Eileen DeSandre in Profile Theatre's "The Road to Mecca," which magically transformed its theater from a black box into an old woman's hand-sculpted paradise. Photo credit Jamie Bosworth Photography
I can’t remember the first performance I saw at Theater! Theatre! in the late-90s, when it was still run by Triangle Productions and Stark Raving Theatre. But I can vividly remember how it, along with Imago Theater, injected my small town and suburban experience with a much needed, transgressive, cosmopolitan booster shot. Instead of the Little Shop and Our Town I knew from high school theater, it was a haven for the likes of Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Naked Boys Singing—shows with rock’n’roll rhythms, adult themes, and miscreants and outcasts as their protagonists (not to mention a formidable dose of camp).

It was also an experience for me, then, driving from Hazel Dell in northern Vancouver, a suburb of a suburb, into the bohemian strip of Belmont, thinking myself exotic for inviting a friend to join me for dinner at the Tao of Tea before the show. And for the most part, the physical space, at least the building façade, the funky entry hall, and the smell of the tea store, has stayed the same—a corridor of nostalgia.

In contrast, the companies and their productions never stopped changing and growing. Triangle’s founder, Don Horn, who built the two Theater! Theatre! complex in 1994, rented the rooms to other companies, transforming the building into a veritable center for scrappy small theater—one of the busiest in town. When Horn sold the building in 2005 to Veerinder Chawla, the owner of the Tao of Tea, Profile Theatre, which had been there since 1999, took over the lease on the back theater, and Theatre Vertigo (a 2002 veteran) took over the front, in partnership with Fuse Ensemble. Both groups have continued to invest in the theaters, rent them to everyone from Action/Adventure to Jewish Theatre Collaborative, and grow as companies in their own right—regularly selling out shows. In fact, Profile’s recent, profoundly stirring production of Road to Mecca was its most successful run in six seasons.

Which is why it was so heart-breaking to receive word today from both theaters that Chawla informed them on January 31 that their leases will not be renewed in June in order to make room for Tao of Tea operations. 

“Both Vertigo and Profile had started talking last year about renegotiating our leases,” says Profile’s Artistic Director Adriana Baer, who took over this season from founding director Jane Unger. After having put so much money into the theater, from building a bar to installing a new sound system, Baer says they wanted to extend the lease for three to five years. Instead, Chawla informed them that he was considering claiming the space for his tea business. Both companies offered to pay significantly more, to no avail.

“I was surprised that this was the direction he decided to go,” says Baer. “I thought we’d have a conversation about how much rent we could afford, not that we’d have to leave.”

There’re not many options for where the three production companies can go, to say nothing of the many renting companies. In the last year, Profile had succeeded in making its space one of the few flexible black box theaters in town—something that is painfully needed by many of the city’s nontraditional companies (to say nothing of Profile’s excitement to use it to explore with the work of next season’s playwright, Sam Shephard). Instead, they, Vertigo, and Fuse will be looking for new homes.

“Right now we’re starting to have a lot of conversations,” says Baer, adding that they will move ahead with one change already underway: to tag their season to the calendar year. “In the long term, we want a permanent artistic home, but unfortunately, there’re not a lot of venues, especially not on the east side. With all of us scrambling, we’re also talking with each other is the opportunity to collaborate on a much larger venue that could hold all these places with office and storage, but that’s looking out a lot of years because it would require a lot of capital.”

In the short term, they’re simply looking for a place to plant their feet for the 2014 season, knowing that moving is a huge expense that will require an incredible amount of fundraising.

Their success, of course, will determine if the rest of us will have a new scrappy theater to fill our memories with, knowing that we won’t have that lovably horrific tile mosaic wall to greet us anymore as we step in off Belmont. And that we won’t be going to the Tao of Tea again before wandering that corridor of nostalgia to our show, as bittersweet as that brew now tastes. [Ed. Note Feb. 13: Myra Donnelley, Horn's partner in the creation of Theater! Theare!, comments below: "When our anchor tenant, Veerinder and Tao of Tea, bought the building from us, we asked him, although we had no right to and no way to enforce this request, to please consider maintaining it as a performing arts space for five years. This 'gentleman's agreement' was honored by him for longer than that through some highly challenging economic times. He should be lauded, not criticized by the arts community for his generosity and support during this time."]

Baer remains upbeat. “I’m confident that as long as can weather the transition financially, it’s a really exiting opportunity for us,” she says. “I think we’re in an exciting period of growth for the organization, so it just might mean taking that leap sooner than we intended to.”

What are your best memories of the Theater! Theatre! complex? What do you think should be done about Portland's limited theater space?

 

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