Donated supplies, snacks, and water await protesters at Shaking the Tree.

Since mid-March, with the show not going on, Portland’s performance spaces, public institutions, and places of worship have sat forlornly vacant. 

But in the past week or so, as the Black Lives Matter protests grew in strength around the city, a select few of them have sprung back to life. 

Portland Center Stage at the Armory, in the Pearl District, and Shaking the Tree theater in inner SE Portland have both joined the national Open Your Lobby campaign, offering demonstrators a safe haven to use the bathroom, pick up free snacks, water, or medical supplies, get warm and dry, and charge their phones.

“Theater is about making change, and protesting is very theatrical,” says Samantha Van Der Merwe, the founding artistic director of Shaking the Tree. “If we can support the protesters, then we are doing our job. Ever since COVID started, and we realized that we couldn’t do the thing we know how to do so well, theater companies have had to have a good look at how we can remain relevant. What do I provide to my community that is of value, even when I can’t just offer my art? I am one of the companies that is lucky enough to have a space. That is something I can offer. 

Van Der Merwe says the effort at Shaking the Tree has been volunteer-driven: a call on social media yielded a flood of supplies and volunteers to help hand them out and keep the theater’s space clean and sanitized.  

“People want to help so much, and they don’t know how,” she says, especially those who are at risk for coronavirus, or live with family members who are, and may be reluctant to attend a large gathering. “This seems like a good vehicle for people to show they care and provide support in a way that is not directly protesting.” 

Other cultural and religious spaces downtown have yet to open their lobbies, though many have expressed solidarity with the protest movement. Artists Repertory Theatre, another of Portland’s flagship local companies, is in the midst of a building renovation and cannot offer space, but it has tagged its own building with protest slogans and installed signs and banners to demonstrate support.  

Rachel Randles, the director of marketing and communication at the Oregon Historical Society, says the museum does not yet have the capacity to offer space for respite to the protesters.  

“The vast majority of our staff are still working from home—except for a skeleton facilities and security crew—and we are still in the process of finalizing policies to ensure that our building is safe for staff and visitors when we do re-open,” Randles wrote via email. “While we support those participating, we do not have the staff or safety protocols in place just yet to join those organizations involved.” 

Robyn Williams, the executive director for Portland’5 Centers for the Arts, which oversees the municipally owned Keller Auditorium, Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, and Antoinette Hatfield Hall (which houses the Newmark and Winningstad Theatres, among other spaces), says her organization is in a similar boat. 

Portland’5 fully supports the Black Lives Matter protesters and their message of racial injustice,” Williams wrote in a statement. “Unfortunately, we are unable to open our lobbies in support of protesters, as the deep cuts we had to make in our staffing prevents us from being able to maintain the lobbies in a safe, sanitized way at this time. 

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