Anyone interested in a career in the theatre could benefit by taking notes from Beth Harper. Since 1985, Ms. Harper has run Portland Actors Conservatory (PAC), Portland’s only standalone, full-time acting conservatory accredited by the National Association of Schools of Theatre.
This year, Ms. Harper and PAC have joined with the Red Door Project as partners for Portland’s first August Wilson Monologue Competition (AWMC). PAC is awarding the eligible regional winner of the AWMC with a full academic, two-year scholarship to the Conservatory—a total value of over $21,000.
As an actor with extensive local and international performance credits, Ms. Harper is a devotee of theatre, especially the work of August Wilson. We spoke with her earlier this month about what the scholarship recipient can look forward to, the importance of Wilson for theatre educators, and the role of audiences in keeping theatre alive:
Matt Lurie: What drew you to the AWMC?
Beth Harper:Why this partnership? What’s funny is I put [Red Door Project] founder Kevin Jones on the spot when I asked him the same question, and now I’m the one being put on the spot. [laughs]
I loved Kevin’s answer. He told me that before [former mayor] Sam Adams left office, he created an equity program that would help fund arts organizations with a 70:30 or higher ratio of whites to people of color in their organizational demographics, in an effort to see Portland’s city demographics represented more fully in the arts. Kevin told me that “the reason I chose you is before anyone mandated that representation, you were already fighting for it.”
I think it’s that. Creating equity means showcasing different cultures and points of view. And Portland Actors Conservatory is about finding the link between a culture and art. People need to see themselves reflected in art. Sometimes, I go to the theatre and I can tell what’s happening on stage is relevant to the person sitting next to me, but not to me. That can be about taste, but it’s also about seeing yourself in relationship to art. Education is the key to finding that link, but unfortunately it’s usually the missing component.
Equity in the arts is something you always have to work at. And within my beliefs about art, it’s always been there—but as an organization we needed a foundation before we could fully pursue it.
ML: From your perspective, as an educational institution, what is the importance of August Wilson?
BH: It goes back to what we’re talking about: the connection between self and art.
Wilson’s work has a historical range—it has history. People always need to be able to see the relation to themselves in history. That’s his brilliance: Being able to see yourself—talking the way you talk, experiencing the way you experience—is always valuable.
For instance, when I read The Glass Menagerie when I was 16 years old, I thought, for the first time, “I know these people!” And then, “I think I want to be an actor.”
First and foremost, acting and training is work. You have to get up, you have to listen, you have to be awake and present and honest—all the things that make you a great a decent human being. That’s specific to humanity. And August Wilson’s humanity… I don’t even have words for it.
I think he’s the playwright of our generation, of the past three decades. And he’ll continue to be relevant for generations to come. He’s truly going to become known as one of the great American playwrights.
Here in town, it’s been wonderful to see and participate in the community Wilson’s work and theatre here has helped create. Because of my role as a judge for the AWMC, for example, I got to meet [Reed Professor] Pancho Savery, who I can’t wait to work with more. Pancho and I bonded over our mutual love for Tennessee Williams—his doctorate thesis and my master’s thesis were both on Williams, and PAC is currently producing Williams’ play The Glass Menagerie.
We were sitting there, having this exchange about the greatest playwright of the early 20th century, while watching monologues by Wilson—who I believe to be the greatest playwright of the late 20th and early 21st century. Theatre, and August Wilson’s work, still creates these kinds of connections everyday.
ML: Could you go into detail about what the AWMC regional winner will receive? What does a PAC two-year program look like?
The operative word in our name is “Actor.” There are plenty kinds of conservatories—our focus is the art of acting.
We offer a full-immersion program, separated into four components: the head, the heart, the gut, and the physical action. All need to be working in tandem to create one moment. We believe action happens in the space between two people.
The first-year course takes each element apart, and works it within an inch of the actor’s life. It’s not easy to use all four at the same time—your gut and heart might be aligned, but the head might not be working right. The biggest trick as an actor is getting them all to work at the same time.
The second year is all about putting theory in practice. Theory is only good if you can apply it to your work. Students’ acting classes turn into rehearsal classes, culminating in the graduate showcase.
As I mentioned before, one of this year’s shows starring our upcoming graduates is The Glass Menagerie, which I hope as many AWMC contestants as possible see. It’s historically interesting to see the turn-of-the-century viewpoint: Where were we in the continuum of learning about our humanity?
And by seeing what our second-year students are capable of, the contestants would get to see the quality of the program for themselves.
Our second-year students are here every day from 9am to 5pm—so when they leave here they can find a job. Not all become actors. Some people choose to go back into business, and their experience here makes them better in the boardroom.
Acting is humanity training. You have to show up, you have to tell the truth. And I would say 99.9% of acting students turn out to be better human beings. Too bad so many people only pay attention to that 0.1 percent! [laughs]
ML: What advice would you give now to high-schoolers who are interested in applying to PAC?
BH: First off: Be committed. I accept very few people directly. You really have to understand the discipline. You have to say yes, you have to show up and be present.
Second, I do an hour-long interview to figure out if it’s “a marriage.” Prospects have to be honest and have an honest conversation. They have to write why they want to do this. Students sometimes try to draw attention to their grades and transcripts. Honestly, I’m more interested in the human being than the transcripts. You have to show up to find yourself. You have to be present.
You can see this kind of trend changing in the way employees are hired. While companies used to hire people from “schools of letters” like Harvard or Yale, studies started showing that a person’s formal education wasn’t a great indicator for how well they’d perform at the job. People with high grades from Ivy League schools had the same rates of success and failure that everyone else did.
The marriage of person to a company is crucial to get right. When both actors and theatre companies have a personal investment in the marriage, there’s higher productivity and better performances from everyone.
ML: What are some of the best ways Portlanders can support PAC?
BH: Number one is simple: Know who we are. We’re nationally known as one of only five standalone institutions accredited by the National Association of Schools of Theatre. Locally, we need our supporters to spread the word! One of the nation’s best accredited standalone acting schools is right here in Portland.
Number two is for at the theatre community: We’d love to see you show up for students’ work. Portland’s theatre community is the bridge to the professional world, and we do our best to support the community by turning out well-trained actors. Our program makes every theater company better. My dream has always been that a director picks up a resume from an actor during an audition, sees that the performer went to PAC, and hires the actor on the spot. We want directors to think of our students: “I know what kind of work you’ll bring to the table. I know I can count on you.”
Third, no one else is going to say it, but I will: Money. Support art operationally. As Oregonians, we get lulled into the belief that art is always supported, and we don’t have to pay for it. But in terms of states who support the arts, we’re 48th. Can you believe that?
When I started PAC thirty years ago, Oregon was actually 52nd… Out of fifty. Yes, we were behind Guam and Puerto Rico. You look at the numbers and it’s hard to understand. Portland is a Mecca for artists around the country. People are drawn here by the art: Our art and culture is actually the number one reason people move here. But because there’s so many artists, the percentage is spread thinly.
That 48th place takes into account all three funding sectors—government, private, and foundations and grants. Money is spread so thin that so many artists make nothing, and theatre’s at the bottom of that totem pole. The average theatre-goer doesn’t realize the people they see performing on stage are working for free.
The burden’s on the artist. Put your money where your mouth is and support art.