The Art of Learning: An Occasional Series
Something special is happening in west downtown, and if you support the arts in Portland you’ll want to know what it is. The Bridgetown Conservatory of Musical Theatre has brought The Actors Conservatory (formerly Portland Actors Conservatory) on board to open a new educational arts entity in the Tiffany Center at the corner of Southwest 14th Avenue and Morrison Street.
It’s something of an ideal pairing. The Actors Conservatory is a full-fledged professional actors’ training ground, sending graduates onto stages in Portland and across the country. Bridgetown does much the same thing for its younger, mostly middle-school and high-school students wanting to learn the multiple skills required for performing on the musical-theater stage, preparing them for top-rate college and professional programs.
Rick Lewis, who has worked in theater in New York and Portland for 40 years and won seven Drammy awards among several others, founded Bridgetown six years ago. It began in the St. Johns neighborhood of North Portland, but when the pandemic hit, the situation changed.
“We signed a lease for a space four months before lockdown for Covid,” says Lewis. “We got to spend six months of a three-year lease physically in the space. They didn’t give us any assistance. We realized that location, that relationship, was not tenable to be creative in. So, we started looking in April” of 2022.
For Michael Mendelson, himself a four-time Drammy award winner and a stalwart staple of the Portland theater scene, the situation was different. He was the recently appointed managing artistic director of The Actors Conservatory, which had been founded by artistic director emeritus Beth Harper in 1985. TAC had spent many years in a renovated firehouse in Southwest downtown, above Portland State University. That building had been owned by the city, and in 2019, the city took it back. For a while, the Conservatory was a part of Artist Repertory Theatre’s Arts Hub and followed that theater company when it moved its offices to Zidell Shipyards on the Southwest Waterfront.
But when the pandemic happened (a familiar refrain since 2020), things changed. Artists Rep moved out of Zidell, and The Actors Conservatory found itself without a home. “Basically,” says Mendelson, “we were couch surfing.”
Lewis, for his part, had found what he was looking for. “I knew every piece of real estate in the Portland area that was potential for a conservatory,” he says now, “but we kept coming back to this one.”
The Tiffany Center, built in 1929 for the fraternal benevolent society Neighbors of Woodcraft and sitting just a couple of blocks east of Artists Rep, was largely empty. The room we were standing in, which is now Bridgetown’s dance studio, had been a piano store and tuxedo shop. Although Lewis was always drawn to the place, it wasn’t a slam dunk. At one point, he remembers letting the management know that he needed a dance studio, so a wall in a certain room would have to be removed. At first, management balked at the idea, but when Lewis said that then he didn’t know if this was going to be the space for what his conservatory needed, they decided to ameliorate the situation.
For Lewis, this kind of productive back-and-forth has been integral to his relationship with the management at Tiffany Center, and a significant part of what made moving there the right call. “The management here is so gracious,” he says, “and they’re thrilled to have an arts organization in here, which is really unique in this city.”
When Mendelson heard through the grapevine that Lewis and Bridgetown had found a space, he reached out. “TAC is interested in moving too,” he remembers asking. “Do you think there’s maybe something there?”
Lewis was enthusiastic about the idea. He and Mendelson were both fans of each other’s work ethic and organizational intent. ““I don’t think there’s another organization in town I’d be interested in doing this with,” says Lewis. “What their mission statement is and what ours is and what we expect from our students and the path they take, our goals and artistic values, they align so well.”
Mendelson concurs. “Not only as organizations,” he says, “but Rick and I have very similar artistic aesthetic and a belief that hard work pays off.”
When Bridgetown moved in, the space was very raw. When Mendelson first took a look, he couldn’t quite make out Lewis’s vision. “I told Karen (Rathje, TAC’s managing artistic director), ‘let’s check back in in a couple of weeks, when they get more walls’,” Mendelson says, laughing.
Lewis’s board was enthusiastic about the venue and believed in his vision. “This was the first time I ever got to walk through the space with an architect,” Lewis says. “I told him my fantasy version and they gave me everything I asked for.” When Rathje finally did see the space, she was immediately on board. “She is the one,” says Mendelson, who “worked with Rick and the Tiffany Center and American Property Management and negotiated the contracts that are allowing us to be here.”
