Portland Is Suggesting A Plan To Shutter Its Big Performing Arts Stage For Two Years


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Keller Auditorium entry as it appears now, looking up from the fountain. Photo: Brian Libby

EDITOR’S NOTE: The City of Portland, which owns downtown’s 3,000-seat Keller Auditorium, is in the midst of an important decision on the future of the aging building, which among other things is susceptible to heavy damage in the event of a severe earthquake.

Three plans have emerged: to build a new replacement performance hall at Portland State University or Lloyd Center, keeping the current auditorium open during construction, or to shut down the Keller for as much as two years for a major renovation, which would also shut out the hall’s many users for that period, with no suitable large alternative space available. See Brian Libby’s report on the three options here.

The city has been seeking public comment on the three options in the form of a survey — you can find the form here — asking for preferences. Time is running short: Survey responses will be accepted through Sunday, July 7.

Below, Keller stagehand Kate Mura argues that the people who actually work at the Keller have been largely left out of the conversation — and that, if the Keller is shut down with no other available space, the livelihoods of the people who keep the building running will be in jeopardy.

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So, what’s going on with the Keller Auditorium??? 

This is a question new for many Oregonians and Portlanders, but it is not a new conversation for the I.A.T.S.E. Local 28 stagehands who work at the Keller, of which I am proudly one for over seventeen years. However, I am writing this as a personal opinion piece.

I know I go to work day in and day out in a seismically unsafe building, and we have brought up these facts over the years to City Hall and Metro, we have asked for safety plans, and have largely received radio silence in return.

So, it’s an amazing flurry of activity now that is ignoring an incredibly important, highly valuable perspective — the stagehands’. Especially, the House Heads who make the Keller Auditorium work for all the diverse user groups. For those not in the industry, the Keller’s Flyman, Head Carpenter, Head of Props, Head Electric, and Head Audio technicians hold the most institutional knowledge and practical applications of what’s needed to help shows load in, load out, and perform easily — what upgrades will be helpful for multiple user groups, and so much more.

They have decades and decades and decades of experience that is being ignored.

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It’s been a fight to get us — and the Broadway in Portland folks, who bring touring Broadway musicals to town — at the table. Which really shouldn’t be the case, as the Keller heads are employees of Metro, which manages the city-owned auditorium. But I live with one of the heads, and he’s yet to be asked to give input on best ways to move forward with the Keller, centering workers’ and user groups’ needs.

I’m glad the city is asking for general feedback in this survey, though I wish they were soliciting information from theater professionals intentionally, too. From my perspective, the open-ended question #10 on the city’s survey is the most important one — where I said very loudly, “Don’t close Keller for even a single night without a replacement Broadway theater,” and implored them to keep the venue open.

I am impacted big-time on two fronts:

First, my home is owned by one of the Keller Heads. If it closes without another Broadway location plan, my housing is in jeopardy.

Second, a bulk of my income — and healthcare — comes from doing wigs and wardrobe for the Broadway tours. Without them, I lose a huge chunk of money and wellness.

Two years without Broadway decimates the unions and hundreds of families. The Metro budget receives a HUGE amount of funds from the Broadway shows. Portland Opera also receives a large share of its budget through Broadway in Portland. And for Oregon Ballet Theatre, packing the Keller for The Nutcracker every December is a big piece of their operating budget, too.

There are dozens of other workers like me who count on union stagehand gigs for a good wage and healthcare, and continue to work at other non I.A.T.S.E. theaters in town that have fewer resources. (I.A.T.S.E. is not a closed union. We are free to work wherever we please, which is actually a great thing on many fronts, including organizing.)

So please, take five minutes and fill out the survey to tell Portland officials why the arts and the Keller Auditorium matter to you.

Then ask your friends to do the same, urging, “Don’t close Keller! Broadway in Portland must always have a good, appropriate home. Just ask a stagehand.



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