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Artists Rep welcomes its new leader

New artistic director Jeanette Harrison brings a commitment to a diversity of voices to Portland's second largest theater company.

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Jeanette Harrison, Artists Repertory Theatre’s newly named artistic director, is a performer as well as a director, writer, and administrator. Here, as the character Connie, she struggles to rally the community against a proposed bottled water factory in “Pure Native,” by Vickie Ramirez, at AlterTheater in San Rafael, Calif., a company that Harrison co-founded. Photo: David Allen

As a teenager in a working-class family in New York, Jeanette Harrison had a vision for her future. 

“I thought I was going to grow up to be a journalist,” she says now, “because I thought that was how you changed the world.”

A first-generation college student, she attended the University of Chicago, with a “long-term plan to go on and get a masters in journalism from Columbia.” But when she decided she needed some extra-curricular activities, things changed: “I stumbled into theater and just never left.”

For the past two decades Harrison has been trying to change the world as a theater maker – director, actor, writer, producer – making her mark especially with a talent for developing new plays and playwrights and for staging a refreshing diversity of stories, such as those that reflect her own Native American heritage. 

Next, she’ll apply her vision of a creative and inclusive future to Artist Repertory Theatre as the Portland company’s new artistic director – just the third person to hold that post since the company began in 1982 – leaving AlterTheater in San Rafael, Calif., a company she co-founded in 2004.

Jeanette Harrison, Artists Rep’s new artistic leader. Photo: Paul Gregory

 “The arts are one of the most powerful tools for change,” Harrison said in a press release announcing her hiring. “And how great it is to know that if we tell stories of Black joy, if we laugh with contemporary Native characters trying to fall in love, if we put stories onstage that celebrate the complicated, messy lives of three-dimensional people, that we are helping to move that needle on justice, on equity.” 

Harrison will begin transitioning into her new role October 1, though prior commitments will keep her mostly in the Bay Area until January. The Artists Rep board approved the selection of Harrison following a national search led by Arts Consulting Group – coincidentally the company that the theater’s previous artistic director, Dámaso Rodriguez, left to join early this year. 

Asked what made Harrison stand out as a candidate, Artists Rep board chair Pancho Savery told ArtsWatch that it was primarily “her artistic vision and the particular kind of diversity she’ll be bringing. At AlterTheater, she did not just do Native American material – she has a broad palette – but that expertise is something we’re very interested in. And we want to be developing new plays and new playwrights. 

“Every time I’ve spoken to her, she’s had terrific energy and she’s really excited about working here. We are confident that Portland is really going to embrace her.”

Artists Rep premiered “The Thanksgiving Play” (with Sarah Lucht, left, and Claire Rigsby) by Larissa FastHorse, a playwright whose work Harrison has championed at AlterTheater. Photo: Russell J Young

When Rodriguez succeeded longtime Artists Rep leader Allen Nause in 2013 he became the first Latino artistic director at a member of the League of Resident Theatres, or LORT, the association of the country’s major not-for-profit theaters. Harrison identifies herself ethnically with the Onondaga Nation (“non-enrolled, but a direct lineal descendent”), part of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, also known as the Iroquois or the Six Nation Confederacy, which she proudly points out is “the oldest continual participatory democracy in the world.” So she could claim similar bragging rights as a Native woman. But she demurs. 

“There are lots of Native women running theaters around the country and they’re amazing,” Harrison said, speaking by phone with ArtsWatch over the weekend. “They’re just not at theaters with as many resources. This may feel like a milestone or a marker, but it’s not exceptional. The thing I want to emphasize is there’s a long and rich history of Native theatermaking and I’m so proud to be a part of that. Knowing that Artists Rep hired the first Latino AD of a LORT, it felt like that would be a hospitable place for me to be able to do the work I want to do.”

Harrison’s hiring should be a crucial step toward stability amid years of ongoing upheaval for Portland’s oldest and second-largest professional theater company.

In January 2018, Willamette Week reported that the IRS had filed a lien against Artists Rep for $309,000 in unpaid payroll taxes, and that the company, with an annual budget of less than $4 million, had racked up about $1.3 million in deficits over the previous four years. Not long afterward, managing director Sarah Horton left. But the company also announced that it had received the largest single donation in its history, a whopping $7.1 million gift from an anonymous source. During the same period, the company negotiated a deal to sell the northern half of its headquarters, a square block on Southwest Alder Street and 15th Avenue, to an Atlanta-based developer – meaning its performance spaces, offices and so forth would have to be reconstituted in the remaining half-block footprint.

