Portland Civic Theatre

Isabella Chappell: a good life

Farewell to Portland Civic Theatre's legendary longtime guiding light, who has left the building at 95

Among the many things I remember about Isabella Chappell, the onetime prime minister of Portland theater who died on February 1 at the age of ninety-five, is the antic wit lurking just below her formidable managerial prowess. You could be talking with her about serious stuff – ticket sales, budgets, the need to upgrade facilities at the old Portland Civic Theatre building, the difficulty of selling any show that wasn’t a musical or a comedy or preferably both – and she would rat-a-tat facts and figures and drawbacks and contingencies and possibilities like an economics advisor to the White House. Then, at some point, the edges of her mouth would twitch as an irrepressible thought struck her, something comic and absurd yet also somehow to the point, and she’d giggle and blurt it out. Well, this about sums up the situation, her laughter would suggest, and you would realize that, no matter how tough the situation appeared to be, at some level she was enjoying it.

By the time I met her, in the late 1970s or early ’80s, Isabella had long been established as a significant player, even something of a legend, in the tight circle of Portland theater. She was housemother to the clan, the one who had the knowledge and wisdom and warmth and who knew how to make the decisions and wasn’t afraid to be blunt when being blunt was what was called for. People admired her and loved her and, as several have confessed in the days since her death, were a little in awe of her. She had taken over as general manager of Portland Civic Theatre, at the time the big player in town, in 1969, and steered it straight into the churning cultural waters of the time, protecting its roots in old-fashioned community theater at the same time that she reached out to new voices and more countercultural talents, greenlighting projects by the likes of Storefront Theatre’s Ric Young and others. Comfortable in the West Hills culture that had long supported Civic as its own, she also extended the theater’s reach into rowdier, more proletarian realms.

Isabella Chappell inside Portland Civic Theatre, 1988. Photo: Marian Wood Kolisch (American, 1920-2008), gelatin silver print, Bequest of Marian Wood Kolisch, © Portland Art Museum

By the time she announced her retirement in 1984 she had come to seem a civic inevitability, a landmark you might find on a city map. Isabella retiring, I wrote in The Oregonian, “seemed a little like Admiral Hyman Rickover deciding he was going to quit the Navy or Broadway Joe Namath announcing he was giving up on the Big Apple and moving to Omaha. This is no fly-by-night administrator. In a hard-work, low-pay field where people come and go like pop tunes on an AM radio station, Chappell has been an anomaly. She has been at the Civic’s helm for the past 14 years, a long time in the high-burnout field of arts management. ‘Sometimes I think the best preparation I had for running a theater was raising seven kids,’ Chappell said with a laugh during an interview several days ago. There’s nothing like dealing with the squabblings of a big family, she added, to teach the skills a theater manager needs.”

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