For a place called the Tomorrow Theater, the new eastside home of the Portland Art Museum’s Center for an Untold Tomorrow sure has a rich and varied past. It’s been a vaudeville house, an adults-only venue with mattress-and-couch-based seating (use your imagination—or don’t), and now, at long last, a focal point for PAM CUT’s ambitious programming concepts, the first batch of which have been finally released.
There’s no point in burying the lede here: the organization has pulled off a significant coup by luring David Byrne, fresh from the dazzling re-release of Stop Making Sense, as its grand-opening attraction on November 3. Byrne will conduct a live iteration of his online magazine Reasons to Be Cheerful, with a focus on Portland itself, which could certainly use some of those reasons. This will be paired with a screening of Spike Lee’s film of Byrne’s Broadway show American Utopia, in keeping with PAM CUT Director Amy Dotson’s philosophy of “cinema and…”.
That presentation should be enhanced by the relatively intimate scale of the Tomorrow Theater. With 249 fixed seats, there’s not really a bad one in the house. Unlike most movie theaters, there’s ample leg room, to account for the many events when attendees will be moving around the auditorium. (Minor quibble: no recline action on those seats, which is something we’ve all been spoiled to expect.) The technical setup is billed as state-of-the art, with sound baffling cleverly provided by sofa cushions and fabric remnants on the walls. Projection will be digital only, although Dotson indicated that the plan is for the Whitsell Auditorium at the Art Museum to have the capacity for 35mm projection once its extensive renovations, in conjunction with the long-awaited construction of the Mark Rothko Pavilion, are complete.
Aesthetically, the Tomorrow Theater attempts a balancing act between nodding to the building’s past and maintaining PAM CUT’s relentlessly forward-angled momentum. A Mylar-covered mattress dangles overhead upon entry, and several peepholes in the front doors both acknowledge the historical naughtiness and invite passersby to peer in. Acclaimed local firm Osmose Design was charged with expressing the creative whimsy that looks to be PAM CUT’s stock in trade and came up with a variety of expressive solutions. The mirror in the upstairs restroom, for instance, is composed of dozens of individual auto mirrors, each reflecting a rectangular, fish-eye image—not ideal for touching up one’s mascara, but effective in evoking a retro-futuristic aesthetic.
One key word uttered numerous times by Dotson during a press preview of the new space last week was “modular.” To meet the challenge of constructing a venue capable of hosting a wide variety of events and art forms, significant open space was left in the theater, to allow for extra seating, a DJ booth, a dance floor, or other interactive components. This sort of flexibility makes sense in light of that “cinema and…” philosophy, but it also speaks to a continuing squishiness about future programming plans.
Those plans include a formidable follow-up to Byrne’s visit in the form of a takeover by Oscar-winning costume designer Ruth E. Carter, part of the theater’s “Carte Blanche” series, in which artists are invited to take total control of the space for a limited time. That’s just one of the many “buckets” into which the expansive programming will be slotted. With four different events each week, Thursday through Sunday, the challenge will be to fill those buckets with content that’s engaging and accessible to a wide variety of audiences. PAM CUT’s stated mission is to showcase artists “who don’t fit into little boxes,” so there’s some tension between that and the multifarious categories (fifteen are listed in the press release).
Asked whether PAM CUT would continue the Northwest Film Center’s mission of showcasing local and regional talent, Dotson pointed to Finding Groovopolis, an effort by Portland filmmaker Wil Kristin to film an unproduced screenplay written by his late father. If the Tomorrow Theater can be a place where a global vision of creativity can intersect with shining a spotlight on the city’s immense pool of cinematic talent, then it has a chance to be someplace special.
In any case, it will be a place to sample custom snacks and cocktails, courtesy of PAM CUT’s collaboration with Chefstable. That’s at least one way it will be a vast improvement over the refreshment-free zone of the Whitsell. The Tomorrow Theater also marks a welcome, overdue expansion of the downtown cultural scene across the Willamette and into a cozy, residential neighborhood. (While parking around SE Division Street can be a challenge, the place does lie directly on a frequent-service bus line.)
While hardcore cinephiles and members of the Northwest Film Center community may still chafe at the loss of a “cinema is enough” philosophy, there’s enough throwing-spaghetti energy and daring to make one sit up and pay attention. After all, some of those noodles are going to stick to the wall, and it’s going to be fascinating to see which ones.
(The Tomorrow Theater is located at 3530 SE Division St. A full rundown of programming is available at pamcut.org. Tickets for announced programs will go on sale on October 16.)