2014: Portland Playhouse

When Portland Playhouse moved into an old Northeast Portland church in 2008, it hoped to shake up the typical theater experience. Little touches like free beer, bags of popcorn, and comfy couches helped. But more important, the playhouse reached out to the neighborhood’s historically African American community with mentorship programs, educational events, and challenging works, like those by storied black playwright August Wilson. What followed was not only critical success (the theater has earned 18 Drammy Awards over four years) but overwhelming community support. 

This year, the theater estimates that its plays will reach an audience of 13,000, its education program could reach up to 7,000 students, and its budget will, for the first time, cross the $1 million mark (making it the third largest theater in town). Still, no aspect of the nonprofit’s work demonstrates its innovative approach quite as aptly as the many ways it redesigns its own space to suit particular shows. “The thing that separates it from just about every other theater,” says board chair Harold Goldstein, “is that when you walk in, you don’t know what it’s going to be.”


Bobrauschenbergamerica (2009)

In its early shows, the playhouse made a circle of the existing couches and pews and performed in the middle. For this avant-garde play, a marching band paraded through each night.



Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson (2012)

To accommodate the large cast in the company’s zany first musical, set designer Daniel Meeker built the stage in the lobby and then put the audience in the church’s sanctuary. 

The Left Hand of Darkness (2013)

“Every time we think we’ve exhausted all possibilities, we come up with something new,” says artistic director Brian Weaver—like in this world premiere co-production with Hand2Mouth, for which the companies sat the audience in the lobby and turned the sanctuary into a blue-Astroturf-covered stage.


The Light in the Piazza (2014)

Last season’s Drammy-sweeping musical accented the original stained-glass window and vaulted ceilings to make the church seem as if it were designed for the play, rather than the other way around.



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2013: Oregon Children's theater

IF YOU WERE SEEKING a poster child for Oregon Children’s Theatre, few could fit the showbill like Madeleine Rogers. She got involved in the 26-year-old theater company at age 6, playing Zuzu in It’s a Wonderful Life. She took acting classes at OCT’s school throughout her childhood. Today, the 20-year-old is studying theater at Juilliard, with dreams of a career in acting. And she gives the credit to OCT. Foote started out at OCT as a production gofer 24 years ago. He swells with pride when he talks about Rogers. But in the same breath, he says the big stage is not the ultimate goal. Instead, acting skills are merely a byproduct of what OCT really creates: “out-loud kids.” “The training is really about raising good human beings with voices in their communities,” he says.“When I took my first acting class with Stan,” she says of OCT Artistic Director Stan Foote, “what had once been just a show on a stage was transformed into a world of imagination, connection, expression, and endless possibility.” OCT’s drama classes annually prepare 1,200 students, ages 3 to 18, for a vocal life, and the company’s well-regarded productions, such as last season’s A Year with Frog and Toad, expose thousands of kids to the art of theater. But the nonprofit is still working to expand its reach. It moved from downtown to the more residential, school-filled Kerns neighborhood to improve its accessibility. “Theater helped create the person I am—it was a place where I could be me,” Foote says. “I want that place for every kid who wants it.”


The Circus Project founder Jenn Cohen—pictured here with current and past students—spends a year training between four and six homeless youths.

Image: Mei Ratz

Not long ago Taylor Coghill  signed a lease on her very first house, a duplex. The day before that, she earned a promotion at the gym where she worked. And not long before that, she became engaged. Typical life stuff, really—until you learn that Coghill left home at age 14 and spent four years homeless and backpacking around the country. For Coghill, an articulate, confident, and forthright young woman, these “typical” milestones seem nearly miraculous. Coghill credits her transformation partly to the Circus Project, a six-year-old nonprofit circus performance troupe founded by professional aerialist Jenn Cohen. As part of her nonprofit’s outreach programs (which include free drop-in classes for homeless youth), Cohen, who has also worked as a therapist, spends a year training four to six homeless youths in the rigors of circus performance. But the program teaches much more than, say, how to roll down an aerial silk. “Teaching skills is easy,” Cohen says, standing in the diminutive Northwest neighborhood gym where aerial hoops, ropes, trapezes, and brightly colored silks hang from the ceiling. “Teaching the work ethic is a much, much bigger challenge.” For those young people who stick with the intensive program, the training pays off. Many trainees are in housing, have jobs, and some still work for the Circus Project, running its open gym classes—exactly the kind of result Cohen intended. “It’s more than circus,” Coghill says. “It’s about being accountable to others, respecting others and yourself, taking direction. You can take those skills anywhere.” 

2011: Northwest Film Center

In an era of Netflix and Hulu, it’s all too tempting to forgo the movie theater in favor of sweatpants and an easy chair. The Northwest Film Center offers a damn good reason to ignore that urge. An important regional resource for filmmakers, students, and visiting artists, the Northwest Film Center has been reminding us for 40 years that “film” embodies more than just the latest Hollywood blockbuster. Its hundreds of screenings each year include smaller films like “Pulp,” a short by an 11th grader questioning the violence in boxing, or The Klezmatics: On Holy Ground, a documentary about a Grammy-winning klezmer group that showed as part of the Jewish Film Festival. “Moving images are so central to the way our society operates,” says the center’s director, Bill Foster, “not just as entertainment, but as the documentation of social change and personal expression.” With classes like sound recording and screenwriting at its School of Film, the center inspires people of all ages to express themselves with movies. And each winter during the Portland International Film Festival, the Northwest Film Center spurs the rest of us to get out of the house and enjoy them.


Not to diminish opera or the theater, but there’s really nothing quite like movies. “Cinema is something almost everyone can easily access and relate to, whether one prefers art films or the latest Will Ferrell flick,” says Richard Beer, artistic director for Film Action Oregon (FAO). Established by the Governor’s Office in 1992 as the Oregon Film & Video Foundation, FAO connects our state’s masses even more intimately with the movies—with the support of more than 120 volunteers, the group serves nearly 100,000 people annually, whether for standard screenings at the Hollywood Theatre, film premieres, festivals, or FAO’s dazzling annual screening of the Academy Awards. But of the organization’s many offerings, the Oscar truly belongs to Project Youth Doc (PYD), an intensive four-week-long documentary filmmaking program for teens, more than half of whom are low-income and attend free of charge. At the end of PYD’s three summer sessions, students show their films at the Hollywood Theatre. 

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