Spring Arts: Stage

One Year In, Artists Rep Reflects on Life without Space

“Collaboration can be challenging,” says artistic director Dámaso Rodríguez.

By Julia Silverman February 25, 2020 Published in the March 2020 issue of Portland Monthly

ART’s fall production of 1984

“Not all who those wander are lost,” a sentiment penned by J. R. R. Tolkien, is a classic Etsy maxim, replicated on many a hand-stitched tea towel—but that makes it no less true for the members of Artists Repertory Theatre.

The company is midway through its first year as a theater-in-exile while its longtime building in Goose Hollow is transformed into a state-of-the-art performance space and 21-story residential tower.

Construction is expected to last at least two years, which has forced ART to rely on the kindness of, if not exactly strangers, at least friendly competitors. This year’s shortened season—six plays, down from the usual eight—are being staged at spaces all over town, from Imago Theatre’s no-frills black box to the ballroom at the Tiffany Center.

“Collaboration can be challenging,” says Dámaso Rodríguez, ART’s artistic director. “Welcoming someone into your house can cause inconvenience. That’s also one of the reasons that, historically, space isn’t shared to the degree that it could be. You kind of need some luck to find a good tenant [or landlord].”

Luck, yes, combined with Tetris skills. For season opener 1984, ART had to figure out how to move ambitious sets in and out of Imago’s relatively tight space; for December’s The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart at the Tiffany Center, which turned dinner theater on its proverbial ear, the company needed to create a makeshift overhead lighting grid.

But—to pull from another Insta-worthy maxim, this one courtesy Benjamin Franklin—with adversity comes opportunity. Thus, for Indecent, running through March 8 at Portland State’s Lincoln Hall, ART’s production manager and lighting designers taught university-level courses and students got experience as stagehands. Coproducing January’s School Girls; or the African Mean Girls Play with Portland Center Stage, the city’s other big regional company, exposed both theaters to new audiences, says PCS managing director Cynthia Fuhrman.

It wouldn’t be theater without backstage intrigue, so don’t overlook where ART is not staging a show during their tour: any of the theaters at the civically owned Portland’5 Centers for the Arts, which were, Rodríguez says, prohibitively expensive to rent and staff. That’s despite a high-profile report from the city council in 2018 bemoaning the lack of affordable performance space around town.

The temporary closure of ART’s building didn’t make that crunch any easier, especially since the company was running a theater coworking space out of it called ArtsHub, offering classroom and rehearsal resources to nearly a dozen smaller operations.

Jonathan Walters, the artistic director at Hand2Mouth, an ArtsHub partner, says his theater company has felt the loss of the performance stages at the old ART building. But rehearsal, meeting, and classroom space is readily available at ART’s temporary home base at Zidell Yards on the South Waterfront. Plus, he and other ArtsHub partners have a seat at the table to plot out the new building’s design.

“It has been really amazing to feel really included in the future,” Walters says. “They are considering our needs, and it has made me have more confidence in going back to our board and saying, ‘Hey, let’s move in when they go back.’”

Plans call for ART to be back at its refurbished home by fall 2021, but construction is a notoriously fickle mistress. Next season, at least, will also be on the road, including return engagements at some of the 2019–2020 locales. But beyond that, who knows? To butcher one more old saw: They’re going big before they go home.

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