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.”

After that successful run at IFCC, Stumptown Stages took Dreamgirls to Jefferson High School, where it developed a partnership via then-principal Dr. Cynthia Harris. The next season, Stumptown produced the multiple-award winning The Wiz. During this production the company recruited Jocelyn Seid, Shawn Price-Arnold, and choreographer Steve Gonzalez to its board. 

Were you aware that during that production, one Willamette Week reviewer noted that they would not feel safe dropping their child off at Jefferson? Stumptown Stages, appalled, “brought to the attention of city leaders,” says Mouser, “that North Portland was statistically safer than the Pearl District in Downtown Portland and that the Willamette Week’s statement was rooted in systemic racism.”

Did you know that Stumptown Stages, as part of its partnership with Jefferson, then teamed up with SOLVE Oregon to renovate the school’s lobby? “Our volunteers and staff,” recalls Mouser, “repainted, brought in donated furniture, weeded the grounds and spent hours cleaning the site.”

With a leadership change at Jefferson, Stumptown was forced to move on. It made Theatre! Theatre!, the World Trade Center, and Brunish Hall its home before it finally settled into the Winningstad Theatre of Portland’5 Centers for the Arts. Likewise, its educational program moved around from Jefferson to De La Salle to Rosemary Anderson schools, and featured gifted young teachers such as LaTevin Alexander Ellis. 

Stumptown’s dynamic duo: Kirk Mouser and Julianne Johnson.

Stumptown produced the world premiere of Ebenezer Ever After featuring Portland stalwart Wrick Jones as Scrooge. It produced a passionate rendition of Rent. It teamed up with Coeur d’ Alene Summer Theatre to produce Once On This Island. Coeur d’ Alene is notorious for being in the heart of white-supremacy territory, so to cast and produce that show, both companies had to put in the work. Another Stumptown original happened in 2014 when Stumptown produced Soul Harmony, an original musical that told the true story of a singing group from the Fifties called The Orioles.

There have been other productions as well that have featured an all Black cast or a cast of people of color: Ain’t Misbehavin’, Smokey Joe’s Cafe, In the Heights, to name just a few. And while the company’s current season has been put on hold by coronavirus restrictions – fall productions of Pippin and Annie have been postponed, and scheduled productions of The Full Monty in January-February and the Mel Brooks classic The Producers in May and June of 2021 are subject to postponement, too, depending on the course of the pandemic – the company is here to stay.

The point is that dating back to that short-sighted comment from a prominent-unnamed-director some thirteen years ago, Stumptown Stages has, time and again, proved that director wrong. 

And not just with Black artists and not just on the boards. Stumptown also has a history of hiring artists of color backstage as well: Raquel Calderon, costumer; David Marquez, choreographer; Mitch Iimori, musician; Valarie Grudier Edwards, choreographer; Mako Barmon, lighting designer; Christopher George Patterson, choreographer (who also currently serves on Stumptown’s board). When other companies made the excuse that they didn’t hire artists of color as designers because there weren’t any, Stumptown Stages went out and found them. How has Stumptown managed to be successful when other theater companies have not? 

Ilya Torres-Garner and Steve Coker in Stumptown’s “The Adventures of Dex Dixon.” Photo: Mike Lindberg/Lindberg Photography.

“It’s our pool of influence,”says Johnson. “I taught in the school systems for a long time. I was doing full-blown musicals with these grade schools and middle schools. As the people grew – you know when you build trust – if you call them they will come.” She laughs, but you sense the seriousness of her words. Julianne Johnson supported the community, so the community supported her. And Stumptown Stages. “The trust factor,” Johnson says, “is huge.”

Trust. When talking to Johnson and Mouser, even over Zoom, you can feel the trust they have in each other. It’s a friendship forged in the fires of creation. Both are effusive about the fact that Stumptown Stages would not be where it is today without the other one. Likewise, both are grateful for the many people, the many other leaders, who have contributed a tremendous amount just to keeping the doors of Stumptown Stages open. But at the heart of it all are Kirk Mouser and Julianne Johnson. 

They met backstage at an awards ceremony about fourteen years ago and bonded over their years of making work in New York. They both lamented the lack of a Portland-to-New York bridge, where actors could be trained here and then find a connection there to grease the wheels for new arrivals. “There wasn’t anybody building a bridge for folks,” says Johnson, “so they had a connection when they arrived in New York.” 

That’s what got the conversation going, but what sealed the deal for Johnson, she recalls, was that “Kirk just had a vision for inclusivity in the arts. I felt like we were symbiotic in how we thought about our community and loved our community.” 

