Spaces: Arts groups and the Portland real estate game

Artists Repertory Theatre and other performing arts organizations seek space and stability in an era of boom, bust and scarcity 

It’s a rainy evening outside the Tiffany Center, a circa-1928 Art Deco building in Goose Hollow that was first constructed for the Neighbors of Woodcraft fraternal organization. Inside, an elegant ballroom has been transformed by Artists Repertory Theatre, which has long been located across the street but will be itinerant for the next two-plus years while seeking to rebuild its theater building. 

For the play about to begin, The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, there are no rows of audience chairs facing the stage. The ballroom is instead configured for dinner, with perhaps 25 circular tables and a no-host bar. While caterers serve a choice of fish & chips, Reuben sandwiches or corned beef and cabbage on paper plates, cast members are mingling with the attendees, remaining in character enough to retain Prudencia’s called-for Scottish accents, but not so Method as to refuse questions from munching ticket-buyers.

For the next few years, Artists Repertory Theatre will be on a tour of performing arts spaces in the city, including the Tiffany Center for The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, as it works on building a new theater headquarters./Photo by Kathleen Kelly


“My prom was here,” an actress visiting my table confesses. But she’s really there to instruct us: We must tear our paper napkins into shreds and, when cued a few minutes later, toss them into the air, simulating falling snow for a scene set in a blizzard.

Dinner theater is not Artists Rep’s stock in trade, but a play masquerading a theater as a pub is perhaps fitting for a theater company using this 92-year-old ballroom and various other locations around town. That’s to say nothing of Artists Rep’s offices, which also have temporarily relocated, in this case to the former Zidell Marine Company building in South Waterfront, as has the group of 11 fellow nonprofit arts organizations renting office space from Artists Rep as part of what’s called the ArtsHub; four of those have relocated here too, including the Portland Actors Conservatory, Staged!, the Portland Area Theater Alliance and the August Wilson Red Door Project, and Boom Arts recently moved in, too. (The actress at my table, a non-speaking member of the cast, was a Portland Actors Conservatory student.) Seven others have had to seek temporary space elsewhere.

Still, in some ways Artists Rep has heretofore been lucky. Many performing-arts organizations around town have no home stage to miss. But there’s so much collaboration going on during the organization’s wandering in the wilderness phase—and seemingly enough inspiration being found in these new locations—that it’s almost a kind of creative act or marketing effort unto itself.

Even the former Zidell offices are atmospheric.

“The way we tried to frame this was an opportunity to innovate—try things we wouldn’t try if we were in our own building,” explains Artists Rep managing director J.S. May, noting that they’ve explored the possibility of producing a play in the rusty, cavernous, empty former barge-building facility next door. “When you’re in your own building, you can get into a comfort zone.”

Space Crunch

If that’s the case, then much of Portland’s arts scene is now operating outside its comfort zone. Although the city has in many ways a robust economy, with countless tower cranes dotting the skyline and a low unemployment rate to go with an ever-growing population, the past decade has seen little growth in the number of small performance venues in Portland, and possibly a modest retraction.

Every city possesses a collection of venues, ranging from the smallest 25- and 50-seaters tucked away to big auditoria like the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall or the Keller Auditorium and arenas like the Moda Center. The more options there are, the more opportunities there are to book a range of cultural offerings. However, while larger venues naturally get more attention for their urban street presence and the prominence of the acts coming through, it’s the smaller venues that tend to really sustain and enable a healthy, vibrant, diverse performing arts ecosystem. 

“There’s a need for a variety of facilities,” says George Thorn, a consultant to the Regional Arts and Culture Council who spent most of his career as a stage manager and later executive director for Broadway productions and not-for-profit theaters in New York City. “We do have a booking jam as a result. And it’s part of a larger, critical problem about the loss of not only venues but artists’ studios, gallery spaces, housing. You look across the whole spectrum and we have a great need.”

As Thorn saw in New York neighborhoods like SoHo in decades past, artists have always been victims of their own contributions. “They go into low-rent neighborhoods and improve them, but then they get priced out, so they go to the next neighborhood,” Thorne says. But he believes today’s circumstances are different. “Because of how developers are going out into the arteries of the city, I don’t know if there’s a place to go pioneer here any longer,” he says.

The City of Portland is not unaware of the venue crunch. One year ago, a trio of City Council members (Mayor Ted Wheeler, the late Commissioner Nick Fish, and Commissioner Chloe Eudaly) authored A Plan for Preserving and Expanding Affordable Arts Space in Portland. It included a host of ideas such as incentivizing creative-space landlords, retrofitting unused city-owned property for performances, and streamlining the red tape involved with converting rooftop spaces.

