A Theater Lover’s Guide to Oregon

August 23, 2016 (Updated November 30, 2016)

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Oregon is known for great beer, great people and the great outdoors. Great theater? Not so much — we’re about as far as it gets from the bright lights of Broadway. But what locals know, and what the rest of the country is rapidly learning, is that Oregon is home to a diverse range of theater companies big and small, from experimental warehouse shows to rollicking musicals to polished, professional contemporary and classic work. Our performing arts scene is sophisticated, diverse, and yes, great. Here’s a behind-the-scenes tour of the state’s stages — a whirlwind introduction to everything you need to know about theater in Oregon.

Main Stages

Portland Center Stage (PCS) is a linchpin of theater on the West Coast. Located in a historic armory building in Northwest Portland, PCS devotes their main stage to large-scale showstoppers like A Streetcar Named Desire and Little Shop of Horrors, while a black-box theater in the basement showcases regional premieres and more intimate productions. Actors appearing on PCS’s stages are drawn both locally, from a pool of talent that includes actors on Oregon-shot television shows like Grimm, and nationally. “We want to engage with local theater artists as well as national artists, because there’s real excitement for both audiences and artists when new energy and points of view are in the mix,” says PCS associate artist director Rose Riordan. “We have the resources to do that while other theaters in town may not.”

With a commitment to presenting diverse and challenging theater, the well-regarded Oregon Contemporary Theatre in Eugene showcases contemporary and classic works at their 135-seat main-stage theater. And their “Radical Hospitality” program, which prioritizes access to free or low-cost theater for theatergoers in need, makes it one of the most accessible theaters around.

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Oregon Contemporary Theatre’s production of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. (photo by Christopher Durang)

Founded in 1982 as a cooperative theater operating out of the local YWCA, today Artists Repertory Theatre is a regional arts hub with two on-site theaters and 10 companies-in-residence, as well as their own Resident Artist Program. Artists Rep has a reputation for producing smart, sophisticated work that never sacrifices entertainment value: Their 2016-17 season promises a post-recession satire about sandwich artists, a comedy starring a chimp, and an all-female riff on Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. “Portland’s theater scene is still growing but worthy of national attention,” says Dámaso Rodriguez, Artists Rep’s artistic director. “I feel that theater in Portland is as ambitious, varied and sophisticated as many of the more renowned ‘theater towns’ in the nation, and with increased visibility, Portland’s arts community can only get more recognized for the ground-breaking work being done in this town.”

And of course, some people prefer a little song and dance. Musical theater abounds across the state; get your Oklahoma! on at Ashland’s Oregon Cabaret Theatre or Tigard’s Broadway Rose Theatre Company, two well-regarded, long running musical theater houses.

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Oregon Cabaret Theatre’s production of 9 to 5.

 

Festival Season

Founded in 1935 to showcase the Bard’s work, and now presenting a mix of contemporary and classic plays, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival has become a nationally renowned destination for theater fans. “OSF is one of the few remaining rotating repertory-theater companies in America,” explains Eddie Wallace, OSF’s associate director of communications. “What that means is that you can see 10 different plays in five days in three different theaters at the height of our season. The actor who plays the clown in a Shakespeare play at the matinee might be back onstage in the same theater that evening as a member of the chorus in a classic American musical, or might be in a different theater playing Hamlet.” While always remaining true to their roots — OSF has performed Shakespeare’s complete canon three times, and they’re going for a fourth — the company has also made waves with commissions of new work, such as the Lyndon Johnson-focused All the Way, which premiered at OSF and went on to win multiple Tony Awards when it opened on Broadway.

In most cities, January is a quiet month for the local theater scene — Jacob Marley has packed up his ghostly chains after the busy holiday season, while spring’s offerings are still a few months away. The founders of the Fertile Ground Festival saw this lull as an opportunity: Launched in 2009, Fertile Ground challenges Portland theater makers to produce original work every January. “Fertile Ground is an incubator for new works of art creation citywide,” explains festival director Nicole Lane. “I’m continually surprised at the abundance and diversity of new ‘acts of creation.’”

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Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s production of The Winter’s Tale. (photo by Jenny Graham; actors Moses Villarama and Cindy Im)

 

The Fascinating Fringe

For work that explores the possibilities of what theater has to offer, look to the fringes. Hand2Mouth Theatre’s dedicated ensemble has been pushing the boundaries of theatrical experience since 2000. These spirited performers are known for exuberant movement, outlandish costumes and openhearted engagement with their audiences. In 2015 Hand2Mouth toured Oregon with their high-energy Pep Talk, bringing communities throughout the state the opportunity to weigh in on motivation, inspiration and the true meaning of team spirit.

Another Portland-based company, Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble (PETE) packages their high-concept offerings with such style that even their more inscrutable moments go down easy. From an adaptation of Chekhov that brings the audience into the action to an environment-focused work lamenting the extinction of the dodo, PETE’s work is elegant and challenging — and richly rewarding for those who accept the challenge.

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Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble’s production of Procedures for Saying No. (photo by Owen Carey)

 

For the Kids

Oregon Children’s Theatre is the largest children’s theater in the state, serving thousands of children each year (and plenty of adults, too). Their 2015-16 season saw several world premieres adapted from popular children’s books, as well as a thought-provoking play for teens, commissioned by a Portland playwright, that explored intersections of gender, identity and sexuality.

Located just south of Salem, the Enchanted Forest amusement park is a true Oregon treasure. Lovingly built by hand by the family that still owns and operates it, the Enchanted Forest features rides, fairy-tale-themed attractions and kid-focused comedic performances held every spring in their outdoor amphitheater. You just haven’t seen Snow White until you’ve seen it performed by enthusiastic teenagers in front of a wide-eyed crowd of delighted, sugar-addled children.

Pictured at top: Portland Center Stage’s production of Ain’t Misbehavin’. (photo by Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv)

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Oregon Children’s Theatre production of James and the Giant Peach. (photo by Owen Carey)

About The
Author

Alison Hallett
A native Oregonian, Alison Hallett’s writing has appeared in Slate, The Magazine, Wired.com, The Stranger and the Portland Mercury. By day, she’s the marketing and community engagement director at Portland’s historic nonprofit Hollywood Theatre — where yes, she eats a lot of popcorn.