At five years, Bag&Baggage settles down and bags a $30,000 grant

Five years ago, George W. Bush was president, a Bieber was just some kid on the Internet, and Scott Palmer and his crew of actors were vagabonds roaming the area, searching for venues in towns without professional theaters, where they could perform their provocative and sometimes eccentric takes on classics as wide ranging as the works of the Bard to Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.”

It was from this era that Bag&Baggage productions took its name — the actors, director and set designers were pretty much all the same people, their bags and baggage in tow and ready to move at a moment’s notice to the nearest curtain call. They scavenged recycling centers for cardboard to convert into backdrops and converted small stages into fantasias.

More importantly, they converted audiences into true believers.

Now, five years in, Bag&Baggage has become a fixture of Hillsboro’s booming arts and culture scene, having long since ditched the wandering for a cozy home at the renovated downtown Venetian Theatre.

In less than half a decade, the group’s growth had already been uncommonly exponential, but with a recent operations grant from the James F. and Marion L. Miller Foundation totaling $30,000 over two years, the company’s now larger than Palmer and company ever thought it could be and heading to a three-year goal of $500,000 in funding.

“It’s a vote of confidence in us and our ability to move forward successfully,” says Palmer. “Not only are we here, but we’re growing stronger. We’re getting bigger and healthier.”

He’s not kidding. The operations grant can be used at the company’s discretion (as opposed to grants given for specific projects like set design or renovations). The company will be able to expand its part-time staff, while also creating full-time positions for management, marketing, and artistic direction.

“It’s a boost of confidence for us to know that they feel as strongly as we do about the ability of the company,” says Audra Petrie, who has been with the company since 2008. “This journey has been, and continues to be, pretty challenging. When I first came in, before we had come to the Venetian, it was clear to me that we had a great energy, and Scott was doing such great work, that we had potential. But I did not think we’d get to where we are now as quickly as we did.”

That growth coincides with that of Hillsboro itself, which has transformed from a quaint farm town to one of the fastest-growing communities in Oregon. With the rise of the tech industry, so too rose the worldliness of the people who live and work here, and along with that the desire for challenging art.

Homecoming to controversy

Palmer, a native of the city, missed a lot of that when he was abroad honing his skills as an artistic director in Scotland and New Zealand. When he returned to his hometown, hazelnut trees had given way to fab plants, more people... and more opportunity.

“In many ways what we do is reflective of the community we’re in: taking classic stories and giving them a new perspective, from a different angle, learning from the past and informing it with lessons from the present,” says Palmer. “I don’t think there’s anywhere in the state where we could be doing this that’s more appropriate.”

Palmer isn’t content to simply present plays as they were. A prolific adaptor, his shows present stories that would challenge veteran theatergoers and the uninitiated alike. One month you might see a fairly straightforward take on “The Glass Menagerie.” Another, you might be presented with an all-male “Romeo & Juliet.” Classics have been reinterpreted in the civic plaza as kabuki dances or glam-rock farces.

It’s challenging, original theater that has captivated — and sometimes enraged — theater fans at home and throughout the area.

“We really pushed the envelope and explored the text that was unusual and surprising,” says Palmer. “Most people loved it, but we got a lot of pushback from people who were angry and frustrated with the way that we ended that story. But we got people talking and debating. And that doesn’t happen all the time in theater. That it happens almost every single Bag&Baggage show, that means we’re doing something right.”

Reaching out to students

Along with contributions from some of the area’s largest organizations — including the Meyer Memorial Trust, the Oregon Community Foundation, and others — Bag&Baggage has been funded by individual donors, a further vote of confidence from within the community it serves.

Now, looking forward, the goal is to cement B&B’s place in the community through increased educational outreach: It already provides free tickets to area high school students through its Ten4One program and Palmer says he hopes to increase actual arts education for students. In addition, goals include adding more shows, establishing a Shakespeare festival in the city, creating more positions within the company, and increasing the cast and crews while simultaneously increasing the downtown economic profile by drawing patrons from throughout the region.

“The organization believes that a theater company has a place in the broader community. “We understand our role as advocates for culture, access, education, economic development, and cultural tourism. We don’t exist in a vacuum,” says Palmer. “We take our responsibility as an organization and member of the community very seriously.”

A surprise ending

Throughout the past five years, Bag&Baggage’s profile may have changed, but one thing that Palmer says will never change is the group’s goal of challenging patrons with works such as an original adaptation of “The Velveteen Rabbit” featuring work by Tears of Joy Theater.

That one’s less likely to ruffle feathers than Palmer’s recent adaptation of “Of Mice and Men,” which drew gasps with a conclusion that radically changed the fate of one of the most beloved characters in modern American history.

But that’s the point.

“We’re really pushing the envelope in a way that’s high quality. If you’re not pushing boundaries, if you’re not challenging your audience and being a little provocative, you’re not doing theater,” says Palmer.

“During ‘Of Mice and Men’ somebody came up to me and said ‘Oh my gosh, I loved this. The only one I liked more was ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’, which was the final show of our first season,” Palmer says. “If he said ‘Oh my gosh, I loved this show. You guys are doing a hell of a lot better than you were the first show,’ I would have expected that. But people still reference our early shows. I love that, and we’re going to keep working to make sure it’s as good as humanly possible,” he notes.

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