Sisters Sandy (Carla Pauli, left) and Lola (Livia Gomes Demarchi, right) fight over who has to deal with their grandfather’s ashes, while their baby brother Bruno (Eduardo Soria, center) films their theatrics in AlterTheater’s world premiere of Rella Lossy Award winner “Ghosts of Bogotá” by Diana Burbano, now published by Stage Rights. Photo: David Allen

In the years since, the company has been a vagabond, staging shows at several venues in the city before settling in the basement Ellyn Bye Studio of Portland Center Stage’s Armory home. Meanwhile, Portland arts administration veteran J.S. May came on board to manage a capital campaign and the facility transition. But his plan remains to retire once the move into the new building is complete, and Kisha Jarrett – who essentially was named the heir-apparent for the executive director post in January 2021 – no longer is with the company. 

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And yes, that recent history has included a disruptive pandemic, too.

But challenges can be opportunities looked at from a different angle. And to Harrison, used to running a company with an annual budget of only about $200,000, the prospects in Portland look rosy. 

“One of the artists who’s worked with both Artists Rep and AlterTheater encouraged me to apply. Having the enthusiasm of someone who knew both me and A.R.T. was what really got me rolling on the application journey,” she said. “The people are great, the building is great, the fiscal situation is great, the willingness to do the hard work on all the important things is there. What’s not to love?”

In 2019 the Oregon Shakespeare Festival produced “Cambodian Rock Band,” by Lauren Yee, another writer whose work Harrison produced at AlterTheater. Photo: Jenny Graham

Harrison has loved Portland before, albeit briefly. Having cut her theatrical teeth in her college’s busy, broadminded, student-run theater scene, she was hired directly out of school as literary manager at Famous Door Theatre Company, which the Chicago Tribune called “one of Chicago’s most illustrious off-Loop troupes.” But when she was invited to become a company member, she balked, not sure if she wanted the hand-to-mouth life of a committed theater artist.

Instead, she headed west. “I had no job, I had no plans, we were going to just road trip,” she recalls. “I had a friend who was living on a boat in Corvallis, and the friend I was driving with had a friend in Portland. We stopped in Seattle first, but it was just too cold, so we went south. We hit Portland and it was just like Goldilocks – everything was just right. We liked it so much!”

The road trip continued south, and after awhile Harrison pestered her way into a gig doing radio in the small California coastal town of Gualala. “After a few months of that, I decided that I did want to be broke for the rest of my life and that I was going to do theater.”

Heading just a little farther south, she proceeded to establish herself in the San Francisco-area theater scene. Over the course of two decades there, she’s worked with companies such as Native Voices at the Autry, Bay Area Playwrights Festival, Cutting Ball Theatre (where both former Profile Theatre artistic director Adrianna Baer and current Portland Center Stage AD Marissa Wolf also have worked), Berkeley Rep, Magic Theatre, San Francisco Shakespeare Festival, and many others, winning 11 Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle Awards. She’s taught at the University of Southern California’s School of Dramatic Arts, Santa Clara University, and College of Marin. She’s worked in casting and commercial production. But her main work has been AlterTheater.

Kelly’s (Cathleen Riddley, right) attempts to teach a cow to count go off the rails when Maybelle (Gwen Loeb, left) has other priorities in AlterTheater’s world premiere of “Cow Pie Bingo,” by Larissa FastHorse, part of the California company’s playwright residency program. Photo: David Allen

“Founding AlterTheater happened in part because I was always telling other people’s stories, and I wanted to tell some that reflected the culture I grew up in,” she recalls. Artistic and economic factors came together. The crash of the early dot-com wave had led to a money crunch, and many theaters responded with safer programming choices. Meanwhile, a sharp spike in bridge tolls made commuting into San Francisco painfully expensive. So Harrison and a handful of other artists of varied backgrounds – Native American, Asian-American, white –  banded together to make work on the northern side of the bay.

“A lot of ensemble companies come out of similarity,” Harrison says. “AlterTheater came out of difference. So that sense of diversity was baked in from the beginning. I’ve been doing that EDI work since before there was a word for it. I’m very attracted to leaning in and doing the hard work in a respectful way, and believing we can all move forward together.”

For all her success as a director, Harrison’s greatest national impact arguably has come from developing the AlterLab playwright residency program, which has nurtured more than two dozen plays to world premiere productions. Some of the writers whose careers Harrison has helped advance are familiar to Oregon theater fans: Larissa FastHorse (whose brilliant, Broadway-bound The Thanksgiving Play was commissioned and premiered by Artists Rep), Lauren Yee (her Cambodian Rock Band was a 2019 Oregon Shakespeare Festival hit, and Artists Rep and PCS co-produced The Great Leap earlier this year), Marisela Treviño Orta (The River Bride was staged at OSF in 2016).

