Whitefish Theatre Company nears the end of another successful season of performing arts
A Community Mainstay at Center Stage
By Dillon Tabish, 4-26-12
Click the image or use the arrows to see photographs of "33 Variations" cast members as they prepare to take the stage before an evening performance.
WHITEFISH — For over 30 years, the Whitefish Theatre Company has brought performing arts to life: community and children’s theater productions, a concert music series featuring talent from as far as Ireland and Africa and a variety of film festivals. The theater’s home, the I.A. O’Shaughnessy Center, sits at center stage in the community, 1 Central Ave., and has helped transform the identity of downtown as a cultural hamlet.
Last weekend, audiences witnessed Beethoven wrestle with his own genius in one of the final play productions of the season, the Tony Award-nominated “33 Variations.” This week, Casting for Recovery, an organization supporting breast cancer survivors, takes the stage for a fundraiser event with films about fly fishing. Rarely a week goes by that the stage sits empty, holding true to the vision of its founders.
“So many people have artistic needs, and we’re an outlet for that: painting a set, or sewing a costume or being on stage, whatever it is,” Executive Director Carolyn Pitman said. “We like to say we’re the front porch of Whitefish. I think people come here and they feel welcome. That’s why we’ve lasted.”
Indeed, the Whitefish Theatre Company has lasted and in fact flourished since being founded in 1978. It began with a group of community members coming together with a simple goal of bringing the performing arts to life in Whitefish. Since then it has grown into an organization with over 400 volunteers and a full-time staff. The stage is used for at least 10 play productions a year and an impressive concert series.
“In nine different states that I’ve lived in, I have never seen community theater of this caliber. I do call it professional,” said Jesse Devine, a former professional actress and the theater’s new artistic director. “It is unbelievable what you see on this stage. Every show across the board, the talent is exquisite.”
Devine, who was hired in September, is the newest staff member at the Whitefish Theatre Company, while Pitman is one of the originals.
“I had just moved to town (in 1978) and heard of a meeting about theater, so I went to the meeting and it was just a group of people who wanted to put on a play basically,” Pitman recalled recently. “I’m not really an artist. It was something I just liked, so I kept doing it.”
The group became the Whitefish Community Theatre, and in 1979 held its first production at a local school auditorium, a comedy called “Don’t Drink the Water.” Pitman fondly remembers the lively production, and it became an enjoyable starting point for what is now four decades worth of productions.
“Our goal was and still is to bring the arts to the community,” Pitman said.
By 1985, the organization changed to Whitefish Theatre Company and hired Pitman as a part-time managing director. Renovation work was done at schools across town to allow for larger productions, but pretty soon it became evident the theater needed a home of its own.
As the theater continued to grow and increase its productions, a fundraising effort formed in 1992. The group wanted to be downtown, naturally establishing it as a cultural center. At the time, downtown Whitefish was a far cry from its current state, particularly on the north end. The property where the current theater sits was an empty city lot where city employees piled snow in the winter.
“It was pretty unsightly,” Pitman said. “You didn’t really think of this end of town ever. But there were some wonderful visionary people in Whitefish and community members who could see what could happen.”
A partnership to gather community support formed with the group Friends of the Library and the City of Whitefish. Within three years, the organization raised $2.8 million for a new theater and library building. The I.A. O’Shaughnessy Foundation, based in St. Paul, Minn., provided significant support.
“What it did do was change the whole appearance of the downtown and since then it’s a real community focus now,” Pitman said.
In July 1998, the O’Shaughnessy Center opened with an intimate stage that’s as flexible as the productions it furnishes. For a traditional play, the space can seat 326. For a concert, the seating increases to almost 400.
“That connection with the audience, it’s the most wonderful thing when it happens,” Pitman said. “You just feel it.”
The productions are truly homegrown, featuring actors and actresses with or without experience on stage, and costumes and sets often made on site. The latest production, “33 Variations,” had two actors with extensive backgrounds in performing, and another making his debut.
The Whitefish Theatre Company leases the current site from the city. With the O’Shaughnessy’s space, the theater expanded with a summer season and music series. When the economic recession hit, uncertainty spread across the theater community, especially in relatively smaller areas like western Montana.
“We really worried about whether our support would continue, but boy, people have not missed a beat,” Pitman said. “People have still been supporting us. We’ve been very fortunate.”
Why has the support stayed so strong?
“Because I think this (theater) is rooted in community. It’s all about the community here,” Pitman said. “There’s ownership. We have people who spend 40 hours a week working here as a volunteer.”
Moving forward, staff is trying to reach a wider audience, particularly a younger demographic.
“Whitefish just has a wonderful selection of arts for people, but they do take support,” Pitman said. “We need to get the next generation up to snuff.”
This is the final stretch of the season for Whitefish Theatre Company, with two more community productions planned — “The Foreigner” beginning May 24 and “Always ... Patsy Cline” beginning July 12. There is also a reader’s performance planned for May 4-6, “In The Next Room,” as part of the Black Curtain Series.
Excitement for next season has already begun building. Devine signed up FullSet, a popular award-winning Celtic band from Ireland, to perform next September
The 23rd annual Wine and Food Fest is on May 2 at Grouse Mountain Lodge to raise money for the outreach programs at Whitefish Theatre Company and Project Whitefish Kids.
For more information about the fundraiser and the Whitefish Theatre Co., call 862-5371 or visit www.whitefishtheatreco.org.
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