Elizabeth Hellman
Elizabeth Helman standing on the stage at Withycombe as work continues on the set for "On the Razzle."

By MIKE McINALLY

When the last line of Oregon State University Theatre’s production of Tom Stoppard’s farce “On the Razzle” is spoken at the end of the May 22 matinee and the lights go down, it will mark the last time that a show will play on Withycombe Hall’s Main Stage.

Withycombe Hall is scheduled to undergo a $51 million renovation that includes a $20 million state-of-the-art dairy processing facility. The project will displace the OSU Theatre Department, and most theater productions will move to a new black box theater being constructed in OSU’s new Arts and Education Complex when the building opens in 2024. Elizabeth Helman, the head of the Theatre Department, and her colleagues are planning a 2022-23 season that features site-specific productions at locations on- and off-campus.

The renovation of Withycombe returns that building to its origins – it’s always been the home of OSU’s animal husbandry and dairy husbandry departments since it opened in 1952. OSU Theatre didn’t move to Withycombe until 1991, after the university closed the Mitchell Playhouse after it was condemned.

But George Caldwell, an emeritus professor at OSU who directed and designed many plays on the Withycombe Main Stage, said in an email that the building never strayed that much from its origins: “Withycombe Hall, no matter how much you dress it up, was and is a dairy building. The drains can be cemented over and the tiles carpeted; it's still a cheese factory.”

Now, as final preparations are being made for the opening of “On the Razzle,” and the Theatre Department prepares for another move, people involved with staging shows at Withycombe for more than three decades are recalling memorable productions and moments in the building – and remembering how the stage built atop that old “cheese factory” often served to inspire cast and crew members alike.

 “We’re kind of contained, obviously, by the limitations of the space,” said Helman, who’s directing “On the Razzle.” “But we also have our imaginations and can come up with viable solutions to impossible problems. … That’s what we do in the theater.”

 

students in theatre production
When Jen Waters directed "The Little Prince" at Withycombe in 2019, she loved how the stage's size offered plenty of locations for cast members to gather -- and how the stage gave her the ability to "play with light."

“I’ve got a way”

For Charlotte Jane Headrick, an emeritus professor of theater arts, shuttering Withycombe’s Main Stage will be the third closure of a theater in which she’s directed plays at OSU. She directed plays at the Mitchell Playhouse before that building was closed due to fire risks. And she directed plays in the Cortright Studio Theatre, located in Education Hall (now Joyce Collins Furman Hall). That theater closed when the Lab Theatre opened in Withycombe. (The Lab Theatre will remain open after the Withycombe renovation, but the construction work means it won’t be available for theater productions for two years.)

In the year between when the Mitchell Playhouse closed and when the theater facilities at Withycombe were available, Headrick said OSU Theatre took its shows on the road, to locations like the Majestic Theatre and Corvallis High School, where it performed a Gilbert and Sullivan show. (History repeats itself: For the 2022-23 season, OSU Theatre again will be on the road.)

In the fall of 1991, that Gilbert and Sullivan production that played at Corvallis High School -- “Patience,” directed by C.V. “Ben” Bennett – was revived to become the first show on the new Withycombe stage.

The first show Headrick directed at Withycombe was “Medea,” based on a then-new translation by the Irish writer Brendan Kennelly and featuring Sheila Daniels, now a well-known director in Seattle’s theater scene, as Medea.

Headrick also has fond memories of a production of “The Laramie Project,” the drama about the reaction to the 1998 murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming. “I remember people were on their feet cheering at the end of the first run of the show, the opening night of the show,” she said. Her actors were moved to tears on stage as they absorbed the audience’s response.

Headrick worked on shows ranging from David Edgar’s “Pentecost,” to Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Mikado,” to a variety of Shakespeare plays, all the way to her last production at Withycombe, the Shakespeare-inspired musical “Kiss Me, Kate.”

But it was her production of Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America: Millennium Approaches” that included a moment that she and her colleagues still rave about.

The show famously ends with an angel descending from the heavens and crashing through the ceiling.  It’s a hard moment to pull off, even if your theater comes equipped with a rigging system that allows actors, sets and props to “fly” down from the rafters.

Withycombe doesn’t have such a system.

Headrick turned to Caldwell, who was designing the show. “I said, ‘George, how do we do this damn angel?’ George said, ‘I’ve got a way. I know how to do it.’”

Let Caldwell explain what he did: “We purchased a black curtain and brought in a Genie lift. The actress (playing the angel) with 12-foot feathered wings was strapped into the platform of the lift and raised 16 feet into the air during intermission. An hour later, the curtains parted slightly and the angel descended on cue.” It was another example, Caldwell said, of Withycombe forcing “us to think outside the box, literally.”

Helman saw that production and remembers that moment: “That looked cool. I mean, we can do cool things in that space, and I think the audiences are always really delighted when we do figure out something, because they’re not expecting it necessarily.”

Added Headrick: “I did good work in Withycombe. I’m proud of the work I did there.”

