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Artists Repertory Theatre survives, thrives despite pandemic closures; It's been able to keep staff, as the company works on building project

COURTESY PHOTO: ARTISTS REPERTORY THEATRE - The new theater and building at Artists Repertory Theatre could be open by fall 2021. Demolition on the inside could start in late April; the apartment complex project next door has also started.
All things considered, given the ongoing health and economic crisis wreaking havoc with arts organizations, Artists Repertory Theatre has been able to survive — and still thrive.

Companies have shut down productions, closed venues and parted with employees, but in Artists Repertory Theatre's case, it's just an extension of what has already been an unusual season of operation. The theatre had to move out of its building on Southwest Morrison Street, because of pending construction and remodeling, and set up shop at an office at Zidell Yards at South Waterfront, while putting on shows at other venues — "ART on Tour" they called it.

The previous show ended March 8, about the time the coronavirus/COVID-19 health crisis forced the local entertainment industry to come to a screeching halt. The company's new show would have started May 2. Unfortunately, "Looking for Tiger Lily," the next show at The Armory, had to be postponed, but it's nearly a best-case scenario for the theatre, given the circumstances.

"We've been really lucky," said J.S. May, Artists Rep managing director. "Not having anything to produce between March 8 and May 2, we were going to be dark anyway. We assumed our employees would be working on things," which has been factored into the budget, and the company plans to apply for federal relief funds.

"Thus far, we've retained everyone. We're a full-time staff of 23. We're hoping to keep as much staff as possible," May added.

"Looking for Tiger Lily," by Anthony Hudson, will be moved to next season, when Artists Rep engages in season two of "ART on Tour." The season hasn't been set, yet, because of the unknowns surrounding availability at venues, said Damaso Rodriguez, artistic director. When companies reset their 2020-21 schedule, then Artists Rep can book dates.

Artists Rep had to go virtual with its annual fundraising gala, and managed to raise $140,000 from some 165 donors.

It's been a whirlwind for everybody in arts, but being on the move anyway has helped Artists Rep be flexible and "we can wait to see how things play out," Rodriguez said.

"'ART on Tour' was going really well, an extraordinary thing we had to put together quickly. We had five productions at five different venues. In essence, we were in our own vulnerable place, having to operate in unusual circumstances."

COURTESY PHOTO: ARTISTS REPERTORY THEATRE - Artists Repertory Theatre collaborated with Portland State University and Profile Theatre on staging 'Indecent,' through March 8.The shows included "1984" at Imago Theatre, "La Ruta" at Hampton Opera Center, "The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart" at Tiffany Center, "School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play" at The Armory and "Indecent" at Lincoln Performance Hall.

With "ART on Tour," Artists Rep was able to try different things — like staging "Prudencia Hart" among diners at tables — and introduce themselves to new fans, such as at Imago, and create partnerships, such as with "Indecent" with Portland State University and Profile Theatre.

Meanwhile, the remodeling project chugs ahead on Southwest Morrison Street. An apartment complex has been under construction on one piece of the property (that required removal of the Alder Street wing), and demolition of everything other than walls of the Artists Rep space starts in late April. It had been used for storage for the past several months; everything needs to be out of the building soon.

May said half of the design has been completed. Applications for permits are expected to be received in June and July.

"We're really far down the line," May said.

Among the things needed to be removed from the building are old theater seats. "If anybody wants 150 old theater seats, we have them for you," May said.

Total cost of the project is $32 million, and Artists Rep has about $19 million in funding. To begin actual construction, it'll take an additional $5 million or so.

It's hard to call it an exciting time, Rodriguez said, as it's requiring a lot of resourcefulness and collaboration to still put on shows. So, the 2020-21 season remains in flux as "a lot of theaters are now facing a new level of complexity that we've already dealt with being on tour."

Artists Rep and 10 of the 12 ArtsHub companies that shared space at Southwest Morrison Street have taken up residence in a 10,000-square-foot office space at Zidell Yards in South Waterfront,

But, the company anticipates only one more "ART on Tour" season.

"In an ideal world, we'd be only out of the building till fall 2021," May said. "That's our goal."

For more on Artists Repertory Theatre, see www.artistsrep.org.


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