Although it’s arguable that Portland could use big-ticket architecture like a state-of-the-art concert hall for the Oregon Symphony and other performing arts—Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, after all, is just a converted movie theater, and not great acoustically—it’s really at the smaller scale where more stages are needed. 

“It would be nice to have more affordable, flexible space,” says Subashini Ganesan, the City of Portland’s official Creative Laureate as well as a choreographer and founder of New Expressive Works in Southeast. “What I’m hearing a lot is we don’t have enough affordable venues in the 100- to 250-seat range, especially that 100, 150 size.” Even when they’re available, they’re often tied to mission-driven arts organizations that rent out their performance spaces with strings attached. “You may not be able to get the dates you need, ” Ganesan says.

The erosion of small performance spaces seems to indicate how a booming economy can be a curse for struggling arts organizations as much as a blessing. “A lot of organizations started struggling when rent really started going up,” Ganesan says. “That’s because we weren’t paying market rate for such a long time. Real estate was down. The crash allowed a lot of us artists’ organizations to get space. When the real estate business started booming again, I’m not sure if our arts organizations were ready. A lot of them got displaced.”

The Creative Laureate hat Ganesan wears comes in addition to a full-time gig as the founder of New Expressive Works, a nonprofit studio space at Southeast Eighth and Belmont (in the former Zoomtopia building); she’s also a trained Bharatanatyam dancer, choreographer and instructor, so the studios come in handy. They also double as small performance venues.

For Artists Rep, the search for alternative venues for 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 first took them to the city-owned, multi-venue Antoinette Hatfield Hall on Broadway: specifically one of its smaller spaces such as the 330-seat Winningstad Theater. “Which was kind of unaffordable for us, and we’re a pretty successful company,” May says. “How do you make it work for incubations, for startups, for smaller companies? Can you make that work?” 

Even when an organization is only looking for single-night performance spaces, like the classical music organization Third Angle New Music, which holds its new music concerts in a variety of non-performance venues throughout each year, finding places to perform can be challenging. 

“Space is on everyone’s mind these days, just because there’s very little performance space left in Portland,” says Lisa Volle, Third Angle’s executive director. She cites a scarcity of not just 100- to 250-seat venues, but also larger 500-seat venues like Lincoln Hall at Portland State University. “More and more spaces are being converted in different ways or evaporating,” she says, but added that Third Angle has been lucky “in that it is part of our mission to do site-specific work: we’ve really used it to our benefit almost. But there are challenges that come up with that.” 

Last year, for example, Third Angle held one performance at the headquarters for wind-turbine manufacturer Vestas. “They were wonderful. We really enjoyed being in the space,” Volle says. “But it’s an active office building. There were cleaning crews and people coming and going. It maybe wasn’t as quiet as it needed to be. But we’ve also had a performance in the atrium of Montgomery Park and it’s been incredible.” A Third Angle performance I attended at the Jack London Revue jazz club late last year gave works by minimalist composers Philip Glass and Steve Reich a looser, more accessible feel.

Collaboration and Ambition 

Artists Rep has spent this season on the move like Third Angle, exploring a variety of performance venues for its 2019-2020 season. Each was useful as a one-off but would have limitations long-term.

For a production of 1984 at Imago Theatre in the latter company’s East Burnside home, “there was a lot of foot traffic, people walking in,” May says. “But that’s a building that needs serious capital investment,” May says. “It was great for a dystopian play, but it doesn’t have dressing rooms. It’s a converted masonic space.”

An upcoming production of School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play, will be held at the state-of-the-art and well-trafficked Armory’s Main Stage. But that’s a co-production with Portland Center Stage, one of the city’s largest theater companies. In February, a production of Paula Vogel’s Indecent, a co-production with Profile Theatre in association with Portland State University’s Music and Drama Departments opens at the university’s Lincoln Hall. But because Lincoln is virtually the only local venue around 500 seats, it’s hard for an independent theater company to book for a multi-night theatrical run. 

The dreams of Shaking the Tree, Imago and Profile Theatre exist at a very different scale from Artists Repertory Theater, perhaps like Broadway and Off Broadway in New York City. The bigger company wants much more than a longer lease and a green room, but that’s befitting one of Portland’s two largest theater companies.

