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Partners play with purpose


Sojourn Theatre, Portland Playhouse will donate portion of ticket sales from collaborative show to help fight poverty

Photo Credit: PHOTOS COURTESY OF BRUD GILES - Portland Playhouses recent success includes 'The Light  in the Piazza' and 'A Christmas Carol.' Now, it collaborates with Sojourn Theatre on an audience-involvement play about poverty.One is a company without a home, Sojourn Theatre, 11 members spread across the United States who come together to make meaningful theater.

The other is a company with a great reputation, Portland Playhouse, which has flourished under the leadership of artistic director Brian Weaver, dominating last year’s Drammy Awards and continuing to sell out its space at a refurbished church, 602 N.E. Prescott St.

Together they will put on one of the theater season’s more interesting productions, “How to End Poverty in 90 Minutes (with 99 people you may or may not know),” an audience-involvement exercise — described as a combination play, lecture, interactive workshop, physical theater piece and public conversation — about how to attack poverty in Multnomah County, using $1,000 in ticket sales each night for the 17-show run through Feb. 22. Yes, that will mean $17,000 going to poverty causes.

This is Sojourn’s first production in Portland since 2010. “On The Table” was about helping diverse Oregon communities — Portland and Molalla in that case — understand each other.

“How to End Poverty,” created by Sojourn’s Michael Rohd and directed by Liam Kaas-Lentz, sounds pretty deep, but Kaas-Lentz assures that it is full of escapism.

Photo Credit: COURTESY OF SOJOURN THEATRE - Portland Playhouse and Sojourn Theatre“I would absolutely call it a play,” he says. “It starts with $1,000 brought on stage, and the show itself is a 90-minute decision that the audience goes through to spend the money to help poverty. There’ll be performance, dance, song, dialogue. About 30 percent is conversation, 70 is performance.”

Each audience member votes on which cause to support among five core approaches: daily needs, system change, making opportunities, education and direct aid. The Sojourn/Playhouse community engagement coordinator has received plenty of support from service organizations — Kaas-Lentz says 47, so far — and there’ll be a unique twist to each of the productions.

There’ll be experts making cameo appearances on screen to answer questions from audience members. So far, the list includes Nick Fish, city commissioner; Loretta Smith, Multnomah County commissioner; Deborah Kafoury, Multnomah County chairwoman; Susannah Morgan, CEO, Oregon Food Bank; Dr. Donna Beegle, author, “See Poverty ... Be the Difference”; Nancy Ramirez Arriaga, director, Family and Youth Engagement, Latino Network; Steve Messinetti, president and CEO, Habitat for Humanity Portland; Keith Thomajan, president and CEO, United Way of the Columbia-Willamette.

“I’ve been a member for 12 years, and this is the kind of work that Sojourn is known nationally for doing,” says Kaas-Lentz, who still lives in Portland, along with actors Bobby Bermea and Hannah Treuhaft. “It’s a collision of performance and dialogue, and this is like a culmination of what we’ve done. This feels really good. I’m proud of the work.

“This is sort of an exciting return to Portland since ‘On The Table.’”

Photo Credit: PHOTOS COURTESY OF BRUD GILES - Portland Playhouses recent success includes The Light  in the Piazza. Now, it collaborates with Sojourn Theatre on an audience-involvement play about poverty.Sojourn found the perfect partner in Portland Playhouse.

“I think what Brian is doing at Portland Playhouse, with the vision and style of making theater and knack for getting people in the door who make an atypical theater audience, is exceptional,” Kaas-Lentz says. “It’s funny seeing this little plucky company being one of the big boys, hiring professionals from around the country, and making a big jump in budget. I really respect them for that.”

Six of the 17 “How to End Poverty” shows are sold out, but tickets remain for the others; tickets are $40 each for the 100-seat Portland Playhouse theater (or $20 through day-of-show rush), with $10 from each going to the charities. For tickets: portlandplayhouse.org.

Playhouse received a $20,000 National Endowment for the Arts grant for the production. Weaver likes the audience involvement angle.

“Everybody’s putting their money on the line,” Weaver says. “We realize that $17,000 is a drop in the bucket — $17,000 in what needs to be $100 million. Hopefully our impact is broader than the engagement itself,” through people wanting to make curbing poverty in some way a priority.

Photo Credit: COURTESY OF SOJOURN THEATRE - The venture into an important civic issue by Portland Playhouse and Sojourn Theatre, How to End Poverty, has been led by Michael Rohd (left) and Liam Kaas-Lentz (right). Its a collision of performance and dialogue, Kaas-Lentz says.The collaboration with Sojourn continues some great momentum for Portland Playhouse. Last year’s production of “The Light in the Piazza” claimed five Drammy Awards, including best musical play, and “A Christmas Carol” won for best play.

A heartwarming love story, “The Light in the Piazza” was Playhouse’s second musical, and quite different than the first, “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.” The Italian piazza-themed set was the repurposed church itself, what with its built-in tapestry and stained glass windows. “A Christmas Carol” was a multi-racial casting and actors served as musicians, and the theater space was decorated entirely Dickensonian.

“It was the first family-friendly show that we had

done,” Weaver says. A second run of “A Christmas Carol” staged in December, and like the first, it sold out every show. “We did it as an experiment the first time, and we had no idea it’d be that successful.”

How successful is Playhouse? “The Piano Lesson,” which closed in November, sold out all 48 shows.

In the future, Playhouse plans to put on “The Other Place,” a Broadway hit from a few years ago. For now, it’s all about “How to End Poverty” and helping a worthy cause.

Says Weaver: “We try to reinvent the way we think about and make theater. We’ve done a number of projects — and now it’s something completely different.”