Well, now we’re getting somewhere.
For the past few years, Artists Repertory Theatre, Portland’s second-largest theater company, has been – practically speaking – homeless. Having sold off half of its longtime headquarter building to developers, Artists Rep has been in a kind of real-estate limbo, staging its productions offsite while planning and fundraising for a new place of its own.
On Tuesday, Artists Rep announced the long-awaited start of a new phase of construction, the most significant move forward in the protracted process of reconstituting one of the city’s cultural hubs. This new burst of activity is expected to take about 10 months and will allow the company to move back into its own building (its current season is being staged in the Ellyn Bye Studio of Portland Center Stage’s home in The Armory). Initial performances will take place in a large, multi-use lobby. Construction of the main auditorium and a smaller performance space are slated for the final phase of construction.
“At first we’re going to produce out of the lobby and our goal is to perform our last play of next season in that space,” said executive director J.S. May. “And how soon we get into the new rooms depends on the fundraising.”
May said the company so far has raised about $24.5 million toward an overall capital campaign of $30-$31 million. “We aren’t borrowing money to move forward,” he added.
If you want to map the long road to Artists Rep’s transformation, you probably should mark the starting point at February, 2018, and the gift. That was when the company announced that it had received the largest single donation in its history, a whopping $7.1 million gift from an anonymous source, with no restrictions on how it could be used.
That windfall came just as cracks were beginning to show in the company’s shining facade. In January of 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. And though the company said that the timing was coincidental, managing director Sarah Horton — who had led the business side of the theater since 2010 — “left to pursue other interests.”
Artists Rep faced physical issues as well as fiscal ones. It had moved into its home at 1515 S.W. Morrison St., a former recreational facility for the Freemasons, in 1997, and in 2004 bought the block – the 29,000-square-foot building and adjacent parking lot – for $4.88 million. Over the years, it had upgraded its two theaters, connected the building’s two floors with a broad central staircase between handsome lobbies, and opened its warren of back rooms for the Arts Hub, which provided office space for several smaller arts and culture organizations.
But behind the dazzle of opening night parties and high-quality stage productions lurked decay. The building, as the recent construction announcement put it, had “reached the end of its useful life”:
“The public areas were gorgeous, but those were the only areas that were nice,” May conceded. “There was no elevator, the roof leaked, if it rained really hard you couldn’t hear very well. And on top of those sorts of things, it just wasn’t created as a performing-arts space.”
All of Artists Rep’s uses had been jerry-built into a place that originally included features such as a ballroom, a bowling alley and a swimming pool. In addition to the building’s structural and cosmetic shortcomings, the company faced continuing mortgage payments and years of operating deficits
So, real-estate rich and cash-poor, the company began negotiating with the Atlanta developer Wood Partners on a $9 million sale of the block’s northern half along Southwest Alder Street – where the Alta ART Tower now looms with 20 stories of apartments and shops. Meanwhile, the gift from the unnamed donor allowed Artists Rep to pay off the mortgage and other outstanding debts, with some left over to kickstart the fund to renovate the building’s Morrison Street side. “Also, we’ve spent $1.2 million being out of the building, with rental fees and campaign costs,” May said.
“The other piece of all this was,” May noted, “who knew there was a pandemic coming?”
The varied disruptions of Covid slowed both construction and fundraising, but the roughly $5.5 million spent on the first phase of the project has things ready to move forward. “Now we essentially have an empty box,” May said.
Exactly how they’ll fill that box has changed, though. Along with delays, the pandemic brought supply-chain problems and inflation – especially in regard to steel. With projected costs of the original design surging past $34 million, the company was forced to redesign the project, including downscaling the mainstage auditorium from 350 seats to 178. “I think we’re kind of ending up where we should be,” May said, acknowledging the softer ticket market that, for now at least, looks like a fact of life for post-pandemic American theater.
This new phase of construction will include installing an elevator, raising the roof toward the western end of the building (providing a striking asymmetrical roofline outdoors and a ceiling height of 25 feet or more in the main theater), finishing the building’s exterior, and creating the large, bright, multi-use lobby – including space that’s previously been a little-used semi-circular driveway in front of the main doors.
The lobby will be equipped for four different seating configurations (two thrust, two arena). May said the idea to use it for some of the company’s main productions came from new artistic director Jeanette Harrison. In part, May suggested, that choice comes out of Harrison’s comfort with scrappy, resource-efficient necessities of smaller theaters such as her previous company, AlterTheater in San Rafael, Calif., which she co-founded in 2004. But it’s also a sign of her predilection for dynamism and variety.
“I think it’s in Jeanette’s DNA to move around, so she may want to take productions to other places even once we’re in the new theaters,” May said. “That’s part of audience outreach, she likes to say.”
Flexibility was a design priority for the forthcoming mainstage as well. Located in the building’s southwest corner, roughly where the larger upstairs auditorium once was, it will accommodate proscenium, round, thrust, or alley seating configurations (although the downsized design did eliminate catwalks). Phase III construction will include the mainstage theater and a 99-seat studio theater to the north of the lobby, as well as rehearsal spaces, dressing rooms, offices, storage and other rooms around the perimeter. “The building is designed around collaborative spaces and remote work,” May said, suggesting that the old Arts Hub as a hive of nonprofit workers likely won’t return in the same form.
So, as the hard hats get on the job, the planning and fundraising continue as Artists Rep works toward a more thoroughgoing stability and sustainable stature at the forefront of theater in the region. With Harrison at the artistic helm (though she’s currently moonlighting as associate director on the Broadway debut of Larissa Fasthorse’s The Thanksgiving Play, which Artists Rep commissioned and premiered in 2018), the company’s next big decision is who will replace May.
In January 2021, the company promoted director of development and marketing Kisha Jarrett to managing director while bumping up May’s title to executive director. The plan was for for Jarrett to succeed May once he retired, upon the completion of the capital campaign/rebuilding project.
Later that year, though, when artistic director Damaso Rodriguez left to join an arts consulting firm, “Kisha wanted to do both jobs,” May said. “The board didn’t feel like that was the best choice, and at that point Kisha decided that she really was more committed to working in the artistic side of theater than the business side.” Luan Schooler, the company’s director of new works, stepped in as interim artistic director until Harrison’s hire, and May soldiered on as administrator.
May said that the board is progressing in its search for his successor, and that as soon as someone is hired, “I go to half time and just focus on the campaign,” seeing the grand project through to completion. After an impactful career of management and board service with the likes of the Portland Art Museum, the Metropolitan Group, the Doernbecher Children’s Hospital Foundation, Oregon Public Broadcasting, and the Creative Advocacy Coalition, he’s ready to not work so hard.
“I’m 66 – I’ve got grandchildren now,” he said.
At the very least, he’ll be able to take them to a nice theater.