Three Years Later: Portland Center Stage and the Gerding

“Will we have to put salmon runs in the lobby?” asked Artistic Director Chris Coleman, somewhat facetiously, when first confronted with the idea that the new theater he and then-Project Manager Creon Thorne had envisioned would be required to be a green one.  I met Thorne in early March in the lobby of Portland Center Stage’s nearly three-year old Gerding Theatre, where he now serves as its General Manager, and although no salmon runs were in evidence, it was hard to miss the building’s many environmentally friendly features.

Thorne is quick to emphasize that PCS’ vision for its new building, an old armory that they saved from impending demolition, encompasses far more than just environmental stewardship.  Expanding on the advice of designer Ed Schlossberg, who suggested that they work to “move the proscenium outward, so that the audience is on stage as soon as they walk in the building,” they decided to work toward a new model whereby the meeting of audience and organization is not just a “transactional relationship”, with spectators entering the doors to head straight to their seats.  Rather, they envisioned a model in which the theater is a locus of the community, with spaces that function as public arenas and events that enhance the work presented on their stages.

Two views of the PCS lobby

This meant, first of all, the creation of a lobby space open to the public at all hours of the day.  A gorgeous cafe with wireless internet sits just in the doors; at lunchtime, the upstairs lobby is host to tai chi and yoga classes; and as audiences file through the doors, seminars and parties are often underway in an adjoining area.  The theater’s design facilities an open, communal feel, with the oval space of the lobby conveying a sense of swirling movement.  “The project was about creating a building people could identify with us,” said Thorne, and there is little question that a visitor to the Gerding might forget its interior.

Thorne oversaw the work during the Gerding’s retrofitting, and he recounted the process that led them to the decision to move into it.  At the time, they were sharing space with the Symphony and Ballet in a multi-use facility nearby, but the 900-seat house was too large and not well suited to their needs.  A commissioned study of the Portland arts scene recommended that PCS be given its own home, and Coleman was brought on as artistic director in part because of his commitment to that process.  Although the financing was tricky, and required the concerted efforts of a number of dedicated partners, they managed to raise the funds necessary for the move.

And when Norris Lozano, the president of the project funding partner Portland Family of Funds, a newly formed organization tasked with bringing New Market Tax Credits to Portland projects, insisted that the new theater be a showcase for green technologies and aim for LEED status, the learning curve was steep.  In particular, Coleman and Thorne were worried that the concessions they would have to make to earn the points necessary for certification would alter the design of the two spaces that had worked so carefully to craft.  However, the result is a magnificent building with two gorgeous theaters, and has been, as Thorne says, “Better than we could have hoped.”

As for its green credentials, the building was the first on the historical register and the first performing arts facility to achieve LEED platinum status, a mark not easy to hit.  It helped that they were able to reuse the shell of the old building: the recycling of building materials earns a number of points.  However, meeting some of the other measures proved somewhat difficult — it took some persuading to get their seating manufacturer to work with fabric made from recycled soda bottles.  And not all of the green features proved easy to use at first.  The cold water sent from a plant on top of a nearby Whole Foods (also supplied to a number of other area buildings, as the Gerding is part of a larger green development project) was, at first, sent at pressure high enough to blow off a number of the building’s valves.  And properly calibrating the motion and daylight sensors, both meant to reduce lighting usage, has taken some time.  Thorne is quick to point out, thought, that some of the technology the installed was still freshly developed when they installed it and might be far easier to use in this day and age.

Some green measures proved too expensive.  Installing photovoltaic panels on the roof or microturbines in the basement — both of which would have gone some way toward decreasing the theater’s carbon footprint and saving money in the long run — would have added significant expense to the project.  Moreover, under the current LEED standards, set to be changed later this year, these elements would have only garnered a point each, whereas a much less costly step such as installing scrape grates at the entrance doors was also worth a point.  Thorne says that, although it might be tough in this economic climate, they are still looking to add such features to the building, and that they might be able to do so with the increase in funds and tax credits being directed toward green energy projects.  And as the building’s LEED accreditation is set to expire after five years, he’s looking ahead to adding features that will make it eligible for LEED-EB (existing building) status.

Going green has drastically increased PCS’ local and international profile.  Groups of green architects and designers from around the world, drawn to Portland because of its high number of green projects, have taken tours of the building.  Just that day, a group of 100 school high school students in the midst of an environmental education course had come by to learn about the building’s rainwater reclamation tanks, chilled beams, and CO2 monitoring system.  Community Programs Manager Tim DuRoche put their tour in context by explaining that most of Portland’s energy came from coal and that PCS’ efforts would reduce the amount they had to draw from that non-renewable energy source.

Although PCS might have rested on its laurels with a green building, it has continued to try and make its operations as green as possible.  They’ve banned the use of spray paint whenever possible; they use recycled paint from a local city agency whenever they can; and they use Zipcars for local staff transportation.  And they’ve taken an even more significant step by opting to purchase green tags — tradable renewable energy certificates — from the Bonneville Foundation.  Of course, living in a city with the green consciousness of Portland, employees are already fairly mindful of their environmental impact.  They’ve had little luck persuading designers to work with less wattage and fewer materials, however, as most of them are reluctant to change their working methods, and Thorne said he thought it would take a revolution in education before younger, environmentally-conscious designers began to rise through the ranks.

Before I went, I had been told that PCS’ younger demographic had increased significantly with the move to the new building, and I asked Thorne if that could be attributed to their new green credentials.  “Not necessarily, but it has played a part,” he said.  More importantly, he said, was that the new building, and the new model that it represented, had increased PCS’ presence and integration with the city’s residents.  “They feel a sense of pride and ownership.”


“The Four Pillars” (theater, community, history, and sustainability), PCS website


Go to the Green Theater Initiative