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Bobby Bermea: A hope and a lament for Artists Repertory Theatre

Actor and ArtsWatch columnist Bermea looks at the Portland theater company's troubles and remembers the good times as he tries to sort out what's gone wrong.

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Jeanette Harrison, hired in September 2022 as Artists Repertory Theatre’s artistic director, was laid off in October 2023 without ever having a chance to direct a show at the Portland company. Her abrupt departure raised criticism both locally and nationally. Above, Harrison performing in “Pure Native,” by Vickie Ramirez, at AlterTheater in San Rafael, Calif., a company that Harrison co-founded, and which she left to join ART. Photo: David Allen
Jeanette Harrison, hired in September 2022 as Artists Repertory Theatre’s artistic director, was laid off in October 2023 without ever having a chance to direct a show at the Portland company. Her abrupt departure raised criticism both locally and nationally. Above, Harrison performing in “Pure Native,” by Vickie Ramirez, at AlterTheater in San Rafael, Calif., a company that Harrison co-founded, and which she left to join ART. Photo: David Allen

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The first time I lived in Portland was the result of my being cast in a show at Artists Repertory Theatre. The play was Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. It was directed by Allen Nause, and featured Bill Ray, Brenda Phillips as Big Mama, Melany Bell, Jerry Foster, Gray Eubank and Shuhe Hawkins as George, and two kids rotating as Travis whose names I don’t remember, and both of whom are somewhere around thirty-year-old men now. (Wow.)

Nowadays, Ray has joined Foster running  PassinArt, which the latter has been helming for four decades (formerly with the great Connie Carly, RIP). Phillips, a longtime Portland favorite, has moved to Atlanta, though she makes it up every once in a while to do a show, like The Oldest Profession at Profile a couple of years ago. Shuhe is one of the head honchos at Seven Sails Vineyard. Eubank, I believe, is somewhere on the Oregon Coast, and Melany Bell I have no idea. I think she left theater not too long after that show. Which was too bad for us; she was very good. 

At the time I lived and worked in Seattle, and Nause and stage manager Stephanie Mulligan came up to audition actors. That was a period in my life when I was struggling to become something other than the result of my bad choices.

I had already been an Equity actor for eight years and had worked in a few places: Texas, Baltimore, Idaho, Seattle of course. But the war between my art and my demons was constant and ongoing. I wound up being cast as Asagai, won an award for my work, and few things will engender appreciation for a town like respect for your work. (“Man, Portland sure knows its acting!” or some such, was my thought process. Yeah.)

In Oregon, no one knew anything about me except my art. I only dealt with Allen, Brenda and the rest as Bobby Bermea, the artist. I remember Tony Sonera telling me he was shocked when he found out (at the old actor hangout The Rose and Raindrop) that I wasn’t actually Nigerian. It was a huge weight off my shoulders not to carry any of my Seattle baggage with me. No drugs, no jail, no reputation for coming to rehearsal or a performance high; nobody knew anything about any of that, and nobody cared.

Bobby Bermea and Shelley B. Shelley in Artists Rep's 2018 production of Dominique Morisseau's "Skeleton Crew," directed by Bill Ray. Photo: David Kinder
Bobby Bermea and Shelley B. Shelley in Artists Rep’s 2018 production of Dominique Morisseau’s “Skeleton Crew,” directed by Bill Ray. Photo: David Kinder

I didn’t even know I needed that weight lifted off. I had created this façade in my head that I was this streetwise, drug-abusing tough guy. Unbeknownst to me, even in Seattle the only person I was fooling was myself. Everyone else could see right through me. But in Portland, there was nothing to see. I was just Bobby Bermea, actor.

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They put me up at the Mark Spencer and we used to rehearse in a big room in the Washington Plaza. (I’m pulling all this up strictly from memory, so I have a feeling I’m going to get some details wrong. Oh well.) When we moved to the space, Artists Rep, which at the time had only one performance space on Alder Street, there was this cute girl in the box office with enchanting dimples and a musical laugh. During the run of the show, she doubled as a house manager.

All the minor characters — me, Jerry, Gray, Shuhe and the Travises — used to play mancala in the green room. I remember that young woman carrying carafes of coffee through the green room to get to the kitchen on the other side. I remember the night she wore a miniskirt, completely oblivious to the fact that she had brought our game to a sudden halt and the green room to church-like silence.

