Essay Project 2021: The Show Must Go On: How Theatre In Portland Impacts the Community
By Teaghan Lathers
“But whatever they offer you, don’t feed the plant!” It’s Thursday, March 12th, and your face is damp with tears of joy and pride and the relief of a successful show as the cast of Little Shop of Horrors takes their final bows. You feel more connected with the cast and crew and audience and everyone else involved in the performance than ever before. Theatre is intensely emotional, and you were blessed to experience it first hand.
Theatre is an incredible community-building experience, and Portland has two theatres. Portland High School has put on many productions over the years. You can find archives of these lining the auditorium walls. Portland drama teacher and theatre director Chandra Polasek only recently took over the theatre department with the departure of former director Phil Huber in 2017. She has since produced Into the Woods Jr, Peter and the Starcatcher, Little Shop of Horrors, and in the spring of 2021, she will be putting on a 1940’s radio show. When choosing a production, Polasek focuses on what skills it can teach the actors. Little Shop tells a story through choreographed movement. Polasek’s shows teach the actors more than theatrical techniques. They learn empathy, as playing characters forces them to step into others’ shoes. Polasek says, “The theatre arts are wonderful for teaching humanity and caring for one another…” Actors also gain “confidence; being able to stand up and make yourself vulnerable in front of people—and you have to understand that the audience won’t always perceive it, and you need to know how to deal with it when the audience doesn’t perceive it the way that you wanted them to.”
Portland Civic Players conducts a youth theatre program for students entering grades 4th through 12th to spend six weeks of their summer learning various skills and building confidence and relationships.
Portland has more than just theatre programs for youth. The Portland Civic Players produces an average of 2-3 performances per year—not including its aforementioned Summer Theatre program—typically consisting of a fall musical, a spring play, occasionally a holiday performance in mid-January, and various concerts and events throughout the year.
The Portland Civic Players’ first-ever production was in 1955: My Three Angels. The theatre, purchased in 1971, used to show movies in addition to stage plays to support the theatre financially but stopped in the early 2000s when the switch to digital became too expensive (Portland Civic Players). Performing arts in Portland date back to as early as the 1880s, with performances at the Portland Opera House including Our American Heritage, Oliver Twist, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The Opera House also hosted dances and school exercises (Portland, Michigan Historical Resources.)
Theatre can have an emotional impact on its audiences and a tremendous impact on society. Many shows have touched on various political occurrences of the time, such as Arthur Miller’s The Crucible during the Cold War concerning the Red Scare and the trials that followed, and more recently, shows like Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton or Steven Levenson’s Dear Evan Hansen that capture the attention of audiences while touching on today’s prevalent issues such as immigration, politics, and teen suicide. Theatre can bring awareness to what’s happening in the world and has the potential to spark change. In 2012, Frederick Heide, Natalie Porter, and Paul Saito of Alliant International University in San Francisco conducted a study with 171 participants who filled out a survey regarding their attitude about hunting before and after watching a musical about the benefits of hunting. The study found that after watching the show, the participants approved of hunting more than they had before watching the show (Tom Jacobs).
With this knowledge, theatre in Portland has positively used theatre to make an impact on the community. At Portland High school, Chandra Polasek chooses her performances strategically based on how they “…connect with what our community is facing…It’s not just a matter of putting on a show, it’s a matter of putting on the right show that serves our community…” In her director’s note from 2020’s performance of Little Shop of Horrors, Polasek asks, “In our world of influencers, where presence and popularity equal power and position, how much of your identity, moral values, and sense of self do you sacrifice to achieve your place[?] Ultimately, what is the const of success?” In the year of an election with an excess of misinformation, Polasek wanted to remind people to “stay true to [themselves] even in rough waters.”
Theatre not only has the power to change minds and teach its actors essential skills, but it also can bring communities together. Portland Civic Players regularly puts on performances centered around love and closeness to remind the community of togetherness. Portland’s theatres regularly have filled houses as community members join together to support the actors, directors, crew members, and everyone else who put work into the shows. Without the audience, the show simply could not go on. My mom, who has attended every single show I have ever participated in and countless other productions, describes the impact of being an audience member and the way it can bring a community together: “It’s this feeling, this sense of community that you’re all together experiencing the same event…it connects you with everyone else in the theatre because you all just witnessed this amazing thing.”
Hausermann, Krista. Personal interview. 10 January 2021.
Polasek, Chandra. Personal interview. 16 December 2020.
Portland, Michigan Historical Resources, www.anesi.com/portland/HTML/CENTEN.HTM.
“History.” Portland Community Theater, 3 Mar. 2020, portlandcivicplayers.com/history/.
Jacobs, Tom. “Musicals Have the Power to Change Minds.” Pacific Standard, Pacific Standard, 1 Mar. 2012, psmag.com/social-justice/musicals-have-the-power-to-change-minds-40160.
Photo by Carolyn Adams
This essay is part of a writing project by students in Chandra Polasek’s ELA class at Portland High School. The project asked students to focus on elements of their own town while getting students engaged with the community. The essays were written with the intention of being published in The Portland Beacon.