The British director Peter Brook once determined the minimum requirements to create a piece of theater. “A man walks across an empty space whilst someone else is watching him,” Brook wrote in his 1968 treatise The Empty Space. “And that is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged.”
For the most part, Portland theaters tend to follow Brook’s rule of thumb, either out of agreement or necessity. Plays are often staged in old warehouses, former churches, and in the back rooms of cafes and bars. While there is no shortage of parks and basements where “theatre can be engaged,” traditional performance spaces—what most people think of when they think of theatre—can, at times, feel scarce.
Things are about to get a little less scarce: Over the last year an empty space on Southwest Broadway downtown has been filling up. When Northwest Children’s Theater and School reopens its doors this spring, The Judy Kafoury Center for Youth Arts, named for the theater’s founder, will include two theaters, a cinema and three classrooms (shop spaces will be offsite) — and it’ll be across the street from the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall and Hatfield Hall, which between them house four of the consortium of five theaters known as Portland’5 Centers for the Arts. The beloved children’s-theater institution, which offers classes, camps, and a season of family-friendly plays and musicals, left its longtime home at the Northwest Neighborhood Cultural Center last September. NWCT signed the lease to the 1000 Broadway property in April 2022, with the option to renew for up to 30 years.
The children’s theater company’s impending move is part of a surprising mini-boom in new or refurbished theater spaces since the onset of the pandemic and its financial strains. While some companies have taken up temporary residence elsewhere (Profile Theatre performing at Imago; Artists Rep sharing performing space at Portland Center Stage’s home in The Armory) the musical-theater company Broadway Rose has expanded its physical space in Tigard, and two major theater schools — Bridgetown Conservatory of Musical Theatre and The Actors Conservatory — have taken up residence in the historic Tiffany Center just west of downtown. Artists Rep, meanwhile, continues its major remodel of its large home space, waiting to move back in once construction is completed.
Northwest Children’s Theater’s move downtown is significant. Its new proximity to the Schnitz and Hatfield theaters considerably expands downtown Broadway’s focus as a theater district. What’s more, Oregon Children’s Theater—the other big children’s theater in town—performs across the street in the Hatfield’s Newmark and Winningstad theaters, making Broadway and Salmon the de facto center for children’s theater in the city. Downtown, meanwhile, has struggled to return to its pre-pandemic vibrancy. A glittering new marquee on Broadway will be a welcome sight to many.
OREGON CULTURAL HUBS: An Occasional Series
NWCT’s new home is just a five-minute drive from its old space in Northwest Portland, but the organization’s road to Broadway was circuitous. In December 2021, as the rest of Portland was preparing for the holidays, Nick Fenster was ready to throw in the towel. The theater’s managing director had spent years leading the search for a new building. He had toured dozens of properties—ranging from former bike-repair shops, to performing arts venues in the suburbs, to $15 million undertakings in Slabtown—and had been close to signing on at least seven. For one reason or another, the prospects never worked out. This time Fenster had found a property that was nearly perfect. Just before Christmas 2021, the deal fell through. “I was really depressed for a couple weeks,” says Fenster. He began to wonder if there was still a place for NWCT in Portland. “I had one more in me.”
Less than a week later, Fenster received a call from an employee at Turner Construction, the firm hired to renovate NWCT’s new venue. The Turner employee suggested Fenster take a look at a shuttered downtown cinema, the former multiplex in the 1000 Broadway high-rise. “It really felt like that moment in a romantic comedy when the bad fiancé falls through, and you run into the old high school flame,” says Fenster. “It was serendipitous.” After the new year, Fenster and NWCT’s artistic director, Sarah Jane Hardy, went to tour the space. “We usually get viewed with skepticism, because we’re theater people,” says Fenster. “We didn’t get that. The broker and landlords were so enthusiastic about the project from the second we walked in.”
“It was love at first sight,” says Hardy.
