Palmer’s got a brand new bag

Set to depart for Sun Valley, the Bag & Baggage founder leaves a legacy of adventurous art and passionate advocacy for suburban culture.

Some years ago, Bag & Baggage Productions founding artistic director Scott Palmer was registering at a national theater conference and a staffer asked for his name. Palmer told him. “Palmer, Palmer,” the man said, trying to place him. “Oh yeah, you’re that annoying guy from Hillsboro!”

“That’s exactly who I am,” Palmer cheerfully admits. “I am an advocate for suburban and regional theater. I’m not afraid to be vocal in that essential role.”

But after 15 years of pushing in Oregon, Palmer is taking his advocacy — and his art — elsewhere. He’s been named producing artistic director of Company of Fools, an ambitious professional theater company in Sun Valley, Idaho. But though he leaves B&B and Oregon March 1, Palmer isn’t leaving behind his advocacy for the arts outside the usual urban centers. With his track record of artistic accomplishment, Palmer could easily land a plum job anywhere, but in his new job, he’ll continue to push his vision of bringing arts to everyone where they live — on a larger scale.

Having built Bag & Baggage into one of the most respected theater in the region, founder Scott Palmer will take a new post in Sun Valley, Idaho. File photo.

Having grown up in what’s now Oregon’s fourth largest city, and nurtured (with a lot of help from dedicated staff and board members, he notes often) B&B into becoming its leading arts institution and one of the state’s most vital theater companies, Palmer has often had to be annoying, or at least persistent, to get support and recognition.

“In the midst of national conversations around bringing equity and inclusion to theater, let’s not forget that those are often privileged conversations about theaters in urban areas,” Palmer points out. Because state, regional and national arts organizations otherwise routinely dismiss and even disdain suburban and rural communities like Hillsboro, Palmer has had to push.

“I’m trying to be a disruptive force at the state and national level,” he says.

He’s certainly succeeded in Hillsboro.

“We are so grateful that Scott Palmer, one of our own, brought his vision and passion for professional theater to Downtown Hillsboro,” said Hillsboro Mayor Steve Callaway. “Under Scott’s leadership, Bag&Baggage established a permanent home on Main Street, became a nationally recognized organization, and cemented its place as a foundational piece in Hillsboro’s thriving arts scene. Downtown Hillsboro is a regional destination for professional theater, thanks in large part to Scott. His thought-provoking productions and commitment to equitable opportunities for all has enriched our city and changed lives.”

Daunting Challenges

Fifteen years ago, no one, not even Palmer himself, would have believed that he would ultimately leave behind one of Oregon’s greatest artistic success stories.

“When I started B&B, it was with a simple mission: to make sure that every community, no matter how small, how rural or suburban, had access to the highest-quality performing arts,” he says. “I believe that my friends, neighbors, and community members should have access to the same high-quality, life-changing, expectation-challenging work as those who live in downtown Portland.”

Few shared that belief. “I heard from many people that ‘Hillsboro can’t support a professional theatre,’ or ‘the kind of work you do isn’t what people in small towns want to see,’ or ‘there will never be enough money, donors, or ticket buyers to make this work,’ or ‘theater in the suburbs is never any good,’” he remembers.

Over the next decade, the company quashed any doubts, with increasingly high quality productions (most directed by Palmer himself) of his edgy Shakespeare adaptations (his specialty, cultivated since college and through his previous directorship in Scotland), his trilogy of original radio theater holiday spoofs, and artful re-imagining of even stodgy classics like The Crucible.

Palmer’s strategy for luring less-familiar rural and suburban audiences to live theater: take a beloved classic like Shakespeare that also possessed deeper, more challenging ideas — and highlight their contemporary relevance in a non-didactic, always entertaining way, sometimes pushing conventional boundaries.

“I don’t like to come to the theater to be yelled at,” Palmer says. “We want this theater to feel like a place to come and be challenged, asked to think, asked to have a conversation. I describe it as a bait and switch. When we say we’re doing Romeo and Juliet, they don’t freak out about a progressive political agenda.” But he’ll deliver the broad appeal of  Shakespeare’s perennial, as he did in a 2017 production, in a mash-up with one of the classic tales of the Muslim world. “Then they say ‘what’s this Layla and Majnun business?’

