Only a few weeks after his arrival in Hillsboro, Nik Whitcomb already was an expert – and even more so an enthusiastic – downtown tour guide.
This was back in January, with Whitcomb, an affable Omaha, Nebraska native with dark skin and a bright smile, newly installed as artistic director of the Hillsboro theater Bag & Baggage.
The plan on this particular afternoon was to take a walk around the neighborhood with a reporter while discussing his career, his new company, and his new community. And as he greeted me at the doors of Bag & Baggage’s Main Street headquarters, it was clear right away that he’s comfortable with at least a couple of the roles his new job calls for, as both host and company historian.
“This building opened in 1930 as a post office and in the 1950s it was a bank,” he said as we stand outside the low-slung, brick building. “Later, it was going to be destroyed until Bag & Baggage was like, ‘Give it to us instead!’ Twenty-seventeen is when they moved into the building. The bank vault is still inside, which is why it’s called the Vault.”
As we headed down the street, Whitcomb annotated the journey in a way that suggested Chamber of Commerce more than artsy ivory tower.
“What’s super exciting is that Hillsboro’s in a moment of massive expansion right now,” he said, as he began to point out neighboring businesses as though they were his pals on a playground. “So to our left, on Fourth and Main, that’s going to be a senior living facility. I’m thinking, ‘Everyone in there gets half off of a subscription,’ because that just makes sense.
“I’m super-excited to be connected to that community. Skywater Wines is relatively new, and we are building a robust partnership with them. Our friends at Noble Hop have given us things for our auction and we go there a lot for meetings. Hillsboro Bar & Grill is a place our staff loves to frequent. And then down on First they’re building a new four-restaurant and bar development. That’s also going to bring a lot of energy. I like downtown a lot. It’s not a big area but it’s an area where everybody’s really invested in bringing life to it. Being a part of that is super-important to me.”
WHAT MADE WHITCOMB’S speedy Hillsboro immersion even more impressive was that, at the time, Bag & Baggage still was his second job: Until March, he still was phasing out of his position in New York as program director of the Black Theatre Coalition, a nonprofit aiming to increase off-stage employment opportunities for Black theater professionals.
All the same, he’d thrown himself into the tasks of leading Bag & Baggage, impressing company founder and former artistic director Scott Palmer with not just his hard work but his acumen. “He immediately understands the politics,” Palmer said, “the importance of reaching out to donors, members of the city council, business leaders and to other arts groups in the area. And he’s funny and he’s charming. That stuff is important, because the accessibility of an artistic director can make a really big difference.”
“I’m all about reaching out to folks, making connections and conversations,” Whitcomb said. “That’s the way we get better together.”
Whitcomb also got down to work programming his first Bag & Baggage season, which opened last week with Red Velvet, a drama by the British writer Lolita Chakrabarti. Based on the true story of an 1830s production of Othello, the play fits snugly into the tradition of the best Bag & Baggage work – classical material recontextualized through historical and contemporary lenses. But also, that the story centers on the then-controversial casting of a Black actor as Shakespeare’s ill-fated Moor gives Whitcomb a more personal angle to work in his Oregon directing debut.
“THIS IS THE BENNETT URBAN FARM STORE,” Whitcomb said as we continued our westward amble. “Everything in here is locally sourced. They roast all their own coffee beans. And we have our own blend, the Vault blend.”
As we stepped in for a cup, co-owner Rene Bennet greeted him warmly, asking about a recent board meeting. They chatted about events at the Reser Center for the Arts in Beaverton, where former Bag & Baggage managing director Beth Lewis now works. Excited about the synergistic possibilities for Washington County, Whitcomb suggested that the Vault might serve sometimes as a sort of back-up for the Reser, providing room for rehearsals or related events.
“I’m a producer!” Whitcomb said, playfully exaggerating the word. “I’m all about utilizing space.”
Back on the street, latte in hand, he noticed a storefront being remodeled. “Oh – this place is going to be an ax-throwing bar.”
“Have you never heard of an ax-throwing bar??”
“I know the concept of ax throwing,” I replied. “And I know the concept of a bar. Those things should not go together!”
“It’s very safe!,” he said, laughing. “There are strict rules on how to do the ax throwing. I’m super-excited about it. Because there was one in Omaha when I was there last, and I learned that I’m much better at throwing axes than I would have thought. I hope they’ll have a league.”
WHITCOMB DIDN’T CHOOSE to come to Hillsboro from New York by throwing a dart — or an ax – at a map.
“I have known about Bag & Baggage for eight years,” he said, “because Ephriam Harnsberger, the company manager, is a college friend of mine. He’s from here, but we went to Creighton together, and after college he came back here and started working at Bag & Baggage right away. Ephriam doesn’t like much, so the fact that he stuck around here said a lot.”
In addition to Harnsberger’s inside perspective, Whitcomb had done some consulting for the company and even interviewed with the previous artistic director, Cassie Greer, for directing work. “Having talked to them before, I knew where the company wanted to go.”
Though not part of the formal selection process, Palmer, the founder who left the company in 2018 after 15 years at the helm, was quick to support Whitcomb: “He’s got directing chops. He’s deeply versed in the classics. He loves the concept of adaptation, and believes there’s meaning and value in cracking those old plays open and viewing them in a new light.
“But the first thing that made me like him even before I met him is that he said in an email, ‘I’m really excited about moving to Hillsboro and making that my home.’ I love the idea that there’s going to be someone carrying that banner: that Hillsboro’s great and we do great work here.”
