Since 1982, Imago Theatre has been a pillar of Portland’s theater community, performing the steadfast family hits “Frogz” and “ZooZoo” at home and around the world.
The theater has also staged more avant-garde, adult productions of the highest (and often strangest) order. Indeed, as other east side theaters have closed their doors, Imago has become the sole remaining regular theatrical venue in the central east side able to house more than 100 people.
The company announced Tuesday it will sell its 1924 historic Masonic Lodge at 17 SE 8th Ave., just south of Burnside and begin a new chapter.
“The difficulty of the financial and time resources that it takes to run the building and do everything we were doing was overburdening Carol and I and our ability to focus on our artwork,” said Jerry Mouawad, who founded the company with his wife and artistic co-director, Carol Triffle, in 1979.
Mouawad called the decision to put the building on the market a “last choice” after spending more than two years exploring other options, such as just selling the adjoining parking lot.
Imago moved into the building in 1982 and bought it in 1992 for $150,000 — half of what it was worth, according to Mouawad — after sending a video of “Frogz” and an offer to their landlord, Tom Moyer.
Mouawad and Triffle built out the ground floor as a 200-plus seat theater and used the ballroom on the second floor as a rehearsal and incubation space for their imaginative, tech-savvy productions, like a retelling of “No Exit” in which the stage is on a single pivot so that every time the characters move, it begins to tilt like a 360-degree see saw.
They also continued to evolve their trademark masked show, “Frogz,” and its spin-off, “ZooZoo,” taking them around the world and twice to Broadway.
Despite one of the busiest and most illustrious touring schedules of any arts company in Portland, making the numbers add up got harder and harder every year.
“Touring expenses increased, so our net tour revenue decreased; the building expenses increased considerably,” said Mouawad. “At first, we were able to stay in the building alone. Then, we started renting it [for private events]. And then we realized we needed another tenant, which is when we called Third Rail.”
Third Rail Repertory had been performing in the Winningstad and Coho theaters and operating out of empty office space in one of the Northwest Conway buildings. Eventually, company moved its offices and performances to Imago, taking up as a resident company last year.
“While we understand Jerry and Carol’s position, it is discouraging,” said Maureen Porter, company member and audience outreach director. “One of the most challenging things for us as an organization has been the amount of moving we have had to do — moves motivated in large part by a shrinking inventory of affordable performance space in Portland.”
The last few years has seen a litany of small and midsized performance venues close, from Theater Theatre in 2013 to the recent re-shuttering of Conduit Dance, which had tried to restart on the east side after being evicted by its downtown landlord. All have lost their space due to increasing rents or landlords who wanted to take their buildings in other directions.
Ownership has long been hailed as a solution, but Imago’s experience illustrates it is far from a panacea.
“I think 80 percent of our time is being spent raising grants, overseeing the facility, insuring rental income, so that we can focus on the work we want to create,” said Mouawad. “To hold onto the building would basically turn us into facilities managers. We’d probably have to move Imago out, and we’d have to do shows somewhere else.
“It sounds strange, but that’s the nature of the arts,” Mouawad said.
When asked what their asking price for the building will be, Mouawad declined to say, adding their real estate agent is still calculating it.
Porter, with Third Rail, said they’re approaching developers and foundations to find a path for a buyer who wants to preserve the building as a performing arts center.
“We are getting a task force from our board, reaching out to our neighbors in the area and developers interested in helping invest in creative and cultural space,” Porter said. “We are also looking for wings on angels in our midst.”
“I’m hoping there’s a possibility that the new owner can keep it a cultural center,” concurred Mouawad, “but I don’t know if economically that will pan out or who the buyer will be. I think there’s a strong need for venues, but I can only respond back to the city of Portland itself. I just think that owners and the government need to help the arts organizations, and the individual artists define and create venues and/or support the arts more.”
Both Imago and Third Rail have leases through July 2017, which will allow them to finish their current seasons.
As for Imago’s future, Mouawad said they will premiere their newest work, “La Belle” — a mash-up of steam punk, Beauty and the Beast, and marionettes — in December, before taking it on the road for two years. In between, they’ll search for temporary venues — or maybe a new home.
“’La Belle’ is being presented in Lincoln Hall in 2017, so for our family work, we need larger venues, and for our adventurous, adult work, we only need 20–30 seats — let’s look for a gas station!” Mouawad laughed.
“Our model remains the same; it’s just not going to be in this location.”