Think Out Loud

Artists Repertory Theatre may be down but not out

By Allison Frost (OPB)
Sept. 20, 2023 7:50 p.m. Updated: Sept. 28, 2023 8 p.m.

Broadcast: Thursday, Sept. 21

The inside of the lobby area of Artists Repertory Theatre's new building under construction. ART is in the middle of constructing a brand new building to house their future performances and provide space to smaller arts organizations that don't have their own venues.

The inside of the lobby area of Artists Repertory Theatre's new building under construction. ART is in the middle of constructing a brand new building to house their future performances and provide space to smaller arts organizations that don't have their own venues.

Courtesy Howard S Wright Construction


One of Portland’s most established and storied professional theatres, Artists Repertory Theatre, announced a series of financial setbacks this summer. First, ART suspended its 2023-2024 season as it was getting ready to start rehearsing its first show. That was followed by major staff layoffs: the already lean organization laid off four of its 10 administrative and support positions. Aiyana Cunningham began her position as managing director shortly before these announcements. The renovations continue on the organization’s downtown building which will ultimately serve as a space for ART’s own productions and as a regional arts space for smaller organizations without their own venues. Cunningham joins us to talk about the economic challenges ART and other established arts organizations are facing and more about how it’s approaching its mission of creating a regional arts hub.

The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:

Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle Studio at OPB, the is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. In August, Portland’s Artists Repertory Theater announced it was canceling its whole season weeks before it was going to start because of insufficient cash on hand. Then, earlier this month came a second blow; layoffs that took the company from 10 full-time employees to six. ART is not alone; theaters in Oregon and around the country are struggling right now to bounce back from the pandemic. Aiyana Cunningham is the new managing director of the theater. She took over just before the announcement of the canceled season, and she joins us now. It’s great to have you in the studio.

Aiyana Cunningham: Thank you. It’s an honor.

Miller: Can you give us a sense for the internal decision-making before the season that was just about to start, the 2023-2024 season, before it was canceled?

Cunningham: Yes, of course. For us, it came as quite a shock and a surprise. It was something that the organization didn’t see coming down the pike, and perhaps should have, but there were multiple convergent factors that came together at once that informed that decision. A key part of that is something that ART is suffering from, that is also affecting theaters nationally, which is this crisis of returning to live performance and rebounding from the challenges of being closed during the pandemic.

Miller: How do you explain that - the audience piece of this? Because it seems like so much of public life has returned, but, for example, theater goers, they’re just not returning in the same numbers?

Cunningham: Correct. They’re not returning in the same numbers. Statistics, nationally last theater season, saw audiences at a 20% to 50% reduction, so not buying tickets and not attending at 20% or 50% less of a rate than they were in 2019 before the pandemic. That’s something that arts organizations here in Portland also experienced to be true. Part of that hesitancy for people to return is concern about COVID. There’s some people that just aren’t able to return to public spaces in large gatherings. There’s others that are hesitant to do so, and lifestyles have changed too. Even I myself enjoy staying home and binging TV, and streaming whatever I want. We see that people need to be more careful with their pocket books and their spending right now, so the choices of where and how they spend their money are a bit more restricted and careful than before. All of those factors are contributing to hesitancy on the audience part to return to live performance.

Miller: The first one you mentioned was a lingering fear, just for a variety of reasons, about COVID itself. Do audiences for theater skew older?

Cunningham: Somewhat they do, of course, and that is a significant part of our audience, but there’s younger and all in-between, people that have families and obligations with their kids, too.

Miller: How big a hit are the loss of ticket sales themselves, in terms of your overall budget? If you’re saying that citywide, or nationwide, there’s something like a 20% to 50% drop in ticket sales, does that mean a 20% to 50% drop in overall revenue? There’s other pieces as well, right?

