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DramaWatch: Farewell, Portland Civic Theatre Guild

The Guild, founded in 1958 to support a legendary company that began in the 1920s, is closing and passing its assets to other theaters. Plus: This week's openings and last chances.

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The theatrical mural on the side of the old Portland Civic Theatre building at 1530 S.W. Yamhill St. The building was demolished in 1994; a hotel parking garage has taken its place. Photo courtesy Adair Chappell.
The theatrical mural on the side of the old Portland Civic Theatre building at 1530 S.W. Yamhill St. The building was demolished in 1994; a hotel parking garage has taken its place. Photo courtesy Adair Chappell.

“It was the mothership,” Adair Chappell says, wistfully recalling the old Portland Civic Theatre, a company and a place that for decades was at the center of cultural life in the city. Chappell’s choice of wording is apt: Her mother, Isabella Chappell, who ArtsWatch editor Bob Hicks called “the onetime prime minister of Portland theater,” spent many years as a performer and general manager with the theater. The younger Chappell recalls starting with the theater at age 6.

For the past decade, Chappell has been president of the Portland Civic Theatre Guild, which we might think of as the shuttlecraft. It was launched in 1958 to help support what was one of the largest community theaters in the country, and after the theater closed in 1990, the Guild carried on, shifting its mission to providing professional-development fellowships to theater artists.

Now, the shuttle, too, is touching down at last. Chappell and other Guild leaders – vice-president/treasurer Darr Durham, secretary Chrisse Roccaro, and Julie Accuardi, chair of the Guild’s new-play award program – announced this week that “because of the extraordinary circumstances of the last three years, at this point we cannot see a clear way forward and the Portland Civic Theatre Guild is dissolving as an organization and we are closing our doors at the end of this year.”

As with the demise of the Civic Theatre itself, the Guild’s demise is mostly a result of what we might call changing field conditions. 

A few years ago, Hicks described the situation the Civic Theatre found itself in during the 1980s: “The company, whose roots went back to 1926 as the Art Theatre Players (three years later it merged with the Bess Whitcomb Players and renamed itself Portland Civic Theatre), was buffeted by financial troubles that were partly but far from entirely of its own making. Times were changing, and the model of a large and active community theater with its mix of seasoned part-time performers and young actors learning the craft was breaking down. Civic was producing fourteen or fifteen shows a year, a combination of musicals, comedies, and a few newer works, and it was tough to attract new, younger audiences without also disappointing the older core audience.” 

The core problem for the Guild was, as Chappell puts it, “in 2020 we were operating with a 1958 business model.” 

The crowd for a 2017 Theatre Guild reading of Niel Simon's "I Ought To Be in Pictures" at The Sanctuary, home of Triangle Productions. The Guild's final play reading, in September of this year, was of Portland actor and writer Jacklyn Maddux's "Bad Babies (A Western Fairytale)." ArtsWatch photo.
The crowd for a 2017 Theatre Guild reading of Niel Simon’s “I Ought To Be in Pictures” at The Sanctuary, home of Triangle Productions. The Guild’s final play reading, in September of this year, was of Portland actor and writer Jacklyn Maddux’s “Bad Babies (A Western Fairytale).” ArtsWatch photo.

Since its start, the Guild centered on a series of mid-week, mid-morning play readings, which help provide piece work for actors and raise money for the Guild to disburse. 

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In a 2017 piece for ArtsWatch, Hicks vividly described the scene at a reading, which for the past decade or so had been held in The Sanctuary at Sandy Plaza: “A clubby camaraderie inhabits the proceedings, an understated festive air. Little histories are here: Most everyone seems to know, or at least recognize, most everyone else, and while the attendees might be mostly outside the target parameters of corporate marketing metrics, they are active and inquisitive and in good humor, and no doubt value common sense. A feeling persists of something civilized and basically good, a small pleasure: a bulwark … against the bleakness of the outside world.”

That model, though, relies on the sort of patrons who don’t work 9 to 5. “The median age of our audience was about 75,” Chappell says. “Covid sort of accelerated the issue for us. (Even after the pandemic eased) those people didn’t feel safe coming back.”

Already the readings had ceased to pay for themselves, leaving the Guild reliant on interest from its two endowment funds. The Guild had begun to stage occasional evening readings of works by local playwrights, which attracted a different audience and a renewed energy. But with the endowments restricted from being used for operating funds, by the end of August, Chappell says, the organization realized it wouldn’t be able to keep producing those readings.

The Guild's active endowment awards program supported all sorts of theatrical enterprises, including a grant this year to CoHo Productions to buy a needed new lighting console for the company's performance space. Above, veteran clowns Jeff Desautels (left) and Sascha Lynn Blocker in the CoHo Clown Consort's summer 2023 show. Photos courtesy CoHo Clown Consort.
The Guild’s active endowment awards program supported all sorts of theatrical enterprises, including a grant this year to CoHo Productions to buy a needed new lighting console for the company’s performance space. Above, veteran clowns Jeff Desautels (left) and Sascha Lynn Blocker in the CoHo Clown Consort’s summer 2023 show. Photos courtesy CoHo Clown Consort.

“Then, the biggest decision was what to do with the money,” Chappell says. That is, the money in the two endowment funds at Oregon Community Foundation.

“With so much upheaval in the theater community, we felt it best to support two of our most important missions: playwrights and students,” read the announcement. The $125,400 in the Leslie O. Fulton Fund will go to Oregon Children’s Theatre – itself another shuttlecraft of sorts, having started as the Portland Civic Theatre for Youth Program in the 1980s – where the Margaret Chapman Costume Apprenticeship program already is up and running. The $33,000 Portland Civic Theatre Fund will go to the local writers group LineStorm Playwrights to support its play-reading series. 