In late 2018, May and the company’s board announced a $10 million-plus capital campaign to fund its redesigned facility, which would include two theaters (at 250 and 100-seat capacities), two rehearsal spaces and offices for Artists Rep and the ArtsHub. Artists Rep sold the other half of its block-sized property for $9 million to an Atlanta-based real estate company that is developing a 22-story residential tower, and received an anonymous $7.1 million donation as well as an additional $500,000 donation. But much of that money has helped to pay off the company’s debts, hence the need for one more ask.

Lever Architecture has designed a new theater and office complex for Artists Repertory Theatre on half of the block it used to occupy in Goose Hollow. The other half features a large tower./Rendering courtesy of Artists Repertory Theatre

While touring may invigorate Artists Rep in some ways, there’s also a sense of urgency about breaking ground on the new project. “We’re spending about $300,000 a year combined on this [office space], our performance venues and scene shop,” May explains. “And we’re losing revenue on the performance spaces of our own that we’re not able to rent. So we made the decision to move as quickly as we could.”

If Artists Rep is able to meet its fundraising goals, groundbreaking could come this spring. As of our conversation in late December, May estimated about $4 million to $6 million would need to be raised by his namesake month. Can it be done, especially in a city that, compared at least to neighbors like Seattle and San Francisco, lacks wealth?

“Fundraising boils down to three things,” May says. “First is case. I think we have an incredible story. Second is prospects. Who are you going to tell that story to? And third is pathways. Can you penetrate the consciousness of those donors? We’ll see. But is the money out there? Yeah.” He points to Beaverton’s Patricia Reser Center for the Arts, which recently broke ground on a projected $51 million dollar building—some $20 million more than the new Artists Rep’s price tag.

At a Smaller Scale

Not all organizations need to raise tens of millions on their home stages to survive economically and prosper creatively. Take theater company Shaking the Tree, founded in 2003, which makes imaginative use of its converted-warehouse space near Division Street in the Central Eastside Industrial District. With a blend of surrealism and childlike play, Shaking The Tree has continually found creative ways to make its audience a participant. “I love to blur the boundaries between the imaginary and the real,” founder Samantha Van Der Merwe explained in a Creative Mornings talk last year, “so that when an audience steps across the threshold, they can be transported.” 

For a one-person production starring Matthew Kerrigan last year called We’re All Mad Here (a loose interpretation of Alice In Wonderland), for example, attendees first passed through a tunnel-like space before being greeted by Kerrigan in Mad Hatter costume. Kerrigan led the audience to their seats. After making flexible use of one three-paneled stage for the majority of the production, including a back curtain with sleeves that Kerrigan could slip into to play the Queen of Hearts, attendees were then led by a girl dressed as Alice to a separate space behind the stage. There, a long communal table was set up with tea cups and other props as well as a paper tablecloth and crayons, and everyone was encouraged to stay and continue the party. For another production, Bakkhai by Anne Carson last year (a reinterpretation of Euripides’ The Bacchae), seating was arranged in an alley-like configuration with the actors coming out of archways surrounding the seats. “It was a show about opposites and change, so each side gave you a different visual story of the play,” Van Der Merwe explained. 

What sort of space does Van Der Merwe need to pull off these different configurations? “What I want is a very utilitarian space. I basically just want an open square that I can keep reconfiguring for our shows. I don’t want a typical black box space,” she says, noting the expense and preciousness. “What I really want is a space that works from every angle. We don’t even put drywall on the walls—just plywood. We’re being super-practical.”

Shaking the Tree’s Samantha Van Der Merwe has creatively adapted its industrial Southeast Portland space to create a variety of rich theater experiences, including Bakkhai last fall/Photo Meg Nanna

That comes by necessity when the budget is small. Van Der Merwe has installed a new lighting grid at Shaking The Tree, but the space is completely uninsulated and there’s one small bathroom. The landlord built out a small office that doubles as the green room and dressing room during performances. The theater itself, which seats 50 people, is also rented out between plays. 

“It works for us because we just do a five-week run in the space to make sure we can make money off our ticket sales,” Van Der Merwe explains. “But for a company renting from me for two or three weeks, there’s a fine balance between what I charge and what they can then make in ticket sales.”

She wouldn’t mind going up to 75 seats, which would increase revenue fairly substantially. “I think that’s the beauty of Portland,” she says. “It’s always since I’ve been here been an easy place to have an idea and make it happen, because there’s a supportive, unpretentious audience. The hardcore theatergoers in town will come see your show whether it’s Portland Center Stage at the Armory or it’s at a shoebox theater. They won’t snub you if you’re in a tiny space. That’s a beautiful thing.”

