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.”
THE STAGES OF PORTLAND PLAYHOUSE
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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