Third Rail crosses the river

The Portland theater company moves to the east side and changes its business model

I met Third Rail Repertory Theatre’s Scott Yarbrough and Maureen Porter outside Third Rail’s new home at Imago Theater, a half-block south of East Burnside on Southeast Eighth. If you’re new to the city, that’s a far cry and a river crossing away from their former home in the Winningstad Theatre downtown, even though lower Burnside has spiffed up a lot in the past ten years or so.

Anyway, they led me into the familiar, friendly confines of Imago, where Carol Triffle and Jerry Mouawad concoct peculiarly engaging theater on a regular basis. Instead of going to their new office space, though, they took me into the theater proper. Good gravy! New seats!

Maureen Porter and Sam Dinkowitz in Third Rail's "Static"/Courtesy Third Rail Repertory Theatre

Maureen Porter and Sam Dinkowitz in Third Rail’s “Static”/Courtesy Third Rail Repertory Theatre

As much as I enjoy my frequent visits to Imago Theatre, the old chairs with the separate cushions attached to the seats haven’t been part of the thrill. Their replacements are of very recent vintage, pulled from a Seattle area Bollywood movie theater that lost its lease, trucked down to Portland and installed over a very long day and night, by Third Rail with some help from Imago. Hey, we now we have both a very comfortable chair AND a spot for one of those gigantic cups of Sprite you get at the movies.

Yarbrough and Porter knew they had me at the seats, but then they explained the thinking behind the two major changes Third Rail made this summer—moving to Imago and launching something they call a membership program—and it all made good sense. It still does a day later, which perhaps means the new creature comforts at Imago aren’t totally responsible for the judgment.


To understand the gravity of the move from the Winningstad Theatre to Imago, a little, condensed Third Rail Rep history may be in order.

John Steinkamp takes aim on Tim True in "The Lonesome West"/Owen Carey

John Steinkamp takes aim on Tim True in “The Lonesome West”/Owen Carey

The company’s first production was at little CoHo Theatre in 2005, and it was a hit—Craig Wright’s Recent Tragic Events, which won a barrelfull of Drammy Awards and glowing reviews. It’s third was another big hit, Martin McDonagh’s “The Lonesome West,” bitter, dark, mordantly comic. That production won three major Drammy Awards—best production, best actor for Tim True’s performance, and best director for the company’s producing artistic director, Yarbrough, and set the stage for the company’s first full season in the Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center (now the the home of Ethos) on North Interstate.

The company’s onstage “brand” was set by those early triumphs: theater that was literate, contemporary and darkly comic, sharply designed by and cast from an excellent permanent company of theater artists. The permanent company distinguished Third Rail, too. It was large and included some of the city’s best actors and designers. More than that, the company of actors and designers also performed the company’s administrative tasks, from box office to public relations to grant writing. That meant a huge chunk of the company’s revenue went directly to the artists in the company, a model that continues today.

The company developed a solid core of theater fans and continued to produce hits from unlikely theater properties. It quickly outgrew IFCC and moved downtown to the World Trade Center’s theater and kept filling the house and growing. After three years, Third Rail made the leap to the Winningstad Theatre in the performing arts center, figuring the enhanced visibility would balance out the increased expense. The company was definitely punching above its weight: Its budget for the 2012-13 fiscal year, the latest available on GuideStar, was around $660,000 and its revenue was $580,000. The older, more established Artists Repertory Theatre, which staged shows in its own two-theater complex and was roughly comparable in terms of artistic ambition, had a budget of more than $2.7 million that same year (and a comparable deficit of around $348,000), again according to GuideStar.


The Winningstad move didn’t work out. A year ago after a production of another McDonough play, The Beauty Queen of Leenane, the company decided to look for a new home after the 2014-15 season. The production just hadn’t generated the kind of heat with audiences that Third Rail wanted.

“We just got lost there,” Porter said about the Winningstad as we talked on the comfy seats at Imago. “Our patrons felt like they lost us.”

