Portland's New Spring Arts Productions

Oregon Children’s Theatre
Voices for Change

In 2016, American football player Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem to protest racial injustice. That controversial action is credited with sparking a new nationwide conversation about racism, but using sports as a platform for provoking change? That’s not exactly a new concept.


In fact, it’s a move straight out of the playbook of Muhammad Ali — born Cassius Clay in the Jim Crow South. Ali advocated vocally for change in an era when many believed people of color should be seen and not heard and a boxing ring was viewed as no place for politics.

Ali’s story is a timeless reminder that there’s room in sports and the arts for the political and even the downright radical, says La’ Tevin Alexander, the 26-year-old actor, writer and artistic director behind Portland’s Confrontation Theatre, who will play Clay in Oregon Children’s Theatre’s springtime show, And in This Corner: Cassius Clay.

That’s as true for children’s theater as it is for the grown-up kind, says Alexander: “Our job is to go out and stir the conversation, get questions in the brains of kids and parents, and then some of the onus is on the parents and teachers to take those conversations and themes and ideas to the next level.”

The play, written by unapologetically political playwright Idris Goodwin, focuses on Ali’s formative years and has a “driving, immediate, in-the-ring feel,” says co-director Stan Foote (who will direct the play alongside Jerry Foster). If its weighty subject matter provokes intense conversation among family members on the car ride home, Foote says, then they’ll have done justice to Ali’s memory: “I want people to walk out and feel like they’ve experienced something, as opposed to just observing something.”

Contemporary Portland isn’t significantly more welcoming of communities of color than it was in the days of Clay, Foote and Alexander note. And as woke Portlanders push for some long overdue change, they’re well advised to look to the legacies of men like Ali and Malcom X, says Alexander: “They used their gifts, used their platform, then went back to the grassroots community, to the poor and the destitute, and lifted them up and empowered them.”


➼ Check it Out: And in This Corner: Cassius Clay runs
March 3-25. For details, visit 

Also coming up: Get a load of 75 magical puppets at The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show, which runs March 31-May 13 (sensory-friendly showings available). Then, May 5-27, celebrate the changing seasons by checking out OCT’s award-winning musical, A Year with Frog and Toad.

Pacific Youth Choir
Living Out Loud

Walk the halls of southeast Portland’s Marysville and Whitman elementary schools late on a weekday afternoon, and you’ll hear a joyful noise ringing out, thanks to a flourishing partnership between Portland’s Pacific Youth Choir, the Schools Uniting Neighborhoods (SUN) Program and Impact NW.

The mission for these outreach choirs? To bring music to Portland neighborhoods typically underserved by the arts — and to have a little fun along the way. As participants learn the fundamentals of choral performance, they also develop skills in practice, persistence and teamwork, says Brandon Brack, PYC Assistant Artistic Director and Conductor at Marysville: “[This is] a space to make mistakes and to make them loudly and make them boldly … to sing a beautiful note, getting there takes singing some bad notes, sometimes even horribly out of tune. It’s a process.”

Whitman fourth grader Alissa Barber, now in her second term of choir, says singing has boosted her self-confidence and helped her forge some unexpected friendships. Barber has always loved singing around the house, but choir has pushed her far past her comfort zone: At a recent Christmas performance, bolstered by the encouragement of fellow singers, she even stepped up to perform a solo verse before the entire school.

“I started choir, and I figured out there are things in life that sometimes you don’t want to do or are afraid to do, but if you have the right confidence, you can actually do them,” she says.

Cooperation constitutes the beating heart of any choral education, says Jason Sabino, PYC Artistic Assistant and Conductor at Whitman: “When you do something like music, especially in a group setting, you discover something you can achieve by being part of a whole that’s greater than the sum of your parts … with music, you’re experiencing the human condition at its finest, even if you’re a third- or fifth-grader.”

PYC’s outreach choirs represent a cultural investment that will pay the city rich dividends for decades to come, says Brack: “We’re helping them grow into amazing citizens who will then turn around and help their community.”

➼ Check them Out: The PYC family of choirs will join together to perform at Spring into Song on April 28. For details, visit pacificyouthchoir.org. Or catch older members of the PYC family performing with the Oregon Symphony this spring (see Also Playing This Spring on page 26).

Northwest Children’s Theater and School
Imagination is Limitless

What better spokesperson for challenging the limits than a boy who simply refuses to grow up?

Peter Pan’s belief in the impossible carries him (and those he loves) to some fantastic places. It’s magical thinking at its finest, and the worldview it embodies has long resonated with Ryder Thompson, a seventh grader at Fowler Middle School in Tigard who will play Pan in the Northwest Children’s Theater and School’s upcoming rendition of its flagship production, Peter Pan.