Her name was Jamie, and I surprised her once with a coffee drink and a pastry and when she said I was “Sweet” I figured I’d blown it. (In high school, being called sweet had been the kiss of death from girls.)

One night, I was sitting on the couch in the green room and Jamie sat right down next to me to chat, with very little space between us. When she left, that night’s Travis was looking at me with a mischievous twinkle in his eye. “Is she your guurrl-friend?” he asked, barely able to contain his glee. I replied, “Little man, I’m working on it.” Jamie Rea, now one of the most respected and multifaceted theater artists in Portland, is the major reason I stayed in town, aside from the aforementioned affirmation.

Kevin Jones, Ben Newman, and Val Landrum in Artists Rep's 2018 production of “Between Riverside and Crazy.” Photo: Russell J Young
Kevin Jones, Ben Newman, and Val Landrum in Artists Rep’s 2018 production of “Between Riverside and Crazy.” Photo: Russell J Young

Besides the shows I have done at Artists Rep, there have been so many theatrical moments in other ART shows that blew me away. I remember watching Allen Nause walk onstage as Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman and before he’d said a word he was brilliant. To this day I couldn’t tell you what he did that was so magnificent. I remember Andrés Alcalá crushing me when he broke down and couldn’t speak in The Laramie Project and I was like, “Who is that guy?”

I remember Val Landrum going down on Bruce Burkhartsmeier’s chicken bone in Killer Joe (wild fucking script, that one). The thunderous Joanne Johnson destroying the stage in Wit in a role she was born to play. Magellanica, E.M. Lewis’s five-hour, visionary, theatrical epic felt that seemed to go by in a fraction of its run-time. But these are just a few. It’s been a long time.

I speak about all this only to remind – mainly myself, I guess — that Artists Repertory Theatre, Artists Rep, ART —  has had a big impact on my life. It altered my trajectory. And I’m guessing if it did that for me, it has for other people. Artists Rep has put artists to work for forty years. Since back when Portland was a sleepy little city, a big small town.

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I’m not going to speak a lot about Artists Rep’s history, because there’s a lot I don’t know. More than I do. But I know that at least as many stories have been lived there as told there, and not all of them pretty. I know that at this time many, many people have been deeply affected by that theater company. And I feel profoundly sad and unsure about everything that’s going on.

Recently, Oregon ArtsWatch gave some hard details about what exactly that is, in articles by Marty Hughley and Bob Hicks. In Hughley’s in particular, there was some optimism expressed by the managing director, Aiyanna Cunningham, and I hope that optimism is borne out by reality, but I’m worried. 

I don’t understand much about how money or finance works. All the rules and protocols and forms and nuances get far too byzantine for me to follow along. But, man, it feels like ART started this new building ages ago. And just walking around, doing my actor-thing, not even with my ear to the ground, you keep hearing things.

Joseph Costa, Michael Elich, Linda Alper and Michael Mendelson in Artists Rep's 2015 production of Arthur Miller's "The Price." Photo: Owen Carey
Joseph Costa, Michael Elich, Linda Alper and Michael Mendelson in Artists Rep’s 2015 production of Arthur Miller’s “The Price.” Photo: Owen Carey

Of course, there are rumors about struggles going on. When a season gets suspended, and a brand-new artistic director – a woman of color, at that –  gets fired before she’s even directed a show, well, people are going to think what they’re going to think. On a Facebook post of the ArtsWatch article that discussed the laying off of Jeannette Harrison, the comments section was rough, oftentimes from people across the country: 

“Again, a major theater finds money for an ‘intensive remodel’ but not for people who make the art.”

“… a lot of money into building big arts buildings with naming rights opportunities, but no money for the artists that could make those buildings really great.” 

“I’m wondering if we can get a letter signed by artists from all over the country to this board boycotting them for this?” 

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A gifted local actor and costume designer, McKenna Twedt, echoed a sentiment you hear a lot in the Portland theater streets: 

“Welcome to the hypocrisy of Portland Oregon arts organizations. The City and certain board members of several organizations have been stripping theatre companies of their spaces and physical autonomy for literal years. This one just made the biggest noise partly because of the incredible person they have displaced and disrespected.”

