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Newport’s Porthole Players opens ‘Matilda the Musical’ as it looks to next 50 years

The 45-year-old community theater emerges from the pandemic shutdown with its first full-scale musical since 2019 and a new focus on fundraising and drawing fresh, young faces.

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The cast for Porthole Players' production of "Matilda the Musical" rehearses in preparation for Friday's opening in Newport. The musical is based on a story by Roald Dahl about a young, telekinetic girl who loves reading and is beset by doltish adults. Photo by: Chris Graamans
The cast for Porthole Players’ production of “Matilda the Musical” rehearses in preparation for opening Nov. 15 in Newport. The musical is based on a story by Roald Dahl about a young, telekinetic girl who loves reading and is beset by doltish adults. Photo by: Chris Graamans

This month, Porthole Players will stage its first large-scale musical since 2019 with the performance of Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical. The show not only marks a comeback of sorts for the 45-year-old Porthole Players, but also a fresh start as the Newport board looks at ways to breathe new energy into what some feared was a dying company.

“Porthole Players is essentially going to really examine its roots of community, community, community,” said Morgan Locklear, president of the board of directors and member of the company since the 1980s. “The future will be about finding more people who want to get involved and bringing the most popular musicals to the stage. Our 50th anniversary in 2028 is going to see a company ready for another 50 years, with a resident improv group, and even classes in acting, directing, and everything in between.”

Porthole Players staged its first performance in 1972, became an official nonprofit in 1978, and 10 years later became the first theater company to perform in the then-new Newport Performing Arts Center. The company was the first of the “PAC rats,” the pet name for resident companies, which today number nine.

The company’s focus has always been about family-centered, musical-centered entertainment, said Jennifer Chaney, one of about 40 theater company members honored with lifetime memberships. “I got involved in about 2000. I was about 20 years younger than the folks who were really involved then. They mentored me. But some of the old guard have passed and I’ve seen Porthole Players really struggling. I feel like I am carrying their energy on my shoulders.”

The last full musical, Man of La Mancha, was presented in 2019. The company staged a comedy improv show last year, but it didn’t sell, largely because everyone was still in COVID mode, Chaney said. “There were hyper-vigilant folks on the board who would make plans and change plans. It’s been touch and go.”

The Newport company is not alone. As a longtime member of the Oregon Community Theatre Alliance, Chaney said she has seen other companies around the state face similar issues.

“Everyone involved in community theater since the pandemic is thriving or dying on the vine,” she said. “It’s so sad to see.”

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But the Newport Performing Arts Center has seen some encouraging numbers, Jason Holland, director of the Oregon Coast Council for the Arts, said.

“We’re really seeing audiences growing,” Holland said. From 2022 to the end of this year, he said, center audiences have grown by 80 percent and the number of events has increased by 30 percent. “That’s really encouraging. It’s indicative of what an arts-loving community we are in. Porthole Players has been an integral part of that from the beginning.”

And while the company has struggled, prudent spending by past boards has left it with a nest egg of $40,000.

“The wonderful part is they still had those funds which were built years ago,” Chaney said. “My blood, sweat, and tears were in those funds. I knew we needed to get the ball rolling.”

Aria Ferne Dennett as Matilda receives a hug from Ella Marrant as Lavender during rehearsal for "Matilda the Musical" at Porthole Players. Photo by: Chris Graamans
Aria Ferne Dennett as Matilda receives a hug from Ella Marrant as Lavender during rehearsal for “Matilda the Musical” at Porthole Players. Photo by: Chris Graamans

The critically acclaimed Matilda the Musical is set to open Friday and run Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays through Dec. 3 in the Alice Silverman Theatre at the Newport Performing Arts Center. Fourth-grader Aria Ferne Dennett will star as Matilda, alongside Locklear, who was cast as her father, Mr. Wormwood.

Locklear’s history with the company dates from childhood, when he performed his first role, Kurt in The Sound of Music, in 1980. He’s been involved in theater ever since. “Porthole Players raised me,” Locklear said. “The thing I really respected about Porthole from the beginning was that children in a cast have the same responsibilities as adults. They had to learn their dances, their lines, their cues, all of that stuff, and therefore were treated like adults. That was really valuable to me as a kid who related more to adults.”

In recent years, Locklear has been involved in backstage roles — sound engineer, stage manager, director. He ended up cast as Mr. Wormwood by a bit of chance.

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Morgan Locklear, president of the Porthole Players board of directors, takes an acting turn as Matilda's father, Mr. Wormwood. Photo by: Chris Graamans
Morgan Locklear, president of the Porthole Players board of directors, takes an acting turn as Matilda’s father, Mr. Wormwood. He won the role, he says, when the director “needed a guy to grow a thin mustache and be a mean dad, and that’s me.” Photo by: Chris Graamans

“I was simply helping out with the auditions, helping the people in the lobby get organized — you know, setting the tables, just trying to help out as a good president should,” Locklear said. “We ran out of male auditioners, and the director, Jennifer Hamilton, still had several roles to fill. She needed a guy to grow a thin mustache and be a mean dad, and that’s me. I jumped up on stage and sang a song and almost immediately she cast me.”

Mr. Wormwood aside, Locklear’s primary role these days is off stage, ensuring Porthole is around long into the future. That will take a change in the company’s mindset, Locklear said.

“What I’m quite fond of saying to my board is that Porthole can no longer do plays to make money. We have to make money, so we can do plays.”

And while the banked $40,000 may have helped Porthole through the dry COVID years, it won’t last long. The rights alone to stage Matilda the Musical cost $7,500, Locklear said.

He said the company plans to establish a wing of the board and a special director to be in charge of fundraising, independent the plays chosen for performance. “We absolutely are now in a position where fundraising has to be a part of the conversation; we can’t do only with the revenue we get from plays. It will have to be a permanent part of how we govern ourselves and run our company.”

Locklear also plans to focus on attracting fresh faces to contribute in myriad roles. He is directing a play in January that will include a new stage manager and assistant director, both of whom will have the opportunity, once they’ve “jumped through the proper hoops,” to pitch their own shows to the company, Locklear said.

“The entire artistic community is running on an old guard right now, and we’re really hoping to entice young people,” he said. “We have four years until our 50th anniversary and I hope to just basically do a great big rebranding, and building up all the people and all the money that it takes to keep Porthole going into the next 50 years.”

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Lori Tobias is a journalist of many years, and was a staff writer for The Oregonian for more than a decade, and a columnist and features writer for the Rocky Mountain News. Her memoir “Storm Beat – A Journalist Reports from the Oregon Coast” was published in 2020 by Oregon State University press. She is also the author of the novel Wander, winner of the 2017 Nancy Pearl Book Award for literary fiction and a finalist for the 2017 International Book Awards for new fiction. She lives on the Oregon Coast with her husband Chan and rescue pup Gus.

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