Thompson says he’s tapping into the Neverland mentality by drawing on his own hopes and fears about getting older: “There have been times when I have worried about what am I going to do when I’m not with my family, when I’m on my own. In every child, there’s some fear about what’s going to happen when you’re done with school and you become an adult.”

NWCT’s Peter Pan features many classic moments, from snapping crocodiles and hook-handed villains to children taking flight, but it also tackles deep, universal questions about youth and imagination, says Director, Set Designer and Puppet Designer John Ellingson. In the spirit of inclusivity, he says, NWCT will continue its tradition of offering several sensory-friendly showings.

“Theater is about creating a sensory overload experience: the lights should jar you, the sounds should jar you,” explains Ellingson, but for kids on the spectrum, the effect can be overwhelming, so the sensory-friendly show features gentler sounds and noises and a shorter runtime with fewer transitions.

In whatever form they encounter it, the tale of Peter Pan encourages audience members to cling tightly to a childlike sense of wonder, says Ellingson: “This story is telling you that this is a precious time. Youth is a time of empowerment. Adults need to be reminded of that, and kids need to be allowed to fly.”

➼ Check it Out: Peter Pan runs April 21-May 20. For details, visit nwct.com.

Polaris Dance Theatre
Come as You Are

Polaris Dance Theatre Co-Founder and Program Director Sara Anderson counts dance among the purest of human expressions, no matter its shape or form.

“Dance is its own language, and it has its own healing powers,” she says. “Our mission [at Polaris] has been, through dance, to awaken the heart, and through that, to enhance humanity. And that’s what we’ve done.”

Polaris, which began as a professional Portland company and has since grown through grassroots funding to include a school, welcomes a diversity of dancers of every age and ability, offering both career-track pre-professional training and recreational dance programming.

The theater’s popular All Access classes teach participants to create stories with movement, no matter the physical or developmental challenges they face. Some students are driven by color, says Sara, while others are drawn to rhythm. One might beat a drum, another might tap a finger, and yet another might explore free physical movement. In the process, students hone skills including problem-solving, spatial awareness, respect, memory and community-mindedness.

Dancers with disabilities are welcome in all Polaris classes, says Sara, and the theater’s many year-round camps and classes bring together people of all ages and abilities to interact and connect through a shared love of dance.

Those interactions are more meaningful because they’re at the very heart of the Polaris ethos, says Sara: “Inclusivity can’t be an initiative; it has to be a core value that starts from the beginning. It’s systemic; not reactionary. And that’s where we’ve always been … this is dance for the betterment of humanity.”

➼ Check them Out: Polaris Dance Theatre’s Annual XPOSED company performance, which this year exclusively features choreographers of color, runs April 20-28. For more information,

Oregon Ballet Theatre goes through the Looking Glass

Looking for a fun, out-of-the-box way to introduce your kids to the world of classical ballet? Oregon Ballet Theatre’s forthcoming premiere of Septime Webre’s ALICE (in wonderland) might be just the ticket.

You’ve never seen ballet quite like this, promises Artistic Director Kevin Irving. This ambitious production features a large cast and a formidable roster of sights and stunts, including flying.

“It’s bright, it’s colorful, it’s giddy, and it’s really challenging,” he says. “Lots of classical ballet is on display in the work, but that’s not the point of it; the point is to be entertaining and to provoke delight and whimsy.”

Just how much whimsy? Picture more than 100 vibrantly attired dancers (half of them young performers) bringing to life a cast of celebrated characters including the Queen of Hearts, the Mad Hatter, the Jabberwock, and, of course, Alice herself.

But there are deeper lessons afoot, and Irving hopes audiences will connect with Alice’s powerful imagination as well as her openness to experiencing difference, in whatever shape or form it takes.

“Alice encounters everyone on equal footing, and it’s her sense of wonder at the world around her that’s her defining trait,” he says.

➼ Check it Out: ALICE (in wonderland) runs February 24-March 3 at the Keller Auditorium. For more information, visit obt.org.

Also Playing this Spring

Oregon Symphony: Along the Oregon Trail

Young adventurers are invited to set off on a lively musical tour of the Wild West and the great Northwest. (Features members of the Pacific Youth Choir.) March 4, 2 pm, Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall.

Oregon Ballet Theatre: Annual School Performance

Admire the art, technique and physical prowess of Portland’s most promising young ballet dancers at the theatre’s annual school performance. April 21-22, 1 pm, Newmark Theatre.

Portland Youth Philharmonic: Pictures at an Exhibition

Talented young performers take on Mussorgsky’s classic work. Also featuring a clarinet concerto and a performance by PYP’s soloist competition winner. May 6, 4 pm, Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall.

Erin J. Bernard is a freelance writer and editor living the dream in Northeast Portland, where she resides with her husband and their bossy 22-month-old daughter. She spends her (nonexistent) free time eating tamales, scoping out garage sales, and blogging about the creative life at ejbwritingstudio.com.

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