Kirk Mouser as Henry Jekyll in “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” Photo courtesy Stumptown Stages

Both have a strong connection to Portland. Mouser hails from Gresham. Both of his parents are school teachers. Johnson affectionately recalls being the youngest person at the Portland Civic Theatre back in the company’s producing days. She speaks wistfully of a sense of community that Portland theater had back in the day that she was hoping to rekindle when she teamed up with Mouser. “There has to be a community feel,” says Johnson, “I felt we were losing that in some way, the heart of the art.”

“Community” is a word that comes up a lot. For Johnson and Mouser, it’s what it’s all about. But they don’t consider themselves “community theater,” with all the connotations that come with that term. They understand that they are a small nonprofit theater, but the standards they hold for themselves are extremely high. “Nothing against community theater, but what we do is community theater — at a professional level,” says Mouser, “meaning that everything that we produce, our body of work, we do it as though we were working at a professional house. That’s the expectation. That was the drive. That was the desire. Of course we didn’t have the means and the money to make the incredible sets and pay people their worth, but we approached the work as though we were creating something of professional value. With the intent that someday we would break those barriers and create those opportunities as a professional theater company. You always put your best foot forward. You want people to think that it’s a Rolls Royce when really it’s a Yugo. But it looks like a Rolls Royce!” 

(At this, Johnson threw back her head and laughed. “Can we,” she gasped, trying to catch her breath, “can we at least be a Corolla?”)

“It’s not about whether you have the most amount of money or the least amount of money,” continues Johnson, “it’s not about that. People just want that heart.” 

And that heart got them through some lean times. “There was another element there: social economics,” says Mouser. “How do we take care of our artists? We did the best we could when we had no money. At first our budget for the season might have topped out around $50,000, and we’re telling actors, ‘We think you’re going to get $100 for this. We know you’re worth more but that’s what we’ve got. And then it was $300. And then it was $600. Then it was working with the Local 28 stagehands union and the Local 99 musicians union and Actors Equity and small professional theaters contracts and turning all of our whole team from contractors to paid employees. But man,” Mouser finishes with fervor and not a little pride, “it took sixteen years!”

The musical “In the Heights” was a bold burst of energy and a hit for the company. Photo courtesy Stumptown Stages

“We were the little engine that could,” adds Johnson, “and that’s still our mentality. But it’s evolved. We’ve evolved to another level. And with that evolution comes people misunderstanding who we are based on looking through a commercial lens as opposed to who we are theatrically, artistically and even business-wise. This is a sixteen-year journey. This is not something that we woke up yesterday and started a theater company.” 

“And now,” says Mouser, “we’ve got this incredible movement that says, ‘Let’s do more’ and the door is open right now and Stumptown Stages is dedicated to putting our whole body and effort into keeping that door open to make sure that we are part of the change; that we are helping others along the way, whatever it takes.” 

“You just have to have that moment,” says Johnson, “where everybody is listening and thinking the same thing. Since we can all agree on this, here are all the ways that you can help make everybody can feel equal; that Black performers and BIPOC performers are not the ones who have to run out and buy their own makeup because you don’t have it; are not the ones who have to pay extra for hair because you don’t know how to work with our hair.” In other words, did not wait for the sturm and drang of 2020 to interact with the proverbial air circulation device, it’s been their vision all along. 

Did you know that in 2017 Stumptown Stages and Julianne Johnson were awarded the Yolanda Denise King award for excellence in arts diversity?

And now, in the cauldron of change that is 2020, Stumptown Stages has teamed up with Black Theatre United with the intent to “create change and support the transformation of a more equitable industry and world.”

Its first civic engagement with BTU was when they presented Broadway star NaTasha Yvette Williams (The Color Purple, Waitress, Chicago) to have “hard and honest conversations,” says Mouser, “with the intent of changing power and policy structures to eliminate systemic racism.”  Their ultimate goal, lofty for a small, nonprofit theatre company but that’s where they’re at, is to tear down white supremacist ideologies. Given Stumptown Stages track record, and the heart and the will of their two leaders, would you bet against them? 

“The generation that’s coming,” says Johnson, “needs to see the trajectory. They need to know that this is a growing, living entity.”

Stumptown Stages: If you don’t know, now you know.

2 Responses. Have your say.

  1. Sasha says:

    Woof. Stumptown Stages is by far one of the furthest from being a “leader in equity diversity”. Ask anyone who is not a white Portland theatre community. Just 1 recent example is for their production of West Side Story, they cast a white actor in brown-face to play Maria (a recent immigrant from Puerto Rico). West Side Story is literally a story about feuding racial groups, and they still cast white people in non-white roles.

  2. Syleta Harkins says:

    Amen!

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