Spring Arts 101: Your Guide to the Portland Arts Scene this Season

If you need a primer on Portland's vibrant art and culture world—from how to collect art to understanding just how awesome ballet really is—here's your starter course.

Edited by Aaron Scott March 2, 2015 Published in the March 2015 issue of Portland Monthly

We know, firsthand, the anxiety of walking into a hushed gallery full of baffling abstract sculptures. Or watching a dance that doesn’t look like “dance” at all. Or fumbling through an opera program wondering what all those Italian words mean. But you don’t need to go to art school to love Portland’s exceptionally rich arts scene. All you need is the curiosity to ask questions and the gumption to embrace something new. We’ve made it easy by laying out some of the basics. So as the city’s most ambitious companies and creative players swing into action, don’t worry about taking notes: just get out there! 



Mary Stuart - Feb 27 – Mar 29 
Northwest Classical Theatre Company
Sure, Mary, Queen of Scots, and her cousin Queen Elizabeth I might not have actually come face to face, but their political battle royale still makes for thrilling theater, particularly in Peter Oswald’s hit adaptation of Friedrich von Schiller’s circa-1800 tragedy. Decorated local vets Luisa Sermol and Lorraine Bahr star under the direction of Elizabeth Huffman; the three have eight Drammys between them. Shoebox Theatre. 

Lucky Peterson - Mar 1
The son of a musician and club owner, Peterson released his first album, Our Future, when he was 5 years old, winning appearances on The Tonight Show and The Ed Sullivan Show. He went on to play with B. B. King, Etta James, Otis Rush, and more, making a name for himself as a “triple threat” on vocals, organ, and guitar. No wonder his newest record is called Son of a Bluesman.
Aladdin Theater

Everybody Reads 2015: Mitchell S. Jackson - Mar 10
Jackson’s autobiographical novel, The Residue Years, tells the story of a mother fresh from rehab and her smart, crack-selling son trying to get by in the Northeast Portland of the ’90s: the perfect must-read novel for Portlanders new and native alike. Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall

The Invisible Hand - Mar 10 – Apr 5
Artists Repertory Theater
Artists Rep postponed this tense political thriller not once but twice due to visa problems for the Pakistani actors whom former artistic director Allen Nause considered critical to the production. In the meantime, playwright Ayad Akhtar won the 2013 Pulitzer. Now Nause returns to direct this story of a kidnapped American futures trader in Pakistan and the Islamic militants who hold him captive. 

Northwest Dance Project - Mar 19–21
NWDP brings back British choreographer Ihsan Rustem for a new world premiere, after his last won the company the prestigious Sadler’s Wells Global Dance Contest. Also on the docket, a reprise of artistic director Sarah Slipper’s Pinter-inspired theatrical work on a fanciful revolving set, and an athletic ballet inspired by Rodin’s sculptures. Newmark Theatre. 

Amy Schumer - Mar 20
This New York comedian known for gleeful, taboo-twisting comedy already has the Comedy Central show Inside Amy Schumer and the web series Behind Amy Schumer. So we guess that makes her stand-up appearance In Front of Amy Schumer. (Actually, she calls it her Backdoor Tour. Go figure.) Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall

The Decemberists - Mar 21
The venerable local indie rockers venture into poppy new realms with their first record in four years, January’s What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World. The show is sold out. Keller Auditorium

Oregon Symphony with James Ehnes - Mar 21–22
Canadian violinist Ehnes is the kind of prodigy who begins playing his instrument at 4, racks up every type of award, and then becomes the youngest person ever elected as a Fellow to the Royal Society of Canada. In other words, he is the exact opposite of Hector Berlioz, whose epic (and autobiographical) Symphonie fantastique tells the story of how an artist’s self-destructive obsession for a woman leads to opium fever dreams. Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall

Barney Frank - Mar 28
In the 114 Congressional classes since the Constitution’s advent, few members can match the longtime Massachusetts rep’s oratory powers and propensity for throwing the cleverest, most colorful insults. C-Span simply isn’t the same without Frank. So you can bet we’ll be in the front row when he reads from his new autobiography, Frank: A Life in Politics from the Great Society to Same-Sex Marriage. 


Stromae - Apr 7
Belgian artist Stromae is possibly the most famous pop star you’ve never heard of. His mix of rap, Eurodance, and Cuban and African rhythms (his father was Rwandan) tops the European charts and has attracted collaborations with the likes of Kanye West, the Black Eyed Peas, and Lorde. Also, he’s a snappy dresser not afraid to tackle heavy issues (absent fathers, AIDS, etc.). 

Tommy Davidson - Apr 10–12
In Living Color launched Davidson into the comedy stratosphere, from stand-up to Disney’s The Proud Family and Adult Swim’s current top show, Black Dynamite. Word is he’s even working on a biopic about Sammy Davis Jr., one of the impressions for which he’s famous. (You might also expect “guest appearances” by President Obama and Michael Jackson.) 

