DramaWatch: What’s next for Artists Rep?

After postponing its season and laying off its artistic leader, the company concentrates on getting its building open. Plus: this week's new shows and last chances.

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Artists rendering of the new Artists Repertory Theatre home space, with the 20-story Alta ART Tower complex behind. Image courtesy ART.

On a recent morning, Aiyana Cunningham, J.S. May and Shawn Lee make the short walk over from their offices across Southwest Fifteenth Avenue to the construction site that is the once and future home of Artists Repertory Theatre.

They are, respectively, the company’s managing director, capital campaign director, and producing director, and, stopping in at a temporary construction office, they don the required PPE (hard hat and bright yellow vest) to lead a journalist on a quick tour of the in-progress project. What was once the southern half of Artists Rep’s bustling headquarters, including the larger of two auditoriums and a warren of offices, is now what May refers to – not without a touch of pride – as “an empty box.” 

Several million dollars and an unknown number of months in the future, that empty box will be the company’s reconstituted home – more compact than its predecessor, but better equipped for producing and presenting the high-level shows that established Artists Rep as one of the area’s leading theaters.

From left: ART’s managing director, Aiyanna Cunningham; capital campaign director, J.S. May; and producing director, Shawn Lee.

Walking through open interior, talking over machine noise that sounds like a steroid-pumped woodpecker, May points to the southwest corner, where the mainstage once again will be, noting the raised roof line that will allow for a higher (and more flexible) lighting rig, as well as a more accessible control room. He indicates where they’ll have an elevator for the first time, where the metal bracing for essential seismic upgrades were installed, and notes the deep cleaning still in progress on the exposed wooden beams in the lobby, the new accessibility ramp at the Morrison Street entrance, and so on.

“It’s going to be a stunning space,” May declares.

The thrust of the message is clear: This might look mostly like bare concrete and a cloudy day, but Artists Rep is still moving forward toward a bright future.

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That’s not the impression that’s prevalent in the Portland theater community these days. While work proceeds on fundraising for the building’s capital campaign and on the building itself, when it comes to what the building is for – making theater –  Artists Rep keeps taking steps backward. In mid-August, the company announced that it was suspending production of its 2023-’24 season. Last week it announced that it had laid off artistic director Jeanette Harrison, barely a year into her tenure. On social media and in casual conversations, there’s concern, consternation even.

“I’m really worried about Artists Rep,” is a phrase you’ll hear. Or, alternatively, “What happened to all that money??”

In fact, over the past six years or so, Artists Rep has taken in a lot of money, even as it’s gone through a period of transition and turmoil. 

In early 2018, Willamette Week reported that Artists Rep was facing a lien from the Internal Revenue Service over $319,000 in unpaid payroll taxes, and that the company had amassed $1.3 million in operating deficits. But then came a godsend: a gift of $7.1 million from an anonymous donor. That money allowed the company to pay off the mortgage on the building that it had bought in 2004 (for $4.88 million) and retire its other debts. 

But the building still had lots of problems – a leaky roof, leaky bathrooms, production limitations, poor accessibility, etc. Under the leadership on an ambitious artistic director, Damaso Rodriguez (now at the much larger Seattle Rep), the company hatched a bigger plan. It sold the northern half of the block to a development company, Wood Partners, which turned that space into a mixed-use highrise. With proceeds from the $9.1 million sale, Artists Rep kick-started the process on a whole-scale renovation of its remaining half of the block. 

Those two big cash infusions, along with the millions the capital campaign has raised since, seem to have created an enduring public impression that Artists Rep is, or ought to be, flush. But in fact, the 2018 windfall has been eaten up by the baby it was meant for – that empty box that’s determined to grow up and be a real theater. “The first phase of construction that just got us to the empty box was five and a half million (dollars),” May says. For instance, more than $1 million of that went to moving all the utility lines, which had entered the building on the side that’s no longer theirs.

Rendering of the theater building’s new lobby space. Image courtesy ART.

The pandemic sent construction materials costs skyrocketing, and in order to keep the project to the $30 million range overall, May ordered a midstream redesign, reducing the size of the new auditoriums. But that meant further costs for the new designs and re-permitting; the additional time required meant further effects of inflation and – pertinent to regular operating costs – more time for the company as an itinerant renter.

