A rebranding, a new mission and a focus on different ways of delivering art signal a new era for Portland’s oldest theater company.
The excitement in artistic director Dámaso Rodríguez’s voice was palpable.
He was up-front about the challenges facing Artists Repertory Theatre. The company has had the same financial struggles as other performance art venues. Since the onset of the pandemic he has had to lay off half its staff to reduce operating costs. A move Rodríguez described as the hardest loss.
But the company has undergone a transition during the pandemic, one that signifies a new era for the theater. A fresh mission statement, a focus on digital and site-specific content, and a full rebranding effort have transformed the business.
Artistic director Dámaso Rodríguez at a recording of Magellanica. Photo by Kathleen Kelly
“This period has given us time to reset, remake and reimagine,” says Rodríguez. “There’s this ‘you get to say “yes”’ energy going around.”
The theater company was in the middle of a transition even before the pandemic hit. After selling its previous location to an affordable housing development last year, the company went ‘on tour’ in its hometown for its 2019/2020 season, performing in venues like the Portland Armory.
That is until Gov. Kate Brown’s crowd-limit mandate shut down live performances everywhere.
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While it was closed, the company bought and upgraded its recording equipment and used the money provided by the Paycheck Protection Program to found the Mercury Company, which employs 50 artists to create audio plays, short films with animation components and other post-pandemic theater content.
Among the artists it commissioned is OXYGEN, a performance group composed of nine Black artists, produced by development and marketing director Kisha Jarrett.
The theater posted a new anti-racist mission statement that reflects a permanent commitment to telling diverse stories with artists and creators of all backgrounds, and which it believes modern audiences are hungry to experience in Oregon and across the country.
Artist in residence Vin Shambry reads from the script of Magellanica at ART. Photo by Kathleen Kelly
“We decided our focus needs to be on issues that literally need addressing right now,” says Rodríguez. These topics include racial justice and the climate crisis.
To help with its reinvention the company applied for Portland marketing firm Grady Britton’s annual $25,000 rebranding grant, which it won.
“They wanted to take things to another level,” says Paige Campbell, president of Grady Britton. “We’ve worked with Artists Rep before and they’ve always had a huge focus on diversity. We like working with people who are making a difference in this world, who are making change right now. It’s the reason we all get up in the morning.”
The new logo on the door of ART, designed by Grady Britton. Photo: Grady Britton
On Sept 27 audience members joined in for the first installment of Magellanica, a three-part audio play by Oregon playwright E.L. Lewis about a team of scientists discovering the hole in the ozone layer in 1986.
Audience members who attended the live reading had the opportunity to join breakout rooms with actors and other members of the creative team to discuss the show and simulate the communal energy of an opening night.
One new play was conceptualized as a series of phone calls, a medium meant to be accessible to an online audience.
Actror Joshua J. Weinstein performs the audio play Magellanica at ART. Photo by Kathleen Kelly
While American audiences have not historically been consumers of radio plays or live-streamed drama, Disney’s widely viewed recorded production of the Broadway hit Hamilton, and consumers’ growing consumption of podcasts and audiobooks, could mean a shift in post-pandemic consumer behavior.
If listening to radio dramas and watching live streams of theater performances becomes more commonplace, regional theaters could have nearly as much access to a national audience as a Broadway theater might, a prospect that seemed unfathomable one year ago.
The plan to increase the Artists Repertory Theatre’s reach through digital offerings is also part of a larger strategy to define Portland as a major theater scene. The company has become more recognized nationally in recent years with several world premiers, such as Wolf Play by South Korean playwright Hansol Jung.
“So much of what we think of when we think of theater is Broadway and Hollywood. This is an opportunity to bring what we do to a wider audience.” says Rodríguez.
“There’s no going back to the way it was.”
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