On a residential street corner in the old Mount Sinai Baptist Church in the middle of the King neighborhood lies a hidden gem. The Portland Playhouse theater is celebrating its eighth year but it hasn’t come with out challenges and subsequent victories. However, through it all, the theater has remained an important fixture of the King neighborhood in Northeast Portland and has continued the discussion of diversity and the issues that surround gentrification.
Three members of the Weaver family, Brian, Nikki and Michael, are responsible for the birth and continued life of the Portland Playhouse. In 2008, Brian and his wife, Nikki got married, moved from Virginia to Portland and opened a theater all in the span of a couple of weeks. A life long dream was coming to fruition until zoning issues threw a stone into the spokes of the young theater company. Because the former owner of the church did not keep up the conditional use permit for the building, it reverted, in the cities eyes, back to a single family residence. Therefore, in 2010 the doors were shuttered temporarily until the playhouse could get a permit. This was no easy task and the city at first refused to grant the permit. A church can have a conditional use permit but a theater cannot be granted one. In fact, “in the history of Portland a theater had never been granted a conditional use permit,” says Artistic Director, Brian Weaver. They exhausted every possible angle but the Bureau of Development Services refused to grant the permit. However, the King Neighborhood Association, along with a few other neighborhoods, appealed the decision. At no cost, Neighborhood Associations are allowed to appeal a decision denying permits. So about 250 supporters showed up at City Council to appeal the BDS decision. Sam Adams, the mayor at the time, at the beginning of the meeting asked how many people were present that opposed the conditional use permit. Not one person raised their hand. But when asked how many were present that were in favor of the permit, all 250 residents stood up with signs displaying an overwhelming show of support. After about 40 testimonials, the council voted to approve the permit and policy was changed. This shows the significant power that neighborhood associations have in changing policy and effecting change in a city. It paves the way for more theater companies to obtains permits. But more importantly, “it opens the doors for creative expression, creative organizations and people and artists and all kinds of creative expression to energize these old buildings that otherwise, as would have happened here and have happened on other sites, would have been torn down and 16 condos would have been built in its place,” says Weaver. “It was a precedent setting move displaying that we, the city, believe in the this art culture and even though the city code says it is not allowed we want to make an exception for this theater. It really taught us what it means to be a member of the community, to connect with the community and what it means to be good neighbors and to reflect the history and culture of the neighborhood. How to arrive as newcomers but also learn from the people that were here.”
There has been no push back from the community other than one parking complaint which was one of the thing that triggered the cities involvement. That person was not against the theater but since then the playhouse has worked really hard to lessen the impact on the neighborhood and has partnered with the King Elementary School to use their parking lot for theater parking on show nights as well as encouraging people to bike and walk.
Weaver says, “The kind of programming we do and with the kind of artistic vigor in combination with being in a small environment and a neighborhood environment, a lot of people are excited about doing this high caliber of artistic work in such a small community space. So that’s our niche.”
Fans that come up from Salem and fly down from Seattle but more than sixty percent of their audience is from the northeast neighborhoods.
Their mission is two fold. One is celebrating community and celebrating the creative expression that is in the neighborhood. Also a lot of the programming reflects the African American experience as well as using that as an anchor to talk about the diverse experiences of all the people that live in the community. It’s meaningful to have that celebration of history and culture and creative expression in the community and have it housed in a historic church building. The building itself has been used for people who have come together to make meaningful connections and relationships and worship, but really as just as a community space to create a shared identity and a shared working for good. “So its been that for 120 years. It’s only been a theater for 8 years but even though we’re doing something different we like to see that it’s tied to the history of the building,” says Weaver.
The other facet of the theater is their extensive education program. Nikki Weaver is the head of the education program. In any given year she works with about 10 schools doing in-school residencies, after school programs and also a region wide Shakespeare Fall Festival. Teams of guest directors are sent into anywhere from 6-8 schools and they produce a Shakespeare play that is performed at the school and then all the shows come together and perform downtown at the Winningstad Theater. It’s a diverse group of schools like Lincoln, Catlin Gabel, Jefferson, Franklin, De La Salle, and Fort Vancouver.
In addition to meeting all together at the festival, the students have three common classes or master classes where all the students come together at one high school. The classes are fight, dance and performance. One of the goals of the festival is to create a collective of artists all working together as opposed to the typical high school competition model . This is a collaborative model to enable the aesthetic of the festival where the audience is just as much a part of the performance as the actors. In Shakespeare’s time there was no forth wall, lights were up, and the actors talked to the groundlings. The groudlings, or audience, were the other army and they would cheer and were part of the show. The students in the audience have been coached to be active participants. So there are 30 kids on stage performing Hamlet but there are 150 kids in the audience who have built relationships with the other students on the stage. In the same way, one of the genius things about this model is that it casts the other students in the role of the groundlings and they love it. They boo, hiss, and swoon when there is a kiss.
The pedagogy of the program is oral learning so rather than the play as a scripted text it is learned by call and response or as it’s called “dropping in”. It tends to level reading achievement gaps or rote memorization.
Portland Playhouse usually stages four plays a year. The current play is “Peter and the Star Catcher” which is adapted from a young adult novel and is a prequel to Peter Pan. The play works for all ages but it is not children’s theater. “It was a hit on and off Broadway and it was nominated for many Tony awards one being a nomination for best play of the year. It barely lost to Clybourne Park,” says Weaver. “It s a satire, its very theatrically fun, it takes the idea of Peter Pan which is not growing old and the fun and playfulness of being a kid and applies that to the lens of professional theater. Every fun theatrical trick and convention are included and the effect for audiences is drop dead hilarious. It is also very fast moving and action packed from love scene to chase scene to comedy. It’s very much like vaudeville the way it moves.”
Peter Pan is a hero’s journey. Peter and the Star Catcher has the traditional arc of a hero’s journey. However, it is Molly, who is the “Wendy” figure in this play, who is in charge amongst all of these boys and she is the one who has the hero’s arc.
As well as being really fun and full of adventure it is also a really moving story. Weaver says, “You go on this adventure with these orphans and at the end the way they overcome the obstacle to sacrifice and stand up for each other is very heartwarming and beautiful.” One of the reasons why it was so successful in New York is that it works for all people from hard core crusty theater critics to theater buffs, to Broadway lovers because of all the humor, perspective and theatrical tricks. But it is also fun and fast moving with great costumes and then it is just a beautiful story of self discovery and triumphing over adversity.”
“It is a real coup for us to get it in the small theater. It has gotten bumped off the tour of Broadway across America multiple times. It just so happened that Portland Playhouse got picked over many other playhouses so we’re quite proud to get it.”
Peter and the Star Catcher opens April 27 and runs through May 29. Tickets can be purchased at portlandplayhouse.org.