East Side Storytellers

Portland Story Theater's impending move to the Alberta Abbey shifts the city's eastward-leaning cultural map

“It’s kind of a big risk,” Lawrence Howard says. “We’re excited and a bit nervous about it.”

Howard isn’t talking about 33 and ⅓, the dual storytelling program about their third-of-a-century life together that he and his wife, Lynne Duddy, are performing this Friday and Saturday night at Hipbone Studio, although any storytelling performance, and especially one that gets two people tangled into the act, is a risk.

He’s talking about Portland Story Theater’s big move, come September, from the funky and intimate Hipbone space on East Burnside Street to the funky and much bigger Alberta Abbey, on Northeast Alberta and Mallory, a couple of blocks around the corner from Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

A Portland Story Theater crowd at Hipbone. Photo: Mike Bodin

A Portland Story Theater crowd at Hipbone. Photo: Mike Bodin

Howard and Duddy are the story theater’s founders and driving forces, and the move north is a carefully considered gamble. It immediately expands the story theater’s capacity from an overstuffed 110 or 115 at Hipbone to 400 in the old church building on Alberta – 300 in the main auditorium and 100 in the balcony.

Portland Story Theater will become the anchor arts tenant at Alberta Abbey, a 1924 church building at 126 N.E. Alberta Street that began a restoration as a community center in 2012 but is still a little under the radar. “We’re kind of a secret,” but we hope not for long,” says Madison Weiss, who does marketing and booking for the Abbey.

Besides its main performance space, the Abbey includes a piano lounge, a 2,800-square-foot ballroom, a full kitchen, artists’ studios, and office space for several nonprofit groups. On Sundays it even continues to function as a church space, housing services for TGW Faith Ministries, a mostly African American congregation.

Alberta Abbey from street side.

Alberta Abbey from street side.

The intimate atmosphere at Hipbone has been one of the attractions for the story theater and its audiences, giving performances almost a living-room sort of friendliness. But it’s ended up being almost too popular. Most performances are sold out, and people are turned away. “We’ve been bursting at the seams for a couple of years now,” Howard says.

With its double-height ceiling, raised stage, and 400 seats, the Abbey provides a strikingly different atmosphere. Performers probably will use microphones, and the audience will be seated in comfortable padded seats, but at much more of a remove from the stage. The company probably will install some sort of divider, like a curtain across part of the seating area, to make the space smaller. “There is that sense of intimacy at Hipbone that we’re going to have to figure out here,” Duddy says. “… We were at a point where we were maxed out on our audience. We just didn’t have any more room.” Originally, she adds, she and Howard were looking for a space with about 150 to 175 seats – “but this makes it a growth opportunity.”

Duddy and Howard had been hunting for some time for a new space, and it was something like kismet that brought them to the neighborhood where Duddy grew up, on nearby Cleveland Avenue. Howard tells the tale: “Lynne was driving in the car, literally just going down the street, and she got a phone call: ‘Hey, would you like to come see a new performance venue?’”

She would, they did, and they pounced. “This is a big thing,” the Abbey’s Weiss says. “They signed for five years. And the commitment they’re making, we’re making back to them. We want it to be their home. And to feel like it’s their home.”

Alberta Abbey, which is a couple of blocks west of MLK, is near the popular Alberta Arts District but a western outpost of the district’s core. Its area, once a predominantly black section of the city, is still more ethnically mixed than much of Portland, and other attractions, from Ethiopian restaurants to performance spaces such as Curious Comedy Theater and Portland Playhouse, are nearby. Weiss says the Abbey is committed to drawing diverse users and audiences.

Full house for a puppet show at Alberta Abbey.

Full house for a puppet show at Alberta Abbey.

It also adds to a string of small- to medium-sized cultural spaces along Alberta, including the Alberta Rose Theatre at 30th Avenue and Randall Stuart’s Cerimon House project in an old lodge hall at 23rd and Sumner, just a block north of Alberta. “We told (the Abbey) we’d be their cornerstone company, sort of like Live Wire! is at Alberta Rose,” Duddy says.

Alberta Abbey follows a trend in Portland’s cultural scene to look east. In a rapidly in-filling city, space and affordability are key questions: how can you get the most for the least, and also stay within easy reach of the things that are important to you? In Portland, often, the answer is to cross the bridge (take your pick which one) and leave downtown/Northwest for the east side.

