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The state of the stage

Theater thrives in Portland, even with some obstacles
by: ©2006 OWEN CAREY, Wade McCollum was a hit as the cross-dressing Charlotte von Mahlsdorf in  “I Am My Own Wife” in December, proving Portland Center Stage Artistic Director Chris Coleman’s assertion that Portland is a good place for theatrical experiments.

A landmark building - noble in its history but abandoned - comes dazzlingly to life, powered by the dreams of a city and $37 million.

An Oregon-bred actor with magical gifts disappears inside the character of an aging German transvestite, creating a theatrical masterpiece.

And two artists not of the local mainstream, one the New York-born daughter of South American immigrants, the other from Jefferson High, build audiences from the outside in.

They are the the varied and expressive faces of Portland theater, and they fill hundreds of thousands of seats every year, part of a vibrant cultural scene that has elevated the city's reputation nationally and beyond.

Those who create local theater say Portland audiences are blessed with a vivid menu of diverse and often daring offerings. The support organization Portland Area Theater Alliance, or PATA, keeps tabs on roughly 75 theater companies at any given time, board member Tim Krause says.

'The amount of good theater created here is out of proportion to the size of the city,' says Mary McDonald-Lewis, a Portland actor, dialect coach and artistic director of Readers Theatre Repertory, which is dedicated to staged readings.

'Sacramento, Phoenix, Detroit, New Orleans - none of those cities boasts the theater we have,' she says.

Yet, the theater community agrees, its work is never done. For all the creative talent that has arrived with the city's explosive growth in recent decades, challenges remain. Professional training for actors is limited, and affordable spaces to rehearse and perform in are increasingly hard to find.

Like other cultural institutions - the Oregon Symphony, Oregon Ballet Theatre, Portland Opera - even the most established theater companies must compete for ever scarcer funding.

And, as ever, live theater must compete for the attention of the public, and its dollars, against more modern, more mainstream forms of entertainment.

As a society, those in the theater community say, we must recognize that the ancient art of telling stories to a live audience still means a lot in the 21st century.

The completion of the Gerding Theater at the Armory last fall captured the imagination of a city.

The renovated 19th-century fortress in the Brewery Blocks now houses Portland Center Stage, the largest professional company in Portland, and its lofty idea about becoming a performance space and resource center for others.

'New theater buildings don't happen very often,' says Jill Baum, managing director at Artists Repertory Theatre. 'It was a landmark thing for the city.'

Theater's 'on the verge'

But there have been other significant developments as well. In recent weeks, ART, the second-largest professional company in town, announced the conclusion of a capital campaign that raised more than $3 million to improve the company's Southwest Portland headquarters, which includes two theaters.

The community's most successful newcomer, Third Rail Repertory Theatre, completes its second full season this spring, having grabbed critical and commercial success and rocketed to the upper reaches of the food chain.

Third Rail's home, the Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center in North Portland, appears to have established itself as a stable venue for theater and other cultural events after years of uncertainty.

And a rift between the founders of the Northwest Children's Theater resulted in the departure of longtime Artistic Director John Monteverde, who now runs the Blue Monkey Theater Company, the third youth-oriented company in town.

'Young people who see theater are likely to become adults who go see theater,' says Stan Foote, artistic director of Oregon Children's Theatre. 'Portland is building a theater audience.'

'The theater in Portland is on the verge of great things,' says Kirk Mouser, a Broadway veteran who returned to his native Portland two years ago to found the musical theater-oriented Stumptown Stages.

'Not only are we finding the theater emerging, but the local talent, their skills have increased. It seems like a lot of actors are calling Portland home now. We're so close to having something special and unique in this city.'

Hordes tread the boards

Many say the strength of Portland theater lies in its diversity.

The Miracle Theatre Group has become a hub of Latino culture in a city that hardly seemed to need one at the company's outset 23 years ago. Now, the company is benefiting from the energy and talents of the area's growing Latino population, Artistic Director Olga Sanchez says.

'As the community has grown, it has strengthened the organization,' she says.

But the company's works were never meant to be exclusive, Sanchez says, nor its audience limited. 'Most of the audience is the main theatergoing audience. Some people have had the misconception that the Miracle Theatre is only for Latino audiences. Part of our mission is to demystify things so that we're not strangers.'

The local theater includes companies like Don Horn's Triangle Productions, which leans toward gay themes and audiences, and emerging playwrights of color like Lava Alapai and Kwik Jones.

Jones, who attended Jefferson High School, has been producing plays in town for years, largely under the radar.

'It's a lot harder to be an African-American playwright because people think there's no market for what you do,' says Jones, whose company (Studio 20 Entertainment) will produce two plays at the IFCC next season. 'People don't feel like there's black theater in Portland.'

But there is. And there are improv troupes, sketch comedy and puppet theater - Portland is the birthplace of the renowned Imago Theatre and its creature features 'Frogz' and 'Biglittlethings.'