The building Shaking the Tree rents was recently bought by ChefStable restaurant group owner Kurt Huffman, who is offering the kind of long-term lease that large foundations require for funding capital projects. Huffman is also open to making potential improvements like a new office separate from the green room. “We can’t afford for our lease to go up by $2,000 a month, but it helps launch us into a capital campaign that can then cover that extra amount,” Van Der Merwe says. “We need to make sure we can successfully meet that jump in rent, which we couldn’t just do tomorrow. But it feels doable because along the way we’ve been asked what we can afford, what we think is possible. It’s actually quite brilliant.”

Flagship Theater

Lever Architecture’s design for the new Artists Repertory Theater provides what firm leader Thomas Robinson hopes is “an iconic transformation that announces they’re there. The [current] building doesn’t welcome you. It’s sort of hidden away. I think many people walk by that building and don’t understand there’s a theater there.”

If the project is constructed, visitors and passers-by along Morrison Street will see a two-story wall of glass, condensing what had been a long, thin, not very inviting lobby into one vibrant space. It can give Artists Rep a contemporary version of what Portland Center Stage has with its Gerding Theater inside the atmospheric old 19th century First Regiment Armory in the Pearl District, with its castellated, turret-topped architecture outside and soaring bowstring trusses visible from the multistory lobby. “Theater connects with you in a way that’s a visceral experience,” Robinson says. “The best architecture does that too. You experience the play or the space or that scene in a way that you remember.” 

The old building Artists Rep has long called home and seeks to renovate, dating to the 1920s, isn’t as dramatic as the Armory. It originally was an Elks Club recreation building with a bowling alley, swimming pool and card rooms: a rabbit warren but one with wide-open spans thanks to the presence of the pool. Lever hopes to repurpose one huge wood ceiling beam stretching across the building as the truss to enable its own dramatically wide-open, column-free lobby and gathering space. But perhaps it says something that century-old former fraternal-organization buildings still form a key part of Portland’s arts infrastructure.

The two theaters designed for Artists Rep may be simply replacing its two existing theaters, but Lever’s design carves out space for something the theater never had there before: full professional rigging capability, “one that is actually 30 foot clear with lighting and catwalks: all the things they can’t do right now—productions that are on par with anywhere,” Robinson explains.

“They’re doing so much with not having the ability to actually have some very basic things.” In that way, there’s still a bit of Shaking the Tree even in Artists Rep, which has always had to shut off its loud heater during plays, for instance. The design is also pragmatic in other ways. “Because the site is so constrained, there was the idea: every space is a performance space,” the architect says. “A space that’s a rehearsal space can be an event space. There’s no extra space in this building. That ethic is very much what Portland is about. There’s an economy of design. It’s a school, it’s a theater, it’s a nexus of the performing arts in Portland. I think it’s going to be incredible.”

Indeed, if the plan comes to fruition, the new Artists Rep will be a destination all week long, and into the evening. After the play, why not stay for live music, or late-night standup comedy? A version of Prudencia Hart could become permanent: a blend of theater and pub…or at least theater and wine bar. 

“This is not just about us,” May is quick to remind. “It’s about this ecosystem of people that we support.” In Portland, there may not be wealth like exists in neighboring cities like Seattle or San Francisco. But there’s a culture of collaboration that, at times, can lift every boat.” Last year we did 1,500 events in our building,” he says. “Only 500 of those were us. What we’re trying to do is be a home for artists and audiences to take creative risks.”

In many ways, Artists Rep’s evolution speaks to one that Portland itself perhaps faces: a scrappy, DIY-spirited place experiencing growing pains of uncertainty, yet also given the opportunity to become more of a destination than ever before. 

We’re the perfect place for someone to put on a Scottish play about fairy tales that’s set in a pub, and stage it in an old fraternal hall. We’re the kind of place that can turn an old warehouse into a credible Mat Hatter’s tea party. In other words, we’re a scrappy culture of collaborators. But what if Portland’s best future called for us to not just be scrappy but to erect purpose-built theaters and concert halls too? Ideally one ought not to preclude or exclude the other.

Of course the places where artists perform are only one part of the equation. What about studios and rehearsal spaces, or housing for that matter? Growing pains may even more aptly describe those infrastructural yet very human challenges. In this continuing series of stories, we’ll be diving into those stories as well. Who was that English playwright who said something about all the world being a stage?

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