In order to transform the old cinema into a suitable performance space, the team needed to raise $6.5 million. No small sum, but far more affordable than anything else Fenster and Hardy had previously considered. The fundraising started strong, with a $2 million gift from Judy and Greg Kafoury, followed by a generous grant from the M.J. Murdoch Charitable Trust. When inflation caused the price in goods to soar, employees at Turner Construction helped offset the costs by writing checks to the theater’s capital campaign. Dynalectric, another contractor, donated $25,000. Later, a member of the Moyer family (the Portland dynasty that owns the building) would fly out from Montana to participate in the parade NWCT threw to commemorate the move. “The reason that we are able to do this is thanks to good will,” says Fenster.
All that money has gone toward a total renovation of the fourplex cinema. Recently, Fenster and Hardy gave me a preview. “The Judy,” as the space is affectionately called, is still very much a construction site: When I arrived for our meeting, Fenster handed me a hardhat. The theater is almost entirely underground, but it’s hardly a basement. Skipping the elevator, we descended a long flight of stairs. Towering windows allowed some light into the subterranean lobby, which is decorated with twin marquees that were part of the original cinema. The redesign—by SERA Architecture—includes the 240-seat mainstage, a 120-seat black box, and three spacious studios for classes and rehearsals. One of the movie theaters has been preserved and will feature showings of classic musicals. CATALYST, the theater’s professional training program for teenagers, will be based primarily in the black box.
The mainstage is a far cry from NWCT’s old stomping grounds in Nob Hill. A former church and registered historic landmark, the Cultural Center had charm but lacked practicality. “Our old theater was a 10,000 square foot room, and we used about 4,000 of it actively, and 6,000 of it went to total waste,” says Hardy. “It was just historic pews that you couldn’t take out.” Sets had to be loaded into the theater through an opening in the stain glass windows. In contrast, NWCT’s new mainstage is 3,300 square feet. “Every inch of it is used,” says Hardy.
The biggest change the move brings will be in NWCT’s community partnerships. With great performance space comes great responsibility, and NWCT doesn’t have enough programming on its own to fill the calendar. “We knew as a fairly large theater company in town, we had to set aside space to amplify other arts groups,” says Hardy. There might be a NWCT musical playing one weekend, a taiko group the next, followed by an evening of aerial dance. Hardy says prioritizing partnership has long been a goal, but now it’s baked into the theater’s mission. “We will not survive without these spaces being activated as much as possible throughout the year,” says Hardy.
In order to capitalize on the abundance of programming, NWCT’s business model will be getting a makeover. “We want to create a system of all-access passes for the space,” says Fenster. The company’s new membership plan, as Fenster describes it, will function “like Netflix.” Meaning, if you’re a NWCT member, you can see (or binge) a performance as many times as you like. This system would be unique to performing arts in Portland. “The membership models I’ve seen locally have tripped halfway up to the line and have not quite crossed it,” says Fenster. A typical theater membership might include just one or two tickets to each production, as well as an array of discounts and access to previews, talkbacks, etc. “It misses the point of the simple experience,” says Fenster.
The Judy won’t be an all-you-can-eat theatrical buffet just yet. NWCT plans to hold a soft opening when spring classes begin in March and roll out the rest of the venues in the subsequent weeks. The movie theater will be next, followed by the black box, and finally the mainstage, which will debut with a musical in late April. “When we open our first show, we’ll have a big party,” says Hardy. The director says she has a show in mind, but the company is still waiting to secure the rights: “We’re going to start with something that we’re very familiar with.”
By the time the Judy is unveiled to the public, 16 months will have passed since Fenster and Hardy first toured the space. In that time, the team has been working at a breakneck pace. So far, the theater’s capital campaign has raised $5.5 million, and Fenster says NWCT is on track to meet its goal. Last month, Fenster’s phone rang again. “Someone had come to see a show six years ago, and they really liked it,” says Fenster. “They gave us $100,000.”
“It really has taken a small village,” says Hardy. “We’re part of a large community, and there’s been a tremendous amount of enthusiasm.”
“They’re happy that the future of the organization is secure.”