Longtime acting teacher Beth Harper ready to retire
For 37 years, Beth Harper has helped create working actors, not stars necessarily, which sort of fits her personality.
It's not easy to do anything for 37 years, but Harper founded and then ran The Actors Conservatory, formerly Portland Actors Conservatory, for 37 years — with about 10 students graduating per year. Given the tumultuous nature of arts, it's quite an accomplishment.
Harper officially retires as managing artistic director July 1, although she'll be staying on to help the transition period for a couple of years with the new director, Michael Mendelson. She reflected on her career in this way:
"As you retire, you get feedback about lives you have changed. It's interesting because I got up and went to work every day. It was not 'How I'm going to change the world,' but 'How I'm going to get this grant done,'" or anything else that requires day-to-day stewardship.
Focusing on minding the business doesn't make it any less rewarding of a career, Harper said, especially when the job entailed teaching young people to be actors on stage and screen. Alumni members work in the arts from Los Angeles to New York, she added, and it's a point of pride when any of her students makes it in show biz.
"I can't even describe the feeling of paying it forward, having an artist get it and move to the next place," she said. "I can't find anything — except maybe having my daughter — comparable to that experience. The community of it, the ensemble of it. Or have a director say to you, 'Oh my god, I'm so glad when I see a conservatory graduate come in.' They know that person will show up and work hard and attack it and bring their best self to the table."
Mendelson has worked in Portland theater, including founding the Portland Shakespeare Project, for much of the past 31 years. Ironically, he and Harper have not worked together, even as Harper does acting and directing at times when not running The Actors Conservatory.
Harper said TAC got a good leader in Mendelson. It was a national search, and the company hired local.
"He's just a great artist and a master teacher," Harper said. "You have to hire a teacher that has flexibility in a lot of areas, the whole curriculum — he's done acting, directing, Shakespeare, different styles, he's pretty unlimited as a teaching artist. The next challenge will be can he do the same as an administrator as he did as an artist. He's a good leader."
Mendelson agreed. "Expanding the mind, heart and soul through rigorous education is what Beth and I have in common. The mission and values will stay equally strong. It's how we implement that might change."
Mendelson has admired Harper's directorship from afar, saying "Beth is incredibly passionate about what she does. She instills that passion in those who work with, under and beside her. She is an incredibly dedicated and hardworking artist."
Harper, 68, actually started Portland Actors Conservatory in an old dentist office in 1985. From there, she set up shop at Northwest 13th Avenue and Burnside Street, sharing space with a theater company. Then, she moved the conservatory to a place on Front Avenue, and then set up at the Firehouse Lounge at Southwest 14th Avenue and Montgomery Street (near Portland State University) for years.
Harper moved the company into the Artists Repertory Theatre space on Southwest Morrison Street, and then moved with Artists Rep upon the remodeling of its building to South Waterfront and then to The Armory with Portland Center Stage. (Mendelson said finding a long-term home for TAC would be the ultimate goal.)
Throw in the COVID-19 pandemic and other upheavals of the past two years, and it's been an anxious time to run a conservatory for actors.
"I will tell you this, we survived through the pandemic, we let nobody go, and we went online," she said. "I'm not sure Zoom and acting are the best thing for an artist. We learned a heckuva lot. The world changed and we adjusted to it; we survived."
The Actors Conservatory returned to in-person instruction this school year.
Not much has stopped Harper in her quest to teach young actors.
"My biggest personality trait is that I'm stubborn. I'm not any more talented than the next person or have a magic touch more than anybody else," she said. "So many times we probably should have closed our doors, but, nope. I always demanded that we kept at it.
"It took a long time to develop a support base in our community. Portland is a tough arts town. I always joke about this, but when I started the conservatory 37 years ago, I never thought about opening a nationally accredited school. It was, 'What am I good at?' And, it was after graduate school, and I needed a job."
The Actors Conservatory has been an accredited school since 2008 and has offered two-year program degrees since 1993. It is licensed by the Oregon Higher Education Coordinating Commission and accredited by the National Association of Schools of Theatre.
Its actors have worked around the country, benefiting from Harper's emphasis on being proactive — audition, audition, audition.
"Nobody casts you sitting on your couch, that's for sure," she said.
Not everybody can be an actor. Then again, anybody can be an actor, she said.
"You need curiosity. And, walking empathetically in somebody else's shoes. Everything else is just craft," she said. "There are certain values you have to have, like reciprocity and listening. We believe a story gets told in space between two people. So having that space and being able to receive and give with another person."
But, what about all the movements and facial expressions and line retention?
"The minute they 'learn it,' it looks fake. You don't wake up every day and, 'What do I do with these hands?,'" she said. When you're thirsty, Harper added, you go get a drink of water. Acting has to become second nature. "Your face is a result of, 'I feel, therefore I respond.'"
A grievous error that an aspiring actor can make is to try to "become another person," Harper said.
"You'll never become another person. It's your job to 'take it on' as if it is yours. One actor once told me that 'I got lost in my character.' And I said, 'Why don't you get found?' If you get lost, you can't 'take on' another person. It's about making the audience believe that you have surrendered to the character."
Indeed, after 37 years teaching people how to act, one must believe Beth Harper.
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