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Singing in the rain of popularity

By on June 25, 2014 in Articles, Events, Outdoor Fun with 0 Comments

LST

After a dismal start,  leavenworth summer  theater is a hot ticket

By Susan Lagsdin

Leavenworth Summer Theater is celebrating its 20th year, so it’s pulling out all the stops with a jam-packed schedule all July and August: three professional quality full-cast musicals on three separate stages — two of them outdoors — plus a Christmas show in December, each with orchestral accompaniment, and with 21,000 people from all over the world expected, seats may be sold out soon.

(Oh. Wait. That’s what they’ve been doing all along.)

What’s the secret?

An arts and tourism-friendly town? Clean mountain air and sunshine, storybook settings? A board of directors devoted to fiscal health?

Whatever the mix, the Bavarian town and especially its Bavarian perennial, The Sound of Music, have grown up well together over 20 years.

Professionals win some roles, but it’s not all imported talent — about 80 percent of the people who enliven the theater each year live and work in this community.

Phil Lacey, who directs both  The Sound of Music and Fiddler on the Roof this 2014 season, was an actor at Whitworth College eight years ago when he first came to this theater and now has an arts administration degree. He loves coming back to Leavenworth every summer as performer, choreographer or director.

“LST was the first professional theater to take a chance on me as an artist,” Phil said. By valuing young and emerging talent, he added, “It makes a commitment to the future.”

Susan Gubsch will walk on to the Sound of Music stage on July 4 playing the abbess for the 300th time. This Cashmere High School teacher (who also is in The Drowsy Chaperone) has been in full habit all summer for 18 years, a guide for young LST singers as well as the fictional Maria, and she keeps an album of her own grandkids’ annual photo op with the abbess.

She said, “I love the sisterhood of the onstage nuns. We’ve made our motto ‘Nuns are Fun!’ and we do silly things like having ‘Nuns’ Night Out.’”

 

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The performers light up the stage with the songs and scenes we remember fondly. But here are reflections on Leavenworth Summer Theater (LST) from a few key people you won’t see under the lights, who work deep in the heart of the art.

Susan Hufman was a Christmas show stage mom when she joined the board of directors in 1996. She soon retired from her local law practice, became an associate producer as the theater grew in scope and since 2006 has been the full time executive director.

She says, “It’s my left brain skills that make this job a natural; that and I’m not afraid to base every single tough decision on ‘what is best for the theater?’”

Susan is on point all summer, in constant contact by email and iPhone helping to solve or redirect budget, tech, facilities, personnel and ticketing issues. She’s also conversant with the master rehearsal schedule, which is a whopping 54 pages long.

Special memories abound. She can’t forget the applause when the lights first came up on the set of Singing in the Rain with a shower of creatively engineered rain falling, continuous and realistic, at the front of the stage.

And, after all these years, she still thrills just at sunset as Maria makes her way down through the dark pines behind the audience toward the stage and “The hills are alive…” rings out clear in the night air.

John Wagner, then a veteran summer theater performer, decided in 1992, “I can do this!” and with business partner Bill Weiss decided to establish a theater in Leavenworth.

The debut musical in 1994, Hansel and Gretel, opened during a dismal fire season that closed the passes and polluted the air. Twenty shows in the middle school auditorium yielded only 600 people, and John thought he was done, kaput.

But the next summer, the new theater company staged The Sound of Music outdoors at the Ski Hill.

By opening night, ticket sales exploded; borrowed chairs were hauled in for the overflow. John recalled the second night looking out at a full audience, totally enthralled, perched on temporary platforms. He knew for sure it was the start of something wonderful, that “this ‘outdoor theater thing’ was going to work.”

With enviable wisdom, he also knew just when to step back.

After years with LST, first as executive director and then as facilities manager, in 2011 he smoothly extricated himself from leadership and from the theater’s workforce.

He enjoyed the years of overlapping LST life with his wife Susan, who is still music director and administrative assistant, but said humbly, “Now I just do little odd jobs — they like my voice on the recordings, and I usually M.C. the gala event for the donors…”

David Neir may demur, “I’m just on the board of directors,” but for almost 20 years his growing involvement in the LST’s fortunes has been a factor in its success.

It was 1996 on a casual summer evening in Leavenworth, Dave and his wife bought tickets to “a little community production of The Sound of Music… and I was blown away by the production!”

They immediately joined as patrons and have seen every show since then. In 2005 he was asked to join the board of directors and gladly accepted.

Dave is especially proud of the local schools’ K-12 music and theater programs.

“Our kids and grandkids can not only dream of being Liesl, Gretel, Maria or Joseph, but can actually be on stage… rehearsing and performing with professionals, surrounded by people who care about them is priceless,” Dave said.

He keeps in his wallet a list of kids who’ve grown up performing in Leavenworth, going from awkward auditioner in the spring to seasoned pro in the fall. Some have moved on to venues like Issaquah’s Village Theater or Seattle’s Fifth Avenue and are now performers on Broadway or in the movies.

 

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Leavenworth Summer Theater’s long lived popularity is all about people — hundreds working offstage and playing roles,  thousands who love musicals in the mountain air, and some with a very special attachment.

Susan Gubsch said, “I met  a couple who got engaged right after seeing  The Sound of Music  in the movie theater — and for their 40th anniversary they flew out from the East Coast for a vacation in Leavenworth to see our production!”

 

For information about the 20th anniversary 2014 season www.leavenworthsummertheater.org

 

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