Bag & Baggage Danny and the Deep Blue Sea The Vault Theatre Hillsboro Oregon

Better together: Stage & school

Artists Rep and The Actors Conservatory join to create a new teaching and performing dynamic.


Last month, Artists Repertory Theatre and The Actors Conservatory announced a creative alliance that will increase career training and educational opportunities, expand ART’s revenue model, and help generations of artists to exchange knowledge and share expertise.

The two organizations officially began collaborating four years ago, when The Actors Conservatory, a nationally accredited school for actor training, moved into ART’s building. But the relationship between the two organizations goes back much further.

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“I started the conservatory 35 years ago,” said Beth Harper, founder and producing artistic director of TAC, “and all my professional work as an actor was with Artists Rep. So honestly, as an artist, I consider [ART] my artistic home.”

As conservatory students began appearing in ART shows, the two companies began sharing resources behind the scenes as well.

“Then the pandemic hit,” said Harper. “And we said, ‘How can we deepen this?’”

Dámaso Rodríguez, artistic director for Artists Repertory Theatre, outlined what he feels the alliance achieves for ART: “The chief benefit is different generations of artists working together, and what that does for the chemistry and the art that you’re making. That’s an exciting energy.”

As Harper put it, “You can’t buy experience. It’s a great opportunity for our students.”

Wyatt Hodgson, a second-year student at The Actors Conservatory, working on “The Vertical City,” a coproduction with Artists Rep. Photo: Shawn Lee

Rodríguez also points out that the alliance helps to update ART’s operating model. “I think the model is shifting so that it’s not only your mission to produce plays, but it’s also for education. It’s building the next generation of audience. You want to have a robust education program.”

That’s where TAC comes in. Artists Rep was offering 30 or more classes on its own, but TAC offered “curriculum standards required by their two-year accredited program and their national association schools,” Rodriguez said. “So ART was doing that work independently and TAC was doing that work offering similar kinds of classes. Why not combine forces? And now ART gets the benefit of having courses that we can now offer for credit.”

Audiences can already start to see the results of the alliance. As ART tried to figure out what kind of programming to offer during the COVID era, TAC had to figure out how to give students production experience.

Right: Beth Harper. Photo courtesy The Actors Conservatory. Left: Dámaso Rodríguez. Photo: Lava Alapai.

“We ended up figuring out the problem together,” Rodríguez said. The result? Projects like The Vertical City, a 70-minute audio drama with second-year conservatory students, developed and written specifically for the students. “I couldn’t have predicted that that was what was going to come of it,” he said.

Another highlight of the alliance is the career opportunities available for staff. Rodríguez explained that there aren’t always enough opportunities in every season for everyone in a company, but this partnership keeps “everyone employed and engaged. You could teach in the conservatory, you could be a guest artist in maybe a conservatory production. You could be on or off stage.”

Harper said this alliance gives conservatory students experience and connections they wouldn’t otherwise have. “Our students get to work in a LORT [League of Resident Theatres] professional theater. It’s a pipeline to the professional world.”

Bag & Baggage Danny and the Deep Blue Sea The Vault Theatre Hillsboro Oregon

Among the many things Harper and Rodríguez are looking forward to is the move into their new building after COVID and the possible creation of an MFA program, which they’re working on now. Rodríguez is particularly enthusiastic about the energy an MFA program could instill, bringing together many students of all ages to mix with ART’s faculty and actors.

In the studio, working on “The Vertical City.” Photo: Shawn Lee

“It would be quite an arts campus. I’d love to see conservatory students at all of our first read-throughs, taking tickets as house managers and working as ushers at our future bar and restaurant in the new facility.”

For Harper, who clarified that this is not a merger (“It’s relational and equal,” she said), the alliance is also personal. “You want to build something that is beyond yourself. I never wanted this to be the Beth Harper School of Acting. This is bigger than me.”

In a year when the pandemic has taken so much, both Harper and Rodriguez are excited about the future.

“Together,” Rodríguez said, “We’ll actually be able to build something that’s much more ambitious than we could do by ourselves.”

Valarie Smith incurred enormous credit card debt during the ’90s when she lived in NYC and tried to see as many Broadway/ Off Broadway/ Off-Off Broadway plays as she could despite her pittance of a salary. She is a fervent believer in the Edward Albee quote, “If you’re willing to fail interestingly, you tend to succeed interestingly.” Her top five favorite productions (so far) are: True West (Circle in the Square Theatre, 2000), King Henry IV, Part One (Oregon Shakespeare Festival, 2017), We’re All Mad Here (Shaking the Tree, 2017), Six Degrees of Separation (Lincoln Center, 1991) and Richard II (BAM, 2016).

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