EDITOR’S NOTE: Brian Libby talks with Chris Ayzoukian, executive director of the new Patricia Reser Center for the Arts, approaching the final stages of construction at The Round in Beaverton. The center, which is set to open in March 2022 and will include a 550-seat performance hall, an art gallery, and other features, is the realization of a longtime dream to establish a major cultural and performance center in the heart of Washington County. Ayzoukian helps launch the new art center after 17 years with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, most recently as vice president in charge of concert production of more than 200 shows annually, plus worldwide touring. “We put people in a dark room, the lights go down and they become one audience. You feel this kinship with the people around you and when you come out you might think differently,” Ayzoukian tells Libby.
BRIAN LIBBY: We’re talking while you’re on a late-summer vacation with your family, about six months before the Reser Center’s opening but also amidst uncertain times for the arts. How do you feel?
CHRIS AYZOUKIAN: It’s my last hurrah before we open. And every time I’m away from my routine I try to think of things a little differently. A question I think about a lot is, what is it I enjoy about the performing arts and concerts? There’s two parts. There’s this idea you’re creating something behind the scenes for people to see. Then once you string it together and it’s complete and you’re ready to present it to the world, be it five people or a big audience, there’s this sense of accomplishment. I imagine people who run a marathon get the same high. It’s such a beautiful thing.
Particularly during the pandemic, maybe that will be even greater: the euphoria of people coming together again.
It all ties into the arts center and our audiences and our community getting to experience that for two hours, and look at a story or look at an issue in a different light. If you distill it down, I think that’s really what we do in the arts. We put people in a dark room, the lights go down and they become one audience. You feel this kinship with the people around you and when you come out you might think differently. That’s what gets me excited about building this arts center. I see it as a platform for so many different things. It’s a jewel, and it’s a celebration of different cultures in our community, and a platform to give artists a voice. I can’t wait for people to get surprised and delighted by what’s happening there.
Do you see the Reser Center as part of a trend of suburbs beginning to build more arts and culture venue?
I think over the last maybe 20 years, it’s been happening more and more. I talk to a lot of colleagues in other cities in suburban settings. I think people, as they’re moving out of urban core areas, they’re looking for some of the same amenities. An article I read a few years ago called it “surban,” a combination of suburb and urban. People have been asking Beaverton to develop a walkable downtown for years. We’ll be the northern end of that downtown. And when people talk about a healthy downtown, some sort of arts and cultural facility usually is a part of that. A lot of people in Beaverton laid the foundation for this place. This idea of a public-private partnership, I’ve looked at a lot of case studies. I came from Los Angeles and was part of the staff that opened Walt Disney Concert Hall. Certain ingredients for success need to be in place. Here, there was a strong vision, a philanthropist willing to plant the seed, a city council behind it. And things lined up.
The Reser Center doesn’t have resident arts organizations. Can you talk about that strategy?
This center wasn’t really purpose-built for one resident arts organization. It came up from the community to be a hub, for more equitable access to the arts on the west side. Beaverton is a city growing and diversifying every year. People were saying, ‘Look, we don’t want to always have to go to Portland for our arts and culture.’ If you look at the west side, there isn’t really a venue like this. There are amazing theaters and companies, but places with a variety of programming, there isn’t.
In the first few years, you need time to understand what audiences want and what will differentiate us. So we’ll present a variety of things, and what I call the best of the region. And we’ll have a series that brings in artists from all over the world, for music, dance, spoken word, theater. It will be a professional presenting organization as well as a home for local and regional arts organizations as well.
[In our capital campaign] we’ve already seen there are funders for the arts that have funded this building that haven’t funded arts on the west side in the past. We believe there are more audiences, really excited audiences, that are ready to come out.
I came from Disney [Concert Hall] and the Hollywood Bowl, with the L.A. Philharmonic. With resident arts organizations there’s good and bad. You have a lot of dates that can activate your center. But sometimes there aren’t enough dates. We don’t have that here. We have this canvas where we can host different [organizations] over time.
