‘A world of uncertainty’

Voices from the front: Arts philanthropist Ronni Lacroute says COVID-19 is forcing arts groups to think in new ways. Her role? “I just calm people down a lot.”

If you’ve attended plays or concerts in Portland or visited the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland with any regularity over the past decade, chances are good you owe at least one afternoon or evening of cultural enrichment to philanthropist Ronni Lacroute.

Lacroute lives in Yamhill County, where in 1991 she co-founded a vineyard and world-class winery on property that had been a cattle farm. As co-owner with her former husband of WillaKenzie Estate, she immersed herself in the wine business for a quarter century, until the winery was sold in 2016.

Lacroute, whose father was in the foreign service, had traveled extensively abroad in her youth. She studied romance languages and literature and has degrees from Cornell University, the University of Michigan, and both the licence ès lettres and the maîtrise ès lettres in North American literature from the Paris-Sorbonne University. She was a college professor and taught French language and culture in high school in Massachusetts in the 1970s and 1980s.


OREGON IN SHUTDOWN: VOICES FROM THE FRONT


Along the way, she became a patron of the arts and for years has given widely to a variety of Oregon arts organizations. She’s a generous donor to arts programs at Linfield College in McMinnville, where she’s a member of the Board of Trustees. (From the Department of Full Disclosure: She’s also a donor to Oregon ArtsWatch, and earlier this year I appeared in a play at Gallery Theater in McMinnville that she sponsored.)

Ronni Lacroute says arts organizations hardest hit by the coronavirus shutdown are those locked into a venue, like a symphony hall or a theater that doesn’t allow flexible spacing. Smaller, project-based companies are better able to look at alternatives. Photo by: Carolyn Wells-Kramer
Ronni Lacroute says smaller and project-based arts organizations that have flexibility in terms of venue are coming up with creative alternative ways of connecting with audiences. Photo by: Carolyn Wells-Kramer

She now is involved full time in individual philanthropy, holding nonstop meetings with the nonprofit community. She’s particularly interested in artistic projects and groups that promote important conversations across social, economic, and political divides and that effect social change.

Because Lacroute is so connected with the region’s artistic life, we thought it would be enlightening to find out what she’s hearing in the wake of COVID-19. A lot, it turns out. And she was more than happy to share. The following interview was conducted via Facetime and has been edited for length and clarity.

Tell me what it was like for you, when this really hit, as far as your meetings and contacts.

Lacroute: Well really, the only thing in my life that’s changed is no live meetings. I used to have people here every single day for meetings. The structure of my work life was to meet live and spend a couple of hours brainstorming ideas. It’s really hard to do that when you just have a phone call. You don’t do that for two hours. We exchange ideas, but how much can you put into an email or a 10-minute phone conversation? I’m missing the depth of exploration that we had before, where people were expecting that we’re going to hang out until we have some plans.

How did those conversations change once everyone really understood what was happening?

What changed mostly is that people are looking at parallel alternatives. It’s like, “Well, if we can be back in a theater on such a date, here’s what we’ll do. And if we can’t, here’s what we’ll do instead.” It’s about a world of uncertainty. So that definitely changed. The way I donate hasn’t really changed. It’s more flexible. It’s like, “Okay, here’s an annual donation. Now, if this, then spend it on this. If that, then spend it on that.” And generally, it’s people first.

To keep the infrastructure alive, you mean?

The infrastructure, but especially the people. It’s more about people than about venues. What’s gone away is locking into a venue, unless a company owns a venue and has to maintain it. Most don’t, so there’s less commitment to venues now. Which is interesting, because venue is always a struggle. Medium-sized music and theater organizations were really having trouble finding appropriate venues. Now we’re not even talking about venue, because we don’t know if people can even go into one. We’re talking about these different scenarios, but we’re not sure where it will take place.

Has there been any talk about audiences? This is something I wonder about for myself. When theaters do reopen, would I go down to Gallery Theater and see Proof, in the black box, for example.

Did you see the survey that’s been circulating online?

No, I didn’t.

This was done by American Theatre magazine. They polled a bunch of theatergoers. They said, “If theaters reopen in September, are you willing to buy tickets and go back to the theater?” Most people said no. It is extremely troubling. This is a national survey, so across the country, theater companies with venues are really, really scared. Even if we can open, our audiences may not want to come back for a long time. Probably this whole year they won’t be coming back. It’s really a shocking survey for theater companies. They’ve never thought before that this would be an issue.

