Artists Repertory Theatre, Portland’s oldest-running theater company, has a new artistic director who’s not only the company’s first female leader, she’s also its first artistic director who identifies as Native American.
“We were a multi-ethnic group of folks who really wanted to do work that challenged us, that excited us, that broke boundaries, that didn’t rely on leaning into stereotypes,” says Harrison.
Here in Oregon, she wants to boost the diversity of local storytelling, focusing especially on Indigenous voices, which Harrison says traditional American theater often ignores or gets wrong.
“Frequently they’re told by non-Native people. And it really contributes to misrepresentation, and actually makes it worse,” she says. “The fact that we still have to fight so hard to make sure that everybody’s stories are heard, it’s a real problem with the American theater.”
Since taking the reins in October, Harrison has worked with Portland community leaders to increase BIPOC representation in the field — both on and off stage.
“My hope is that we can develop so many Native storytellers and voices that every single Native person can look at the stories being told on our stages and say, ‘Oh yeah, that represents my experience.’”
Harrison is currently crafting a list of plays for ART’s upcoming season.
“I have some wonderful plays that I can’t wait to share with people. But the question for season planning: ‘Is this the story that Portland needs to hear right now?’”
Artists Repertory Theatre was formed in 1982 as a collective of young, emerging artists who produced contemporary plays of the day like Richard Greenberg’s ”Three Days of Rain” and Sam Shepard’s ”Buried Child.”
In 1988, director Allen Nause joined Artists Rep as the company’s first artistic director until he retired in 2013.
Then, playwright and director Dámaso Rodríguez made company history as its first artistic director of color. Rodríguez, who identifies as Cuban-American/Latino, says his professional charge was aimed at helping the company evolve.
“If you just did the history of the regional theater, most of the plays that were getting published were plays by white men. If you look at the history of Artists Rep, that is certainly true,” Rodríguez says. “A lot of my role was honoring the legacy and then initiating shifts for the future. And that’s what I did a lot during my tenure.”
In 2014, Artists Rep established the Table|Room|Stage, a program focused on developing BIPOC, women, LGBTQIA+ and gender-nonconforming writers.
In 2021, Rodríguez stepped away from his leadership role to make space for new ideas and vision at the company.
Rodríguez knew instantly it was a match.
“[Harrison is] a real leader in producing work that not only centers on or features BIPOC characters and artists, but is led and driven and produced in a way that’s equitable and inclusive,” says Rodríguez.
ART’s next production goes up in January 2023. Playwright Kareem Fahmy’s play “American Fast,” tells the story of a basketball star who struggles with her Muslim identity on and off the court.
As Harrison steps into her new role, she hopes showcasing work by writers like Fahmy will help continue pushing ART forward toward greater inclusivity.
“Everybody in Portland can come in, see our stories on stage, see who’s telling our stories on stage, and feel like they are represented.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect the correct name of Artists Repertory Theatre and to correct several errors in the names of people cited. OPB regrets the errors.