Tough act to follow
In a surprise announcement this week, Bag&Baggage's Artistic Director Scott Palmer plans to exit the theater company he affectionately calls "his baby."
Palmer, the founding artistic director at the Hillsboro professional theater company, announced Nov. 13 he will leave the organization next spring, after accepting a job with Company of Fools, a prominent theater company based in Idaho.
But Palmer, a Hillsboro native, said he isn't "jumping ship" on the organization he has called home for the past 13 years.
"This is my hometown, I am from here, I am so proud of the work we have done," Palmer said.
Originally a traveling theater company, the organization settled in Hillsboro in 2007, building itself into a powerhouse in Washington County's arts scene. The theater company has won local and national awards for its work which often include Shakespearean adaptations and reimagined classical works.
Palmer will leave for Idaho at the beginning in March. Bag&Baggage's upcoming play, "Bell, Book and Candle" begins Nov. 29. It and the company's following production, "The Island in the Winter" — an adaptation of Shakespeare's "The Winter's Tale" — will be Palmer's last two productions with the company.
Palmer said Bag&Baggage will continue to thrive, long after he's gone.
"This gives a chance for Bag&Baggage to grow in unexpected directions without me," Palmer said. "We are stronger than we have ever been, we have a talented board and a professional staff. We are financially strong, and we have lots of support from the community."
Palmer isn't leaving Washington County for good. His family still lives in the area, he said, and he plans to still see shows at Bag&Baggage.
"Portland is a short plane ride away," he said. "It doesn't feel like I am moving to an entirely foreign country."
Palmer already had a lengthy resume as director and artistic director across the globe when he opened Bag&Baggage more than a decade ago. He had worked as founding artistic director of The Bard In The Botanics in Scotland, had directed at Toi Whakaari, the national drama school in New Zealand and founded Oregon State University's outdoor summer Shakespeare event Bard In The Quad.
But starting a theater company in suburban Portland was seen as a risky gamble at the time, Palmer said.
"The success of the organization has been pretty surprising," Palmer said. "When we first started, we heard things from people like, 'Hillsboro can never support theater,' 'People are going to want to go to Portland for that.' 'The kind of work you will produce won't be interesting to people and they'll want family friendly stuff.' We spent nearly 15 years exceeding expectations and after a while, people start paying attention at the county level, then the regional level, then the state level. The work we have been able to accomplish, people have been taking notice."
Bag&Baggage received national recognition in 2015, winning a National Theatre Company award from the American Theatre Wing, the organization which runs the annual Tony Awards.
Bag&Baggage was based at The Venetian Theater in downtown Hillsboro for 10 years before the space shut down in 2017. Last summer, Bag&Baggage completed construction of a permanent home, The Vault Theater, 350 E. Main St., in downtown Hillsboro. The $1.6 million capital campaign to convert the former bank building into a theater was funded in a partnership with the city of Hillsboro.
Palmer said the organization's success caught the attention of Company of Fools, which reached out to Palmer a few months ago.
"It was very flattering to be asked to be considered for the position," Palmer said. "Over the last few years — with the success of the capital campaign; opening The Vault — it was inevitable that any of the staff would come to the attention of larger institutions where they would say, 'I wonder if I could get that person to come and duplicate that success for us,'" Palmer said.
Company of Fools is based in the Sun Valley region of central Idaho and is part of the Sun Valley Center of the Arts. Palmer will replace John Glenn, Company of Fools' former artistic director, who died last year at age 55.
"The staff and people I have met in Sun Valley are remarkably kind," Palmer said.
Company of Fools received the Governor's Award for Excellence in the Arts in 2004. The company launched in Virginia, but moved to Idaho in the 1990s after actors Bruce Willis and Demi Moore, friends of Glenns, transformed a former cinema building in Hailey, Idaho into a live theater space for the organization. When the company merged with Sun Valley Center for the Arts in 2013, it created the largest arts organization in the state.
Many raised eyebrows at the idea of Palmer moving to a small town in central Idaho, but Palmer said he's used to it.
"People often think, 'You are moving to Idaho?' It is very reminiscent of (the things people were) asking me about Hillsboro," Palmer said. "Often people have a perception of Idaho based on what it was 25 years ago. I remind people that Boise is one of the fastest growing, diverse, incredibly liberal, progressive communities. Sun Valley is equally creative and has a huge donor base and patron of the arts."
Passing the baton
Replacing Palmer at Bag&Baggage in the meantime is Cassie Greer, the company's associate artistic director, who will serve as interim artistic director.
"I often say she is ready to do the job because I gave her tasks I didn't want to do anymore," Palmer joked. "She is remarkably talented, incredibly fierce, painfully intelligent and one of the youngest female artistic leaders of an organization this size in the state."
Greer has been with the organization for seven years, working as an actor as well as managing community outreach. She also worked on the capital campaign for The Vault's construction.
"She has really gotten to know every aspect of the company," Palmer said.
"The Island in Winter," Palmer's last production in Hillsboro, opens March 7. The play was written by Hillsboro native Carlos-Zenen Trujillo, and is the inaugural production by Problem Play, a program funded by Bag& Baggage which commissions emerging Oregon playwrights of color to adapt Shakespeare's so-called "problem plays," through a lens of diversity and equity. Shakespeare's "problem plays" are complex stories which often include dark, psychological dramas and traditional humor.
"I don't know if there will be a show I am more proud of than that one," said Palmer, who also directs the show. "(Trujillo is) an amazing playwright and artist. For my final show to be directing a major adaptation of Shakespeare by a 21-year-old Cuban-American and Hillsboro native? I think that is coming full circle."
Bag&Baggage earned a reputation for its Shakespearean adaptations, including "As You Like It," which premiered earlier this year and "Bronte" which won the company's first Portland-area theater award in 2017.
"For my final show to be passing the baton to a younger generation of artists is great," Palmer said.
While Palmer may be moving to Idaho, he said, Hillsboro will forever be his home.
"My heart is always going to be on Main Street," Palmer said. "Most of it is buried at The Venetian. The rest is here, at The Vault."
Palmer's last day at Bag&Baggage is March 1.
By Janae Easlon
Forest Grove News-Times and Hillsboro Tribune971-762-1166
Follow Janae at @Janae_Easlon
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