Cunningham: There’s other pieces as well. The funding and revenue model for theater companies is that ticket sales actually make up only a tiny sliver of revenue and income. The next big sliver is from people donating. When people attend, they engage, they connect, and then they give. When the audience isn’t coming back, isn’t seeing the shows, then they’re not as motivated or connected to make that additional donation. And then the largest chunk of funding actually comes from private foundations via grants, and also city and state local grants, which actually fortunately have remained pretty vibrant throughout the pandemic and have been quite helpful, but with the audience downturn, ticket sales dropped, donations dropped.

Miller: What’s it like to be a theater company that doesn’t put on theater?

Cunningham: It’s an existential crisis, right? Who are we, if we’re not delivering our core mission? Here at ART, we’re not letting that throw us too much, because part of the strategic decision to suspend our season was to also invest important time in answering that question. We’re in the process of renovating our theater home on Southwest Morrison Street, so we also have the task of visualizing and planning strategically to be able to reinhabit that space, to be able to make money in that space and afford our expenses and pay our artists. For us, what it means to be a theater company is very much about future building, so that we can come back even stronger.

Miller: You just got into a lot there that I want to get to because part of the extra challenge there is capital fundraising along with fundraising for operations, which we can get to in a second, but I’m just curious: I noted at the beginning that you took this job. You’ve been working in theater in Portland for 15 years or so, but started this job just weeks before the announced suspension, I guess, is the official word of the season. Did you know? Were you told how dire the financial situation was when you were applying to this job?

Cunningham: No, I wasn’t. This was a complete surprise to the organization and to myself, as a person coming in. That’s part of the shock. We’ve spent a large part of the past six weeks just in a bit of shock and chaos coming to grips with the reality of this situation. As I mentioned, there’s multiple factors that contributed to that; just trying to rebound from the pandemic, but also ART suffered from some organizational burnout as well, which I know many of my peers in the theater industry are also experiencing. Just living through the closures during the pandemic and then having to problem solve and strategize with getting audiences back afterwards when we’re able to open up our spaces. Just going through the mask policies, health and safety protocols, increased communications, to work as hard as we can to make our spaces inviting for audiences to come back. People are exhausted.

I think that at ART we just had our noses so close to the immediate problems and challenges at hand that some of the basic organizational systems were neglected, like taking care of our people. Just basic people and culture stuff, right? Being able to sustain a staff with their professional growth goals, attending to business systems, and importantly, not having the brain space and operational capacity to plan strategically ahead into the future.

Miller: I understand. Then one day, somebody looked at the books and said, “there’s no money?”

Cunningham: Yes.


Miller: Okay. I assume you talk to other performing arts organizations in Oregon, and around the country. What are you hearing?

Cunningham: Well, there are lots of challenges that are uniformly impacting us all. We certainly are in a national crisis for the survival of professional nonprofit theater. The National Endowment for the Arts estimates that about two or three companies close every month right now. They see a downturn in audience participation across the country and an uplift in advocacy; next week, actors Phylicia Rashad and Lin Manuel Miranda are briefing members of Congress in DC to advocate for funding and shine a light on this crisis that’s affecting everyone, so that’s very much part of the conversation. We’re facing very similar struggles.

Miller: One of the things you mentioned, and you said that you feel this too, that the pandemic forced us all to live our lives in different ways, and maybe taught many people or got people used to different pastimes. But if the lure of live theater is you have to be there to experience it, to remember or maybe learn that you love it, how do you go back to that? If people aren’t going in the first place?

Cunningham: Yes. How do we go back to that if people aren’t coming?

Miller: Is that a question that you’re all asking yourselves?

Cunningham: Yeah, of course. And that comes down, in a way, to the creative and artistic programming, right? What plays are we selecting to put on our stages? Which artists are we highlighting and working with? In a way, it’s a bit of a challenge, because some people want blockbusters, put on something big, important, and name, and that’s valuable and that’s attractive, but ART specifically has a commitment to new works and to a diversity of artists, to BIPOC artists and Native artists. Those don’t always come with those big blockbuster plays. We need to be able to take a risk so we can develop new work and progress our art form into the future. Those two things don’t always line up, so I think, from a programming perspective, we’re in a bit of a pickle, because we need to do something attractive, but we have these really important values that we also need to hold firm.

