More than four decades ago a group of theater enthusiasts set out a simple goal to stage a play in Whitefish.
Through countless hours of hard work and many productions later, the Whitefish Theatre Co. is celebrating its 40th anniversary season and has become a standby in the local arts community.
In the early years, the group often put on plays at Central School, in downtown bars and at the Mountain Mall. Sets had to be mobile, and bleachers were often brought in for the audience.
Through dedication, volunteers continued to slowly add to the seasons of plays featuring local actors and those brought to town featuring traveling troupes. In 1983 the group earned its nonprofit status and when it moved into the O’Shaughnessy Center in 1998 the opportunities only opened up even further.
Backed by a huge crew of volunteers and hired directors, Carolyn Pitman served as executive director of WTC for 35 years until retiring in 2013. Now current executive director Gayle MacLaren has taken the lead.
To celebrate its 40th anniversary, WTC has chosen a theme of “Celebrating the Past, Stepping into the Future” for the upcoming season. It will bring 15 shows to the stage that include community theatre, world and Americana music, and special events.
“As a way to celebrate the past, we have chosen a few tried-and-true gems from previous seasons to produce again,” MacLaren said. “We have also chosen new voices in theatre, music, and entertainment as a way to step into the future.”
In the back of the O’Shaughnessy Center, a hallway stretches past where today’s actors and crew pass by during rehearsals. The history of WTC too is stretched out in photographs lining the walls.
MacLaren says former cast members often return finding themselves in the photos and reminiscing. She began as a volunteer with WTC when her daughter was acting. Later she was hired on running the box office and business office, before taking over as executive director. Not an actor herself, MacLaren says she likes to give parties and that’s exactly what the theater is.
“I’ve always enjoyed working with all the people,” MacLaren said. “Those that want to be in the front of the show, those that want to be behind the stage, and those that watch the show.”
Through all the stages, costumes, lines said with drama and songs belted out to the audience, WTC would not exist without the people who have worked — some since the company was only a concept — to bring live performances to the stage in Whitefish.
“I’ve watched those who have never acted try it for the first time. I’ve watched romances happen and deep friendships form,” she said. “I enjoy the people.”
A few of those people involved with the hard work and fun adventures of the last 40 years recently shared their memories with the Pilot.
Carolyn Pitman was one of the founding members and would eventually become WTC’s first executive director. She remembers the first group of organizers raising $1,000 in the fall of 1978 to bring to the stage in the spring of 1979 the first play “Don’t Drink the Water.”
“It was one weekend of performance at the middle school,” she said. “It was all locals and it was a huge success. Then we thought, ‘we can do this.’”
Plays were held mostly at the Whitefish Schools, but also all around the Flathead Valley and on Big Mountain in the summer. Along with the Glacier Symphony and Coral, the theater company assisted in the renovation of the auditorium at the middle school.
“We continued to gain credibility as a theater behind the quality of our work,” she said. “We very slowly kept growing.”
WTC fundraised and built a permanent home in the O’Shaughnessy Center at the north end of Central Avenue. As the same time, the Whitefish Library raised funds and constructed a new building across from Depot Park. Pitman remembers sleepless nights hoping WTC would be able to afford its new home, but the support continued and it also marked a revitalization.
“That changed the whole end of town,” she said. “It sparked a boom in construction. There really wasn’t much there before except for the Depot.”
Support for the theater arts didn’t always come easily. Organizers weren’t afraid to put on shows that might challenge and provoke the audience. Pitman recalls having to go before the Whitefish School Board to get permission for characters to smoke in a play held at the middle school. When organizers hosted a performance of “Grease” it drew complaints for cursing in the play.
She remembers being particularly worried about “Middle-Aged White Guys,” a play that includes a scene where the actors pull down their pants as the lights go dark.
“I was working in the office when the phone rings and it’s Police Chief Bill Dial,” she said. “I just knew we were going to be shut down.”
Turns out he was looking for tickets to another performance, she said.
