization is doing in the community, the loss of nonprofit status did not affect me as a donor. What influences my donations is the sustainability of the organization overall, so the problem I see is the inability to attract other donors when there is no nonprofit status under the tax code.”
Portland’s theater scene exists largely through a support system of patrons, local agencies like the government-funded Regional Arts & Culture Commission and a playgoing community. For many years the National Endowment for the Arts, from which RACC gets a good share of its funding before passing it on to tri-county arts and cultural organizations, and public broadcasting has had to fight for its federal funding, a fight that may get tougher as the nation moves into a Trump administration and a Republican-dominated Congress.
Before Post5’s move in 2015 to the Sellwood location, Ty Boice had tried to negotiate staying at the company’s original home at Milepost 5. The Sellwood space was secured, but offered new challenges. Some were recognizable to theatergoers, such as the heat and air conditioning. Others, like not being ADA-accessible for people with limited mobility, had more far-reaching effects. Without the ADA accessibility, Post5 could no longer be eligible for Drammy Awards and certain grants. While Boice and the next artistic directors worked on getting the space inclusive for all, the $30,000 bill to upgrade to full accessibility wasn’t within their reach.
Board member Feuerherdt described the company’s shaky business grounds: “We took on the Sellwood space as a leap of faith, knowing it needed substantial investment – administrative and legal fees for zoning issues, ADA accessibility ramps/lifts, air conditioning, etc. The hope was that we could begin work with the Sellwood community to build an audience, and patronage, on which we could then draw to achieve the revenue and funding we needed. Unfortunately, among those staff and board we lost during the major shakeup in 2015 were key individuals whose talents were best suited to fundraising and marketing. Going into this season, then, we as a company were unable to find enough of an audience for some of our shows, nor the patronage from the community necessary to sustain us long-term in Sellwood.”
A further major complication arose. Angelo, Tennant, and Walsh learned that at the end of the five-year lease of the Sellwood building in 2017, the property owners of the Post5 space and the church next door would raze the building and replace it with condos like those across the street. That made spending large amounts of money on capital improvements problematic. “The landlords aren’t the bad guys here,” Angelo said. “They’ve actually been as helpful as they can be. They’ve been really good to us. Post5 is in arrears with some of the rent and they’re going to let us stay until the end of Coyote on a Fence,” which closed on Nov. 19. “As long as we clean up the place, they’re going to waive all of the back rent.”
Tennant said the venue obstacles Post5 has faced are symptomatic of how the Portland real estate market affects the arts: “Theater does not generally happen without a venue. It’s not only rents as artists, that we have to concern ourselves with, it’s also the rent of the spaces, themselves. Which has done nothing but go up and consequently become less and less available. More and more spaces are going away. The demand is greater and of course when that happens the prices have gone through the roof. You’re already spending thousands and thousands of dollars, even before you’ve paid a royalty, or paid a single artist at all. You’re paying landlords to create art.
“It ends up undercutting the visual impact of the pieces, certainly. It undercuts how much you can pay artists. It undercuts what you are expecting of artists and what they’re capable of delivering on such limited amounts of funds. It really undercuts the whole process. It would be wonderful if somehow in this town we could manage a place that offered a few different performance venues at reasonable prices, where you could really take some risks. Empty space and actors is what Peter Brook tells us we need. A performer, a performance space and an act of performance itself.”
Angelo, Tennant and Walsh began to feel in the middle of their King Lear run that they were walking through a minefield: the lease, the loss of the 501(c)(3), issues with the OLCC permit to serve alcohol, and messy business infrastructure.
Ty Boice had moved on to become an artistic director for Island Stage Left in Friday Harbor, on San Juan Island in Washington state. Helen Machin-Smith, who founded the company 19 years ago, said via email that the arrangement did not work out. “We have every hope of recovering from this last year,” she wrote. “We are able to say, however, with regret, that our experience with the Boices was not a pleasant one. It became clear that our high standards and vision were not shared and that we had been misled.”
Ty Boice responded by saying: “The island life is not for me. I’m retired. I don’t have a burning desire to make theater anymore.”
Feuerherdt, the Post5 board member, told ArtsWatch: “As for what’s next for Post5; after we close Coyote On a Fence [it closed this past weekend] and the significant work of deconstructing a theater space, we’ll take a breath, and, soon, convene with some of our artistic founders and family of artists through five great seasons, to sit down and brainstorm formats and venues to bring back the vibrant, visceral and accessible shows that garnered our company a following in the first place. In the short run, though, don’t look for Post5 to be able to produce anything in the first part of 2017.”
Both Angelo and Tennant had worked with Post5 before accepting roles as artistic directors. “Post5 in my time, getting familiar and established with the Portland theater scene, was a major part of me getting a foothold in this city,” Tennant said of the company’s early days. “My performance with Ty (Boice) in Henry IV is easily one of my favorite things I’ve ever done on stage.”
Angelo added: “Hamlet is a beautiful show I’ll always be proud of. Equivocation as well. I got to do some of the best work of my life at Post5 and meet some great people. I’m proud of every show I was able to direct at Post5. I did the to the best of my abilities to all three shows I was given to direct. In all those shows, everyone I worked with busted their humps. They worked really hard because they loved the show and they wanted to make it the best it could be.”
Caitlin Fisher-Draeger, who was involved with Post5 at the beginning, said: “Post5 started with a mission statement of making free, ‘fast-paced’ and accessible Shakespeare. There was an emphasis on giving young performers/artists opportunities.”
Over time and with a few tough conversations, Post5 adapted to more diverse casting of traditional material. Another early member, speaking on condition of anonymity, reflected: “Post5 was not only engaging, but engaged. The audiences were diverse in nearly every way you can think of, where other theaters struggle to build that kind of base. (Or appear to not understand where to even get started.) And the actors on stage reflected the diversity of the audiences, which I reveled in, personally.”
Fisher-Draeger also commented: “The audiences were always impressive. The party atmosphere and the energy of the shows really drew in young adults from the neighborhoods. It helped that in the beginning Northeast Portland was a bit of an arts desert. The company had a real penchant for burning out young talent. Working at the theater was a lifestyle, lots of long hours and often people (including the artistic director) sleeping in the theater’s offices. Almost every show had a new set of designers, builders and technicians due to what was asked of them. On the other hand, the parties were fantastic. There used to be a pre-show chant of ‘Ain’t no party like a Post5 Party, cuz a Post 5 party don’t stop.’ Which was true. But the leadership had a hard time showing appreciation for all the long hours, which resulted in significant turnover of designers and technicians.”
“It was a family,” Ty Boice said of Post5. “Like any family it had dysfunction at times. But there was love and belief about what we were doing. The great things about Post5 were because of the company, not any A.D.s (artistic directors) – myself and Cassandra included. They were the pulse.”
And in the end – if this is the end, or only a pause before a new beginning – that spirit will remain a huge part of Post5’s legacy.
Jessica Tidd, who starred in a number of Post5 productions, remembers: “From my beginning with Post5 as Ophelia in the old space in Northeast, to inaugurating the new space in Sellwood as Celia in As You Like It, to my final goodbye on the Post5 stage as Iago …The most important summation, the greatest takeaway I have to hold and to pass along, is that the work never ended and never will. The artists, the students, administrators, volunteers, patrons, the many that have given enormously of themselves to make this happen, they did not disappear. The years of devotion and work and creation does not end with this closure. There are new avenues, there is the next, there are people inflamed and ready. I am grateful for everything past, resting in the bittersweet, and thrilled for what’s next.”