WHITEFISH — Gayle MacLaren likes the view from the conference room at the O’Shaughnessy Center. Through the large and many windows, anyone seated at the table or using the electronic whiteboard has a perfect vista of Big Mountain.
It’s a view that has lured and caught many travelers, turning them into residents, and residents into community members. It’s also one the Whitefish Theatre Company has known since 1978, when it started as a grassroots theater group, and will be able to see long after its 40th season, starting up in September.
MacLaren, the executive director at WTC, said the upcoming lineup of shows pays homage to the past, while looking to the bright future.
“This has been around for 40 years because of the community and the support it gives WTC,” MacLaren said.
Like many theater groups, WTC started humbly and with passion. Without a home stage to call its own, the group toured around the valley putting on shows at the Outlaw Inn, Meadow Lake, the Kalispell Center Mall, the middle school, and elsewhere.
“That first year they did one show, and the second year they did two shows,” MacLaren said. “They had to perform all over the valley.”
Ten years later, in 1988, the theater company had caught on, putting on two productions, sponsoring three events, and hiring an artistic director. Carolyn Pitman served as the company’s executive director from the start, retiring after 34 years and handing off the baton to MacLaren.
The community rallied behind the theater, and as productions continued into the 1990s, WTC saw a chance to have its own stage, its own home. The theater group established a building fund, and with a sizeable contribution from the I.A. O’Shaughnessy Foundation, the new cultural arts center opened in 1998. The building underwent renovations and added space in 2015, including the conference room, after a successful fundraising campaign.
MacLaren started working with the theater in 1996 as a board member, getting involved because her daughter and husband liked theater. She kept filling in as a volunteer “until they just hired me” in 1999, MacLaren said with a laugh.
She worked as the box office manager, which evolved into the operations manager, and then when Pitman retired, MacLaren was the obvious choice to step into that role.
Building the O’Shaughnessy Center was a huge moment for WTC.
“It was so exciting to have a building, and to have incredible support in the community,” MacLaren said.
Lonnie Porro, who retired as the WTC costume designer this year after 15 years, said that the energy at the theater was electric when she first started volunteering her sewing skills. Despite not being inclined to be onstage herself, Porro loved the environment and the diverse people she met in each production.
When she decided it was time to transition out of her job as a television producer for PBS, she volunteered more at the theater, until she too was offered a job.
“It’s been a wonderful way to get and stay connected with the community, and I’ve made really great friends out of that,” Porro said.
One of the biggest reasons for the theater’s success is the hard work from a large group of volunteers. Community members offer up their talents in woodworking, metal work, sewing, or even just working the box office.
“All the people who volunteer for us take a lot of pride in all they do,” Porro said.
For example, the costume shop has had more than 30 ladies with “varying degrees of sewing skills” help over the years, Porro said, and it has led to friendships and connections.
At the WTC’s opening night celebration, “40 & Fabulous,” on Sept. 8, the theater will honor Porro’s tireless work, while welcoming new costumer designer Sarah Bell, with food, drinks, and dancing. Everyone is invited, MacLaren said, and people are invited to bring a written memory of their WTC experiences for a new time capsule to be opened on the 50th anniversary.
It’s also an event to kick off the 2018-2019 season, which will feature some of the theater company’s most popular past performances, including “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever,” “I Hate Hamlet,” and “Mamma Mia!”
The season will open with “Kettlehouse,” an unpublished play from playwright Robert Caisley of the University of Idaho.
“It’s really fun to be a developmental premiere,” MacLaren said.
WTC hopes to show more such performances, as well as build a children’s theater program, she said.
MacLaren hopes the community will come to the Sept. 8 party, since the community is the reason WTC keeps raising the curtains each year.
“It’s an opportunity for people who don’t know too much about what we do to see what we do,” MacLaren said.
For more information on the Whitefish Theatre Company, including a schedule of shows, visit www.whitefishtheatreco.org.