It happened several years ago with the city’s dining scene, when established chefs and newcomers alike were lured across the Willamette by cheaper rents and a built-in customer base in close-in Southeast and Northeast neighborhoods. The art scene wasn’t far behind, with studios opening in old east side warehouses and performing spaces cropping up all over the place, from Zoomtopia and the Shoebox and Triangle’s Sanctuary to The Headwaters, Shaking the Tree, Imago, and many more. A lot of the spaces are small and barely retrofitted, but they share a can-do, make-do attitude and a tremendous amount of energy.

The west side’s picked up, too, with a significant uptick in the Newmark and Winningstad theaters, Artists Rep’s emergence as a multi-company center, and the always busy Gerding Theater at the Armory, Portland Center Stage’s home. But even with the loss of the Belmont district’s Theater! Theatre! space, the eastside has its own, distinctive vitality.

As Alberta Abbey’s Weiss puts it, “We have a vision of making this one of the places to go in Portland. Not swanky. Funky.”

Must be a story in that.


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A lineup of storytellers from an "Urban Tellers" performance at Hipbone.

Storytellers from a PST “Urban Tellers” show at Hipbone. Photo: Mike Bodin



16 Responses.

  1. Lynne Duddy says:

    Exciting times at Portland Story Theater… glad to be on the radar of Oregon Arts Watch! Thank you!

  2. We are so delighted and thrilled to be kicking off Portland Story Theater’s next exciting season at The Abbey! Thank you Bob for the wonderful article and taking time to hear what we are all about!

  3. Travis says:

    It’s so great to see PST moving into a bigger venue so more people can enjoy connecting with their stories. This group is a vital part of our Portland Art Community and they’ll hook more people now that they have more chairs I have no doubt.

  4. Penny Walter says:

    So excited and thrilled with the move. Now we can sit in comfort and really give our full attention to the stories at hand. It is time that “Urban Tellers” have a proper space dedicated to tell their stories and we can all revel in them. Wonderful!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  5. Jack Schwab says:

    This is a brilliant move by a vital, growing arts organization. I look forward to checking it out.

  6. Chere Marie says:

    I’m a huge fan of Portland Story Theater and Lynne and Lawrence. I congratulate them on having the courage to grow and take the risk here; I believe it’s time for PST to be bold and brave. The move can refresh, renew and revitalize their series, workshops and performance opportunities. New beginnings and holding close the history of PST could be the best thing to do. The need to reinvent and stay fresh by making the change of venue is very exciting and I hope to support them in any way I can!!!! Go Team PST!!!

  7. Mary Welch says:

    One of the things I’ve always loved about PST is their willingness to take huge risks for the sake of staying current and fresh. This move has been long-overdue, as the ranks of aficionados have swelled. I’m excited by this move and I have no doubt that word of their fine reputation will spread fast in NE Portland, drawing in fans who will NOT be disappointed!

  8. Taylor Long says:

    I’m so excited for Lynne, Lawrence and the whole Portland Story Theater community. This move will usher in a great new chapter for PST, Alberta Abbey and the NE art scene. I can’t wait for opening night!

  9. Jennie Brown says:

    Maverick Main Stage Productions, a children’s theater that serves students in N/NE, just made the Alberta Abbey it’s new home for all our shows (3 per year.) We are thrilled to be part of the Abbey family, alongside great organizations such as Portland Story Theater!

  10. Robyn Aoyagi says:

    So exciting! Now is the time for PST fans to show their support of PST’s wonderful work. Bring all your friends next season! Let’s fill that beautiful new space!!!

  11. Mark Hageman says:

    I am very excited by the big move. We have been enjoying shows with Portland Story Theater since discovering them upon our arrival in Portland last year. The Alberta Abbey provides a great growth opportunity and a chance to connect with a new area of this wonderful city.

  12. Scott Gregory says:

    Portland Story Theater is my favorite and the number one entertainment experience in the Portland-Vancouver area. I live in Vancouver so this move makes it even easier to attended their story shows.

  13. Craig Bachman says:

    This a fabulous move for PST to a great building in a great location. Having PST on Alberta will continue the growing recognition of the neighborhood as a cultural center in Portland.

  14. Diane Ponti says:

    What a great article. I’ve lived in Portland all my life and it was inspiring to get such a succinct summary of Portland’s geographical history in the arts.

    If you haven’t been to a Portland Story Theater performance, you’re in for a treat. Better than the MOTH. You may be inspired to tell your own story.

  15. Lisa Schimmel says:

    Looking forward to seeing Portland Story Theatre at the uber cool Alberta Abbey. Should prove to be a great marriage of space and creativity.

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