Harper Joy Theatre celebrates 50 years and so much more
Stories by Virginia Grantier
In a womb of a room — a place of no windows and empty seats — the theatre’s mechanical systems hum an electric mantra. The lights are moonlight minimal.
It’s late evening at Harper Joy Theatre, but no one is leaving.
Onstage three actors deliver their lines, repeating the same scene, over and over, until one actor bellows in frustration. Christopher Petit, assistant professor and acting chair of theatre, is right there to provide more directorial help and acting tools. It’s a hard-labor, hard-love journey to find truth in a word, in a script, in that tiny turning moment.
Tonight they toil over Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” And like the countless actors, technical crews and professors who came before, they press on, working late into the night in this theatre that has been more like a home to many during the past half-century. Fifty seasons — more than 500 full productions — wrapped. Now well into 51.
April 23-25, 2010
HJT alumni applaud education, success
Harper Joy Theatre “is such a sacred place,” said Jimmy Maize ’02, a New York actor, director and playwright (See Q and A). He once climbed a tree so he could sleep on the roof of this place that means so much to him. Never “in a million years” would he trade the quality of training, scope of programming and exposure to guest artists offered inside the walls of this theatre.
What the theatre program provides its graduates can be measured — in numbers.
Maize knows more than 50 Whitman graduates who currently have successful theatre careers in New York City. For a college of Whitman’s size to have such a significant and successful alumni presence in this tough city of 9 million is amazing, he said. The alumni network there is so strong that even in what can be a ruthless profession, he doesn’t worry. He knows help is always just a call away.
He attended Whitman to get the “huge breadth of education” that its liberal arts education provides, but then left for New York with that and more — an understanding and “reaffirmation” of himself and confidence he would be OK. There is a direct link between the successes of Harper Joy Theatre (HJT) alumni and the “life skills, worldliness and personal growth” cultivated at Whitman, Maize said.
Through the decades, he and a plethora of HJT-trained theatre practitioners have found a place for themselves.
“When kids leave Whitman really interested in going on in theatre, very few of them have a difficult time moving on to the next step,” said Jack Freimann, professor emeritus of theatre and longtime HJT director, now a working actor in New York.
Success spans the decades. Some examples: “Batman” actor William Anderson ’51, better known as Adam West; playwright/director Nagle Jackson ’58; actor Dirk Niewoehner ’67, better known as Dirk Benedict of “Battlestar Galactica” and “The A Team” fame; actor, playwright and director Patrick Page ’85, probably best known for his Shakespearean roles and those on Broadway as “Scar” in “The Lion King” and the “Grinch” in “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” HJT-trained actors have appeared in on- and off-Broadway productions and in regional theatres throughout the country.
HJT also has been the training ground for respected experts in theatre production, such as Patty Mathieu ’83 (see Q and A), the production manager at McCaw Hall, home to the Seattle Opera and Pacific Northwest Ballet; and world-renowned lighting expert Steve Carlson ’74, who is “at the forefront of computerized lighting design,” according to Nancy Simon ’63, current HJT director.
“I can’t imagine anyplace else that would have supported a double major in drama and physics,” said Carlson, who was the lighting guru for productions during his years at Whitman and in the 1980s installed a state-of-the-art lighting system in the theatre.
Devoted, beloved directors: the hallmark of Whitman theatre
The HJT stage was brand-new when Simon stood on it in 1959, at age 17, as a first-year student. Fifty years later she stands on that same stage as a director, mentor and professor of theatre.
“I’m always enchanted to be there,” she said.
Simon would say that Whitman theatre had been evolving long before she and Jack Freimann arrived and before HJT was even built.
There was Rod Alexander ’41, the director who taught her; and before him there was his mentor and legendary teacher, Edith Davis, a Whitman assistant professor of English who directed student plays in Memorial Building’s long-gone student chapel.
Edith Davis was “the genius and big name behind the drama at Whitman,” said Marilyn Maxey Alexander ’41, a music major and daughter of Chester Maxey, Whitman president from 1948 to 1959. Davis juggled teaching, directing plays, raising four children, as well as making the actors’ costumes, which were stored in her basement, Alexander said. “Edith could pick a carpet off of the floor and make a costume.”
Davis’ plays in the chapel, about two a year, were “wonderful productions” but had no stage lighting, Alexander said. The audience sat on long benches, and the actors’ only option for a restroom was to descend a dark spiral staircase located behind the scenery — two floors of navigating in costume — to the basement restroom. “It was quite primitive,” Alexander said. Yet, Davis “left a legacy to her students that was not erasable.”