Whoof. That’s just a sample. Which, on one level, who cares? It’s just social media. I don’t know if any of them know the finer points of the situation. But reading those, for me, was heartbreaking and embarrassing. It was like reading people harshly judging a family member. They’re speaking ill of the city I’ve made my home. It was made all the more painful by the fact that I was having many of the same doubts, suspicions, and frustrations over the situation as I understood it. I was grateful that there was one voice, that of local theater artist Tamara Carroll, that just asked for a little moderation:

“I hate what happened to Jeanette, but I am surprised by the number of people who don’t understand that you can’t just take money that was either granted or donated earmarked for a capital campaign and reallocate it however you want. The planning around ART’s space renovation is so many years older than Jeanette’s tenure – in fact the result of selling off half their space to dig themselves out of the massive debt they were in at that point  5+ years ago. I think ART should be held accountable for maybe hiring an artistic director when they didn’t have the finances to commit to support the role, and this totally sucks for Jeanette and I hate it, but I also personally can’t say with confidence that we’re not just witnessing a desperately sinking ship doing every single last gasp thing it can to stay afloat. Can we feel terrible about how this impacts Jeanette but also allow for the possibility that this was a terrible and heartbreaking decision for everyone and not a value judgment about a building over a person?”

I did not read Carroll’s comment as expressly a defense of ART’s board or ART. But they were acknowledging that they, like myself, like most of us, don’t know what’s going on, and maybe there was some other response to the situation possible than moral outrage and condemnation.

Mind you, I also don’t know that that is true. Maybe that is the proper response. I just don’t know. For myself, a person who has made many bad choices, bad decisions and glaring mistakes over the years, I would rather believe that everything is the result of unforeseeable circumstances and people are doing their best. But the anger and frustration expressed by Twedt and others is a real thing.  Having to lay off Harrison like that, well, something obviously went very wrong. She moved here. That’s crazy. 

Years ago, when the pandemic first hit, I wrote a column that noted that theater had died in a way that no one had expected. I was hyperbolizing, but I wasn’t lying. Three years later, theater isn’t dead exactly, but it’s struggling as much as it ever has in my lifetime.

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From left: Vin Shambry, Joshua J. Weinstein, and Michael Mendelson in the premiere production of E.M. Lewis's epic, five-and-a-half-hour hit play "Magellanica" at Artists Rep in 2018. Photo: Russell J Young
From left: Vin Shambry, Joshua J. Weinstein, and Michael Mendelson in the premiere production of E.M. Lewis’s epic, five-and-a-half-hour hit play “Magellanica” at Artists Rep in 2018. Photo: Russell J Young

Don’t get me wrong. Theater will never die as long as there is one person standing over there to listen to a story and another person over here to tell it. But regional theater as we know it in the United States is being steadily pounded into another shape, and that final form might not have room for all of us.

We are right now in the heart of change, and it’s uncomfortable. Practitioners of theater, and those who make the practice possible – staffers, donors, fundraisers – have known forever and a day that the business model of regional theater was untenable and needed to change. People who raise money in theater in this town have been bemoaning for years that everybody’s been going to the same handful of big-time donors, and those donors are getting tapped out. But no one changed anything. No one knew how. And now change is happening whether we want it to or not. 

Artists Repertory Theatre is caught in the midst of that whirlpool of change right now. I don’t know how much money there is out there for a theater company that’s not making theater and just laid off its top artist to make a brand new building. I guess it’s not my problem to fix. And you know, the fact that Artists Rep is important to me or to other people in Portland, is no guarantee that it will exist in the future, or has to.

Change is the only constant. In the past year I have worked with a ton of new, young Portland theater artists who have never worked with Artists Rep. Or Theatre Vertigo. Or Defunkt, or Tygre’s Heart, or Stark Raving, or Portland Civic Theatre Guild (which only recently closed up shop). They never got to work at Theatre! Theatre!, the building that housed multiple theater companies and could be an absolute, beautiful hive of creativity. (It’s now Tao of Tea on Belmont.)

Theater in this town, as McKenna Twedt said above, keeps losing spaces and companies, and the damned pandemic only exacerbated that process. But all of those theater companies came and went, and life has moved on. So life will. Theater is important to the artists and audiences involved, but in the age of TikTok, YouTube, and streaming channels, that number is always dwindling. 