So why leave a creatively successful company that you’ve helped build from the ground up? Well, what else is Goldilocks to do when Baby Bear comes calling?

“I do really like the Bay Area and I love the company I’ve been with,” Harrison says. “But I’ve kept my eyes open. After 20 years in the Bay Area, the quality of life…it’s going the wrong way.”

She mentions seeing a recent calculation that affording a decent standard of living in the Bay Area requires full-time work at a pay rate equivalent to $66 per hour. And because the cost of everything there has pushed out lots of the commercial production  – TV, voiceovers, and such – “even the A-list actors, they can’t make it work,” she says. “Portland seems like a more workable option.”

Then there was the appeal of Artists Rep itself. “My old company and my new one, we share a lot of aesthetics and values, but there are a lot more resources at Artists Rep… And then, when I came up to interview, every single person I met was lovely. That never happens! It’s not that they always agree on everything, but there’s this sense of real respect and love for one another. And this commitment to moving the needle.”

So what can Artists Rep and Portland expect from Harrison’s leadership? It’s too soon to say with much specificity, but she expressed continuing commitment to such programs as the ArtsHub (which shares office space and administrative resources with several small companies) and the play-development project Table/Room/Stage. And she offered that “one of the things Artists Rep is missing is a robust arts education program,” suggesting that that will be on her agenda.

Zuri (Dezi Soléy, left) and Emily (Emily Serdahl) imagine a different world in the AfroSurrealist tale “Bondage,” by Star Finch, a Relentless Award honorable mention. Finch is now a Mellon resident playwright. Photo: David Allen

Asked about the future of the company’s corps of resident artists, she started in the tone of cheerful enthusiasm that characterized nearly all of a two-hour conversation. “I firmly believe in supporting local artists – hands down. I’m excited that there is a resident artist program in place.”

But then, for the only time in our interview, her tone turned steely for a moment: “I’ve also been very clear that I won’t allow an ensemble to be a barrier to equity and inclusion.”

Easing back toward her natural sunniness, she continued: “I also think there’s a false assumption that if we increase representation that some people are going to lose out. That’s a scarcity model. The reality is that when we increase inclusion and we increase access, that builds a model of abundance that allows us all to rise together.”

That zeal for inclusion extends to her ideas about outreach and collaboration.  

“I’m interested in asking how we can use the energy of theater to create shows that are of the community and with the community and for the community. I plan to spend time meeting with community organizations to ask how theater can help them. The stories we tell as artists are so much richer if they’re connected to community. I think every nonprofit that has a spare second to think and to dream has a way that theater can help with their mission. They just don’t often get the time to think and dream. But I believe that theater needs to be a creative problem-solver in the community.”

As for Harrison’s artistic identity, we won’t get to know that for awhile. Often when a company has such a leadership transition, one show in the new season is set aside as the directorial debut of the incoming artistic director. But Artists Rep did not do so for the 2022-’23 slate, so it’ll be about a year before we get to see Harrison’s work as a director or a season planner.

And instead of having a stash of pet projects she’s eager to pursue or favorite plays she wants to put her stamp on, when asked what sort of programming she hopes to present, she returns again to notions of connection, inclusion and diversity.

“What’s my dream for Portland? I want to get to know the community better and find out what we need,” she says. “I definitely want to present more Native stories – that much I know. 

“I would say that my aesthetic is work with heart – I’m not a fan of clever for clever’s sake – but within that, it’s incredibly broad. I really think that American theater made a mistake years ago in leaning into the idea of the auteur in regard to artistic directors. It puts too much weight on one person’s tastes and I don’t think that leaves enough room for multiplicity. And we’re in a time that really demands multiplicity.” 

Editor

Marty Hughley is a Portland journalist who writes about theater, dance, music and culture. His honors have included a National Arts Journalism Program fellowship at the University of Georgia, a fellowship at the NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Theater and Musical Theater at the University of Southern California, and first-place awards for arts reporting in the Society of Professional Journalists Pacific Northwest Excellence in Journalism Competitions. In 2013 he was inducted into the Oregon Music Hall of Fame for his contributions to the industry. A Portland native, Hughley studied history at Portland State University, worked at the alternative newsweekly Willamette Week in the late 1980s as pop music critic and arts editor, then spent nearly a quarter century at The Oregonian as a reporter, feature writer and critic. His recent freelance work has appeared in Oregon ArtsWatch, Artslandia and the Oregon Humanities magazine. He lives with his cat, and dies a little with each new setback to the Trail Blazers.

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