Similarly, Bag & Baggage’s upcoming show, Bell, Book and Candle, which inspired the TV show Bewitched and became a Jimmy Stewart movie, “is a play about being closeted homosexual in 1950s America, about how people have to give up their identity to fit in.” After the community learned to trust the company’s artistry, B&B was able to draw audiences for edgier fare.

Scott Palmer’s surprising takes on classics included the striking Shakespeare adaptation “Kabuki Titus,” with Nevan Richard as the dastardly Demetrius. Photo courtesy Bag & Baggage

Despite the skeptics, Hillsboro and Washington County and increasingly even farther flung audiences responded, steadily increasing attendance and support. So did Hillsboro political and financial leaders. Any urbanite stereotypes of suburban cultural vanished as Palmer’s hometown embraced its proudly gay and socially progressive native son’s community-oriented vision.

That support in turn fueled B&B’s startling artistic growth into one of the region’s finest theater companies. Anyone who thinks anything that comes out of Hillsboro can’t match and sometimes exceed the highest quality of Portland theater simply hasn’t been paying attention to Bag & Baggage lately.

“We proved the naysayers wrong,” Palmer wrote in his farewell press release.. We have beguiled, befuddled, delighted, and disturbed our audiences for nearly 15 years. Together, we built a theater company that has become an indelible part of the fabric of Hillsboro.”

All that success and goodwill, however faced a major challenge two years ago, when the Venetian Theater’s owners suddenly announced its closure and intended sale, as ArtsWatch chronicled. Suddenly, the success story seemed headed for a tragic ending.

“The closure of the Venetian was absolutely terrifying,” Palmer remembers. “We were all concerned on the staff and board that it would be end of B&B. Not knowing if we as organization would be able to find a new home, raise the money, would people be passionate enough to support us — it was an existential crisis for all of us.”

It was also a financial crisis. The abrupt closure forced a move of the next show to a library with less than half the theater’s audience capacity, and also necessitated the cancellation of its season-closing big moneymaker, the ever popular farce Noises Off. The resulting $80,000 loss led to the company’s first and only season-ending deficit (a rare feat in itself for any theater company), and even if $4,000 in red ink seems a pittance on a $600,000 budget, with its nine-year home gone, “there was a serious question on the table,” Palmer remembers. “Is it time for B&B to go away?”

Exterior rendering of the Vault, the performance space that Bag&Baggage Productions opened in September 2017 in downtown Hillsboro. Image: Opsis Architects

The community’s support, earned over more than a decade of sustained community-building effort and good theater, answered that question with the decision to build the Vault. But the construction itself posed another tremendous challenge. Could they really pull off such a massive capital project in time to open the 2017 season?

“We basically operated a $700,000 organization out of small classroom at the Episcopal Church and almost a year rehearsing in the Lion of Judah room at the Methodist Church — all while managing that project,” Palmer recalls. In the end of course, they pulled it off (though it took an enormous toll on Palmer and the staff), and in fact by forcing the community to decide whether to invest in the company, the Venetian crisis probably  wound up securing its future. (Infuriatingly, the old theater still hasn’t reopened — the agonizing upheaval didn’t have to happen. B&B could have finished out its season and made an orderly transition.)

“I take some degree of pride in being able to move on to new challenges having proved those naysayers wrong,” Palmer says. “You don’t have to dumb it down and do Neil Simon every show. You can create provocative, culturally relevant, national quality work at a regional theater like Hillsboro, effectively and efficiently in a fiscally responsible way.”

That success in turn has implications beyond B&B, even Hillsboro. “The hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life was persuade the city of Hillsboro not just that professional theater should be here —  but could thrive here,” Palmer says. “We’ve done a remarkable job of having difficult conversations with this community that probably have changed the conversation here for good.”

