We couldn’t have asked for a better day to get out and about in Portland. For once, the weather in the Pacific Northwest cooperated, giving us a mild fall day devoid of rain. Some of us walked from the Marriott, others took the street car or light rail, but a group of about twenty conference participants gathered at 11th Avenue in The Armory to tour the Gerding Theater, home of Portland Center Stage, in the Pearl District. Creon Thorne, the General Manager, met us in the lobby and guided us on a lively and informative tour of the company’s home.
He began by recounting the history of The Armory and the role it played in late 19th century Portland as a military instillation and gathering place for local residents. Because the building used a truss system to support the roof, the space was devoid of columns and could accommodate a large number of people for cultural and sporting events, from concerts to boxing matches. Creon pointed out that the current roof still employed the original trusses made of old growth Douglas fir. In the late 60s, the Blitz-Weinhard Brewing Company purchased the Armory and transformed it into a warehouse and bottling plant; it remained so until 1999 when the Armory was purchased by the Gerding/Edlen Development Company as part of the Brewery Blocks redevelopment package. Gerding Theater, which opened in 2006, was named for Bob Gerding, who initially suggested The Armory as a permanent home for Portland Center Stage.
The Gerding Theater became the first building on the National Register of Historic Places—and the first theater—to achieve a Platinum Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating from the US Green Building Council. Creon explained that the designation came about due to a mixture of green/sustainable design and mechanical features as well as construction methods.
Leaving the lobby, we entered the Main Stage Theater which was dressed with the revolving set for an expanded cast version of Ain’t Misbehavin’. Inside the theater, Creon pointed out such environmentally friendly features as the seats which were upholstered with recycled fabric and constructed with recycled wood.
Beneath the Main Stage was the black box Studio Theater where the off-Broadway hit Sex with Strangers was being staged. Before going inside the black box theater, Creon explained that because the ground floor was below the level of the river, the walls had to be reinforced, leading some of the engineers to joke that there were bridges that weren’t as well-built. Creon said that if the Big One (earthquake) were ever to hit the Pacific Northwest, this was the place you’d want to be.
Inside the theater, a vigorous discussion ensued around Portland Center Stage’s efforts to build audiences among the coveted 25-40 demographic as part of a Building Audiences for Sustainability grant from the Wallace Foundation. PCS hopes by incorporating a number of different social and social media activities around its productions, it can cultivate a subscription base among this age group, which traditionally has not been a strong theatre-going demographic.
The last stop on the tour was the administrative level where we viewed a rehearsal room as well as administrative offices and the company kitchen. Creon explained that the company wanted to have the rehearsal room in the midst of the administrative level in order to foster a sense of community among the actors and staff—although he admitted that sometimes the sound of actors practicing their lines or songs in the open kitchen could be distracting.
At the end of the tour we were gifted with copies of the book, Voices of the Armory: A Chronicle of the Transformation of a 19th Century Icon into a 21st Century Theater, which tells the story of the Armory project in way more detail than a mere tour report could ever do. A number of tour attendees took advantage of the generous discount Portland Center Stage offered ASTR-TLA conference participants to purchase tickets for the two productions currently running. A most enjoyable time was had by all thanks to the great staff at Portland Center Stage.
Angela E. Weaver
University of Washington