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It’s certainly arguable that the company overreached in pursuing such an extensive rebuild, rather than limping along in what was left of the old space, though May and Lee contend that the problems with the old building (however well-hidden from the public) were a mounting issue.

 But while things have moved with relative stability in terms of real estate, the core theater operations have been in greater flux. Citing the pandemic might strike some as a tired excuse, but its effects have been real and lingering. Artists Rep hasn’t produced a show in its own space since spring of 2019. State and federal relief funds helped, but those programs have ended. “We haven’t made any money on our shows,” says Cunningham, who was hired away from Portland Playhouse this summer. “Ticket sales are down and donations are down.”

Because the capital campaign money is earmarked for the construction project, regular operations have been in chewing-gum-and-baling-wire mode.

Jeanette Harrison, Artists Rep's artistic director for the past year, was laid off earlier this month.
Jeanette Harrison, Artists Rep’s artistic director for the past year, was laid off earlier this month.

Cunningham says that, with it being unclear when they’d have the fiscal stability to return to regular programming and production, it was prudent to let go of the artistic director. (When asked why drop that post rather than lower-level staff, May and Cunningham respond that the staff already is thin, then say obliquely that it’s a personnel matter they aren’t at liberty to discuss.)

At present, they still expect the current phase of construction – focused on the building exterior and the interior core including the multi-use lobby – will be done by Spring ’24. Luann Schooler (formerly the interim artistic director, recently returned as director of artistic programming) is planning some small-scale programming they hope to present in the lobby around that time, a way to welcome back the theater’s resident artists and community partners.

Meanwhile, May and Cunningham both stress that the key to the company’s future is getting back into its own building as soon as possible, which will allow it to avoid rental costs, to host classes and events, etc.

“We’re being very intentional and careful,” Cunningham says. “Everything is on track from a standpoint of fiscal sustainability and artistic sustainability. We’re playing a bit of a long game. But we’re in a very optimistic space, all things considered.”

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Opening

The Oregon playwright E.M. Lewis has a career full of awards, fellowships and commissions, but her new show In the Deep has its unusual origins in a young Willamette University student’s senior project. According to a story on the Willamette website, theater professor Susan Coromel introduced Lewis, a Willamette graduate, to the composer Clarence Roscoe McDonald, suggesting the veteran writer might help him adapt one of her plays. Instead the two teamed up to create an original musical about “resilience, camaraderie and the uncharted waters of life.”

Another Willamette alum, Carly Christensen, directs. We’ll let you guess which theater department is giving the show its premiere.

***

At Lakewood, Nancy McDonald directs Lisa Knox and Mark Pierce in The Gin Game, Donald L. Colburn’s 1970s Pulitzer-winner about cards and psychological combat in a senior center.

Reading is fundamental

Shaking the Tree adds to its Lorca celebration wih a staged reading of his play "The House of Benarda Alba." Above: Olivia Mathews as the Bride in the company's current hit “Blood Wedding.” Photo: Gary Norman
Shaking the Tree adds to its Lorca celebration wih a staged reading of his play “The House of Benarda Alba.” Above: Olivia Mathews as the Bride in the company’s current hit “Blood Wedding.” Photo: Gary Norman

Shaking the Tree’s production of Blood Wedding is one of the most compelling shows currently onstage in the region. Whether as added context for that show or as a theatrical excursion in its own right, the company presents a staged reading of The House of Bernarda Alba, another play from Federico García Lorca’s acclaimed “rural trilogy.” As with Shaking’s Blood Wedding, this reading, translated and directed by Dylan Hankins, promises high-level acting, with a cast that includes Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble stalwarts Rebecca Lingafelter and Cristi Miles.

Closing

Corrib Theatre's "Woman and Scarecrow" is about to close. Photo: Owen Carey
Corrib Theatre’s “Woman and Scarecrow” is about to close. Photo: Owen Carey

“What is it about dying that’s so sexy?,” playwright Marina Carr asks at one point in Woman and Scarecrow. And while it’s a show I hope you’d be hard pressed to find sexy, it certainly does carry on a romance of sorts in its poetic slow dance with death. 