I hope that Artists Rep succeeds. Granted, not as deep down as I’d like, there’s some part of me that wants someone to be held accountable for the mess that was created before Jeanette Harrison got there. But I don’t even know what being held accountable means. And do I really want that? What if it’s – as it likely might be – a friend or a colleague?

Regardless, it’s not nearly as important as Artists Repertory Theatre surviving and hopefully thriving. I hope they continue to create work and memories and support lives. I hope they keep telling stories. I hope someone else falls in love there. But the only guarantee is change. 

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Bobby Bermea is an award-winning actor, director, writer and producer. He is co-artistic director of Beirut Wedding, a founding member of Badass Theatre and a long-time member of both Sojourn Theatre and Actors Equity Association. Bermea has appeared in theaters from New York, NY, to Honolulu, HI. In Portland, he’s performed at Portland Center Stage, Artists Repertory Theatre, Portland Playhouse, Profile Theatre, El Teatro Milagro, Sojourn Theatre, Cygnet Productions, Tygre’s Heart, and Life in Arts Productions, and has won three Drammy awards. As a director he’s worked at Beirut Wedding, BaseRoots Productions, Profile Theatre, Theatre Vertigo and Northwest Classical, and was a Drammy finalist. He’s the author of the plays Heart of the City, Mercy and Rocket Man. His writing has also appeared in bleacherreport.com and profootballspot.com.

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6 Responses

  1. I appreciate your thoughtfulness and your vivid reflections and recollections, and share your hopes. Thank you.

  2. Great piece, Bobby. Thank you. And thanks to Oregon Artswatch for publishing it.

    At this point, I’ve been writing plays and living in Portland for 33 years. For 18 of those years, I also ran a theatre company that never had a fixed home or season (Pavement Productions).

    As far as I can recall, finding a space in this town has always been exceedingly difficult. Always. As with housing, the situation probably hasn’t improved. (I hung up my producer hat years ago; so I haven’t been looking at spaces of late).

    I don’t know if anyone’s noticed, ahem, but Portland has a lot of closed businesses. I’m sure their property owners want established, successful businesses in their spaces, but times are difficult and there’s many things we all want but can’t have.

    One thing that the City could consider is offering those business owners a tax break for cutting rents if they make their spaces available to artists, performing or otherwise. It would be a cultural investment, and it wouldn’t look like the City’s paying those shiftless artists out of pothole repair funds. (The City pays, of course, but the optics are better.)

    In fact, it could actually draw business to the landowners, provided the theatre pulls in an audience. You’ll know when a building has recovered when they kick out their theatre company.

    That’s not a cure, and it doesn’t answer the other issues theatres face: inclusion, the changing mediascape, proper pay for those working in theatre, or recovering audiences from Covid. But it might be worth a try.

    No, I have not spent any time thinking this issue over. Never, never, never, no. Why do you ask?

  3. Thank you Bobby for writing this article. As you know, I spent over 20 years with ART as it grew from early years at YWCA to its new space, the Alder Street Theatre. And finally purchase of the building from the Masonic Lodge people after Portland Opera moved out. I was there until Allen Nause retired. Having to sell half the building in order to survive financially, the pandemic, and Damaso’s decision to leave, apparently tore out the artistic heart. Raising ever more money to complete building renovation became the sole story. It’s been 5 years now. What has become of the Resident Artists? What is the board doing? Artistic leadership is crucial. Can Louann provide that? Who can step forward? I hear occasionally from JS May. I hope it’s not too late. Bobby, maybe you can help organize the artists. There are lots of us who care about the future of this once great theatre company.

  4. Thank you Bobby for the story. We moved to Portland from NY 30 years ago, and the first play we saw at ART, at the Y, was A Perfect Ganesh, which we had recently seen in NY before we moved. I was taken by the intimacy of the space and the production. We have been donors and subscribers ever since. I really miss ART; I have known many of the people on the board, and I am sorry I have not been asked to help them move forward.

  5. I am so very touched by this article. Very. For 30 or more years I considered ART my artistic home …..until I didn’t. I’m still struggling to know why that is.

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