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Bag & Baggage Vaults into the Future

By Brett Campbell
September 8, 2017
Featured, Theater

At 9:30 pm last November 5 — which happened to be Guy Fawkes Day, commemorating the planned bombing of the British Parliament — Bag&Baggage Productions’ artistic director Scott Palmer got the phone call he’d been dreading for years. the Venetian Theatre, the company’s downtown Hillsboro home, had been sold, forcing the company to move its penultimate show of the season to a small venue and to cancel its big season-ending moneymaker, the ever-popular Noises Off.

The resulting $80,000-plus loss stunned a company that had always run in the black — a rarity in Portland-area theater. But after an intensely stressful winter, which Palmer said he might not have survived without other company members stepping up to take on new roles, the company survived — barely — because Palmer, aware that a sale could happen, had already taken steps to secure a new venue much better suited to the plucky company’s style and audience.

The Vault theater opens this week in downtown Hillsboro.

Just steps down Main Street from the Venetian and purpose-built for 21st century theater, the former Wells Fargo building, now called The Vault Theater & Event Space, officially opens this week with an open house celebration Saturday afternoon featuring tours, discussions and more. The company’s first show there, which opened this week, demonstrates just what a tremendous transformation the new space will spark in a company that, despite its hitherto untrendy location, is among Oregon’s most artistically accomplished.

Intimacy and Intensity

The most obvious difference between the company’s old and new homes is size. The Vault’s 165-seat maximum seating — less than half the Venetian’s capacity — is close to the company’s average attendance, making each show feel more crowded and lively, and putting the audience just a few feet from the performers rather than up to 30 yards away. That means they’ll be able to see much more nuanced acting, and that in turn changes the kind of acting and directing the company employs, as well as the plays it programs.

“We’re known for doing big stuff,” Palmer acknowledges. “This gives us the opportunity to respond to people who think the only thing we know how to do is big and brash. That has largely been a necessity of our old space. I’m fan of the giant farces we’ve done for Christmas. But it’s also the kind of show that fits in the Venetian. You’ve got to big it up.

Bag & Baggage Productions artistic director Scott Palmer at the company’s former home, Hillsboro’s Venetian Theater.

“[The new space] changes the whole performance style,” he continues. “I’m trained to do up-close, intimate theater, so this is kind of a second life for me. We’ll shift attention to smaller cast shows, five- or six-handers. Everyone’s moving toward small casts now,” in part because they’re cheaper to produce — another advantage of the move.

Set design will also adapt. “No one could see the set in the Venetian. We’re constantly painting with broad brushes, just like the actors,” he says. “Now we can turn our attention to detail and be more specific in our designs.”

For example, in Bag & Baggage’s new production of Rebeca Gilman’s 1999 play Spinning into Butter, the main design element is … a desk. But it will be a “kick ass desk that will look huge in there,” Palmer says. A play he’s wanted to stage for years, “that show would never have worked in the Venetian.” Nor would the three-actor March production, Ariel Dorfman’s intense 1991 classic, Death and the Maiden.

Inside The Vault.

This season, The Vault will also host revivals of past B&B favorites: David McGillivray and Walter Zerlin, Jr.’s farce, The Farndale Avenue Housing Estate Townswomen’s Guild Dramatic Society’s Production Of “Murder At Checkmate Manor” and Charles Dickens Writes A Christmas Carol. Palmer intends to host improv comedy and the company’s annual Robert Burns holiday dinner fundraiser there. Fans of the company’s large-scale performances will still have the annual outdoor summer show, like this summer’s Romeo and Juliet (Layla and Majnun), and, once a year, the Venetian (if it remains a theater) for a big production.

Black Box

Since the new venue was designed (by Portland’s highly regarded Opsis, whose name comes from the Greek word for theatrical spectacle) literally from the ground up for theater, B&B is making it into a the kind of flexible “black box” space beloved of innovative theater companies because it’s adaptable to any kind of production, including perhaps someday even augmented or virtual reality. While some of the 1948 building’s industrial chic midcentury modern features remain, from exposed nails to giant steel trusses, it boasts improvements in lighting, projection capability, accessibility, rehearsal and costume/prop storage, and office space, including even (for the first time) an office for Palmer himself. He even intends to employ the adjacent outdoor area as both an event and adjunct theatrical space. “We’re going to use the fabric of the building as a blank canvas for our work,” he says.

It’s even flexible enough to be more than a theater. Much like downtown Portland’s Armory hosts events separate from its resident Portland Center Stage theater company, The Vault is already booking events, providing fast-growing Hillsboro (Oregon’s fifth-largest city, with more than 100,000 residents) with a much-needed venue for everything from parties to performances. It also supplies B&B a separate income stream (about a quarter of its total) from rentals and, thanks to a kitchen and wine bar, concessions. Combined with the lower costs and risks of a small space, that allows the company — already one of Oregon’s most creative — to occasionally chance adventurous programming it’s never been able to afford before. “We can take some risks,” Palmer grins.

Palmer, left, led a talkback session while the Vault was still under construction in 2015.

Despite last winter’s close encounter with extinction, the company has bounced back smartly, offering discounts to subscribers and disappointed ticket holders for the canceled and moved shows. Having earned its community’s trust over the past seven years, its audience responded: “We’re up 25% on season ticket sales from last year,” Palmer says.

Recognizing the company’s fiscal soundness and contributions to the local culture and economy, the city chipped in with a 25-year loan, and the state followed suit with a $50,000 grant to support the company’s Cultural Innovation Program. “These funds will allow us to create one of the most flexible and advanced digital projection laboratories on the West Coast,” Palmer says, “providing our artists, students from throughout the state, animators, innovators, and digital content creators a playground where they can experiment, develop new applications, and perfect their skills.”

With the company’s 18 month capital campaign to remodel the building already complete, having exceeded its $1.5 million goal by $25,000, Bag & Baggage’s future looks auspicious, giving a double meaning to the name of its new home: not just the old bank vault, but also the company’s leap into a promising — and very different — future.

The Vault open house and grand opening party: 12 PM – 4 PM Saturday, September 9, at The Vault Theater and Event Space 350 E. Main Street, Hillsboro, includes tours, discussions and more. Bag&Baggage Productions’ first indoor production at The Vault, Spinning into Butter, runs through September 24. A version of this story appeared in The Oregonian/Oregon Live.

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