Theater company unable to find permanent home as rising costs at college put it in a financial bind
If you love professionally staged plays, you may have missed something in East County this summer - Mount Hood Repertory Theatre Company.
For 13 years, up until 2009, the Rep, as it was informally known, put on two to three Broadway-quality productions every summer. In 2000, the company began staging all its summer productions at Mt. Hood Community College.
'Some of our plays could have gone anywhere in this country,' notes Tobias Andersen, a former Hollywood actor who lives in Gresham and is the Rep's founder.
Indeed, productions such as 'Fahrenheit 451,' 'Bus Stop' and 'On Golden Pond' generally earned favorable reviews from the local press, and the Rep's American Classics summer productions drew hundreds of theater fans.
The Rep also produced monthly Readers Theatre plays, from October through May of the past few years, and drew dozens of people to Reynolds Middle School as well as the Visual Arts Theater at the college.
However, a combination of factors, including a steep drop in Rep funding and an increase in the cost of using the college's theater, killed the summer program in 2010.
'The Rep now is no longer producing,' Andersen says with more than a hint of sadness in his voice. However, he says, it still exists as a nonprofit entity, and its supporters hope to revive it somehow.
Andersen - who retired from directing the Rep in 2008 - takes '75 percent of the blame' for its demise, noting he should have spent more time seeking out grants and sponsorships.
'I'm not blaming the citizenry or the government or anything else,' he says, adding he's got a better head for staging plays than cadging nickels.
However, it's clear at least some factors were beyond his control. Foremost among them is the fact Mt. Hood Community College, facing its own budgetary woes, raised the Rep's fee to use its theater, increasing it from about $9,000 in 2008 to about $14,000 in 2009.
The Rep was able to pay the increased fee in 2009, but not this year, according to Andersen and Kelly Lazenby, who succeeded Andersen as artistic director.
Both the Rep's leaders and the college agree the Rep got a generous discount to use the theater for most of its run. Maggie Huffman, college spokeswoman, notes the Rep covered labor costs over the years, and even when its fee increased in 2009, it was still paying only 36 percent of what it actually costs to rent the theater.
She adds the Rep used the auditorium for 74 days in 2006 and for 98 days in 2007.
'Mount Hood Repertory effectively tied up the facility all summer, which meant lost revenue for the college, which couldn't rent it to other groups all summer,' she says.
More so, when asked if the Rep interfered with any college classes, she notes the school's cosmetology department wanted to use dressing room mirrors the Rep was using.
She also says the Rep initially used a number of students as actors or interns, but was using fewer and fewer as years went by. However, she stresses that may have been due in part to the fact students needed to make more money during the summer, especially as the economy has gone downhill.
Lazenby agrees that fewer students were working with the Rep in recent years, but adds the company always welcomed them. Andersen notes the Rep did employ students, and it ran a technician intern program that paid a $500 stipend each summer.
'Every actor who ever stepped on the stage got paid, even the kids who didn't say a line,' Andersen adds.
Huffman says that as the college struggles with decreasing state funding, 'in all fairness we cannot continue to subsidize any one group.' She notes the Rep also didn't draw the kinds of audiences needed to fill a 483-seat theater.
Andersen estimates an average of 150 people came to auditorium shows, with about 50 coming on average to the studio theater, which seats 80 to 100.
Huffman says the college did consider the Rep an asset to campus life.
'It's just too bad that the community didn't support them at a higher level because they do put on some great shows,' she says.
Lazenby adds that the Rep lost most of its sponsors over the past two years, just as its fee to use the college's facilities increased. The sponsors, including area businesses and individuals, collectively donated anywhere from $7,500 to $10,000 yearly to the Rep, she says, but in 2009, the Rep lost more than 60 percent of its sponsor funding primarily due to the recession.
'It's not that people didn't want to donate,' she says. 'It's that they couldn't.'
Center for the Arts
Andersen and Lazenby note the Rep has no future in East County unless it can find a home - ideally, a 200-seat theater with ample offstage space as well as a shop in which to build sets, Lazenby says.
Lani Wild, executive director of the Gresham Center for the Arts Foundation, notes a theater is part of the Foundation's plans for the Center for the Arts Plaza in downtown Gresham. However, due to the amount of funding needed, such a theater is probably a decade down the road.
'Obviously we know a performance space is necessary to make that property work,' she says.
Lazenby says the Rep did discuss staging an outdoor play at the plaza over the summer, but the cost was prohibitive.
'When you perform at night you need lighting, not to mention seats, sound equipment, portable stage and fencing as it's a ticketed event,' she says. 'All of that has to be rented. It ended up being as much as it would have been at the college all summer.'
So, for now, the Rep is on hiatus. In the meantime, Lazenby is busy with Nutz 'n' Boltz, a community theater she operates with her husband, Justin. The company will stage the thriller 'Bad Seed' at Boring Grange Hall beginning Friday, Oct. 15 (visit nnbtheater.com for details).
Meanwhile, Andersen is starring as Prospero in the Clackamas Repertory Theatre production of Shakespeare's 'The Tempest' through Oct. 10 at Clackamas Community College in Oregon City. He notes that the independent CRT has been more fortunate than the company he founded - the faculty of the college's theater department is also the staff of CRT, and the company is housed in the college's theater at no cost.
Cyndy Smith-English, CRT's managing director and an adjunct faculty member, notes the college doesn't directly support the company financially, but allows it to use the theater because it considers CRT vital to its arts program.
CRT works with the theater program to train and employ students and serves to attract new students, community members and foundation donors to the campus, she says.
Andersen would love to see Gresham replicate that kind of success, and remains a fierce advocate for theater in East County. He notes the area can't wait for all its economic ducks to line up if it wants downtown Gresham to become a destination for arts lovers.
'There needs to be a reason to come downtown, and the arts have always been that answer,' he says.
He adds that while he's sad over the apparent end of the Rep's run, he is proud of what it accomplished.
'Thirteen summers of very fine theater,' he says.