Jayne Taini in "The Beauty Queen of Leenane"/Photo by Owen Carey

Jayne Taini in “The Beauty Queen of Leenane”/Photo by Owen Carey

There were two major problems. The company’s activities—mainstage productions, rehearsal space, smaller-scale shows, its National Theater Live high-definition video presentations, offices—were in different locations, which increased expenses and fractured the sense of “company” that was critical to Third Rail’s success, according to Yarbrough. And somehow the audiences didn’t connect as strongly with the shows, the actors or the company in the new space. My own guess: In the Winningstad, the shows seemed more remote, more like “entertainment commodities,” where the contract with the audience was simply to show up, sit still, watch, and depart. The Winningstad didn’t communicate the company’s communitarian values, and it didn’t create the sense of community with audience members that it had in the past.

So, the company found willing partners in Carol Triffle and Jerry Mouawad at Imago Theatre, a likely spot to nurture the more experimental side of Third Rail, given the kind of edgy theater Triffle and Mouawad generate. We got a taste of what a Third Rail at Imago might look like onstage in late spring when the company produced Dan Rebellato’s Static there, a very challenging show to produce in many ways, both technical and actorly, and the results were stunning. Imago’s also capacious enough to corral most of Third Rail’s activities under one roof, and in the little lobby audience and Third Rail actors will mingle together closely.


The move across the river to Imago isn’t the only change, and as big as that is, another idea might be even bigger: The membership.

Like most larger theater companies, Third Rail spent a lot of its time and money chasing subscribers—people who bought tickets for the entire season of Third Rail shows. In recent years, that’s gotten harder and harder, not just at Third Rail but at most performing arts companies. A lot of things factor into this struggle, demographic and economic changes among them. But the culture is changing, too. We are becoming “when I want it” consumers (see: Netflix, et al.), and theater is more of a “when we put it on” kind of experience.

The subscription model locks you into a particular date to see a show months in advance. You can change it, sure, but that requires some number of clicks or phone calls to rearrange, and then what if you’re just too tired to go out on the night you’ve rearranged to go out? There’s no getting around that to a certain extent, but Third Rail had an idea.

“Why not do something bold and innovative and true to who you are?” Porter asked, somewhat rhetorically. “That will get us excited about doing what we do?”

So, the company is experimenting with the membership idea. You can still get a traditional subscription, of course, but you can also become a member and see a show whenever you want (assuming a seat is available for that performance, you can call ahead to reserve a seat just to make sure), and your non-membership friend can get a discount at the same time. But not only that: You can also attend the National Theater Live shows (Benedict Cumberbatch’s “Hamlet”!), open rehearsals, lectures and panels in the Salon Series, showcases for the mentorship company, new play readings, parties, and Wild Card productions, using the same membership card. Some of those are ONLY for members, too, though often you’ll be among paying customers.

You’ll be paying, too, of course—$29.33 a month. But you can go to as many events as you want with your card. So, if you like the production of Liz Duffy Adams’ Or, which opens September 18, you can see it again. And again. And again. Until it closes. Ditto the rest of the plays

I went to the August Wild Card production of The Bylines, the song-writing duo of Marianna Thielen and Reece Marshburn, augmented here by a fine horn and rhythm section, two dancers, and members of the Third Rail company. At one point Thielen asked how many in the audience were members and a solid number of hands popped up. Third Rail’s goal for the year is 125 members, and Yarbrough said 123 had already signed up, so the experiment is off to a good start.

The company members are curating the membership offerings, and the success of the program will depend on their acuity at matching events to the audience. That will rely in large measure on how much they mix with the members and get a sense of what they like and need. Stand-up comedy? A jazz series? An art crawl that wanders over to the nearby studios of the Northwest Dance Project after a stop at Burnside Brewing? A late-night experimental movie series? That last one came courtesy of Imago’s Mouawad, a fount of interesting ideas—I for one would love to see a set of movies that he curated.

“We want to create a community of people with lots of options,” Porter said. “We don’t want to stick with the status quo.” And later, she added, “We want to put our revenue into work, not branding.”

That’s what makes sense to me. Even very large theater companies have a hard time projecting their brands into the cultural wind storm, where the arts are promptly sheared off by far richer and far more prevalent commercial interests. When it comes to projecting a brand, Third Rail will never be able to beat Nike or Coke. Its marketing budget will never be sufficient to compete in that sphere. So it has to find another route, offer something new, help its prospective community members find what they need at Third Rail.

Stay tuned; we’ll be tracking how it pans out.

Read more by Barry Johnson.

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