The Woman in question is on her deathbed, and we gather, from various clues in her conversation and in the simmering frustration of her estranged husband, that she’s been there a good while. Those conversations are mostly with Scarecrow, who might be an alter ego, a spirit guide, an hallucination or some deeply private amalgam of all those. Scarecrow is a comfort, at times, but also at times a scold or a contrarian, a dark truthful mirror. She may be, as Woman calls her at one point, a “metaphysical old parasite,” but she’s also the last friend standing.

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Portland Opera Puccini in Concert Keller Auditorium Portland Oregon

It’s all purposely mysterious. But what, after all, is a scarecrow meant to keep away but something black and winged? That greater mystery beyond lurks in the bedside wardrobe , making sounds like a blend of a bodhrán and an empty belly. Carr deftly balances the supernatural and the mundane, and it sometimes seems that what holds Woman on our side of the veil is residual dissatisfaction with life (“Boundless is a conservative estimate of my bitterness,” she gripes).

There’s a palpable tension and dark chemistry between Kerie Darner and Ashley Song in those title roles, and Jason Glick as the husband and Maria Porter as a disagreeable aunt help you understand Woman’s resentments without coming across as straw men. I’d read reviews of other productions that quibbled with the play for reaching too often for laughs. As directed here by Holly Griffith, it tilts the opposite direction. Its earnestness gives a polish to the dark luster of its foreboding atmosphere, but a lighter touch here and there, some sardonic playfulness in tone or rhythm, might’ve made this an even more alluring siren song. 

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Puppet and puppeteer piercing the veil. Photo: Joe Cantrell
Puppet and puppeteer piercing the veil. Photo: Joe Cantrell

Apparently I wasn’t alone in being captivated by Piercing the Veil, a collaboration among the early-music ensemble Musica Universalis, the puppeteers of Kettlehead Studios, actor/writer Briana Ratterman and director Štĕpán Šimek. The show, which mixes the fairy-dust magic of Celtic myths with musings on their contemporary relevance, has been such a hit that an extra closing-night performance was added; but that has sold out as well. 

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An electrifying moment in Stumptown Stages' "Young Frankenstein." Photo: Mike Lindberg
An electrifying moment in Stumptown Stages’ “Young Frankenstein.” Photo: Mike Lindberg

This weekend also is your last chance for puttin’ on the ritz with Young Frankenstein, Stumptown Stages’ take on the Mel Brooks monster-movie-musical satire, or enjoy the Misery of a Stephen King tale adapted in the immersive style of Beaverton’s Experience Theatre Project. 

Second-hand news

In January, Portland Center Stage will present Heidi Schreck’s What the Constitution Means to Me, a Pulitzer Prize finalist that grapples with the glories and the glaring problems inherent in our nation’s political blueprint.

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Portland Center Stage at the Armory Coriolanus Portland Oregon

But if you won’t be able to catch that production, you’ll have other chances – 15 others around the United States, according to American Theatre magazine, which recently ranked What the Constitution Means to Me at the top of its annual survey of the most-produced plays of the season.

The survey covers the 558 member companies of the Theatre Communications Guild, includes shows that have a run of at least a week, and excludes those perennial monsters of ubiquity, A Christmas Carol and the works of Shakespeare.

Also on the top 10 list (well, actually 12 this year, because of ties): The Thanksgiving Play, by Larissa FastHorse, which had its world premiere at Portland’s Artists Rep in the spring of 2018.

The flattened stage

The best line I read this week

​​“In the chequered area of human experience the seasons are all mingled as in the golden age: fruit and blossom hang together; in the same moment the sickle is reaping and the seed is sprinkled; one tends the green cluster and another treads the wine-press. Nay, in each of our lives harvest and spring-time are continually one, until Death himself gathers us and sows us anew in his invisible fields.”

— George Eliot, from the novel Daniel Deronda, as quoted in The New Yorker.

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

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Portland Playhouse Passing Strange Portland Oregon

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Photo Joe Cantrell

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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