By the time we hit year five or six, we hope to have more authentic relationships with those many communities.
Sometimes just that extra few minutes driving and looking for parking and the little bit extra you spend to go downtown can make the difference between buying and not buying a ticket.
That’s exactly it. Los Angeles is not a good comparison because it’s a megalopolis. I used to drive 26 miles to work every day. The nine or ten miles here from the west side [to downtown Portland], it’s a barrier for some people.
And locally, the Reser Center may be a point of pride.
That’s the other part of building something like this. I think the residents around the Center, within a five or ten mile radius, will see themselves differently, because it will be a huge sense of pride for the city: that we will have this performing arts center that presents artists from all over the world.
The other day I was in front of the center, just leaving. I saw an elderly couple looking at the building. I love talking to people. I call them tiny focus groups. So I went over. They’d been attracted to the architecture. When they realized it was a performing arts center, I could see their eyes light up. They couldn’t wait to come. It raises the game for the community.
What happened with Disney Concert Hall, and happens with many arts facilities all the time, is in a way the community sees themselves in the building. A few years later, it’s, ‘We deserve that. It’s us.’ People see the very best of themselves in the arts facility. I don’t mean to give an over-rosy scenario. You have to make sure the community does see themselves. That’s part of my job: to help make sure it’s not just a cookie cutter art center—that people feel welcome and can see themselves there. We want to invest the time with various communities. Because Beaverton’s a beautiful tapestry. It’s many communities.
How do you make these different communities feel welcome?
It hasn’t always been easy historically for performing arts centers to do it. This is the core of the issue, I think. Different cultures haven’t always had a rapport with performing arts centers, because there’s been a lot of focus on European arts: opera, symphony, ballet, the Germanic arts. We want that, but we also want to explore [the traditions and cultures of many] communities.
Could you talk about the challenge of building a flexible theater space for these different types of performance? Can an orchestra and a play and a speaker all work well here?
It’s hard to be the jack of all trades, especially acoustically. This is a fixed acoustics space. I think the key decision is, do you have a fixed seat venue or flexible. This is fixed with a proscenium stage. It’s wide enough to do a variety of things, but it’s kind of a specific thing. Some things are not made for a proscenium. [If you’re not careful in the acoustic design] you can blow people out of their seats. We erred on the side of being a bit more reverberant than a typical hall. You typically want middle of the road so a speaker on stage with a microphone won’t sound too muddled, but you also don’t want it too dead. In this case, it will be a nice direct sound with resonance and bloom, especially having a lot of wood, a lot of Douglas fir.
I’m excited. I seriously get emotional about it when I walk on site. I can’t wait to see people walking out with smiles on their faces.
What about the 550-seat capacity?
The thing about our space, it’s an intimate 550. We’ve got 350 on the first floor, 200 up above. I was pleasantly surprised when I walked in for the first time. You can really see the artist on that stage. You can make eye contact and vice versa. I think artists are going to love playing there. In a larger 2,000, 3,000 seat theater, you really lose because the artist is a lot further away. It’s easier, the economics of it. You could build a bigger place, but filling 2,000 seats for 250 nights a year plus, that’s not easy. You want that sweet spot where you can play to mostly-full houses, but sustain it over the long term.
What’s a performing arts venue from your past that you adore?
The Hollywood Bowl. I’ve seen so many different performances there; It’s almost 18,000 seats, but there are some nights that have brought tears to my eyes, and you can hear a pin drop. Outdoor, slight breeze, perfect summer night, and everyone transfixed on one artist. I remember seeing Iron and Wine there, and Glenn Hansard, the singer-songwriter. It was such intensity; such quiet, restrained intensity: this dark bowl with one artist on stage, acoustic. I’ll never forget it.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
- PREVIOUSLY: Brian Libby’s Sept. 8 story Rising in Beaverton: West Gate tells the story of the Patricia Reser Center for the Arts and its potential impact on the West Side, from the project’s beginnings through its design and construction and impending opening.