Now the space has been specifically shaped to fit Lewis’s requirements. It houses a black-box performance space, a dance studio, and the Bridgetown Conservatory offices; and in February there will be a music studio in the corner of the building. Even the trials and tribulations of moving in wound up bearing constructive fruit. Because of delays in the renovation, the Bridgetown offices weren’t open as soon as they needed to be. So, the management company helpfully offered them some office space on the Tiffany’s fifth floor while they waited.
This wound up being a revelation for The Actors Conservatory. After the Zidell Yards, TAC had rented space at the Goldsmith Annex and Portland Center Stage but had no offices. Initially, the two companies were going to share offices. But the revelation of the fifth floor offices gave The Actors Conservatory an opportunity to have offices of its own.
Lewis, the prime mover, outside of his instructors, is ably supported by his Conservatory assistant Max Powell, who generously finds time also to help out TAC at times. Mendelson is supported by Rathje; TAC’s technical director Chris Mikalovich, who has been part of the organization since 1985; and Erin Jackson, who among her various jobs handles the calendar, and according to Mendleson, “literally makes sure that we’re all on the same page.”
Synergistically, the two organizations dovetail in other ways. Bridgetown Conservatory of Musical Theatre operates primarily at night and on the weekends. The Actors Conservatory works generally on an 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. schedule. Also, one of the huge benefits of the new space is that the Tiffany Center has a 200-seat theater and a 925-seat proscenium stage on its upper floors. Neither Bridgetown nor TAC controls either theater, but they get nonprofit and tenant discounts when they want to use them.
If all of this sounds too good to be true, according to Lewis and Mendelson, it only gets better. “The management of the Tiffany Center would like to see more arts organizations in here,” Lewis says, and Mendleson concurs: ““If I were younger,” he says,” and I were on the board of, say, [the Portland Area Theatre Alliance], I would see what would it take to find a space in the Tiffany Center that could be a rehearsal studio, that PATA could actually rent out to organizations that are looking for rehearsal space. Or I would imagine that there are even rooms that are the perfect size for individual teachers. They want people in this building.”
Both men are equally enthusiastic about the building itself. “I pretty much knew if this place was shiny and sparkly it would do what it needed to do for the students and the community and for organizations like Michael’s,” Lewis says. “All of our instructors have Broadway and professional experience, and this space meets that expectation, and it helps the parents feel safe about where their kids are. When a student comes in and they’re serious about a career path, this is where they would want to go.”
Mendelson echoes this sentiment and thinks these aspects will benefit his instructors, which in turn will benefit his students. “The day we did the tour with the teachers just so they could see the new space, the level of excitement and curiosity was so extraordinary,” Mendelson says. “It’s psychologically different just walking into this space.”
Some moments have been challenging. The permits from the city took more than a month and a half to come through. Bridgetown had hoped to make the move in July, but didn’t wind up opening until late October. And there were other issues. “The week before we moved in I walked in and the contractors were putting in carpet on the black box floor. I told them, you’re doing a beautiful job, but it’s on the wrong floor.” So, the day Bridgetown was moving in, the contractors were still finishing the floor. But at this point, any setbacks or obstacles are approached with aplomb. ““At this point in my life,” says Lewis, “I just wonder, ‘What’s the good on the other side of this?’”
For men who have been around the block and accomplished as much as Lewis and Mendelson have, the fire of creativity hasn’t cooled, or the edge of endeavor dulled. Neither artist is having any of that. “You do what you love until you can’t do it anymore,” says Mendelson.
On December 4 the two schools are going to have an open house, and interested parties, supporters and people who just want to see what’s going on should all attend. Both men insist that for such a big move, it has been relatively stress-free, and for both, this stems from one incontrovertible fact: “I don’t think our egos are at play here,” says Lewis. “This is about the end result of changing lives.”
“Every decision we make,” says Mendelson, “is about giving the students the best possible experience they can have before they walk out the door in two years.”
“If a student wants to do this,” says Lewis, “when they walk into a place like this, they’re going to feel like their dream is being met. And that’s really what it’s all about.”