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Keeping the theater alive: Woodinville Rep’s ‘labor of love’

  • Written by Kirsten Abel, Features Writer

“To see live theater is a unique experience, what I call intellectual recreation,” said Hjalmer Anderson, Woodinville Repertory Theatre’s Artistic Director and one of the organization’s earliest members. 

“It teaches you things about life,” he said.

Melanie  SusanMelanie Workhoven and Susan Connors in “Arsenic and Old Lace” (Photo by Sandro Menzel)The job of the theater actor is especially demanding. There are no do-overs. There are no broadcast delays. Every performance is one-of-a-kind and unrepeatable. It’s the art of putting oneself in a character’s shoes so completely as to become them, for just a few hours, live on stage. 

And   it’s   this  uniquely  difficult art that the Woodinville Repertory Theatre has been working to preserve and foster within the local community for nearly two decades.

“It’s a real labor of love,” said Melanie Workhoven, an experienced actress and the current president of the theater’s board. “Given how very challenging it is to even survive as a small theater, I think it’s amazing that we’ve lasted twenty years.”

Workhoven has acted in over twenty Woodinville Repertory productions, including the very first one, “I Hate Hamlet,” that showed at Leota Junior High. Originally from Nebraska, she attended Northwestern and worked in Chicago and in Los Angeles before moving to Woodinville with her young son.

“Having a theater in the area where I lived was just a miracle,” she said.

Nerd Group LuAnn Wangsness, David Bander and George Sayah starred in “The Nerd,” Woodinville Repertory Theatre’s most recent production (Photo by Sandro Menzel)The Woodinville Repertory Theatre was founded by Peg Phillips in 1998. Phillips, who didn’t start acting until she was in her late sixties, worked for most of her life as an accountant.

After she retired, she attended drama school at the University of Washington and eventually landed a spot as Ruth-Anne Miller on the television series “Northern Exposure.” The show ran for six seasons.

Anderson and Hal Ryder, an accomplished local director and another early member of the organization, promised Phillips just before she died in 2002 that they would keep the theater running.

“It’s been my mission,” Anderson said. He was employed in the Northshore School District, either teaching drama or working for the Northshore Performing Arts Center, for 41 years.

Despite the passionate commitment and professional experience of the board members, keeping the theater alive over the years hasn’t been easy. The organization has experienced periods of low attendance and low community awareness. One of the biggest obstacles has been the lack of a dedicated space for rehearsals and shows. 

Peg PhillipsWoodinville Repertory founder Peg Phillips being made up for her role in “Bell, Book & Candle” (Photo courtesy of Woodinville Repertory Theatre)“We are Woodinville’s only live theater company,” Workhoven said. “Sadly, a lot of Woodinville area residents still don’t know we exist.”

After Phillips died, Anderson said the organization lost some of its vital energy and its ready access to funding.
“It was like a vacuum,” he said.

Today, however, the theater is in a place of positive growth. It currently operates out of Denali Design Studio, a granite and marble showroom in Woodinville. Denali’s owner, Prem Gnanarajah, regularly attended Woodinville Repertory productions and in 2011 offered up his space to the organization.

“I think art contributes so much to the culture,” said Gnanarajah. “It makes us all better as human beings.”
Although the Woodinville Repertory eventually hopes to acquire its own building, Gnanarajah’s generosity has been a godsend. The actors rehearse after hours in the Denali warehouse, changing costumes and making entrances from behind the enormous stone tablets. Gnanarajah has also allowed the theater to build a production booth and install professional lighting high up in the rafters.

“That’s the kind of person that makes the arts happen in our town, someone like Prem,” said Anderson. 
On show nights, the warehouse seats fifty in an intimate, off-off-Broadway-like setting.

The next show is a comedy called “Butterflies are Free,” written by Leonard Gershe and set in the late 1960s. Steve Cooper is directing the play, which opens on June 9 and runs until July 9.

“Butterflies are Free” tells the story of Don Baker (played by Tadd Morgan), a young blind man who finally moves out of his overbearing mother’s Scarsdale home to an apartment in New York City. There he meets his beautiful, free-spirited neighbor (played by Melanie Martyn). The show also features two other actors: BriAnne Green, who plays Don Baker’s meddling mother and George Sayah, who plays an arrogant New York director named Ralph Austin.

“We try to present theater that is both entertaining and has heart to it,” Workhoven said. “Something to kind of lift up the spirit.”

For tickets to “Butterflies are Free” and for other information about getting involved with the theater, visit woodinvillerep.org.

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