A Time of Change at the O’Shaughnessy

By Beacon Staff

WHITEFISH – In the late 1970s, a handful of people gathered at a house to talk about theater. But more than theater, they were brought together by that most fundamental catalyst of grassroots movements: an idea. They shared a belief in the idea that Whitefish needed some more cultural enrichment, some more entertainment. It needed a good theater.

And the Whitefish Theatre Co. – or at least an early version of it – was born.

“One meeting at someone’s house in 1978 ended up evolving into a play, and then another play, and then another play,” Carolyn Pitman recalls. “It’s come a long way and it started with an idea.”

Pitman has been with the Whitefish Theatre Co. since the beginning, helping guide it from the days when plays were held in bars and old buildings to its modern reputation as a cultural cornerstone of the valley, with a nice permanent home to boot. Old buildings and bars might have had their Wild West appeal, but Pitman will take the O’Shaughnessy Center any day of the week.

Now, after more than three decades, Pitman is seeking some hard-earned and well-deserved respite from her daily involvement at the O’Shaughnessy. The longtime executive director of the Whitefish Theatre Co. retired at the end of 2012 and her replacement, Kathryn McEnery, officially started on Jan. 2.

But to aid in the transition, Pitman will remain employed through February, providing expertise and insight as McEnery gets her footing established. Pitman says, with McEnery, the future of the Whitefish Theatre Co. and the O’Shaughnessy Center is in good hands.

McEnery is eager to hit the ground running, which is necessary with a year-round operation with seven full- and part-time staff members, as well as around 400 volunteers and a building that requires maintenance. And in the future, perhaps soon, the building will undergo more than basic maintenance, with major renovations in the planning stages.

Last year, preliminary design plans were released for a roughly five-year reconstruction and expansion of portions of the O’Shaughnessy. The first stage – replacing the 326 seats inside the auditorium – could occur as early as this summer.

Later phases would include expanding the lobby area and adding a two-story community space on the south side of the building. Fundraising is underway for the project.

The renovation project will add to McEnery’s already full plate, but Pitman says the new director will have a sturdy support system already in place. The existing knowledge and capabilities of the staff, volunteers and the board lend to a streamlined operation at the theater company.

“It’s very collaborative,” Pitman said. “I think that Kathryn will find that it’s easy to slide in.”

“I feel confident leaving,” she added. “I don’t feel like I’m sneaking out the back door and worrying about what’s going to happen.”

McEnery received her master’s in public administration from the University of Montana and has a background in public and nonprofit administration. She also has a law degree from Valparaiso University, with professional experience in litigation, judicial administration and university program management.

Given her interest and background in nonprofits, she was excited when she heard the Whitefish Theatre Co. position was opening up.

“What attracted me was that it’s a staple, longstanding institution in the community beloved by everybody,” McEnery said last week.

McEnery said attending a performance of “Seussical” reinforced what she had already grown to respect about the theater company.

“It was a treat to see what I’m a part of,” she said, adding that she’s “excited” about the renovation and expansion plans.

Thanks to the O’Shaughnessy, the days of performing plays “in any place that would let us in” – as Pitman put it – are long gone. The cultural center at 1 Central Ave. was completed in 1998 following a fundraising campaign spurred by a generous donation from the building’s namesake, the I.A. O’Shaughnessy Foundation out of Minnesota.

The O’Shaughnessy’s sister project, occurring at the same time, was the construction of the library. Those two buildings helped lay the foundation for further downtown development and gave new life to an area that Pitman said was an eyesore.

“It was really a blight,” she said. “It’s where they stored snow.”

Years later, Pitman is pleased with the evolution of both the theater company and its home, which serves as much more than a performing arts center. Pitman has aptly described the O’Shaughnessy as a “community classroom,” hosting dance and theater classes, yoga, kids’ events, public policy discussions, fundraisers and more.

“There’s rarely a day that something isn’t happening in the building,” she said. “Its greatest attribute is that it’s really a community gathering place. It’s rewarding to watch and it’s really rewarding to be a part of.”

For more information on the Whitefish Theatre Co., including an event schedule, visit www.whitefishtheatreco.org.