We’ve talked about that with my family, going back to Ashland. We were going to bring our 11-year-old to see Midsummer Night’s Dream. Now we’re wondering: If they were to open, would we go?

I think September is premature. I don’t think they’re going to get an audience in September. I’m really worried for them. You know, I sponsored a play for them this season that probably won’t take place. One of the first conversations I had, actually, when all this broke was with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and I said to them, “Look, I’ve sponsored this play. (I was sponsoring Confederates, which was part of the American Revolutions.) I don’t know if you’ll get to do it. Use that funding for whatever you need right now. It’s flexible funding.” Because they needed it desperately. I don’t know what other donors have done, but that’s where it’s at. They don’t know if they’ll produce the play. It’s a terrific play, but I’ve a feeling that’s not going to be until next calendar year. I don’t think they’re going to pull it off.

What are people actually doing? Are they going to work?

Some companies are doing great, because they’re more project-based. Projects can take place in different ways and at different times, so they’re not scared at all. You know, the guys who rent small venues, those sorts of people. There’s The Theatre Company, this was going to be their first season. They were going to open this month and have a few plays this year. They said, “We’ll just do it when we can do it.” It doesn’t matter, because they’re using an alternate venue. They’re using Taborspace. They’re doing a couple of contemporary plays soon, but they don’t know when soon is, and they’re not panicked at all. They said, “Taborspace said whenever we can do it, that’s fine.” Taborspace doesn’t accommodate many people, so they don’t expect an audience of more than 30 or 40. They can get 30 or 40 people and spread them out.

Who’s panicked is the big companies with the theaters that don’t allow for flexible spacing, and where they’ve got fixed schedules, like Portland Center Stage.  That’s problematic. Of course, they were created as the northern wing of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. They operate in a similar way, and I don’t know how they’re going to get an audience back into the Armory. 

Lacroute says theater venues that don’t allow for flexible spacing, such as Portland Center Stage’s Armory, will have a tougher time adapting to the new world order of performance. Photo courtesy: Portland Center Stage

I was going to ask if there were specific types of groups that are more affected than others, but it sounds like the deciding factor is whether they have their own venue.

It’s the venue more than the type of company. I see music in the same situation. So the Oregon Symphony is in the most trouble. They’re locked into a symphony hall, right? The little groups like the Amadeus Chamber Orchestra, which is very flexible, 45th Parallel, Third Angle New Music — none of them is panicked. They’re all looking at alternatives. Amadeus is doing once-a-week house concerts and broadcasting them. Last night they had a fabulous concert, absolutely stunning. The audio quality was really great, the video was great, the performers were fun, and their audience doesn’t mind seeing it that way. I’ve seen some online dance that was absolutely stunning. Again, small companies, where you have just a few performers and they can perform in alternate venues. But the Oregon Ballet Theatre? They can’t do that.

So the smaller companies are actually better prepared for this.

They’re better positioned to actually — how should I say? — to profit from this. Because they won’t have the competition of the big companies so much, in a sense. While they’re still producing, the big companies are just waiting. Little guys, I’ve seen so many wonderful, wonderful things happening.

Bag&Baggage Productions in Hillsboro, their first sequestered soliloquies show was fantastic. They got together with LineStorm Playwrights, a group of playwrights that is really first-class and some of them nationally produced. They said, “We’d like you to take from our last season one line from each play and use that as a prompt to write a short play for a solo actor.” Then they made a video of each of the plays in whatever setting that actor wanted to use … some of them used their homes, their yards, varied settings. It was fabulous, and they’re doing it again, it was such a success.

I did talk to some companies that said, “Oh yeah, we raised all the money ahead of time and then we just do a show and we get an alternative audience for this, people who would have never come to the theater are watching these shows.” Some of them are getting four or five times the audience they would have had. It’s amazing.

It did occur to me that this might actually have the effect of introducing a lot of people to art that they might not otherwise see.

Exactly. It’s going to expand their artistic experiences. It’s convenient. You pull out a device and tune in. You don’t even have to be sitting in your living room. You can look on your phone. It’s amazing.

As a donor, how are you feeling? Is everyone jumping on you?