Miller: You have an interesting professional pedigree here, of having worked most recently at Portland Playhouse, a small but mighty and very exciting theater in Northeast Portland, and before that, Portland Center Stage. So buttressing, sort of book-ending this, a smaller theater, with two of the bigger, more established performing arts organizations in the city when it comes to theater - are there different challenges for theaters of different sizes?

Cunningham: Yeah, there are different challenges. Portland Playhouse is experiencing a great success right now, and has actually managed to hold quite stable through the pandemic. I think their audience size has a bit to do with that. They also saw up to 15% of audiences not returning right away, but they have a house of 100 people. So that’s a little less than say, Portland Center Stage, which has several 100 seats. If they’re not having 20% to 30% of their audience come back, that’s hundreds of people, thousands over the course of a season, right? So there is a little bit of a difference.

I think smaller companies can be a little more adaptable. They have a more specific community that they’re speaking to and in collaboration with, and larger and mid size companies, even like Artist Rep, we have a broader audience that we’re trying to engage on multiple levels, and that creates challenges.

Miller: All of what we’re talking about is happening at the same time that ART has been working for a number of years now on a new theater, a new headquarters. Where does that stand right now? Just building-wise?

Cunningham: Well, that certainly is a part of our challenge, that we have the need to sustain operations and try to put on plays as well to complete the renovation of our theater home, which is on Southwest Morrison. It’s a big red building. If you’ve been to Providence Park for a Thorns or Timbers game, you’ve certainly seen it under construction. It’s currently on course to complete the first stage of renovation that will be completed near the end of November this year. That first stage is what they call just a core and shell of construction, so it really is just the bones of the theater building with the HVAC and elevator, the parking structures, the bathrooms, and a fabulous external mural will be outside of the building. So it’s gonna look great, it just won’t be inhabited or outfitted on the inside, so …

Miller: You can’t do theater inside or have offices.

Cunningham: Correct. However, we are very close to completing fundraising to be able to outfit the lobby space there. The lobby is a grand space, like the heart of the building, and it’s looking very optimistic that we’ll be able to wrap that into this construction phase. It will be a roughly finished space that will enable us to produce work and host events there, potentially as soon as February. That’s one of the things that we have to be hopeful about.

Miller: Is it easier to ask rich people - let’s just call them what they are - to pay for a building or a wing or a part of an auditorium, than it is to get them to pay for ongoing support for a season?

Cunningham: Well, that’s what we’re discovering right now as we make our requests. We are looking for significant, large gifts in order to be able to complete this. People with the capacity to give $50,000 to $100,000 to a million dollars for that. Not everyone obviously has the capacity for that. Some people far prefer to contribute to a season of work, again because they’re connected and they can come and engage and interact with the community. Part of ARTs unique challenge right now is to be able to share what our vision is for that renovated space and what our home will look like there, not just for ART, but also for the arts hub that we host. I think that by radiating that story and getting really clear on that picture, we’ll find success. But it is a challenge.

Miller: Just briefly, the word you use is suspending the season. What would it take for there to be a production this year?

Cunningham: $250,000.

Miller: (laughs) It’s that simple, a quarter of a million dollars.

Cunningham: Yeah, and a space to produce it in. Honestly, strategically, we’re being so careful with our resources, not just the money, but our staff time too, that even if we had the money to produce a play, I think it very much is in question for whether or not that’s the wisest thing, because we’re playing the long game to be able to get back into our renovated space. So when and if we do have the funds to put on a play, we will be taking that quite seriously, the choice.

Miller: Aiyana Cunningham, thanks very much for coming in.

Cunningham: Thank you.

Miller: Aiyana Cunningham is the managing director of Artists Repertory Theatre.

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