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Bag&Baggage Vaults into the Future

By Brett Campbell
Photos by Casey Campbell Photography

Recently, Bag&Baggage Productions’ Artistic Director Scott Palmer and the actors in the company’s fall production returned briefly to their old home, downtown Hillsboro’s Venetian Theatre, for a quick rehearsal when their new home, The Vault Theater & Event Space, was unavailable. Nine months after departing, they found the old theater almost unchanged, even with copies of the program from the final production there last Christmas.

“It felt like walking into a museum,” Palmer remembers. “There was a huge feeling of coming home and familiarity. I spent the last decade in my life in that building. It was very emotional, bittersweet. It did remind me of how grateful we are to the Venetian for having allowed us to explore our style of theater there. We owe so much to that building, but after the rehearsal was over, it felt so great, being able to walk back over here [to The Vault]—and close the door to my office.”

Just steps down Main Street from their old home, they now own a purpose-built, 21st-century theater, the former Wells Fargo building, which opened in September. Even their first show that same month demonstrated just what a tremendous transformation the new space sparks in one of Oregon’s most artistically accomplished companies.

The Vault opening culminated a frenetic year for Bag&Baggage. At 9:30 p.m. last November 5, Palmer got the phone call he’d been dreading for years. The Venetian had been put up for sale, forcing the company to move its penultimate show of the season to a small venue and cancel its big season-ending moneymaker, the ever-popular comedy Noises Off.

The resulting $80,000-plus loss stunned a company that had always run in the black—a rarity in Portland-area theater. But after an intensely stressful winter, which Palmer said he might not have endured without other company members stepping up to take on new roles, the company survived (barely). Aware that a sale could happen, Palmer had already taken steps to secure a new venue, much better suited to the plucky company’s style and audience.

A year since that fateful phone call, the company has bounced back smartly, offering discounts to subscribers and disappointed ticket holders for the canceled and moved shows. Its audience has responded: “We’re up 25 percent in season ticket sales from last year,” Palmer says.

The company’s 18-month capital campaign to remodel the building is already complete, having exceeded its $1.5 million goal by $25,000. Their future looks auspicious, giving a double meaning to the name of its new home—the old bank vault and the company’s leap into a promising (and very different) future.

Intimacy and  Intensity

Designed by Portland’s highly regarded Opsis Architecture, whose name comes from the Greek word for “theatrical spectacle,” The Vault is the kind of flexible “black box” space beloved of innovative theater companies because it’s adaptable to any kind of production, including perhaps someday even augmented or virtual reality. While some of the 1948 building’s industrial chic, midcentury modern features remain, from exposed nails to giant steel trusses, it boasts improvements in lighting, projection capability, accessibility, rehearsal space, and storage. The spiffy lobby features a baggage-themed art installation, and there’s even office space, including (for the first time) an office for Palmer himself. The company plans to employ the adjacent outdoor area as both an event and adjunct theatrical space. “We’re going to use the fabric of the building as a blank canvas for our work,” Palmer says.

The most obvious difference between the company’s old and new homes is size. The Vault’s 165-seat capacity—less than half of the Venetian’s—is close to the company’s average attendance, making each show feel more crowded and lively, the audience just a few feet from the performers. Audiences will now be able to see more nuances than the broad-brush comedy and drama that made the company’s reputation. And that, in turn, changes the style of acting and directing.

“We’re known for doing big stuff,” Palmer acknowledges. “This gives us the opportunity to respond to people who think the only thing we know how to do is big and brash. That has largely been a necessity of our old space. I’m a fan of the giant farces we’ve done for Christmas. But they’re also the kind of show that fits in the Venetian. You’ve got to big it up.”

It didn’t necessarily fit Palmer, though. “I’m trained to do up-close, intimate theater, so this is kind of a second life for me. We’ll shift attention to smaller cast shows, five- or six-handers. Everyone’s moving toward small casts now.”

The transformation was evident in the very first production in the new space, Rebecca Gilman’s 1999 play Spinning into Butter, an intense, character-driven play that Palmer had wanted to stage for years. “That show would never have worked in the Venetian,” Palmer says. Nor would the three-actor March production, Ariel Dorfman’s intense 1991 classic, Death and the Maiden.