WTC strives to put on a variety of plays and performances during its season.
“We always wanted to make sure we were bringing in families,” she said. “All the plays may not be to your liking, but you can usually find one during the season you want to see.”
Looking back on 40 years, Pitman recounts the volunteers who helped clean the bathrooms, mow the lawn, serve as usher, sew costumes and the parents who got involved through their children’s desire to act, or the volunteers who served on the board of directors and those who helped fundraise. There was volunteer and paid directors and in particular Lonnie Porro, who is now costume designer emeritas.
“We have so many volunteers that put in so many hours — something like 400 now,” she said. “It has become a home for a lot of people.”
Nancy Nei was teaching theater at Whitefish High School at the time when WTC first organized. She eventually would serve as artistic director for the theater company, along with acting in and directing many plays over the years.
She remembers the group hiring a director for the first play who later quit, and so Nei took over to direct “Don’t Drink the Water” in 1979.
As with community theater involving volunteer actors the unexpected was always possible.
“My biggest memory is we had one actor who got stage fright and ran off the stage in the middle of the play,” Nei said. “He was given his line and pushed back out on stage and went on — much to the amazement of the rest of us.”
Later that year the first musical was brought to the stage with “Robber Bridegroom,” which required a band that was recruited from the community, Nei recalled.
“That was the beginning,” Nei says simply.
In those early years, she said, there was no permanent stage, location or storage. Volunteers would build light poles and the rigging was held down by sand bags. Performances were held in locations all over town. Costumes were once stored in a cleaned out dog kennel.
But the talent of the cast and crew shone through.
“It’s always been wonderful the way people would volunteer to make costumes and build beautiful sets,” Nei said. “I’ve always enjoyed building the family of the cast — watching the actors blossom and finding their way.”
Those early plays are memorable and having a permanent home at the O’Shaughnessy Center is product of years of hard work.
“Forty years,” Nei said. “None of us thought that far ahead.”
“I can’t imagine it going away after all this time,” she adds.
Gail Cleveland was asked by Nei to join the cast of the second production, the musical “Robber Bridgegroom.” She had never acted and certainly didn’t consider herself a professional singer. She was cast in a minor role, but when one of the leading characters dropped out she found herself taking on a major role in the production.
“I fell in love with theater from that first show I did,” Cleveland said. “I knew I wanted to do whatever I could to support it.”
Cleveland remembers fundraising for the O’Shaughnessy Center and seeking out community input through a survey for what the building might be used for. ?“We asked what else do you want, and they said music and dancing,” she said. “There was a community-need beyond theater.”
She has written many grants over the years to support the theater and for several years handled the publicity for WTC.
WTC has created an avenue for new audiences of young people to watch theater and the arts, or bring in those who might not otherwise get to attend a show, she notes.
“When there’s a music or dancers usually the middle school or elementary students come to a show,” she said. “There’s always shows that we offer for free for senior citizens to come watch.”
Vickie Bernstein was one of the founding members and served on the board of directors. She had a dance background and thought the idea for a theater company would be a great way to bring theater arts to Whitefish.
She worked on marketing and danced in a few productions. Bernstein recalls many of the early years were about recruiting those who could help with fundraising and creating a nonprofit — whatever the company needed for expertise it seemed to be found.
“We were hopeful and it’s pretty amazing how it has evolved,” she said. “We had to gain momentum and respect, and then the community backed us the whole way.”
She credits Carolyn Pitman and Gayle MacLaren for their work as executive directors of WTC.
“Carolyn carried the ball of the organization early on,” she said. “Carolyn and Gayle both have a dedication to bring arts to the valley.”
Bernstein says she saw WTC as a way to bring talent to the stage in Whitefish.
“That was the motivation behind us,” she aid. “What talent we could bring in for quality music, dancing and theater.”
What’s come as a result is there’s no longer a need to travel for theater and Whitefish has become a destination for theater, and more.
“It’s created 40-year friendships between people,” she said.