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10 Questions with Beth Harper

by: COURTESY OF PORTLAND ACTORS CONSERVATORY, 
Portland Actors Conservatory founder Beth Harper celebrates 25 years on the scene with a production of

Twenty-five years ago, Beth Harper started the Portland Actors Conservatory in an old Hollywood District dentist's office.

'I had a friend who was a talent agent, and she was moving out of it,' says Harper, PAC's artistic director/founder. 'She said, 'You wanna teach classes in there?' And, I said, 'Sure.'

'It's funny, it's back to being a dentist office. My kid chipped a tooth, and we went there and it was, 'Oh, my gosh, this is where I started.' '

Looking back to the beginning, Harper notes that launching the PAC wasn't necessarily a rational move. 'It made no logical sense to start an actors' school, no financial sense. But I had a desire and a passion and a business model that worked for me. It's different now, more mature.'

The nationally accredited Portland Actors Conservatory celebrates its 25th anniversary with a production of 'You Can't Take It With You,' which PAC put on for its 15th anniversary. It starts Friday, Feb. 19, at the Firehouse Theatre, 1436 N.W. Montgomery St. Included in the cast is Georgia Cacy, Harper's first student in 1985.

Other shows: 'Melancholy Play,' starting April 16; 'Big Love,' starting June 11; 'Graduate Showcase' of scenes/monologues, July 14 to 17.

The Tribune caught up with Harper to talk about PAC's milestone and many things theater:

Tribune: How many students have you instructed?

Harper: Thousands. It's 25 years later, and we've had a two-year training program since 1993; in that program alone there has been more than 150 graduates. We average 75 to 150 students a year (overall), so, times 25 …

Tribune: Are many of your students still working actors?

Harper: We were just talking about that. … It depends on how you want to define working. Almost nobody in Portland makes a living off of it. I have people in New York and Chicago and, I'd say within the last five years, about 90 percent of them are working actors from the two-year, professional actors training program.

Tribune: Accreditation by the National Association of Schools of Theater and the ability to disperse federal financial aid has broadened PAC's appeal?

Harper: We get a lot of people from outside of Oregon; this year we have students from Australia, Greece, England, Maine, Washington State … we're more well-known nationally than locally. Portland's a great place to come, train as an actor, and it's a beautiful place to live.

Tribune: What are some memories from 25 years of teaching actors?

Harper: It's all one big picture to me. All the Portland greats have come through our space and worked with students in some capacity. Turn on the tube and see a graduate, go to Ashland and there's a graduate. I haven't gotten a Broadway (actor), but tons of them are off Broadway and working in New York. Some teachers who used to teach here are now writing for 'Grey's Anatomy,' including Krista Vernoff.

Tribune: Tell us about 'You Can't Take It With You.'

Harper: My favorite of the old American plays, a real celebration of humanity - being who you are against all odds. People in the show reflect our 25-year history, featuring Georgia Cacy in the lead women's role of Penny Sycamore, and two other alumni.

Tribune: Your students are involved in shows?

Harper: We only take 10 people into the second year of our program. The second year is very performance-based, and they're in two of our three productions. We have a professional theater, too, where we hire pro actors to act alongside. But we like to hire alumni; I like to write a check to a graduate.

Tribune: How has Portland theater changed in 25 years?

Harper: The artistic community is fuller and richer, with so many small and eclectic theater companies with passionate actors groups. … But, (Oregon is) still 47th in the country in monies given to the arts (by foundations, corporations and governments), and we used to be 52nd behind Guam and Puerto Rico. It gets better and better every year.

Tribune: What's your philosophy on acting?

Harper: The conservatory is a very eclectic school, and we don't espouse one theory like Stanislavski or Meisner. We're a full-bodied actors' school, from top of the head to the bottom of the toes, where you're fully engaged physically and psycho-physically. You surrender to given circumstances, playing an active action for, with and to your fellow player.

Tribune: It's $8,500 per year for the two-year program, and other classes range from $250 to $350 … so, an actors conservatory works, business-wise?

Harper: We're doing the best we can, our doors are open and we don't owe anybody any money. In the world of arts in Portland, Oregon, that's damn good.

Tribune: It's tough to get acting jobs, isn't it?

Harper: It's sinful to commit to art, but only 6 percent of them go out and work (according to Screen Actors Guild statistics). You up the odds with training and connections. … This kind of immersion program takes a certain spirit.