Those final big disbursements cap an impressive list of accomplishments for the Guild, as its farewell announcement outlined: 

“We produced over 400 programs at the Portland Civic Theatre, The Old Church and The Sanctuary. We gave out over $250,000 in Awards to local theaters, students, and artists since 1996. We supported 12 local playwrights since 2014 with our annual New Play Award.

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“We produced 11 readings of local playwrights’ work. In earlier days, the Guild replaced a boiler, recovered seats, and helped retire the mortgage of the PCT building on S.W. Yamhill Street.”

As Chappell sums it up, “It was a very beloved organization and it fulfilled its mission for a lot of years.”

Nonetheless, this is a loss for the Portland theater community, and an especially personal one for Chappell, herself something of a legendary performer in the city’s history (“Peter Pan” was a specialty). 

“I think I’m now mourning the loss of the Civic Theatre and the loss of my mother,” Chappell admits. “I think it’s really going to hit me soon, all the stuff I haven’t fully addressed. My mother went down with the ship at Civic Theatre and I’m going down with the ship at the Guild.”

The flattened stage

Opening

The latest Broadway tour of "Les Misérables" storms the battlements of Portland's Keller Auditorium beginning Tuesday, Nov. 7.
The latest Broadway tour of “Les Misérables” storms the battlements of Portland’s Keller Auditorium beginning Tuesday, Nov. 7.

“Still the world’s most popular musical,” trumpets the Broadway Across America web page for Les Misérables, Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel, which apparently is about a man who steals a loaf of bread and goes on to get huge mobs of righteously angry folks to sing with him. One can make a strong argument about its popularity without actually understanding its popularity.

***

In a galaxy far, far away, or in this one, sex sells. Originating several years ago in Australia, The Empire Strips Back: A Burlesque Parody presents what it bills as “a unique blend of seduction and sci-fi” using the famous characters and the look of George Lucas’ blockbuster franchise to blast off into a night of bawdy entertainment. Just in case you didn’t think Star Wars was silly enough already.

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Closing

"Hair": Signs of the times. Photo: Jingzi Zhao/ courtesy of Portland Center Stage.
“Hair”: Signs of the times. Photo: Jingzi Zhao/ courtesy of Portland Center Stage.

“It’s best not to think about it too critically, and appreciate the vibe,” wrote ArtsWatcher Darleen Ortega in her review of Hair, the famous musical about to end a run at Portland Center Stage. And indeed, the vibe is mighty real. Or at least mighty enjoyable, as director Isaac Lamb’s big, young, charismatic crew brings fabulous energy, passion and vocal talent to the task.

Those who can’t help but (ahem) think too critically might notice that the show itself, though reasonably seen as experimental in its original 1960s context, is a barely coherent blob of scattershot narrative, poorly sketched characters and hippie-cultural-survey songs. Lamb adds some potent resonances by casting a Black actor, Solomon Parker III, as Claude (whose pending Army induction provides the story’s lone load-bearing device) and a Vietnamese-American, Madeleine Tran, as Sheila (the most impassioned anti-war protester amid a tribe of free-spirited youth). But still, there’s too little in the book by James Rado and Gerome Ragni to make those notes of complexity ring.

So, “sympathy and trust abounding”? Then as now, not so much. All the same, you could do worse than open your heart and let the sun shine in.

***

Michael O’Connell and Bruce Burkhartsmeier laughing it up at the bar in "Two Pints." Photo: Owen Carey
Michael O’Connell and Bruce Burkhartsmeier laughing it up at the bar in “Two Pints.” Photo: Owen Carey

From the perspective of this column, Two Pints is one of the most highly anticipated shows of the season. And yet, this columnist hasn’t yet managed to see it. (Stuff happens. Or, in this case, doesn’t.) Even so: Roddy Doyle’s script is at once as casual as can be and deceptively, artfully moving, and Third Rail Rep’s production stars Bruce Burkhartsmeier and Michael O’Connell directed by Scott Yarbrough. How could it not be terrific?

***

Even before the show opened a few weeks ago, the Portland Playhouse production of Matilda, the musical adaptation of a Roald Dahl story, was a scarce ticket. Soon, the entire run had sold out. So, this weekend’s closing performances are, well, closed to most of us. But fear not! The company has announced a remounting next year, June 7-30. The early bird gets the ticket.

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***

You’ve still a little time – though not much – to grab a ticket for Las Adelitas, the latest of Milagro’s annual Dia de Muertos productions; Spider, a spooky AI-themed drama from the Oregon Children’s Theatre Young Professionals; the enduring psychological battle of The Gin Game at Lakewood; and, on the Oregon coast, Shakespeare’s Coriolanus in an abridged version from Newport’s Red Octopus Theatre Company.

The best line I read this week

“You can’t go through the looking glass without cutting yourself.”

– from the Iris Murdoch novel “The Sacred and Profane Love Machine.”

***

That’s all I have for now. I’ll try to do better the next time.

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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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One Response

  1. As a performer who got her start at PCT after college, and as a woman who was taken into the fold of PCTG and became very active, the closing of the Guild is bittersweet. Fact is, the readings never made money, but they were at the core of our mission, and we were fortunate that we had the reserve funds to give grants to the wider arts community. When the pandemic hit, we had just changed our mission to focus on New Work by local playwrights, sparked by our success with our New Play Awards (the brainchild of Julie Accuardi). We had lined up our first season of new works when lockdown shut all the doors. After that, with a dwindling membership and the difficulties experienced by the wider community to get live performance going again, it became too high a hill to climb. The PCTG will remain one of the hallmarks of my life – the work, the relationships – and I am inordinately proud of all we accomplished. And we’re so thrilled that we can leave a legacy to OCT – which began life as the PCT School – and LineStorm Playwrights, perpetuating our desire to support local playwrights.

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