No, no. What I generally do is I make annual donations to companies to keep them going for the year. What’s changed is how it’s used. So I’m having my usual conversations, but instead of “This is for these four shows,” or “This is to bring in Equity actors for this show,” or whatever, it’s like, “Use it however you need to use it, depending how you do your shows.” It really hasn’t changed that much for me.

In terms of the market, it’s horrible. But the market is always up and down. I was donating back in 2008. It was awful! But what I do is create a fund each year and I tap into that fund, and I’m still doing that. I’ve got to be careful, and I’m definitely vetting companies a little better. If somebody gives me something that doesn’t sound sustainable, I tell them right away, “No, I don’t think that’s going to work,” and we have a conversation. But from my point of view, it’s not terribly different. I just calm people down a lot.   

Have there been any other discoveries you’ve made, things you’ve found online that just enchanted you?

Yes! There was a livestream by a Taiko company, which was absolutely amazing, and I just was really entranced by the drumming. It was three different Asian companies performing different types of art. It was at the beginning of all this. It was going to be a live performance, and it went to livestream instead. It took place at New Expressive Works, which is a little teeny venue they were able to stream it from without an audience, and I discovered some stuff there that I wouldn’t have gone to otherwise. Then Artslandia is doing a happy hour every weekday at 5; you can discover all kinds of groups and artists you haven’t heard of, because they’re introducing everyone they can. It’s always somebody different. Every arts group that wants to be introduced to an audience needs to be taking advantage of this.

Obviously there’s been a change in the way artists do their work. They can’t perform and have an audience in, so now they’re streaming. These are logistical things they’re thinking about…

Correct.

But I’m curious how this will affect what artists do, the content they produce. What they write about, the kinds of plays they write, the music they write. Maybe it’s too early to ask this, but will all this have an effect?

Of course. Artists respond to what’s happening in the world. It will, absolutely. And yeah, it’s too early to know what’s going to come out, but I know there will be music and theater and dance themed around what people are experiencing. Especially the struggles people are having with quarantine. I keep seeing posts by people about their struggles. Mental health is a real issue, and I worry about it, because artists are so sensitive. And every time there’s a death in the arts community, that’s very deeply felt.

Lacroute lauds the effort led by Subashini Ganesan, Portland’s Creative Laureate (left),  and poet Kim Stafford to set up the Portland Area Artist Emergency Relief Fund.

You asked earlier about how artists are living. A really important thing is what Subashini Ganesan, the Creative Laureate of Portland, is doing. In the very earliest days, she got together with Kim Stafford and they launched the Portland Area Artist Emergency Relief Fund, because independent artists couldn’t pay for their food or rent right away. I was asked to be the lead donor, so I threw some money at that. They’ve already made the first distribution of funds, to get people through the first month. That’s really important, that the community pulls together in that way. It’s not a lot of money, but for some people it was the difference between being evicted or not having any food.

I always like to ask people what they’re reading. You mentioned E.J. Koh’s The Magical Language of Others: A Memoir in your email. Have you finished that?

I’m still reading it, it’s sort of difficult. It was a Powell’s staff recommendation. I like to read about other cultures through the eyes of writers who think differently from me. This a Korean-American woman’s memoir of her relationship to her own mother. It’s based on the letters between mother and daughter during a period when the mother had gone with her husband back to Korea and left their teenage daughter to finish American school with only an older brother, who really didn’t care about her, as her caretaker. The letters back and forth between mother and daughter… oh my gosh, they’re interesting! Before that, I read Tommy Orange’s novel There There, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and a rough read about Native Americans in urban America. That one is full of violence, but it is based on reality.

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This story is supported in part by a grant from the Yamhill County Cultural Coalition, Oregon Cultural Trust, and Oregon Community Foundation.

4 Responses.

  1. bob priest says:

    And . . . our much beloved Ronni is also a gifted reader of French poetry! I soooo hope she will continue to share her unique talent with Oregon audiences in the future . . .

  2. David Loftus says:

    Ronni is a rock of sense and kindness in all times.

  3. Martha Kinsella says:

    How lovely to live in a town that has angels in it.

  4. Maesie Speer says:

    If anyone is interested in the audience research Ronnie referenced, it’s available here: https://www.americantheatre.org/2020/04/14/survey-shows-audiences-reluctance-to-return-to-the-theatre/

Comments are closed.