Damaso Rodriguez is rethinking Artists Repertory Theatre

The jump of resident artists to 20 changes the way Portland's 2nd largest theater company operates

Several members of the resident artists company were in "Ten Chimneys," which Damaso Rodriguez directed./Owen Carey

Several members of the resident artists company were in “Ten Chimneys,” which Damaso Rodriguez directed./Owen Carey

Last month, Artists Repertory Theatre announced that it was expanding its resident artists company from the single digits to 20 in one big jump. The names on the list included lots of actors and designers associated with the company over the years, some more centrally than others. Just about all of them were at least mid-career theater artists, if not older, and just about all of them had carved very active theater lives OUTSIDE Artists Rep, too. You can see the list below.

The terms of the residency didn’t involve money or guarantees of work at Artists Rep: The resident artists weren’t employees or part of a tight-knit repertory acting company. And so, I think many of us didn’t quite understand the dimensions of what might be happening. Early stories suggested that artistic director Dámaso Rodriguez had simply created a “think tank,”  where artistic ideas could be tossed around by the company. And that sounded…tiring and hardly revolutionary, like a theater debating society with no real connection to the work on stage.

But Rodriguez’s idea was far more ambitious than that. The big building that Artists Rep owns already houses eight smaller performing arts groups, from Profile Theatre to Polaris Dance Theatre, acting as a theater hub of sorts. The creation of a large resident artists company  doubles down on that idea by extending it to a group of independent theater artist/entrepreneurs and connecting them to the core mission of Artists Rep.

“I feel this is a way, without a half million dollar bump in our budget, this is a way for us to expand our educational programming, our artistic programming,  new play development, and community engagement,” Rodriquez said when we talked about his plans. “This group can’t help themselves. They are all people who make things happen.”

We both laughed when he brought up the mythical $500,000 “bump.” That’s the point, isn’t it? In these times, when the arts are reduced to little pockets of resistance against the occupying forces of global commodity culture, that sort of investment seems practically impossible without a very rich patron of some sort. So, arts groups that hope to re-center the arts in the middle of the culture have to come up with different strategies, new ways of organizing their communities (of artists and audiences), that don’t involve large capital investments.

And it’s just possible that as Rodriguez attempts to energize Artists Rep, he’s conducting an experiment that other arts groups may want to test on themselves.

The community that Rodriguez is creating is possible because Artists Rep owns its own large building on Southwest Morrison, with two medium-sized theaters (160- and 224-seaters), three areas that can be used for rehearsals, and some large space that we might call “unimproved.”

The idea improves that space by giving a large number of accomplished theater artists a home base for their work, whether it involves Artists Rep directly or not. That means desks, meeting and rehearsal rooms, access to the company’s script library. It could mean access to Artists Rep grant writers and other administrators. And it definitely means a determination by Artists Rep to work with the artists, though without specific guarantees of employment.

Artists Rep's resident artists./NashCo Photography

Artists Rep’s resident artists./NashCo Photography

What does Artists Rep hope to get for this offer of free rent and amiable companions?

“I feel that if we didn’t do this, we wouldn’t get as far as quickly with the expansion of programming, with innovative ideas,” Rodriguez said. “If I have to generate everything, it’s going to happen at a much slower pace.”

The actual mechanism for progress is just the density of participants rubbing their ideas against each other, seeing which ones generate enthusiasm and which ones don’t.

“I think the theater landscape or ecology benefits from individual accomplished artists having a sense of security, having a sense of home,” Rodriguez said. “I believe that. I think we will make better work because of it. I think it’s our mission, and good for our audience and good for Artists Rep. By stimulating the creative pot, some projects will manifest themselves as Artists Rep projects. I just feel a lot of times it will benefit us and benefit the individual artists.”

In other words, Rodriguez is counting on the creative friction that lots of creative people generate just naturally, and by containing it inside one building, he believes that more creative collisions will occur, a sort of Art Physics. One of my favorite books is Elizabeth Currid’s The Warhol Economy, which carefully tracked how the intersection of fashion, art and music worked in New York City to generate new ideas in the container of lower Manhattan. This isn’t quite the same thing: it’s a more controlled environment that that. But its operating principle is the same.

