Kirk Mouser

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.”

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