Blair Saxon-HillApr 10–may 17
Adams and Ollman and Fourteen30 Contemporary
This local artist is a whip-smart big thinker (and also co-owner of the fantastic Monograph Books), making her a prime candidate for this unusual, cross-city double show. Her more recent works, including pieces that appeared in last year’s Portland Biennial, tend toward a mix of sculpture, painting, and photo with an emphasis on perception through assemblage. 

David Ives Doubleheader
This spring, Portland audiences get two thematically tied chances to witness the lauded wordplay of playwright David Ives’s adaptations. First, in Theatre Vertigo’s The School for Lies (Apr 10–May 9), Ives takes on Molière’s The Misanthrope, about a beautiful, sharp-tongued widow in 1666 Paris who meets her match, with rhyming couplets that dance circles around your head. Then, in his take on Pierre Corneille’s 1643 tale of mistaken identity and falsehoods, The Liar (May 26­–June 21 at Artists Rep), Ives respins a yarn so dazzling the Wall Street Journal asked if it was the funniest play ever written. 

Martinu Quartet - Apr 16–17
Friends of Chamber Music
This celebrated Czech quartet specializes in the music of Czech composers, including a long-term project of recording the complete quartet works of one Tomáš Svoboda, one of the country’s leading contemporary composers, who just so happens to now call Oregon home. They will perform three of his pieces alongside works from his countrymen. Lincoln Hall

Damien Rice - Apr 20
After solidifying himself as one of the leading singer-songwriters of the new millennium, this Irish troubadour walked away from fame and music in 2007, ultimately retreating to the isolation of Iceland. Then he returned last November with the lushly orchestrated, Rick Rubin–produced My Favourite Faded Fantasy, and he’s been playing sold-out shows to rapturous crowds since. Keller Auditorium

Dance Theater of Harlem - Apr 21–22
White Bird
The storied company founded in 1969 by Karel Shook and Arthur Mitchell, the first African American principal dancer at the New York City Ballet, returns to Portland after a 30-year absence. A new contemporary program includes a work by Tanya Wideman-Davis and Thaddeus Davis tracing the legacy of the Great Migration through the Harlem Renaissance. Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall

Katherine Boo - Apr 23
Portland Arts and Lectures
Boo has spent years documenting the lives of people in poverty, from a Pulitzer-winning series in the Washington Post revealing horrible conditions in group homes for the developmentally disabled to her first book, 2012’s National Book Award–winning Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity. Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall

Vivaldi’s Four Seasons - Apr 24–26
Portland Baroque Orchestra
What more appropriate way to mark PBO’s 20th season with artistic director Monica Huggett, an internationally renowned baroque violinist, than the most springlike of concertos (also summery, autumnal, and wintry)? First Baptist Church and Kaul Auditorium.  

White Bird marshals Dorrance Dance's muscle in April.

Sylvan Esso - Apr 24
This electro-folk-pop duo broke out last year with the softly danceable “Coffee,” blending the blips, bells, and snaps of producer Nick Sanborn with the lilting, dulcet vocals of singer Amelia Meath. The rest of the pair’s songs are just as transfixing live, and even more danceable. 

Dorrance Dance - Apr 29
White Bird
Well-known dancer/choreographer Michelle Dorrance has enlisted eight other top performers—all backed by impressive blueswoman Toshi Reagon and her band BIGLovely—for a muscular work that explores tap dancing’s natural affinity with American roots music, from blues to rock to zydeco. Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall


Hearing Voices - May 1
Third Angle with Alex Ross
From Mahler to the minimalists, no one is more musically attuned to the last century than Alex Ross of the New Yorker. To tell the story of our own West Coast avant-garde, Ross reads from the 2008 Pulitzer-finalist tome The Rest Is Noise, interspersed with Third Angle performances of the works he’s discussing by regional heroes like Harry Partch, Lou Harrison, Janice Giteck, and John Luther Adams. Alberta Rose Theater

Oregon Symphony with Storm Large - May 1
When local leading lady Storm Large takes the stage, torch songs get torchier and crowd-pleasers more crowded (and pleasing). The chemistry between Large and the symphony should be a force to behold. Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall

David Sedaris - May 2
What can we say about the master of the modern memoir that he hasn’t already said about himself, with more humor and pizzazz than his five closest imitators combined? Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall

NW Animation Festival - May 4–10
Spanning a full week, the fifth annual animation confab from puppetmaster Sven Bonnichsen—which he claims is the nation’s largest—gathers hundreds of new works from international animators and splices them together with workshops, art shows, lectures, and so many after-parties. 

