julianne johnson

The Little Engine That Does

Starting small but thinking big, the musical-theater company Stumptown Stages has made itself a leader in equity and diversity

What do you know about Stumptown Stages? 

A regular Portland theatergoer might reasonably be assumed to know that Stumptown Stages has now been around for a decade and a half or so, that its forté is musicals, both new and old, and that it’s led by two of the more accomplished names in Portland theater, Kirk Mouser (producing artistic director) and Julianne Johnson (associate artistic director and board chair), both of whom are seasoned veterans of stages from New York City to the Rose City. 

What might not be so well known is that Stumptown Stages is one of the Portland theater scene’s leaders in doing equity and diversity work, and that this was a company focus long before the murder of George Floyd and the ensuing civil unrest. One might be forgiven for not knowing that years ago, when Johnson and Mouser were looking to mount their first production together, Dreamgirls, a prominent director/producer (who shall remain nameless – “a quick disclaimer,” says Mouser, “it is not Corey Brunish”) said to Mouser, “Good luck, you’ll never find the Black talent here in Portland.” 

Julianne Johnson (left, with Shahayla Onanaiye and Kristin Robinson) in Stumptown’s hit production of “Dreamgirls.” Photo courtesy Stumptown Stages

Johnson, naturally, took umbrage at this comment. “Okay, well, that would be me,” Johnson thought at the time, “and everybody I interact with.”  Neither Mouser nor Johnson has any idea what that director thought when Stumptown Stages did, in fact, produce a sold-out run of Dreamgirls at the Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center, but that was the spark that ignited the proverbial forest fire. Mouser and Johnson formed an unbreakable bond, and together they now had a mission. Johnson joined Stumptown Stages as board chair and associate artistic director. Together they realized that they “had an important role to play,” says Mouser, a mission “to change the institutionalized racism that existed and exists in the Portland theater community.”

Continues…

$50 million? It’s a beginning

ArtsWatch Weekly: An emergency lifeline to Oregon's cultural sector staves off pandemic disaster. But the economic problem is still urgent.

FIFTY MILLION DOLLARS SOUNDS LIKE A LOT. AND IT IS. But spread it across the entire state of Oregon to aid a cultural infrastructure devastated economically by pandemic shutdowns and the cash runs out pretty quickly. The Legislature’s Joint Emergency Board approved the bailout on Tuesday, as part of a $200 million general economic package distributed by the state through the federal Coronavirus Relief Fund. The significant cultural part of the package came after a spirited lobbying push by groups and individuals, and notably recognized an economic truth that is often overlooked: Cultural workers are workers, and when they lose work they undergo the same stresses as anyone else thrown out of a job. “People who work in cultural organizations have families, have to pay the mortgage or the rent, have children to feed,” Brian Rogers, executive director of the Oregon Cultural Trust and the Oregon Arts Commission, said in a telephone conversation on Wednesday. “Without these funds coming in, these organizations are having a difficult time.”

The Emergency Board, and the state itself, can’t solve all the problems of the reeling cultural sector by themselves. The $50 million E Board allocation is exactly what it says it is – an emergency measure, meant to lend a significant hand during a disaster and help stave off collapse. It can’t magically make up the lost income of an entire industry that’s been hit exceptionally hard by the pandemic. A statewide Cultural Trust survey in May projected a $40 million loss by June 30 for the 330 cultural groups (out of more than 1,400 that the Trust tracks) that responded. It’s now mid-July, with no clear end in sight, and the losses keep piling up. For perspective, the $4.71 million that the E Board is delivering to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which got the biggest allocation granted, covers a little more than 10 percent of the festival’s annual budget.
 

Everything’s coming up virtual. The 70-year-old Salem Art Association Art Fair and Festival, pictured in a previous year, becomes a virtual event this year, celebrated long-distance on Saturday and Sunday, July 18-19. Photo courtesy Oregon Cultural Trust 

Continues…

Play it Forward: restoring music education

This month's Virtual Supper Club event supports pianist Michael Allen Harrison's program to bring music lessons to Oregon students

When Michael Allen Harrison was growing up in 1960s Portland, arts education enriched his life. “All the public schools had band programs, strings programs, choir, theater, painting, sculpture,” he remembers. “There were piano teachers in every neighborhood. We had everything at our fingertips to figure out what we were good at, what inspired us.”

What inspired Harrison was playing piano and composing music. He used the skills and qualities he gained from his arts education to become one of the most successful pianists in so-called New Age music, found his own record label, record more than 60 albums, score musicals, films, ballets, theater productions and orchestral compositions, and much more. He was recently inducted into the Oregon Music Hall of Fame.

Michael Allen Harrison

But as his own star rose, Harrison watched with disappointment and then alarm as his home state systematically dismantled the public school arts education system that had so enriched his life and helped him create the music that delighted so many listeners. 

Harrison decided to do something about it. He resolved to help restore access to music education to Oregonians who couldn’t afford it. Two decades ago, he created the Snowman Foundation program to support music education in Oregon and eventually Seattle, then the Ten Grands fundraising concert to bring pianos to students whose families couldn’t afford them. And three years ago, his Play it Forward program embarked on the culminating phase of his original vision. 

But like so many other worthy educational and musical efforts this year, Play it Forward has had to shift gears — though the engine is still running strong and moving forward. And this week, Oregon arts lovers can help.

Continues…