Claudia McCain, Sara Gorby, Kathy “KO” Ogilvie, Denise Simone and Kathy Wygle.
Many male actors relate a similar tale of how they originally came to be in the business: They joined an acting class at school in order to meet girls. It seems babes and the Bard have always gone together.
Not quite. For centuries, men were the storytellers and women were not permitted on stage. It was not seemly. However, ever since 17th-century actress Margaret Hughes put boys out of the practice of playing women on stage, women have found success while "trodding the boards," as they say in show biz.
For the past 30 years, women have also found success running their own theatre companies. The list is impressive: Ellen Stewart of La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club, Lynne Meadow of Manhattan Theatre Club and Manda Martin of the Women Center Stage come to mind. As well, women helped establish the post-World War II regional theatre movement, which changed the complexion of American theatre by bringing it to all areas of the country.
In the Wood River Valley, the theater world is cozy but vibrant. There are several companies headed by women, including the Sun Valley Performing Arts/nexStage Theatre, St. Thomas Play-house, Company of Fools and the Children's After School Theatre (C.A.S.T.)
When acting newbie Kathy Wygle first came to the valley in the late 1960s, the only performing happening—other than music—was the odd multi-act revues done in the old Sun Valley Quonset hut.
After taking some acting classes through the Sun Valley Center for the Arts—including one with the famed Vincent Dowling of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, Wygle co-founded Laughing Stock Theatre Company in 1977. Their first shows were staged at the old Louie's Pizza Parlor.
Eventually some saloons and then the Sun Valley Opera House became venues for live theater. Finally, in the mid 1990s, an old car dealership on Ketchum's Main Street was turned into Ketchum's first and only dedicated theater, the nexStage, which Wygle now manages, and where her sister, Patsy Wygle, a longtime New York stage and television actress, serves as Sun Valley Performing Arts/nexStage Theatre's education director.
"When I first came out from college to visit my sister, there was no theater in the Wood River Valley," Patsy Wygle said. "I moved on to New York but came back at least once a year to work on plays with them, and teach at Camp Little Laugh."
Camp Little Laugh is Wygle and co-founder Nancy Harakay's acting avenue for engaging kids ages 8-15 each summer. Among the hundreds of campers with the acting bug who have attended classes in the mountains north of Ketchum over the last 20 years were the children of actors and semi-locals Demi Moore, Robin Williams and Richard Dreyfuss. St. Thomas Playhouse has launched a popular camp as well.
For Denise Simone, a theater awaited her arrival in 1996. She moved to the valley with her then husband Rusty Wilson, and their already established (in Virginia) Company of Fools. They were fortunate to have a benefactor in an old friend of Simone's, Bruce Willis, who renovated the Liberty Theatre in Hailey for the company. Since then they have staged 15 seasons of thought-provoking and entertaining theatrical work, as well as educational programs in Blaine County schools.
It was through Simone and Wilson that Sara Gorby, then a student at College of Southern Idaho in Twin Falls, discovered theater back home.
"When I moved back, I wanted to get involved, Gorby said. "Through them I found out about Laughing Stock, and first was involved with St. Thomas Playhouse in "Godspell' in 2002."
After years staging productions in California, Kathy "K.O." Ogilvie is currently the resident stage manager for Company of Fools, the technical director for nexStage Theatre and the stage manager for Sun Valley Shakespeare.
A big draw over the years has been actress and director Claudia McCain, who happily bounces among projects and is co-founder and president of the Wood River Arts Alliance.
A few of these drama queens took center stage recently at the Liberty to talk with the Idaho Mountain Express about having pioneered live theater in the Wood River Valley.
Why live theater?
"K.O." Ogilvie: I don't know how to do anything else.
Claudia McCain: It was in 1981, with Laughing Stock doing "God." They were a tight group then—David Blampied, Kathy, some others--that launched it in a different way for me. I was trained as a visual artist, but on stage I felt like I'd found my art.
Denise Simone: I've been blessed to be able to make a living in theatre for 31 years. I don't know when I thought about anything else.
Sara Gorby: I loved to sing and dance, but when I did my first musical theatre I realized this was what I wanted to do. I began paying attention to the whole production. I was given really good advice right off the bat.
Why here and not the
usual hubs of New York or Los Angeles?
Kathy Wygle: Culture bonds a community. People are proud to have a theater in their town. The growth of theater is something that has come about due to the quality of people who've experienced culture elsewhere and don't want to give it up.