After Davis retired in 1946, Frederick J. Hunter, assistant professor of English, directed plays for two years.
Then Rod Alexander, Marilyn’s husband, began what would become a nearly 20-year career directing Whitman theatre, ultimately convincing administrators to devote a building to the theatre program.
Rod Alexander “single-handedly … was really the founder of the Whitman Theatre” facility, Nagle Jackson said of his mentor. Jackson went on from Whitman to receive national and international plaudits as a respected director and then award-winning playwright, earning the 1998 Onassis International Playwriting Award for his “The Elevation of Thieves.”
Jackson and his theatre classmates rehearsed and performed in repurposed U.S. Army barracks the college had purchased in 1949 to house an influx of enrolled World War II veterans. One of the relocated buildings, at Alexander’s urging, instead became the college’s first theatre. Alexander and a crew of volunteers transformed it, constructing a stage and dressing rooms, and installing seats and equipment.
Named Whitman Theatre and located approximately where HJT now stands, that first theatre opened for business on March 7, 1950, with a 180-seat auditorium and a few side offices. “It was a step up from the chapel,” Marilyn Alexander noted.
But eight years later, the Whitman Theatre was gone. The morning after a dress rehearsal for the musical “Guys and Dolls,” people in nearby college buildings saw smoke coming from the building. The March 13, 1958, Walla Walla Union-Bulletin would report that on- and off-duty firefighters from three stations fought the fire, but costumes, musical instruments and the structure were lost. The fire chief reported the fire might have been ignited by a piece of stage property falling on a lighted electric bulb.
Marilyn Alexander remembers standing there, watching the building burn and thinking, “Whatever are we going to do now?” The musical would go on, though delayed, at the Little Theatre of Walla Walla, the city’s community theatre. Then what?
“Tiny theatre department” grows; college builds new theatre
With insurance money and gifts, a new $141,000 theatre was built. For Rod Alexander, the design and construction of the 300-seat auditorium and 3,000 square feet of foyer, gallery and exhibition space were sources of great satisfaction, his wife said. He felt he had helped extend and develop the legacy of his mentor, Edith Davis.
The new Whitman Theatre still was in need of finishing work when Simon arrived at Whitman in the fall of 1959 to major in theatre. She soon was taping drywall in the lobby, among other tasks, and remembers working in the cold, wearing a coat she found in the costume department, because the theatre wasn’t insulated. She was never happier, and remembers not even wanting to go home for Thanksgiving that year.
The Whitman Theatre eventually would be renamed in honor of Harper Joy ’22, a dedicated trustee and college supporter who made a career in finance but followed his passion for show business during summers spent under the big top as a circus clown.
Harper Joy Theatre has “always been a romantic space,” Simon said. At times, there have been burlap-covered walls, worn wood, places where birds could get in. Not an every-brick-precisely-in-place place. “It didn’t ‘match’… and that’s good,” she said. “Theatre isn’t about being like everybody else — going along with the plan — the theatre is about ‘what if?’”
During Simon’s years as a Whitman student, Rod Alexander nudged her toward directing. Her strengths were script analysis and executive, administrative abilities. “I was not a very good actor. I wasn’t secure enough to offer myself,” she said. Simon would go on to graduate school and in 1967 return to Whitman to teach.
As Simon joined the faculty, Alexander was leaving for a position at Dartmouth College. HJT’s new director would be Jack Freimann, a former New York University faculty member hired in 1962 by Alexander.
When Freimann joined the staff, Whitman had a “tiny theatre department,” and theatre still was considered more of an extracurricular activity than an academic focus (although the drama major had been instituted during Alexander’s time). With some “fast talking,” Freimann convinced administrators to fund Simon as a full-time faculty member after the grant that initially funded her position expired. He also began what would become the largest theatre poster collection in the nation in an effort to demonstrate the scope of theatre as a professional endeavor.
He remembers working in the theatre every day of the week from 8 a.m. to midnight or 1 a.m. “I worked all the time … and didn’t resent it,” he said. He wanted to help students grow, provide a multitude of experiences. As a result, the annual play calendar usually ranged from 10 to 15 productions.
“We’d be in one show, house-managing the next, running lights for the next,” Patty Mathieu recalled. “Jack Freimann’s play production sessions … gave me the hands-on experience that directly informed my decision to pursue a career in technical theatre.”
