In 1982 the dedicated core members of Artists Repertory Theatre in Portland, Ore., began presenting plays in a third-floor black-box theatre wedged into a YMCA. Recalls cofounder and longtime Artists Rep actor Vana O’Brien, “We laundered our own costumes. We cleaned the bathrooms. Our rent was a percentage of our ticket sales for each show, and when a show didn’t do very well, it was tough.”
Thirty-plus years later, Artists Rep is the longest-standing company in Portland, a respected professional outfit with a full-time administrative staff, a slate of more than two dozen affiliated resident artists, and its own spacious home in an arts complex occupying an entire city block in Portland’s historic Goose Hill downtown neighborhood. (Their facility also houses more than 10 other Portland nonprofit arts groups, including the Portland Area Theatre Alliance, August Wilson Red Door Project, and Profile Theatre).
The company’s annual budget has risen to $3 million, and its stature has risen too, both locally and nationally: Last season it made a splash by developing and premiering a new Cuban-American musical, Cuba Libre.
Artists Rep has just quietly achieved another major milestone: membership in the League of Resident Theatres. That makes the company one of only two Portland playhouses (the other is Portland Center Stage) to join LORT, the professional association of U.S. nonprofit theatres empowered to collectively bargain with national acting, directing, scenic, and choreography unions. To theatre insiders, membership in this exclusive nationwide group of 72 theatres is a big deal, with serious financial and legal implications, and it’s something of a logistical hurdle to meet its requirements. But Artists Rep has found that there have been some wider reputational effects as well.
“When we first announced the LORT membership at our annual resident-artists luncheon, I thought, ‘Does anyone even care about this?’” recalls Artists Rep managing director Sarah Horton. “It’s sort of a wonky thing. But people flipped out. There was applauding and cheers. I think it was almost the symbolism of it that was even more meaningful to the artists than the extra money.”
The new contract’s additional base pay for Actors’ Equity performers—a boost from $575 per week to about $640 per week—alongside raises for other artists are certainly helpful in a boomtown West Coast city. The cost of living is steadily rising in trendy Portland, particularly the price of housing.
The theatre community is expanding along with the city’s population: The Portland Area Theatre Alliance lists some 80 company members in its highly diverse ranks. And though Actors’ Equity breaks down its membership by region, not city, the broad perception is that more union performers are heading to the Northwest’s second-largest city after Seattle. “We have such a surprisingly deep pool of talent in a small market like this,” Horton points out, “and they all struggle to put a life together.”
Dámaso Rodriguez, Artists Rep’s artistic director since 2013, noted other benefits of LORT membership. “The LORT contract with Equity is more flexible and realistic about what it takes to rehearse a play,” he says. “They have a standard package for putting on a show at a professional level. We used to be on a Small Professional Theatre contract with Actors’ Equity that was more restrictive. We now can rehearse from noon to 5, take a dinner break, and then do a performance.”
That’s the same amount of rehearsal time, he emphasized, as Portland Center Stage and Seattle Repertory Theatre—two much larger neighboring LORT members. The contract’s expanded hours for actors participating in new-play workshops and readings is also beneficial. Thanks to an Oregon Community Foundation Creative Heights Award, Rodriguez has instituted Table|Room|Stage, a program to “establish Artists Rep and Portland” as an engine for new-play development.
Rodriguez feels there is another less tangible but very meaningful advantage to joining. “LORT is about making formal relationships with the other 71 companies that belong. There are so many spread out throughout the nation at so many levels of production, and this says we’re part of the national standard for like-minded professional nonprofit theatres across America.”
What did it take for Artists Rep to join that club? The official requirements of LORT membership are straightforward: A theatre company must be a nonprofit and tax-exempt entity with a performing season of at least 12 weeks. Each of its self-produced shows must have a minimum rehearsal period of three weeks, and agree to operate under LORT’s collectively bargained union agreements with Actors’ Equity Association, Society of Directors and Choreographers, and United Scenic Artists. The LORT executive committee, composed largely of administrators of LORT theatres, reviews all applications, and decides whether a company qualifies for membership.
Sounds simple, right?
Not so much for artistically driven midsize organizations like Artists Rep, which has toiled for decades to get to this point. Not only is it just one of two in Portland; it is the first theatre to join LORT in seven years. (The last two to sign on, in 2009, were Signature Theatre Company in Arlington, Va., and Two River Theater Company in Red Bank, N.J.)
From its humble beginnings as a collective spearheaded by founding producing director Rebecca Daniels, O’Brien, and several others, Artists Rep has had growth spurts and setbacks, big moves and financial strains. Through it all, the organization has remained artist-centered, with commitments both to contemporary plays and to outreach efforts to bring the often diffuse Portland theatre scene together into a more cohesive community.
But money has always been tight for Artists Rep, whose large ambitions have at times outpaced its resources. When the group decided to hire Allen Nause in 1988 to create what O’Brien terms “a unifying aesthetic,” the ensemble was running mainly on volunteer labor.
Nause, a seasoned actor and director who’d worked at such prominent resident theatres as the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and Seattle Rep, notes that his initial goals for the theatre were “to raise the compensation for artists and to raise the bar artistically. Also in there was the idea of having a more professional staff, people who could devote full time to it.” Joining TCG and LORT were “way down the line,” he concedes, but aiming for such affiliations “was always a thought, a goal.”