 

students in theatre production
Tom Stoppard's "Arcadia" was the first show Elizabeth Helman, now the head of the OSU Theatre Department, directed on Withycombe's Main Stage. More than a decade later, Helman comes full circle with a production of another Stoppard play, "On the Razzle." (Photo by Elizabeth Helman.)

“The coolest place in town”

Ajai Tripathi went to high school at Crescent Valley in Corvallis and went on to direct “Rhinoceros” at Withycombe’s Main Stage. But his love affair with the space started long before that: “The first time I ever saw a play was in Withycombe. A children’s production of ‘Alice in Wonderland’ brought me into my own wonderland of theatre and performing arts. So many ghosts and memories, so many stories, and just one play can inspire a lifetime of magic.”

As a high school student, Tripathi auditioned for one-act productions at Withycombe: “A contingent from the CV Drama club infiltrated the auditions, as we were hungry for acting opportunities. … To us, Withycombe was the coolest place in town. … I’d peruse the lobby display of past shows; they in themselves were a treasure of possibilities – what were these titles? ‘Equus,’ ‘Hate,’ ‘Tartuffe,’ ‘Our Country’s Good.’ Withycombe was the place in town to find something of sophistication, and a taste of the avant-garde.”

Jen Waters, now the executive director of the Whiteside Theatre in Corvallis, directed a glam-rock influenced production of “The Little Prince” at Withycombe. She loved working in the space: “We had an ensemble and there were just so many great places for them to play (on stage) and they could be on different levels and they could be under stuff and behind stuff. It was fun.”

As a director, Waters said, “you can really play with light on that stage, and that’s a lot of what I was trying to do.”

Waters also spent time at Withycombe as a student at OSU and recalls with fondness a production of Tennessee Williams’ “Camino Real” directed by Marion Rossi Jr. and a devised production (one in which the show is essentially created by its performers) based on the life and death of Dutch artist Bas Jan Ader.

Waters also played the lead in Scott Palmer’s 2006 production of Ben Jonson’s farce “Epiocene: or, The Silent Woman,” which took advantage of another feature of Withycombe’s Main Stage: the huge floor, which audience members can view in detail because of the theater’s raked seating. “We didn’t even have a set,” Waters recalled. “It was just curtains that hung in different spaces and there was this elaborate painting on the floor, this sort of al fresco cloud, and since it was a French Restoration play, it really worked.”

“I like stuff like that,” Waters said. “I like it when you come in and you can see the floor and it has straw attached to it because it’s ‘Oklahoma’ or whatever. It feels more like a complete space. I feel that one thing that’s unique about Withycombe is you don’t feel as separated from the space itself. … It’s just like this hole in the wall with a giant stage.”

Helman also noted the connection between the Withycombe Main Stage and its audience. The theater can seat 350 audience members, “really a pretty big house,” she said, “but it still feels intimate. I think part of it is that big apron that comes out in front of the proscenium. So you can do a show that has big ideas and big themes and is a more-epic, large-cast piece and yet still have those moments that feel very close and intimate with the audience. I like that.”

“An old friend”

The first play Helman directed at OSU was Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia,” a personal favorite since the time she saw it at age 15 at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. “I was just so moved by the story and intrigued by the idea of these two timelines that are existing. It just blew my little 15-year-old mind.”

So having the chance to do the show in 2009 on OSU’s Withycombe Main Stage “meant a lot and particularly at that point in my career,” she said.

Helman since has mounted memorable productions of other Stoppard works at Withycombe, including “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” and “Shakespeare in Love,” a play adapted from the screenplay he wrote for the Oscar-winning movie. So wrapping up OSU Theatre’s run at Withycombe with another Stoppard play, “On the Razzle,” feels like closing a circle. “On the Razzle” also features performers who were in her production of “Arcadia,” such as Vreneli Farber and Matt Holland, Helman’s spouse. The show’s large cast also has allowed Helman to bring in what she calls “a class reunion of friendly acting faces,” including students she’s directed numerous times.

And it wouldn’t be a production at Withycombe if the facility itself didn’t offer some challenges. For example, “On the Razzle” requires the use of a trap door – which, of course, the theater doesn’t have. Did Helman and her collaborators come up with a solution? Of course they did. It was another viable solution to an impossible problem. That’s what they do in the theater.

“The more I’ve worked with the Withycombe Main Stage space,” Helman said, “the more she’s become like an old friend.”

So, in some ways, “On the Razzle” is like a farewell to an old friend – and a chance to remember more than 30 years of memorable friendships, productions, collaborations and solutions that worked in the nick of time. It’s also a chance to look forward – even with the inevitable worry and uncertainty that accompanies every move – about what the future holds for OSU Theatre.  Somehow, the very last words of Stoppard’s “On the Razzle” capture it all:

“It’s wonderful.”

Top Image: The set from Helman's production of "Sense and Sensibility" showed off another facet of Withycombe's stage — its huge floor, which audience members can view in detail because of the theater's raked seating. (Photo by Bryan Bernart.)