"Live a good life, and in the end, it’s not the years in the life, it’s the life in the years."

Gary Hesse

By on February 25, 2020 in Arts with 1 Comment
Gary Hesse’s signature smile may look familiar to many Leavenworth residents, especially those who’ve seen him on stage for the last 23 years in Leavenworth Summer Theater productions. Photo by Mike Irwin

LST stage veteran treasures the teamwork and relishes the rich variety of roles

By Susan Lagsdin

“Just say the lines and don’t trip over the furniture.” That’s good advice from playwright Noel Coward for an actor agonizing a little too much about motivation.

But successful actors rarely stop there. 

Leavenworth Summer Theater actor Gary Hesse has played significant supporting roles 605 times in 49 different shows. 

And even after playing The Sound of Music’s charming villain Max Detweiler in 228 performances, he still looks for nuance in this character part. In fact, he might take issue (politely) with the broad-stroke descriptors “charming” and “villain.”

Gary plays Lord Evelyn Oakleigh in Anything Goes (2015). Savannah Brady is his fiancee Hope Harcourt. The two are embarking on a madcap cruise that eventually results in each marrying someone else. Photo by Margy Hesse

“Max has learned to use that charm to his advantage; every relationship he has serves him in some way, he ‘goes along to get along’,” posited Gary in an interview about his acting life. 

And villainy? [SPOILER ALERT] “Some directors place Max off stage at the end when the Von Trapps exit to their escape; others want the audience to think that he’s risked all and orchestrated it himself. He’s probably the most complex character in the play.”

He‘s awed by the power of theater to “turn pieces of paper into an experience that causes audiences to laugh or cry or think… without a net, stitching it all together in a month with people who are just getting to know each other.”

And it’s this last factor that keeps him auditioning and acting every year: working many shows with new cast members and possibly new directors and, he describes, “creating the palpable sense of community created by each show’s cast.” 

Gary considers bringing people together (“Especially when we are so divided as a nation,” he adds) to be the central organizing principle of his life. 

At 66 and recently retired, he sees the fulfillment of an inspiration he had as a child. After reading Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage, he said, he first considered politics as “a way to invest in people and organizations where I can make a difference.”

That impetus lead him instead to a divinity degree (paralleling a math B.A.) and a career of pastorship, first in British Columbia and then for 12 years at a non-denominational church in Plain.

1997-98 was a time of transition for Gary and his wife Margy, a teacher (now retired) at Cascade High School. A year after he and his two young sons all won roles in LST’s production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat and he became hooked for life on musical theater, Gary stepped aside from his pastoral vocation.

He parlayed his always-honed math/computer skills into tech work in Tacoma, building his own software development company here and then doing web design at the Wenatchee World.

Forging community in its many forms still motivates Gary. He’s involved in the Miss America pageant as director of the Miss East Cascades Scholarship Organization and has played Scrooge at Leavenworth’s Christmas lightings. But the intense relationships between diverse theater cast members has really captivated him.

His approach to arts is two-fold, and he sees it as an extension of his entire life: “Do the work. Love the people.” 

He commits to his actor friends in both the short and the long term, and he’s always slightly saddened by the ephemeral nature of live theater and the inevitable leave-taking after the last performance.

Gary says he was “thrown into the deep end” as a song and dance man at first, but he’s glad he stayed with it. 

He’s been with LST long enough to have worked with local legends like Keith Sexton, Arlene Wagner and Sue Lawson, and he’s seen many young people grow into professional theater careers after their Sound of Music summers.

With too many highlights to list, he did say tap dancing in Oklahoma was a notable challenge, the distinctly pink head-to-toe outfit for Hello Dolly his most fun stage costume and Max his favorite character. 

He enjoyed playing a chubby, hearty Kris Kringle last December in the Performing Art Center’s Miracle on 34th Street, noting that with his frame, he probably wouldn’t have been cast if it hadn’t been radio.

He’s also suffered a few close calls. Once, as he helped wheel a piano offstage between scenes, it tipped over and landed heavily on Gary’s hand. Seated in the café set immediately after, he looked down and saw his blood oozing on to the table. But, a true professional, he simply gestured to the actor-waiter for a towel, wrapped the hand, and continued the scene. 

He admitted, “One night I was on stage, probably at a final dress rehearsal, and I had absolutely no idea what my next line was.” 

That’s a rare occurrence for him, and Gary explained that every actor he’s worked with has invented their own way to manage memorization. 

His own process, after thoroughly re-reading the play, involves carrying a slim 3-ring binder containing copies of only his scenes, with lines yellow-highlighted. 

Early on he reads lines moving around. Then, with maybe an appropriate prop or costume piece, he finds time alone on the stage to walk and talk through his role. 

“All of that helps me,” he said, “to counteract possible distractions I might find in performance.”

Gary anticipates more satisfying seasons with Leavenworth Summer Theater, while modestly reminding himself of another old thespian adage, “You’re only as good as your last audition.” 

After nailing almost 50 auditions so far, it’s probable local audiences will see him under the lights for quite a while, fully engaged in playing the part and loving the company.

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  1. Carolyn Smith Pecho says:

    Very interesting. Gary, I wish we could have seen you in some of those productions. I always feel a little envious. You have found such a wonderful niche! Great photo, Margy!! You are undoubtedly his best fan!

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