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Newmark: Act II

When Portland Center Stage moves into its new $36 million Pearl District home, it will leave behind a big question: What's going to happen to the Newmark Theatre, and Portland's arts scene?
/ Source: The Business Journal of Portland

When Portland Center Stage moves into its new $36 million Pearl District home, it will leave behind a big question: What's going to happen to the Newmark Theatre, and Portland's arts scene?

The 880-seat Newmark Theatre will be available for the first time in nearly two decades when Portland Center Stage moves into the Portland Armory building in coming months.

Although Portland Center for the Performing Arts officials insist the Newmark will now be available to fill a void in the local arts scene, those same officials acknowledge that the space has limited appeal.

Portland Center Stage has been the primary tenant at the Newmark, on Southwest Broadway and Main Street, accounting for 75 to 80 percent of the events held there last year. Metropolitan Exposition Recreation Committee, a subsidiary of Metro that oversees Portland Center for Performing Arts, does not break out revenue by theater.

Freeing up the Newmark should bring in more revenue because PCPA "heavily subsidized" Portland Center Stage's rent, said PCPA Executive Director Robyn Williams.

Officials at PCPA are busy shopping the Newmark Theatre to local and national acts. The theater is currently "close to 50 percent" booked for the 2006-07 season, which begins in September and runs through June, said Lori Kramer, sales and ticket services manager for PCPA.

The theater's size, however, is creating challenges.

It's too small for high-profile shows, which typically go to the Keller Auditorium or Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall -- both seat about 3,000. And it's too big for repertory theater groups.

Still, Williams and Kramer insist the space is a good fit for lower-cost productions that don't require elaborate staging or technical needs.

Those productions could include contemporary dance troupes, like the Jefferson Dancers, up-and-coming musicians or comedians, one-person traveling shows like "The Vagina Monologues," and lectures.

The Newmark is also attractive for local groups hoping to expand their presence, said Williams.

Portland Piano International will move its concert series from Portland State University to the Newmark this year. The larger space will allow the group to attract higher-profile performers, said Pat Zagelow, executive director of Portland Piano.

Oregon Children's Theatre and Tears of Joy Puppet Theatre will also perform in the Newmark. The local children's groups perform in a variety of venues around town -- from the 120-seat Miracle Theatre to the 3,000-seat Keller.

Kramer expects a transition year, but is optimistic that diverse performances will eventually fill seats at the Newmark.

Many in the local arts community believe that Portland is lacking arts venues, and say that freeing up the Newmark is a good thing. Portland Center Stage's departure from the New Theatre Building, where the Newmark is housed, will also free up rehearsal theater Brunish Hall, which PCPA is turning into a "black-box theater" with tiered seating for small performances. PCPA oversees the New Theatre Building, Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall and the Keller Auditorium.

A 2002 assessment of Portland's major performing arts venues recommended that Portland Center Stage move to its own venue and make the Newmark available for other performances. The study, commissioned by Portland Center Stage, Oregon Ballet Theatre, Portland Opera and Oregon Symphony, was done by Minneapolis consulting firm The Keewaydin Group.

The study confirmed what Portland Center Stage already knew: The Newmark was too big. PCS was unable to fill seats for eight performances a week in a city this size, said Edith Love, the theater group's executive director. PCS is anxious to move into a more intimate venue, Love said. The narrow Newmark has floor seating and two balconies.

Portland Center Stage will be the main tenant in the historic Armory building, on Northwest 11th Avenue. The 19-century structure will house two theaters, a mainstage theater seating 600 and a smaller venue seating 200, said Love. Developers are adding administration offices, as well as smaller, multipurpose rooms for education and community outreach.

Love hopes to rent out space to other arts groups, and businesses or other organizations for special events and conferences.

The structure, recently named the Bob and Diana Gerding Theater, is currently undergoing a $36.1 million retrofit. Developers are hoping the finished structure will gain a LEED Platinum rating, the highest rating of sustainable design.

PCS has raised $24.7 million for the project so far, including $16.8 million in federal tax credits, and financing from the Portland Development Commission and U.S. Bank.

Portland Center Stage will celebrate a grand opening gala Sept. 30 and kicks off its season with a run of "West Side Story."

The new building, and new space at the Newmark, though, still don't solve the problem, said Virginia Willard, executive director of Northwest Business for Culture and the Arts. The city still lacks affordable space for smaller-budget arts groups, she said.