Sleater-Kinney - May 5
One of the sweetest moments of punk rock history takes place this spring with the reunion of the legendary Olympia-slash-Portland trio. Sold out; if you can't make it, salute in absentia.

Sax and the Symphony - May 9–11
Oregon Symphony
In 2002, composer Roberto Sierra wrote the jazz-inflected Concerto for Saxophones to showcase the virtuosity of James Carter. When it premiered at the Detroit Symphony, the audience erupted in such thunderous, unending applause that Carter had to replay the final stretch to get them to settle down. We suspect Portland audiences, with their tendency for standing ovations, will be no less effusive, particularly since the evening also includes Samuel Barber’s quietly gripping Adagio for Strings. 

Dr. Patricia Churchland - May 11
Blurring the lines between neurology and philosophy, MacArthur Fellow Churchland brings the core questions of her 2013 book, Touching a Nerve: The Self as Brain, to OHSU’s Brain Awareness lecture series. Newmark Theatre

Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play - May 13–June 7
Portland Playhouse
Guggenheim fellowship recipient and Reed alumna Anne Washburn mythologizes the work of another former Rose City resident, Simpsons creator Matt Groening. In a postapocalyptic landscape devoid of the comforts of electricity, survivors retell a single episode of Groening’s cult cartoon, passing the story down until it becomes the literal stuff of legend. 

From Darkness to LightMay 16–17
Cappella Romana
The founder of polystylism (think classical music mash-up), Russian composer Alfred Schnittke wrote these 12 “penitential psalms” in 1988, at his exuberant peak. The choral work is one of his last and draws on the poetry of 16th-century monks. St. Mary’s Cathedral and Trinity Episcopal Cathedral

Three Days of RainMay 17–June 21
Portland Center Stage
Grimm actor Sasha Roiz (Captain Renard) was already a regular audience member for PCS productions when he approached artistic director Chris Coleman. “We had coffee a couple of times, talking about projects it might be fun to work on together,” recalls Coleman. “Three Days was one that we got excited by: complex, smart, meaty, challenging.” Roiz roped in his Grimm castmate Silas Weir Mitchell, the dates lined up, agents gave the nod, and now they will make their Portland stage debuts in this Pulitzer finalist by Richard Greenberg about siblings trying to solve the mystery of their architect parents. 

BodyVox and the Amphion String QuartetMay 21–23 & 28-30
Dance theater meets live chamber music as BodyVox artistic directors Ashley Roland and Jamey Hampton pair their signature choreography with “suspenseful and virtuoso playing” from this young East Coast quartet in a show called Cosmosis


Gordon Parks's 1950s documentary photos reveal a different side of Shaft's creator.

The Rake’s Progress - June 11–14
Portland Opera
Stravinsky’s 1951 opera, based on the cautionary series from 18th-century morality painter William Hogarth (whose dissipated rake ultimately lands in Bedlam), got a striking, whimsical update in 1975 with stage design from the eminent artist David Hockney. The show runs in tandem with an exhibition of Hogarth and Hockney at the Portland Art Museum. 

Gordon Parks and Samer Mohdad - June 3–28
Blue Sky Gallery
The trailblazing Parks may be best known today for helping to spawn the blaxploitation genre with his Shaft films, but just as important was his photographic work, particularly these saturated 1956 color photographs for Life magazine of an Alabama family struggling with segregation. Lebanese photojournalist Mohdad’s richly textured black-and-white images capture an often-undocumented world—modern Arab life from Gaza to Algeria. 

Gods and Heroes - June 13–Sept 13
Portland Art Museum
Founded in 1648, Paris’s École des Beaux-Arts cemented the city’s place as the center of the art world. Featuring paintings and sculptures by the likes of François Boucher, Jacques-Louis David, and Jean-Honoré Fragonard, this touring exhibition explores biblical and Homer-inspired works. 

Cheap Tickets!
Money need not be a barrier to seeing great art. Many performance companies offer rush tickets 15 minutes before showtime, selling empty seats at steep discounts ($15–20 tickets at Portland Center Stage, Portland Playhouse, and Third Rail Rep, where people under 25 get free rush tickets; and $5–15 student rush tickets at Friends of Chamber Music, Oregon Ballet Theatre, Portland Baroque Orchestra, Portland Opera, and Stumptown Stages). If you have an Oregon Trail EBT Card, you can get $5 Arts for All tickets to most local productions. The Chinook Book has two-for-one coupons for Artists Rep, the Oregon Symphony, the Portland Art Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Craft, PCS, and members of the Portland Area Theatre Alliance. Many museums have monthly free nights (fourth Friday at the art museum, first Thursday at the Museum of Contemporary Craft, first Friday at the Portland Children’s Museum). Finally, make a habit of visiting portlandtheatre.com/pata-discount-tickets for cheap tickets to a cornucopia of shows.

Filed under
Show Comments