And there is the just plain strange.

'There's always a spot for theater where people can come and interact with actors, whether or not it's appropriate,' says Ryan Cloutier, whose LastRites Productions has produced two popular stage versions of vintage, low-budget horror films.

'If there's something that's different and fun and has a Portland attitude, if it's fun for people to watch, they'll tell their friends about it,' Cloutier says. 'People that aren't necessarily into theater will say, 'This is awesome. It's not theater.' '

Trisha Pancio Armour, marketing director at Artists Repertory Theatre and president of PATA, points out that such offbeat fare is an audience builder.

'People go to those shows that have never been to a live performance before,' she says. 'Once somebody gets in the habit, moving them up the chain is just a process of education.'

Chris Coleman is artistic director at Portland Center Stage, where Ashland native Wade McCollum wowed audiences last fall in Doug Wright's 'I Am My Own Wife.' Coleman says Portland theater is a place to experiment.

'The material here is more interesting, and the artist here is more adventurous. There is a greater sense of imagination with space, with movement, a different take on text. There are some really interesting artists making work here.'

Edith Love, Coleman's managing director, agrees: 'I think this is a very engaged theater community,' she says. 'They're very literate. They like to be entertained, but they also like to think.'

Money's still the ticket

Arts funding is an issue across the country and across disciplines, but people on both ends of philanthropic efforts in Portland agree that the city is behind the support curve.

Baum, of Artists Rep, says she noticed something different when she arrived from Seattle in the mid-'90s. Theaters didn't ask for money.

'There was an extraordinary high ratio of earned income among arts organizations,' she recalls. 'People felt great that arts organizations were well-supplied by ticket revenue. It was a point of pride.

'Portland is incredibly open to creativity but also has an almost pioneer tradition of do it yourself.'

That attitude helped put Portland theater in a hole from which it has yet to dig out, Baum says. It also let local philanthropists, never a flamboyant bunch, stay on the sidelines.

'We don't see Rolls Royces here,' Center Stage's Coleman says. 'It is an extremely understated culture. The competition to make a statement doesn't exist.'

Jonathan Walters, a founder of the small, experimentally minded Hand2Mouth Theatre, says the funding crunch hits hardest halfway up the growth chart.

'It's a good place to start a company, but when you get to that middle ground, there's not a lot of support for you,' he says. 'We can't get corporate sponsors because of our size. We're kind of realizing the glass ceiling.'

Foote, of Oregon Children's Theatre, says artists must use their imagination and seek innovative partnerships that lead to support from the wider community. Putting unique theater skills to work is one way to do that.

'There are some deliverables out there that we can provide,' he says. 'Kaiser Permanente hires actors for training doctors. I know there are actors that simulated a prison situation for law officials for training. We have the ability to create reality to educate, to do things other people can't do.'

There is another, more basic key to winning support, according to actor Michael O'Connell of Third Rail Rep. Do good work.

Third Rail has earned a reputation as a can't-miss company by taking on edgy works by playwrights like Craig Wright, John Patrick Shanley and Martin McDonagh.

'We've had great success with young people,' says O'Connell, who has appeared in every Third Rail production. 'There's a marketing aspect, and then there's a responsibility artistically. It's got to be worth the money. Twenty bucks is a big deal to that age group.'

Moreover, says Center Stage's Love, high-quality work anywhere in town is good for everyone.

'There's a ripple effect,' she says. 'Good theater begets more good theater at every level.'

It's better together

Some say the salvation of the Portland theater will be its interconnectedness.

'I think there's an artistic resonance in this community, like a stone in a pond,' McDonald-Lewis of Readers Theatre Repertory says. 'It's why we see graphic novels, indie film, product design thriving. Like inspires like.'

She says the theater community benefits from the spirit of what she calls its 'patriarch' theaters, Center Stage and ART.

'I don't see them as impenetrable fortresses,' she says. With their educational and outreach programs, she says, 'they do seek to inspire young people.'

'I would say that the theater is the strongest that I've seen it in the last 15 years,' says Kerry Sorci of Integrity Productions. 'There's a lot going on. There's a lot of dedicated people. There's a feeling of community. That's invaluable.'

'It hasn't always been like that,' says Integrity co-founder Kim Bogus. 'People have realized that we are stronger together than apart.'

The veteran actor Keith Scales, who has won raves with his performance in the current ART production, 'The Retreat From Moscow,' says the more Portland audiences learn about theater and what it needs to thrive, the sooner all of Portland will benefit.

'Ever since Shakespeare, it's been a commercial enterprise,' he says. 'Even Michelangelo had to write his grant application.

'I feel positive about what's going on. With a lot of new people coming to town, the variety of offerings has increased.

'It's got to keep going,' Scales says. 'It's an instinctive thing that we do. If civilization started when we moved into villages, the act of theater predates civilization. It's something we will always do, whether we get paid for it or not.'

ericbartels@portlandtribune