All Classical Radio James Depreist

PAM CUT unveils plans for east side venue: The Tomorrow Theater takes over longtime porn palace The Oregon Theater

As Portland Art Museum decommissions Whitsell Auditorium, PAM CUT looks across the river for a new home.

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Tomorrow Theater Design and Programming Team (L to R): Ambre Kelly, Co-Founder + Co-Director SPRING/BREAK Art Show; Amy Dotson, Director, PAM CUT // Center for an Untold Tomorrow and Curator, Film & New Media, Portland Art Museum; Erica Freyberger, Associate Director of Operations, PAM CUT // Center for an Untold Tomorrow; Andrew Gori, Co-Founder + Co-Director SPRING/BREAK Art Show; Andee Hess, Principal/Owner, Osmose Design.

Tomorrow has come. PAM CUT, the organization formerly known as the Northwest Film Center, has confirmed one of the most whispered-about topics among the Portland film community. Later this year, a multi-use space called the Tomorrow Theater will open on Southeast Division Street in a building that began its life as a home for vaudeville acts and then spent decades as a notorious porn theater. Re-invention is an American specialty, after all.

It has been, by definition, a transitional year for the Portland Art Museum’s Center for an Untold Tomorrow. That moniker, which debuted at last year’s Cinema Unbound awards, was the clearest indication yet of the institution’s new identity under director Amy Dotson.

The shift in name and focus drew mixed reviews, with many detecting a lack of appreciation for the Film Center’s history, tradition, and staff, but others welcoming a new energy and perspective to what had become a somewhat hidebound organization. One thing was certainly clear: PAM CUT was a distinct break from the past, pursuing its bold vision without compromise.

Building a new identity while simultaneously dealing with the aftereffects of a global pandemic may have slowed PAM CUT’s pace a skoosh, with the only major public-facing events being a VR headset rental program and the sensory-immersion experience of Symbiosis. But now Dotson has officially announced this major initiative, which will establish a permanent east-side museum presence for the first time and provide a base of operations when the Whitsell Auditorium is decommissioned as part of the Art Museum’s long-gestating Mark Rothko Pavilion project.

A design schematic depicting the entryway to the Tomorrow Theater.

I spoke with Dotson (who acknowledged the theater was “the worst-kept secret in Portland”) about what to expect from Tomorrow, what sorts of events and activities to expect there, and the building’s colorful history.

OREGON ARTSWATCH: As described in your press release, it seems like the Tomorrow theater is intended to be both a traditional cinema-plus-event space and also something more. Describe that “something more” for me.

DOTSON: It’s a little bit like that art piece that says “I am not a pipe.” This is not a movie theater. Our colleagues in town are killing it and have been for a really long time. We don’t really look at ourselves as being in that competitive space. We will always show movies, but the idea of Cinema Unbound is that we show everything, whether that’s live podcasts, whether that’s television series and ButtNumbathons, whether that is XR and New Media storytelling. The idea behind the Tomorrow Theater is that, at least at the start, we’ll have 26 different events every month.

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OAW: That’s an ambitious pace. And when you say “events”…

DOTSON: The “plus” model is really going to come into form. You’re never going to have just one particular art form—there will be two-plus art forms at every event we have. So if it’s a film, it’s a film plus dance. If it’s music, it will be music plus something else. Before our building was a live sex club and porn theater, it was a vaudeville house. Like vaudeville, we want to combine audiences that might not otherwise mix. And we want to combine and support artists who might not otherwise find each other. We’ll also have national and international artists coming through that space.

A design schematic depicting a cutaway view of the Tomorrow Theater

OAW: When you talk about combining two art forms, does that imply a thematic connection between two works from different disciplines? Or is that too limiting of a description?

DOTSON: We’re going to announce all of our programming in September. There will be some signature series that will show how that will work. Sometimes it’ll be artist-driven, if two or three artists already want to do things. There’s also a “high-low” aspect—it’s performance, it’s comedy, we can add layers to the story. We’re doing food and beverage through ChefStable, and there will be menus that match the themes, the ideas, the artists of the night.

OAW: It sounds like there will be some instances where the collaboration, or conversation, will be intentional between two or more artists, and others where PAM CUT is doing the combining and curating the experience.

DOTSON: That’s right. Initially we will be open Thursdays through Sundays, and we’re shooting for a late fall opening.

OAW: I would be remiss if I didn’t ask whether the opening of this new space speaks at all to the likelihood of the revival of the Portland International Film Festival or something similar.

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DOTSON: We’re working on that, but we have to open this beautiful theater first and close the Whitsell. Right now our priority is to have something like that that’s available to audiences year-round, with high-quality, ever-evolving work that would normally happen in a festival space, but that we’ll have every Thursday. We also want to make things as accessible as possible, so we’ll have different price points for different events.

OAW: It will be exciting to see your plans for a state-of-the-art 300-seat movie theater.

DOTSON: International cinema will always be welcome there. We are still firmly rooted in the media arts and in cinematic storytelling in all its forms. That’s our north star: it always has to feel cinematic. Whether it’s an old gospel choir opening a film or multi-faceted storytelling taking place throughout the space.

OAW: You drew on the wisdom of a group of creative program advisors, including local producer David Cress, Oregon Film’s Tim Williams, and journalist Byron Beck; as well as the head of the Venice Biennale’s film program and executives from Warner Bros. and Apple TV+. What role will that committee have going forward?

A design schematic depicting the concession area of the Tomorrow Theater.

DOTSON: They have been our advisors throughout this process, in terms of who to work with, from the great design firm Osmose to the artists and artisans who are crafting everything from the lights and sconces to the acoustic wall treatments. Some of those folks are here, and others are in Venice, or San Francisco, or London—I think it’s really important to have people who are out there in the world, making work or supporting work. On the programming side, we’ll have some different program advisors, but this has been to get us to this point of having a physical space and a business model that feels as welcoming to as many people as possible. Because not everyone loves Bulgarian cinema the way you and I do. Some people will have a different access point.

OAW: Well (and we had to cover this), the building you’ve remade had a long history of being very welcoming to a lot of people, and offering a variety of access points. For decades, the Oregon Theater was a notorious holdout from the days of swingers clubs and pre-internet (heck, pre-VCR) pornography. How are you honoring the locations’ colorful history?

DOTSON: It’s a place that has lived many lives, and we’re going to make sure we have a sense of humor about it. Without crossing any lines, there are some stories to tell. People in the community have been so generous in sharing their stories from all of those eras. The last two years have been something of a scavenger hunt—we’ll pick something up and ask whether it’s trash or something we should keep for posterity, or what…

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OAW: You were wearing gloves, one hopes. If those walls could talk…

DOTSON: (Laughs) You don’t want ’em to!

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Marc Mohan moved to Portland from Wisconsin in 1991, and has been exploring and contributing to the city’s film culture almost ever since, as the manager of the landmark independent video store Trilogy, the owner of Portland’s first DVD-only rental spot, Video Vérité; and as a freelance film critic for The Oregonian for nearly twenty years. Once it became apparent that “newspaper film critic” was no longer a sustainable career option, he pursued a new path, enrolling in the Northwestern School of Law at Lewis & Clark College in the fall of 2017 and graduating cum laude in 2020 with a specialization in Intellectual Property. He now splits his time between his practice with Nine Muses Law and his continuing efforts to spread the word about great (and not-so-great) movies, which include a weekly column at Oregon ArtsWatch.

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