Patrick Page described Freimann this way. “He was, and is still, a virtual one-man tornado of theatrical wisdom, energy and inspiration.”
As the theatre program continued to grow in popularity, HJT underwent a renovation beginning in December 1983. Funding for the improvements — including a new shop, lobby, classrooms, offices and a small experimental theatre space named in honor of Freimann — was provided by friends and classmates of Harper Joy. Donald Sherwood ’22, a major donor, organized the effort.
When Freimann retired in 1992, Simon stepped into his role.
“She is the soul of the Harper Joy Theatre,” said Rosie Brownlow ’09, who is now pursuing acting in New York City. Classes she took from professors Simon and Petit “blew up my understanding of what acting could be,” she said.
Dana Moran Williams ’84 — who, after Whitman, helped produce such movies as director Robert Altman’s “Cookie’s Fortune” before focusing on directing and set design — said he had some raw talent when he came to Whitman, but Simon, who “leads by example,” instilled the discipline he needed.
Simon’s passion for theatre in part stems from her belief in the world-changing power of a well-done show. If a production is successful, “you come out of the theatre a changed person,” said Simon, whose world revolves around HJT. She isn’t married and has no children, no pets, not even indoor plants, because “if I even look at them they die,” she said and laughed.
“There’s really nothing like Whitman’s theatre program,” said Williams, who returned to his alma mater as a sabbatical replacement for the 2008-2009 academic year to teach set design, intro to theatre, computer applications for stage and screen, and a special topics class: the dramaturgy of design. He also designed the scenery last year for several Whitman productions.
“Other comparable liberal arts programs are doing two or three shows a year,” he said. By comparison, Simon estimated that HJT now averages about 10 plays a year. HJT’s seasons have included classics as well as new works, students’ plays, difficult subject matter, nudity. The college has never put any restrictions on the department, respecting the maturity and intelligence of the staff, she said.
Some alumni support theatre from way behind the scenes
The theatre staff through the years has not only developed theatre professionals but also nurtured ardent lovers of theatre, alumni who contribute their time and talent to keep theatre alive. “Many students left theatre for other career pursuits but continued working in it by doing such things as sitting on boards or acting in community theatre,” Simon said.
Mary Metastasio ’73 of Seattle was a theatre major but never considered pursuing it as a profession. “I like a more structured life” and job security, said Metastasio, who went on to graduate school and a career managing municipal bond portfolios. Even so, she remains devoted to theatre, attends about 100 performances a year and serves on theatre boards, including as board president of the Book-It Repertory Theatre in Seattle.
Such boards want members who are familiar with income statements and balance sheets, she said. However, Metastasio also brings, because of her Whitman theatre experience, an understanding of various aspects of show production — time, money and artistic needs, “the delicacy of the process,” and the pressures on the cast and crew, “people who are putting themselves on the line constantly.”
“Conservatory-caliber classes without sacrificing a diverse course load”
As the theatre majors set to graduate in 2010 reflected on their HJT years recently, they concluded that their experiences couldn’t have been richer with opportunities on the stage, behind the scenes and in classrooms across campus. From left to right: Alex Cassidy, Ian Jagel, Kelsey Yuhara, Lisa Mattson, Adam Caniparoli and Kirt Siders. Photo by Andrew Propp ’10. Pictured below: Becky Weitzel.
Eight Whitman students expect to graduate in 2010 with theatre degrees, but they say a substantial number of students in other majors enrich their Whitman experience by participating in HJT productions.
And there are those who convert.
Ian Jagel ’10 came to Whitman to study anthropology and fell in love with theatre. “It was so clear that Harper Joy Theatre was the place,” he said. His fellow senior theatre majors agree that studying theatre at Whitman while soaking up its liberal arts offerings is the best of all worlds. Courses in religion, humanities and politics “have opened my head to the cosmos,” Jagel said.
In addition to his four-year degree, Jagel will leave Whitman with what is already an impressive resume, having developed skills that enabled him to successfully stage manage for two prestigious theatres in Paris during a semester of study abroad: the historic Théâtre de la Huchette and Théâtre des Blancs Manteaux. He also did lighting work at three other Paris theatres and apprenticed under one of the most prominent lighting designers in France, François-Eric Valentin.
Another senior theatre major, Becky Weitzel ’10, discovered in her semester abroad at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art that she was well-prepared. She already had been introduced to many of the concepts and coursework in voice and movement at HJT, and she came to “appreciate Whitman even more because we really do have conservatory-caliber classes without sacrificing a diverse course load.”