“The flash and glitz of Broadway, that’s not where my heart lies,” confirmed Whitcomb. “I came and met everyone, and the energy here feels solid and grounded. As someone that’s traveled and worked and moved a lot – this type of small-town vibe is my thing. Everyone I’ve met is so excited about the work at Bag & Baggage and wants to be a part of it. That’s what I missed in New York – people wanting to be part of the process, not just part of the product.”
Shortly before my walk with Whitcomb, I’d run into a young Black actor on the Portland scene. “I’m worried about that,” the fellow had said of Whitcomb’s hiring. “A Black man. In Hillsboro.”
Before I could even finish relating that brief quote, though, Whitcomb broke up laughing. He understands the concern, but he doesn’t share it.
“Scott Palmer is someone that has always been doing work and having conversations about LGBTQ+ issues and about race, so I knew that was not something I was going to have to teach to an audience, that I could come in and have those kinds of conversations right off the bat.”
But Palmer grew up in Hillsboro. Such conversations may have been easier for him because people could trust in some shared perspective.
“Scott just is a personality,” Whitcomb countered. “And he’s someone who is not going to allow you to not understand the why behind the work. He was always finding ways to let people in on the why: This is why we do classical text. This is how we make it happen onstage. This is why it’s important to have these conversations. And he was able to use all that to create a philanthropic spirit around arts and culture in Hillsboro. People have told me, ‘That’s what Scott was really amazing at – challenging us, teaching us, making us sit down and listen, and that’s why we funded here.’ He created a sense that you don’t have to go to Portland to see edgy theater, to get told a story that has impact and will be just as challenging as something at PCS or ART or wherever.
“The reason we have such a great relationship with the city, with Representative Suzanne Bonamici and others is not just that Scott is a hometown boy, but that he knew how to energize people around the idea of this organization.”
A BIT FARTHER DOWN THE STREET we passed the Venetian, the renovated Golden Age movie house that more recently was Bag & Baggage’s prior home. “Musical theater is my first love,” Whitcomb had told me, and so I asked if the Venetian – much larger than the Vault – might be used for musicals. Whitcomb had a different idea: that the Vault would make a good spot for developmental work on smaller, boutique style shows. “I’m someone that’s worked on development of musicals for a long time and I have a lot of friends who have musicals that need work. I now have a space, so it’s like, ‘If y’all can get to Oregon and we can find some capital we can do some stuff.’ Musicals are hard to develop. It’s cheaper at someplace like here, and we have the space to do smaller, more intimate workshop processes.”
My attention was drawn away by another new restaurant being built in another old bank. (“I like to eat a lot,” Whitcomb confessed. “ A lot lot. I’ve tried to eat at all the places around here – out of solidarity, of course.”) And near that, a tattoo shop.
“Folks can come get their Bag & Baggage tattoo right across the street – you should create some specials for that,” I suggested.
“We love specials,” he laughed. “If you get an ampersand on your back, you can get a discount for all our shows!”
THE IDEA OF BECOMING an artistic director came early to Whitcomb. He’d discovered theater almost by accident, he recalled. “I was always in advanced reading class and this one kid in the class always gave really dope book reports.”
He learned that this kid’s secret was taking classes at the Rose Theatre, a fixture for Omaha families since 1949. The Rose became Whitcomb’s second home for the rest of his youth. “I took classes, I acted, I directed, I taught, I became a membership assistant doing telemarketing calls – whatever I could do. The Rose was a place of safety for me. It was the place where, for the first time, I had a voice.
“I quickly realized that I wanted to be an artistic director. I was always the actor who had ideas. And it’s not just about directing shows, it’s about strategic leadership. And as an actor there’s only so much advocacy you can do for yourself, whereas an administrator or a casting director or a producer has a lot more ways to make a difference. I just heard so much frustration from my peers that I thought, well, maybe I can do that and make people happy.
“I am someone who doesn’t believe in hierarchies, but at the same time, it’s important to have someone steer the ship. In the end, I don’t think we can make creative, successful work in a space that people aren’t comfortable in.”
ALONGSIDE THE PLAZA of the Hillsboro Civic Center, it’s my turn to share some of the B&B story, telling Whitcomb of the memorable Shakespeare adaptation that Palmer once mounted in that outdoor space, Kabuki Titus.
““I love this space,” Whitcomb said. “We have a great relationship with the city. My goal is to work with them to make sure we’re actively involved as a community gathering space, not just as our theater.”
The walk continued, with talk of Hillsboro Downtown Partnership meetings, of building a sympathetic relationship with the nearby community-theater company known as HART (Hillsboro Artists Regional Theatre), about the MAX rail line station and the parking lot that make Bag & Baggage so accessible for those outside Hillsboro.
But eventually even Nik Whitcomb ran out of time for talk. He had – and has – other work to do, establishing himself and re-establishing Bag & Baggage in the community through what he puts on the boards and under the lights.
“Creatively speaking, folks knew what Scott was doing when he was here,” he said. “Then later on came Covid and for a couple of years who knew what was going on? Right now, people are talking to me, but I think the question is, ‘Well, what are you gonna do? What’s your work and are we gonna like it?’ My smile can go only so far.”
- Bag & Baggage’s production of “Red Velvet,” which Nik Whitcomb directs, continues though Aug. 6 at The Vault Theater in Hillsboro. Ticket information here.