Rodriguez already has some evidence that his idea will work. Michael Mendelson was one of the first class of resident actors chosen by then-artistic director Allen Nause in 2008. Mendelson has continued to act at Artists Rep, and he’s added directing to the mix, too. And along the way, he started the Portland Shakespeare Project, which opens its fourth summer season this year with The Tempest, directed by Mendelson and starring another resident artist, Linda Alper: “Being part of the Artists Rep community afforded me time to dream and and plan for Portland Shakespeare Project, and is still influencing our growth,” Mendelson wrote in an email.

Another resident artists, playwright Andrea Stolowitz, is getting some immediate benefits from her association with the company of residents.

“I have already had an internal reading of a new play that I am working on,” she wrote. “I was able to hear the play with members of the resident company in it, and members of the resident company and staff at ART came to listen and help me answer some questions I had about it. In other words I had a protected safe place to hear a play in a very gestational phase.”

Will that play make it onto a season at Artists Rep? Hard to say. And it really doesn’t matter in the long-term, because Stolowitz already is profiting from the relationship, a term she herself uses when she talks about the arrangement.

“I think of it like this: instead of begging for a prom date from every theater near and far, now I’m “in a relationship,” Stolowitz says. “Being in a relationship means I can devote more of my time to creating art and less of it hustling for someone to “like” me and it. I still will always hustle for nationally recognized development opportunities and productions and fellowships and grants, but I have a place—in the town I live—at a great theater, part of a company of talented amazing people who can provide the time and space to support the development of what I create.”

The idea for a large resident artists company emerged from an observation about the way theater works in a medium-sized city like Portland. Or, rather, how it doesn’t work for the theater people trying to make a living at it as they do their art.

“There’s this odd thing that happens in organizations,” Rodriquez noted. “Artists that get hired for a gig are really welcomed and embraced while they are in the building for eight or nine or 12 weeks, and then when that ends, there’s the suggestion that you part ways and the artist is not quite as welcome. This means there’s a home here whether or not you’re getting hired for shows here or [working in] shows somewhere else.”

Now, this isn’t the case for all theater companies in town, because several of the smaller ones were founded by the actors, directors and designers themselves as sort of intentional theater communities. But the largest companies in the city, the ones that pay Equity salaries to the actors, usually hire by the show—Artists Rep, Portland Center Stage, Oregon Children’s Theatre—and so do lots of smaller ones. And it’s easy for actors and other theater professionals to feel disconnected, alone in their hunt for work and in the development of their art form.

Here’s what Mary McDonald-Lewis (who is among other things a voice coach, director, actor, co-artistic director of Readers Theatre Repertory,  and now resident artist) says about the life of an independent theater artist. I’m going to quote her at length because I think her comments get to something central in our increasingly freelance culture.

“Everyone longs for home, freelance artists no less than anyone else. What we do is lonely work. We so seldom spend protracted time with one another—and when we do, we have our heads down working whatever project we’re on—so it’s easy to be isolated; to question one’s value; to fail to create as well as one could and to not stretch and grow as much as one can in company. I dreamed of a home that would always have ‘the light on for me,’ so to speak—somewhere I could be in community with my peers; feel the security that offers; and challenge myself from that safe place. Ultimately it was an affirmation addressing an ongoing worry us sensitive types all have: ‘Do they really like me and my work?  Will they ever hire me again?’ These questions have been answered for me, and now I can focus on the work, which is what really matters.

“Being a Resident Artist is a touchstone for me. It tells me something about my body of work and my place in our beautiful community. And whether or not I should already know that—the plain truth is, we rely on these external proofs. What we—all of us—do is so terribly fragile and ephemeral, with no terra firma beneath our feet. The residency at Artists Repertory Theatre gives me a place to stand. A place to call ‘mine.’ A place to call home.”

Mendelson, who has had a long and celebrated career in theater in Portland, feels the need for “home” just as acutely.

“The main thing being a resident artist offers me is an artistic home and family. A home where I can be stretched as an artist and human being. A nurturing environment that encourages me to dream about the future and to be bold in my work. A home that affords me a sense of security and artists I am honored and excited to work with on and off stage.”