Thanks to a higher artistic profile and new educational and play programs, Artists Rep gradually expanded its subscriber and donor base, and negotiated a Small Professional Theatre contract with Equity. (Nause remembers that early on actors were paid just $100 per production, including all rehearsals and performances.) In 1995 the company launched its first capital campaign to build an intimate, flexible performance venue in southeast Portland, a 220-seat black-box theatre equipped with administrative and production facilities, including a shop and a rehearsal hall.
Another big year for the company came in 1997, when it moved into those new digs and toured internationally. A few years later Artists Rep participated in a theatre exchange with theatres in Vietnam, and in 2002 launched a second-stage season of off-site shows to complement productions at its home base.
The next biggest leap was in 2004. That’s when Artists Rep managed to raise funds necessary to purchase a 29,000-square-foot, $4.8 million lot downtown, and to construct the two venues it now occupies.
Several years later, when Horton came on as manager, she discovered that Artists Rep was space-rich—but barely making ends meet. “The theatre was kind of in a fetal position due to the Great Recession,” she says. “It was just hunkering down and trying to survive. It had laid off staff, contracted the season from eight to six plays. That kept expenses down, but didn’t allow a lot of opportunities for revenue.”
Horton helped usher in a new phase. Instead of “rattling around in an enormous structure,” Artists Rep began transforming its facility into the ArtsHub, renting out space to other companies for short runs, and eventually for full-time quarters on a sliding scale. “The demand just exploded, and it became apparent what a deep need there is in this city for arts space. It also enabled us to get closer to a more consistently balanced budget.”
The theatre’s board chair, Marcia Darm, says that the theatre’s trustees were down with the plan. “Even though we’ve been around for a long time, we really needed some operational renovation,” Darm says. “We need to be more sophisticated, more fiscally astute. In theatre as in any other business, you have to evolve into the 21st century.”
A longtime goal was reached soon after, when Nause announced the formation of a resident acting company: six performers, including O’Brien, who would appear frequently in Rep productions. He continued to seek international collaboration, winning national attention in 2010 when Artists Rep and Australia’s prominent Sydney Theatre Company coproduced Long Day’s Journey Into Night co-starring William Hurt, a sometime Oregon resident.
When Rodriguez took the reins from the retiring Nause, he was committed to using mainly local artists, bringing more ethnic diversity to the company, and paying more to the actors, directors, designers, and others among his newly minted company of resident artists. (Though a full-time company proved unfeasible, payment to non-union actors has almost doubled since 2011.)
“We were still operating on a Small Professional Theatre contract,” says Rodriguez, who spent eight years as associate artistic director of California’s Pasadena Playhouse. “We were a Tier 8 out of 10. But there was no collective bargaining, in terms of trying to figure out how many Equity actors we could use. An adjustment I made was budgeting every significant supporting or leading role as an Equity contract, which increased the number of union actors per show. Three years later, when we decided to go LORT, we realized we weren’t that far away” from the league’s minimum.
But he and Horton were hesitant about moving too fast. The one big roadblock, Horton says, was the structural deficit that had plagued the theatre ever since they purchased the lot for the new theatres in 2004. “We were carrying a $3 million mortgage on the property,” Horton says. “It’s wonderful that we own it, but it was a struggle—too much for a company our size to take on.”
During the 2014-15 season, the second under Rodriguez, Artists Rep decided it wasn’t quite ready to add the additional expense of the LORT-D (the fourth tier of membership) contracts—a total of about $100,000, he estimated—to its already stretched budget. There was good reason for caution. “LORT doesn’t support moving up in a contract and then moving back,” he explains. “You can’t say, ‘Hey, listen, we’re having a hard time, let’s go down a notch.’ They want their members to be successful and represent the league well.”
The board of directors, according to Darm, “had been really part of our ArtsHub idea, and very excited about our collaborations and those of other organizations who use our space. With LORT, it was more of a process of education. It means having a closer association with our artists, and realizing we need to pay more of a living wage to them.”
What sealed the deal, according to Horton, was a generous matching grant from the Los Angeles-based Robert and Mercedes Eichholz Foundation “to help us eliminate the mortgage. They are giving us $800,000 up front, which we need to match in a funding campaign we’re starting shortly. We also have a potential to get another $350,000 more from them later.”
Concludes Horton, “We couldn’t make big moves for ourselves until we knew how we could solve the debt problem. Now we’re on the path. We’ve answered existential questions about how we will make the theatre sustainable.”
Declares Rodriguez, “We’ve really become more sophisticated, more modernized, more current, and we want to become better known regionally and nationally. Joining LORT is one of the things we have to do for that—and I wouldn’t have known it three years ago.”
He has treated the move as a teachable moment, talking about it not only with the artists who will benefit directly, but with Artists Rep supporters as well. “It’s not the most elegant conversation you can have with your audience and donors, but people are responding to it. It leads to a conversation about the regional theatre model and movement, and that we’re a part of it. That’s a great conversation to have.”
O’Brien, now a resident artist who will appear in Jordan Harrison’s Marjorie Prime and an all-female production of The Importance of Being Earnest this season, says she’s proud and awed by the evolution of the start-up theatre she and others began on a wing and a prayer.
“It’s still an amazing thing for me that it’s gone from the third floor of the YMCA, to this stage. When I hear about the theatre having a several-million-dollar budget, I’m still aghast.”
To Nause, the LORT designation is a signal of the whole city’s maturation.
“We’ve always been considered to be the little brother to Seattle and Ashland. But Portland has grown up over the years, and Artists Rep with it.”
Misha Berson is a freelance writer and author based in Seattle.