Simone: Running a company is hard. You need specific skill sets like marketing. But the other side is that I've been cast for many roles I wouldn't have had outside of this valley and the company. I've stretched myself in ways I wouldn't have been able to.
Gorby: Women are nurturers and theater is a place where that is a really good quality to have. We are doers. We multi-task. The more we do it the more people expect of you. (Everyone laughs.)
Simone: This valley has a distilled dynamic pool of women who like to play with the big questions. We serve, but we don't just serve by producing plays. We're teaching kids, adults, in the classrooms and in the hospitals. There are strong, dedicated women.
Ogilvie: There's a collaborative sense. We like working with each other.
Wygle: When times are tough, you can also talk to these ladies.
McCain: We could be at odds, but we interact and support each other and have relationships.
Gorby: We try not to conflict.
Wygle: The thing that made me want to stay was opportunity. I felt like it had not been done and that I could flourish, too.
Ogilvie: I felt at home here because it was so incredibly conducive to the arts. I could be here not only enjoying but contributing to the arts.
McCain: People have said I could go somewhere else and work but I wouldn't have had the same level of success or range of roles somewhere else.
Gorby: For me it was that I could do what I loved to do in my home.
How does theater contribute to the marketability of the community?
McCain: We have a full-rounded community. My passion is theater. It's a voice back—it reflects what is happening. Statistically, the cultural traveler spends more. As it's developed, the arts community has grown up exponentially. We've really maintained a really strong theater community.
Simone: The school system here gets that creativity fosters innovation, excitement and vibrancy within our schools. The other day at one of the schools, St. Thomas Playhouse was breaking down "Tortoise and the Hare" while COF was setting up our education program, Stages of Wonder.
What is something exclusive to theater life here that can't be had elsewhere?
Ogilvie: I didn't think it was a possibility. I thought I had to be in a city, but I wanted to be somewhere else. Then I got here. I'm the luckiest gal I know.
Simone: I love that we don't get reviewed, but your neighborhood lets you know. They come up on the street or in the grocery store and tell you what they thought.
Wygle: There is a connection with the community you don't you get anywhere else.
Were you ever close to throwing
in the towel and just ski bumming it?
Wygle: (Shrugging) No one comes to the valley to make a living working in the theater.
Gorby: Sometimes you have to reassess, and then come back stronger.
McCain: Sometimes your personal life can interrupt.
Simone: It's a changing landscape—it's much more challenging to sustain a theater company. You're always thinking how you do it, how do you continue?
Ogilvie: Not here. I'd already thrown in the towel before I came, then I took my towel back.
What is the future of live theater,
given all the technological changes?
Will you adapt, resist or a little of both?
Gorby: We'll keep trucking.
Wygle: If we've made it through the rough years, we can keep going.
Gorby: We'll keep producing--it's happening. I think the younger demographic has to return a bit more.
Simone: I wonder who will be the next people in this house. Art will always continue, arts organizations. I believe we're in an interesting time. It's a fast-changing landscape now. I say that as an observer. Will funding remain? Fifty-six percent of the Idaho Commission on the Arts' funding comes from the NEA. If it goes away you'll see fallout on some of our organizations. For some organizations that funding is critical. I don't say this pessimistically. I'm just curious.
Ogilvie: The strength of an artist is to keep doing art.
Simone: I wish we could do arts as we have always done: more for less. I'd love to see the arts become such an integral fabric of the community that it's protected.
Ogilvie: Arts define the landscape. It's the Winston Churchill quote when his finance minister suggested cutting the arts to support the war, he said, "Then what are fighting for?"
McCain: The education that these ladies are doing bodes well for our future by planting the seeds for the same things that Sara found here: opportunity.
What have you learned about
yourselves in this process?
McCain: There are so many different occasions and experiences that have changed my life dramatically. My relationships with audiences are so different than any other in my life. There's an energy.
Gorby: It really is about faith in yourself, and other people and the community and knowing that if you build it they will come. If you produce work you are proud of, others will catch that as well.
Simone: It's always a surprise no matter how man evolves--it's about bearing witness to our stories. We come together to bear witness to the queens and the prostitutes and we hold those stories.
Wygle: People are in need of stimulus, which makes these things more precious.
McCain: It's a funny dichotomy. We want a simpler life. But people have a need to do an art form. This is where theater comes in.
Simone: Theater in its purest form is a gathering and a story and someone to tell it.