Simon said, “for theatre students in particular, Whitman is almost unique in the combination it offers: a truly excellent liberal arts education and four years of comprehensive experience in the theatre.”
That experience currently includes work with resident costume designer Robin Waytenick Smasne, lecturer of theatre, who once designed for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. To teach and work with students to create costumes for “Romeo and Juliet,” Smasne brought in visiting designer Laurie Haluska, who has designed for such films as “Star Wars: Return of the Jedi.” Another visiting educator slated for this academic year is a New York-based painting and dye expert from The Jim Henson Company, creator of “The Muppets.”
“It’s a theatre and season that has huge challenges for undergraduates,” Smasne said. “I don’t think there’s a program like this anywhere.” Anything students “can think of they can attempt.”
“A culture of theatre unsurpassed at a small liberal arts college”
From one teacher, Edith Davis, and a student-chapel venue, the theatre department has grown to four full-time faculty members, a costumer and technical director who also teach, and an administrative assistant. They press on, adding to the legacy.
“I feel lucky to be working at Harper Joy. The theatre has a great history,” said Petit, who prior to joining the Whitman faculty was a director in New York and Seattle, where he was the founding artistic director for the Open Circle Theater Company.
“Nancy and others who came before me have built a strong program, an incredible audience base and a culture of theatre that is unsurpassed at a small liberal arts college,” said Petit. At the time he was directing HJT’s modern-dress version of “Romeo and Juliet,” which combined skateboards and swords, pop music and sonnets. Another HJT leap into the world of “What if?”
Play on: HJT renovations planned
Harper Joy Theatre is a “living facility” that continues to evolve, said Timothy Kaufman-Osborn, provost and dean of the faculty. The small size of the current Black Box (Freimann Stage), for example, limits the flexibility of actors, designers and directors, and the size of the audience.
“That space is essential to performance and performance is essential to the study of theatre, the equivalent of the collaborative research we do with faculty and students in the sciences and other disciplines,” he said.
College officials met with architects recently to move forward with planning for a proposed renovation that could include an expansion of the Black Box (which also would make room for a new classroom in the current Black Box), expansion of the current lobby, a new costume shop/classroom above ground, replacement of the seating and flooring in the main stage area, the addition of office space, upgrade of lighting and electrical equipment, and improvements to green room and dressing room spaces in the basement.
“The key to an excellent theatre program is a combination of great faculty, great students and a great facility,” Kaufman-Osborn said. “We have the first two, and the facility improvements we hope to make will bring the Harper Joy Theatre facility to that same level of excellence.”
Editor’s note: Historical information was gleaned from “The Triumph of Tradition,” a volume on Whitman College history by G. Thomas Edwards, professor emeritus of history; as well as from information compiled in 1984 by Stephanie Edwards ’85, and documents in the Whitman College and Northwest Archives. Many historical photos are courtesy of the archives.
Cast of Whitman Theatre and Harper Joy Theatre directors
Throughout this historical journey, you’ll see the following cardinal faculty members mentioned often. Here’s a cheat sheet for those who didn’t come of age in the Harper Joy Theatre.
Nancy Simon ’63 — Garrett professor of dramatic arts and professor of theatre. Joined the faculty in 1967. HJT director, 1992-present.
John R. “Jack” Freimann — professor emeritus of theatre who joined the faculty in 1962. HJT director, 1967-1992. Whitman bestowed upon him an honorary doctor of humanities degree in 2002.
Rod Alexander ’41 — professor of dramatic art and director of Whitman Theatre from 1948-1967. Established the drama major and was instrumental in the design and creation of the HJT building.
Edith Blackman Merrell Davis — an assistant professor of English who was at the heart of Whitman theatre in the first half of the 20th century. The 1947 Waiilatpu yearbook was dedicated to her.
- Reunite with theatre friends April 23-25, 2010. For details and to RSVP, visit the Harper Joy Theatre Reunion Web site.
- See a gallery of photos by Andrew Propp ’10, who has spent his years at Whitman capturing the heart and action of HJT productions.
- Read a first-person account by Caitlin Goldie ’12 about the Canadian Fringe Theatre Circuit.
- See “A Century of Whitman Theatre” in photos at the Harper Joy Theatre Web site.
- Check out patrickpageonline.com, the Web site of actor Patrick Page ’85. It’s filled with insight for aspiring actors and fascinating reading and interesting photos for the rest of us!
- Connect with Harper Joy Theatre students, staff and alumni on Facebook