Rodriguez tapped into the freelancer’s well of anxiety and offered a solution. Maybe not exactly what everyone wanted—maybe that would be salaries and benefits—but something perhaps equally important. A sense of belonging. A springboard for an artistic life. The connection to a theater company of ambition.

Rodriguez’s company of resident artists is relatively diverse and balanced by gender. The members all have professional relationships with Rodriguez and Artists Rep: He didn’t invite actors or designers he didn’t know directly. And because he wanted people who arrived with credentials and working creative lives in place, younger artists are mostly missing. In other words, it could be expanded, and Rodriguez says that he hopes to add another five members by next year at this time (his original short list numbered 30, he says).

Here’s the thing: In Portland’s theater world I could imagine at least two or three formal communities of equal accomplishment and possibility operating around existing theater companies. The theater community is that rich in talent these days. If this experiment works out—which we won’t be able to judge for at least a few years, when new projects by the resident artists start to see the light of day, because of the long gestation period for work in theater—maybe we’ll see more aggregations like this one.

What I’m wondering: Is some form of this model—attaching independent artists to existing companies—possible in other areas of the arts? So, might Chamber Music Northwest, for example, become a home for independent chamber musicians along similar lines? Is the symphony orchestra of the future an adaptation of this idea? How about the ballet or modern dance company?

I only bring it up because the $500,000 bump that Rodriguez is NOT expecting at Artists Rep is just as unlikely elsewhere, and unless new ideas are attempted, arts groups face a period of difficult and sometimes desperate unwinding. Our largest arts groups especially define success as treading water and barring unforeseen and very large gifts, making it to the farther shore is going to require intelligent reinvention.


The Resident Artists Company at Artists Repertory Theatre

Linda Alper** (Actor/Playwright), Owen Carey (Resident Photographer)**, Kristeen Willis Crosser** (Lighting/Scenic Designer), Chris Harder (Actor), JoAnn Johnson (Director/Actor), Kevin Jones (Director/Actor), Val Landrum (Actor), Sarah Lucht (Actor), Susannah Mars (Actor), Gilberto Martin Del Campo (Actor), Mary McDonald-Lewis (Voice/Text Director), Michael Mendelson* (Director/Actor), Allen Nause** (Director/Actor), Vana O’Brien* (Actor), Rodolfo Ortega** (Composer/Sound Designer), Sharath Patel (Sound Designer), John San Nicolas (Actor), Vin Shambry (Actor), Andrea Stolowitz (Playwright), Joshua Weinstein (Actor)

* Resident actor since 2008
** Resident artist since 2013

Companies in the Artists Repertory Theatre building

Profile Theatre (Resident Theatre Company)
August Wilson Red Door Project (founded by Resident Artist Kevin Jones)
Portland Revels
Portland Area Theatre Alliance
Portland Shakespeare Project (Resident Theatre Company, founded by Resident Artist Michael Mendelson)
Traveling Lantern
Polaris Dance Theatre
Risk/Reward festival

Read more by Barry Johnson.

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4 Responses.

  1. Michael says:

    A beautiful model. I raise my glass. Here’s to its success.

  2. Michael says:

    A beautiful model. I raise my glass. Here’s to its succuss.

  3. Kerry Cobb says:

    Hasn’t Third Rail Rep been doing this for about 10 years now?

    • Barry Johnson says:

      I didn’t make that clear enough. Sorry.

      Portland has lots of theater companies that were formed by the theater artists themselves. Third Rail is a very successful example, and there are lots of others. The members of the company work for the company (though they take outside jobs with other companies sometimes) in a variety of ways: The company is THEIRS, ultimately. That’s a fine and common model in the history of Portland theater.

      Artists Rep’s model is different: You bring a lot of independent theater artists into your building to do what they do. Some of that work winds up on an Artists Rep stage, and a lot of it doesn’t. The purpose isn’t to feed Artists Rep directly, though many of the residents will pop up in Artists Rep productions. It’s to provide a home base to independent artists. So, Andrea Stolowitz works on plays that ART may or may not produce, using the rehearsal space and willing residents to workshop them. Mary MacDonald-Lewis could work on her various projects. Michael Mendelson will likely continue to work on Portland Shakespeare Project business. By doing it together, they have access to the advice and energy of other residents. Rodriguez thinks that ART will ultimately be a beneficiary of this work.

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