For Immediate Release October 21, 2013
PORTLAND THEATRES COMBINE FORCES TO USHER IN A NEW, RELEVANT, AND EQUITABLE ERA IN THE PERFORMING ARTS
Portland, OR — How can the theatre stay vital and relevant in a shifting cultural environment? A team of innovative local theatres and performing arts groups is seeking to answer that question with a new equity initiative. Guided by the August Wilson Red Door Project, the Portland Equity in the Arts Consortium (PEAC) brings together local theatre organizations to develop and diversify audiences in a rapidly changing city.
Funded by the James and Marion Miller Foundation, PEAC was conceived as a pilot program to support a small group of Miller’s performing arts grantees as they consider how to make their art available, attractive and accessible to a wider audience. Participating organizations include Portland Playhouse, Artists Repertory Theatre, Third Rail Repertory Theatre, PlayWrite Inc., Hand2Mouth Theatre, and Profile Theatre. Teams from each of these organizations attend six monthly trainings and individual coaching sessions during the period of June through November 2013.
In Portland—as is true for the rest of the country—the average theatregoer is white, affluent, and over forty-five years old. At the same time, theatre competes with multiple screens, from movies to phones, for a slice of the cultural pie. Naturally, theatre artists and management everywhere are asking the same key questions: How do we stay relevant to a wide audience? Is it a matter of play choice? Casting? Outreach? Organizational shifts? What do we have to change? And how can we change it while remaining true to our core values and artistic mission? These are the kinds of questions the consortium is tackling—as a group, and individually within each organization.
PEAC arrives at a time when Portland’s racial makeup is dramatically evolving. According to a 2010 report by the Coalition of Communities of Color and Portland State University, Portland’s communities of color are poised to grow at nearly twice the rate of the city’s White population. Equally significant, almost half the students in Portland Public Schools are children of color.
Arts organizations have a unique opportunity to embrace this transition. As Robert D. Putnam and Lewis M. Feldstein write in Better Together: Restoring the American Community, “The arts can nurture social capital by strengthening friendships, helping communities to understand and celebrate their heritage, and providing a safe way to discuss and solve difficult social problems.” Building authentic relationships is a cornerstone of the PEAC curriculum, and local theatres are one of the places where this bridge building occurs naturally. When theatre participants join together to solve shared problems and generate ideas, the result is a program true to Portland’s unique population and values.
“Equity work is really innovation work,” said Brian Weaver, founding artistic director of Portland Playhouse. “Our theatre industry needs to be innovative in revitalizing our audience base, building a flexible, strong, and diverse community of supporters and patrons.”
Along with Weaver, leaders like Adriana Baer, artistic director of Profile Theatre, appreciate the sense of camaraderie and teamwork among the group.
“I was drawn to PEAC for the opportunity to speak candidly with my peers about issues of race and equity in the arts,” Baer remarked. “No matter how big the budget size, or the mission, we are all grappling with similar questions: how do we do better for our community? For Portland?”
Maureen Porter, Third Rail Repertory Theatre company member and community engagement director, agreed that there is “tremendous potential” in working together with peers and colleagues.
“This group of theatres is also now a resource for each other even beyond the PEAC work,” Porter said. “We have a shared vocabulary, ways to think about leadership and organizational change, and relationships that have been forged that will continue to be beneficial.”
“We knew PEAC would give us the designated time and space, as well as a team of mentors and peers to work with, to develop our shared objectives,” added Hand2Mouth Theatre dramaturg Jessie Drake. “But I think we even underestimated how much we had to learn and how much progress we would make as an organization.”
As the PEAC team creates a blueprint for equitable arts and audience practices in Portland, participants are already implementing substantial operational changes.
“We now have specific goals for diversifying our board, with a deadline,” said PlayWrite Inc.’s Bruce Livingston. “And I task myself with making at least one outreach call per week.”
“The question of how to diversify arts audiences applies to the entire performing arts field, not just any single organization,” said Sarah Horton, managing director of Artists Repertory Theatre. “So I appreciate and am hopeful about an arts-community-based- approach to the problem. I’m excited about this chance to embark on collaborative programs with our colleagues to expand access to the arts.”
Now nearing the completion of its pilot phase in November, PEAC is poised to create an enduring shift toward equity in the arts for participating organizations and the performing arts scene in Portland. August Wilson Red Door Project Executive Director Bonnie Ratner agrees that audience initiatives are only half the story. According to Ratner, a true benefit of PEAC will be the ongoing cooperation among its participants.
“The potential for making real change through collaboration is certainly an exciting aspect of PEAC,” Ratner said. “The group has generated multiple ideas ranging from co-promotions to attract wider audiences to coordinating outreach efforts to schools. What really excites me is how generous everyone has been with their time. They show up at monthly trainings and in individual coaching sessions ready to work, ready to struggle with change that has to happen but will not be achieved easily. It’s an impressive group!”
The August Wilson Red Door Project uses the arts as a catalyst to create a lasting, positive change in the racial ecology of Portland. Our vision is a vibrant, diversified Portland arts community where opportunities are available to all artists, the voice and visibility of local artists of color are raised, and audience members come together from every avenue of Portland life to reap the benefits of this inclusion.
Discover more at reddoorproject.org.