Gallery Theater: 50 years, 340 plays, thousands of stories

McMinnville's community theater celebrates a half-century partnership between actors and audiences

Gallery Players of Oregon has been cranking out plays in downtown McMinnville since 1968, which means we’ve arrived at the 50th anniversary. That kind of endurance for any artistic project is worth celebrating.

I cannot hide my enthusiasm about it, and you ought to know why: For many of the past 20 years, I’ve acted on Gallery’s stage. Candidly, this is a bit weird for me. I’ve been a journalist since moving to McMinnville in the mid-1990s, and I’ve been involved at Gallery (both as an actor and a director) for most of that time. But those two lives haven’t intersected — until now.

Like many who will attend Saturday’s 50th anniversary gala, which will include a catered dinner and an evening program, I was introduced to theater in high school. Instead of letting it become just another memory from my youth, I remained active in theater and, more than three decades later, have accumulated a wealth of memories, characters, thrills, laughs, life lessons, friendships and stories.

Seth Renne, who has managed Gallery Theater since 2014, considers the
perils of growing carnivorous plants in 2013’s production of “Little Shop
of Horrors.” Photo: Gallery Theater

I’ve worn suits, ties, armor, stars and stripes, pajamas, a bathrobe, a dress, fake breasts, tighty-whities, and a burlap sack while smeared with mud. Actual, homemade mud, because I learned that mud washes off faster for a quick scene change than oil-based makeup. I also learned, over the course of that production, that dirt is alive and, if allowed to sit in a jar with just enough water, will grow things that smell awful.

I’ve learned the hardest thing to do onstage is not to cry, laugh or even passionately kiss a friend while your spouse (and hers) watches from the audience, but to eat. Appearing in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, I had in my field of vision one evening Dr. Dean Brooks, who headed the Oregon State Hospital for 27 years and played a character similar to himself in the 1975 film starring Jack Nicholson; he was seated in the first row. Having played Col. Nathan Jessup in A Few Good Men, I’ve found myself in the absurd position of being compared to Jack Nicholson.

I’ve been killed by and slain good friends, then gone out drinking with them afterward. I’ve come to understand how and why the show must and ultimately does go on, even when the director walks out, or when an actor vanishes on the eve of opening night or — for any number of reasons I’ll not get into here — in the middle of a show’s run. As an audience member, I broke down at Atticus Finch’s “Thank you for my children, Arthur.” And I’ll never forget the stunned silence at the end of a fantastic Cabaret, where the biggest Nazi flag I’ve ever seen unfurled over the stage for the final scene.

But the most important thing I’ve come away with is an appreciation of the audience – both as an actor and director and as a theatergoer.

Here’s the thing: The audience wants you to succeed.

The actor’s nightmare is that you’ll be awful, and the audience will turn on you. Booing, laughing, walking out. But the audience, I’ve come to realize, is an ally, a partner in the creation of art. For the two or three hours it takes to tell the story, they are guests in your house and, in their own way, part of the story.

They are tremendously forgiving. Of course, anyone who puts on a play worries about stuff going wrong, and on occasion something does. More often than not, the audience never knows. One of the most amazing performances I’ve ever seen was in The Glass Menagerie. I played Tom (the Tennessee Williams surrogate) and the actor playing my mother was coming off two days of influenza. I knew how much agony she was in, but the audience didn’t. Where she got the energy, how she summoned the will to pull that off I will never know, but I also know — from talking with folks afterward — that the audience that night had no clue how sick she was.

When something goes wrong and the audience does know, it’s OK. It deepens the bond between the company and those who came to watch them. Some of the most electrifying performances I’ve seen (from either side of the stage) involved an understudy stepping in and pulling it off. The actor is terrified, but the audience gets it: Something happened, maybe even something horrible, but that actor is coming out in front of all of us and doing this anyway. It gives everyone in the theater a shared experience of soldiering on and surviving together. Yeah, we saw it the night that part of the set collapsed, but they kept going. It was incredible! In this, and in so many other ways, theater brings out people’s best, most humane instincts. Without them and their support, Gallery Players of Oregon wouldn’t exist.

There’s no way I can possibly tell the story of McMinnville’s theater here. Oregon ArtsWatch brought me on mid-year, and a theater half a century old has a story that would take several months to excavate. Too many sources, too many voices, and I’d surely leave someone out.

But it’s important to at least note origins.

Fifty years ago, there was no community theater in McMinnville. Stage shows were limited to the high school and Linfield College (where I’ve seen some impressive productions in recent years). Basically, some people who wanted to do theater got together and did it. They included Lea New (for whom the building is named), Elmer Fricke, Virginia Davidson, Mort Kresner, Winnie Combs, and Paul Little. Frank and Helene Nelson were among the pioneers who infused the theater with their talents.