The change in content goes hand in hand with a shift in style. “For 10 years, I’ve been telling people ‘be bigger, be louder.’ But in Spinning into Butter, I spent most of my time telling people to be smaller, more internal,” Palmer says. He was gratified to see the company’s actors embracing the welcome new challenges of “a radically different set of acting chops.” Instead of constantly worrying whether they were loud enough for the people in the back rows to hear them, the question became, “Am I clear enough and specific enough for people to believe me?” Palmer explains.

It certainly worked. Audience members almost felt like they were participating in the tense meetings among college administrators striving to deal with racial harassment incidents at a small college. At a talkback session after one of the opening weekend performances, the actors admitted that there was “no room to hide” in such a confined space. But they praised the “instant feedback” from the audience that the close quarters made possible, seeing it as an opportunity to explore subtlety and nuance in their acting.

Audiences members so far agree. According to Palmer, a survey taken during Spinning’s run revealed that 96 percent of respondents said they preferred the intimacy of The Vault to previous locations, especially noting the ability to hear the actors clearly. While that’s a biased selection—presumably, some of those who preferred the old space might not have attended—it still reflected the views of hundreds of respondents and exceeded the company’s hopes.

Set design will also adapt. “No one could see the set in the Venetian,” Palmer says. “We were constantly painting with broad brushes, just like the actors. Now we can turn our attention to detail and be more specific in our designs.”

This season’s other productions will each demonstrate a different, new theatrical facet to one of the Portland area’s gems. A revival of David McGillivray and Walter Zerlin Jr.’s farce The Farndale Avenue Housing Estate Townswomen’s Guild Dramatic Society’s Production of “Murder At Checkmate Manor” is “a big spectacle that shows off all the toys, more about the special lighting effects and the sound system,” Palmer says about the venue’s new state of the art technical capabilities. “Charles Dickens Writes A Christmas Carol is all about the projections—360-degree immersive stuff,” he says. “We’re taking advantage of what the space offers one piece at a time rather than throwing it all at them at once.”

Thinking  Outside  the  Bag

The most significant news about The Vault is how its impact is already extending beyond the company that calls it home. Owning its own space, at last, has opened opportunities for Bag&Baggage—and for its community. Palmer intends to host improv comedy and the company’s annual Robert Burns holiday dinner fundraiser at The Vault. Much as downtown Portland’s Armory and Artists Repertory Theatre host events separate from their resident companies, The Vault is already taking a variety of bookings. The space provides fast-growing Hillsboro (Oregon’s fifth-largest city, with more than 100,000 residents) with a much-needed venue for everything from parties to performances. It also supplies Bag&Baggage a separate income stream (about a quarter of its total) from rentals and, thanks to a kitchen and wine bar, concessions.

“We’re thinking about the venue itself becoming a huge resource for us and the community. I want people to think of it as a place to go to have a wide range of experiences, not just Bag&Baggage.” The community has embraced the notion. “Our community is delighted that Bag&Baggage and The Vault will help ensure that Hillsboro remains a thriving hub for arts and cultural activities,” says Hillsboro Public Affairs Manager Patrick Preston. “This high-quality venue is a wonderful addition. [It] enhances downtown Hillsboro’s reputation as a regional arts destination and increases opportunities for downtown restaurants and retailers to welcome patrons before and after performances and other events.”

Recognizing the company’s fiscal soundness and contributions to the local culture and economy, Hillsboro chipped in with a 25-year loan, and the state followed suit with a $50,000 grant to support the company’s Cultural Innovation Program. “These funds will allow us to create one of the most flexible and advanced digital projection laboratories on the West Coast,” Palmer says. The 360-degree digitally immersive projection system will give “our artists, students from throughout the state, animators, innovators, and digital content creators a playground where they can experiment, develop new applications, and perfect their skills.”

The company may even reduce the number of productions, going to five shows per season. “We may do fewer things but increase our overall production values,” Palmer says, “[and] give ourselves a bit of breathing room to explore the options the building presents to us.” It’s a lesson taught by the company’s old home, the one they briefly revisited this fall. In the Venetian, Palmer explains, “I learned more than anything how much you have to adapt to a space rather than having the space adapt to you. That’s been incredibly valuable.” .

Bag&Baggage Productions stages its Christmas show, Charles Dickens Writes A Christmas Carol, November 30–December 23 at The Vault, 350 E. Main Street, Hillsboro.

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