Making a Home in the Arts

Written by Brett Campbell; Photographed by Frankie Tresser

Before he was an actor, Vin Shambry was acting. During the school day, he worked hard to blend in with the other sixth graders, pretending that he was coming to school from his house in the morning, and returning in the afternoon, eating dinner at the kitchen table with his parents and sister Maya, sleeping in his own bed.

It was all an act. 

I was the boy following my mom with a shopping cart of our belongings, collecting cans in St. Johns…waiting all morning for the free lunch at Irving Park…. — From “Flower Joy,” by Vin Shambry.

After his father punched his mom during an argument, she escaped with twelve-year-old Vin and Maya. They wound up unhoused for months in 1994. Sleeping under a fifty-foot-tall fir tree in Northeast Portland’s Irving Park. Learning the park patrol schedule so they could scatter when cops walked by. At school, Vin went to classes like nothing was amiss, savoring the free breakfast, brushing his teeth in the restroom while the other kids recited the Pledge of Allegiance. 

“As a kid growing up in poverty, I thought almost everything was an improv,” Shambry explains. “I had to figure out what was next, how I could navigate through.”

Two decades later, after gaining fame as an actor on Broadway, touring the world, then returning to Portland, Shambry recalled his experience in a poignant monologue on the public radio show The Moth. “Outdoor School” went viral, was incorporated into a best-selling anthology, and ultimately spawned an original theater project, a book in progress, and a made-in-Portland feature film.

New Roles

Acting wasn’t the only art form Shambry, the son and grandson of gospel singers, absorbed while growing up in Portland. “Singing was always inside me,” he remembers. 

It took his high school choir teacher to bring the music out. When Grant High School’s music teacher greeted the freshman one day, Shambry replied, “How you doing?”—in a resonant bass voice. She enlisted him into Grant’s accomplished Royal Blues choir. Another teacher nabbed him for musical theater, encouraging him to “always say yes to everything.” He studied performers from Paul Robeson to the King’s Singers to contemporary Broadway star Brian Stokes Mitchell. 

Shambry immediately felt at home on stage. “Internally, something switched on in my body,” he says. “This moment of awareness that I was in a space, an environment, where I could be myself. I could be silent and calm there, and not have to deal with my other life.” 

Still, Shambry grappled with feelings of shame—at having to hustle for money to provide for his family, at deceiving everyone around him about his precarious circumstances, at living in poverty. 

“I felt like a fraud,” he recalls, “living these two lives…knowing that by night, I’d have to go home and live my real reality.”

Learning the Hustle

The arts lifted Shambry out of Portland and poverty. After a year of college, he auditioned for a two-year program in New York’s famed American Musical and Dramatic Academy—and won a scholarship. Soon, he was taking classes from Broadway actors, rubbing shoulders with famous and soon-to-be famous performers. 

But the skinny, dreadlocked kid from the streets of Portland wasn’t overwhelmed by Gotham’s storied performing arts mystique. “With my lived experience of Portland, going into New York, I understood the musicality of the hustle,” he says. “I loved it.”

He took advantage of the students’ unlimited access to practice studios to work on dance moves, piano technique, recordings. He put himself out there for roles, never getting discouraged when he didn’t land one, and tended bar to pay the bills.  

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