Sharon Morgan and Norm Tognazzini share a moment in Gallery Theater’s 2012 production of “On Golden Pond.” Photo: Gallery Theater

Little taught at Linfield and worked with then art department chair Randall Jelinek (whose wife, Barbara, has directed me several times) to hold shows in the campus art gallery. The first shows included Absence of a Cello, The Glass Menagerie, and You Can’t Take It With You. In the mid-1970s, the growing company turned to an old garage and manufacturing building at the corner of Second and Ford Streets. It was extensively remodeled in the early 1980s into the theater it is today.

I didn’t get involved until 1998, so I’ve been around for only part of the tale, which isn’t even one story. It’s literally thousands of stories, some on stage and many more off stage. That’s one of the great things about theater. We tell stories, and we come away with stories.

Gallery occupies roughly a fourth of one downtown city block. It’s a three-story building with two theaters. The main stage, which seats 216 but will soon be expanded to nearly 250, is where they produce plays that pay the bills, audience favorites such as The Wizard of Oz, Oliver!, It’s A Wonderful Life, and To Kill a Mockingbird. On the north side of the building is the black box (or “arena theater”), which was added in 1988 and seats 86. That expansion added dressing rooms, a set shop, and the busy Van De Veere Productions dance studio, which also has a location in West Linn. The sprawling third-floor costume shop is the envy of theaters around the Pacific Northwest. Since 1968, Galley Players has produced more than 340 plays, most of them in that building.

The nonprofit theater is run by a volunteer board of directors, headed by Debbie Harmon Ferry, who has been appearing in Gallery shows since she was in high school and who has twice been my wife. In 2014, they hired Seth Renne, a Western Oregon University theater graduate, to run the place. It’s a part-time job, but if you take into account the shows he directs and appears in, I’m sure he must feel sometimes like he lives there. Renne first appeared on Gallery’s stage in 1995 as a pickpocket in Oliver! My first memory of working with him was in 2005, when he played an military police officer attempting to physically restrain me at the end of the testosterone-soaked A Few Good Men.

Not surprisingly, Renne and the board struggle with how to bring in new audiences, as the one that has sustained them for decades ages. “Most of the community-theater audience is older, so how do you pull in that younger crowd?” he said, echoing the sentiments of other theater managers I’ve talked to. “There’s only so many times you can do Annie and Oklahoma! before you want to kill somebody.” That said, it’s not uncommon for popular musicals on the main stage to sell out. Attendance in the arena theater depends on the show, of course, but my sense is that auditorium has been fuller than it used to be.

The theater’s 50th anniversary celebration will be Saturday, Aug. 18, at the theater. Social hour starts at 5 p.m., dinner catered by Biscuit and Pickles is at 6 p.m., and an hour-long-or-so retrospective program starts at 7 p.m. — during which the 2019 season, which Renne refuses to spill even to me, will be unveiled. “For me, it’s like Christmas,” he said. “I get to know what’s in (the package) and then everyone else finds out.” Tickets for everything are $30, or $10 at the
door for the program only. You can purchase them online.

Meanwhile, in Newberg, the circus is coming to town…

When Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus shut down last year after 146 years, CNN reported an interesting calculation offered by the advocacy group Fédération Mondiale du Cirque to illustrate that the circus arts are (despite the blowback against the use of animals in performances) thriving: More than 90 percent of the American population, they said, lives within one hour’s drive of a circus.

Who needs wild animals when you have an acrobat who can shoot a bow and arrow with her feet? Photo by: Larry R. Wagner

If you’re in Yamhill County or the surrounding environs this weekend, cut that to a few minutes. The Mendocino County-based Flynn Creek Circus is coming to town with six shows over four days starting Thursday at Northside Community Church, 1800 Hoskins St. in Newberg. It’s reportedly appropriate for all ages and “all human,” featuring circus artists from Brazil, France, and other locales doing all the traditional circus stuff. There will be aerialists, acrobats, jugglers and, of course, clowns, under a red-and-white big top.

Tickets and more information are available online. Shows are 7 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 5 and 8 p.m. Saturday and 1 and 4 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $11 for kids, $22 for adults, and tickets for children are half-off Sunday with the purchase of one adult ticket.

ARTS JOURNAL: Having read The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and all seven Harry Potter books aloud to my 9-year-old son, I’ve felt lately that our book choices haven’t quite lived up to the standards set by those classics or to the quality of writing. I did enjoy Jacqueline West’s five-book series The Books of Elsewhere, but after two volumes of increasingly tedious prose in a series I shall not mention here, I finally maneuvered him into the Portland-centric Wildwood, written by Colin Meloy and illustrated by Carson Ellis. That opening scene with the baby being flown away by crows got him. I’m always open to recommendations or books to read to my son, so shoot any titles to me at DavidBWriter@onlinenw.com

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