Bigger Stage

The advent of the new theater, in turn, made Palmer’s coming move easier. “With the Vault Theater now open, with a strong and healthy bottom line, and with a deep bench of artists and administrators at the helm … well, if there were ever a time for me to leap into the unknown and pursue new challenges, that time is now,” he explains.

In Idaho, Palmer will literally enjoy a bigger stage in Company of Fools’  1920s-vintage theater (similar to but larger than Hillsboro’s now-shuttered Venetian, B&B’s original home), larger budget, and an additional role as one of three leaders of the theater company’s umbrella institution, the Sun Valley Arts Center. Idaho’s largest cultural nonprofit organization, the Center also encompasses a museum, symphony orchestra, two other theater companies, contemporary and classical dance companies. He’ll be involved in a long-term expansion of the company and its fully owned theater (which previous owners Demi Moore and Bruce Willis donated to it).

While Palmer’s reach will be greater, so will his support — a major reason for his move. While he’ll still direct a couple of plays in its four-show season, that’s fewer than his current portfolio at B&B, and (a major attraction) he’ll have a larger staff to relieve some of the burden of marketing and promotion, fundraising, and other non-artistic tasks.

“I love that we’re a tight knit family at Bag & Baggage, but the challenge with mid sized theater companies like ours is that everybody wears 15 hats,” he explains. “That’s great — till you get to be 50. I spend 95% of my time in fundraising, cultural policy, public relations and less and less time in the rehearsal space.”

Scott Palmer, surrounded by his Bag & Baggage family. Photo: Artslandia

That will change in Idaho. “Company of Fools is 25 years old and SV Arts Center is 50 and they have a vastly different degree of staff capacity,” he notes. “I’m incredibly proud of what we’ve done [at B&B] and it’s painful and difficult to leave, but I’m excited to go to a place that has more money for artists, and dedicated staff to do marketing, fundraising and development. They’re asking me to come here and [just] be an artist and do more with community engagement.”

He’ll have help with that latter part too. “Sun Valley has a thriving and diverse arts scene where I will have a lot of colleagues working for other professional arts organizations,” Palmer explains. “I won’t be the only person in the community yelling about arts funding — there’ll be a chorus of people.”

B&B Benefits

Palmer believes his move will also benefit Bag & Baggage. The problem of the charismatic founder confounds many organizations, and not just in the arts. It can be difficult for an institution to evolve its own identity in the shadow of its creator, particularly one as smart, wryly funny, socially concerned and deeply devoted to his community as Palmer. As annoying as he might be when pushing for rural and suburban arts at state and national conferences, Palmer’s a charmer at home, always pushing for support from the community his company serves, but in an engagingly self-deprecating and non-condescending way. He’s always out front mingling and greeting patrons before B&B shows, somehow making his season-ticket spiel entertaining each time (“I love every one of you in the audience, but I love our season ticket holders just a little bit more”), putting a face on the company.

And what he does in the theater is only a fraction of what it takes to make the theater an integral part of its community, from participating on various organizational boards to regularly meeting with area political and community leaders and much more.

Palmer is quick to point out that almost every staff and board member at B&B takes similar responsibilities, but they’re inevitably less visible.

“I take up a lot of space, I cast a pretty big shadow, and sometimes it’s hard to see around me,” he admits. “That’s not always in the organization’s best interest. There’s a lot of opportunity for the company to explore a future without me,” He sees his departure as a crucial chance to bring those other voices and visions to the fore.

One of those voices is newly named interim artistic director Cassie Greer, who will run the show between Palmer’s March 1 departure and the B&B board’s April 22 announcement of a permanent replacement. (A board transition committee has already begun what Palmer calls “a quiet regional search.”) She started as an actor, moved into the resident company, then directed several shows, handled education and outreach, and more. Anyone who’s watched the company over the years has noted the company-wide development in acting quality, as well as with several individual actors who’ve internalized Palmer’s distinctive style — just a little larger than life, with plenty of subtext. Artistically, the company has never been stronger, and the move to the Vault is encouraging further development as the company adjusts to a very different environment.

Now the company will find its own direction without him. But though he may be directing and agitating elsewhere, Scott Palmer will always be that annoying — and endearing — guy from Hillsboro.

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