Alumni gather as Harper Joy Theatre turns 50

A reunion of Harper Joy Theatre alumni drew those from inside and outside the industry to reminisce and reconnect.

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WALLA WALLA -- Cornelia Twitchell, Whitman College class of 1974, has worked around the country as a prop master, stage manager and stagehand, and she credits her passion for theater to her experiences as a student at Harper Joy Theatre.

"During (our) time here ... whatever we wanted to get our fingers into, we were allowed to do, and whatever mistakes we made ... we learned from them," she said. "The liberal arts experience and the experience at (Harper Joy) is what has enabled all of us to become successful in whatever we chose to do."

This weekend, Twitchell joined Whitman alumni who have gone on to become actors, directors, playwrights and theatre professionals as they gathered on campus to celebrate the 50th anniversary of HJT. The reunion's activities, part of a big weekend of reunions at the college, kept alumni mingling and reminiscing about their days on the Whitman stage.

The events began Friday in the Fouts Gallery with the opening of the Jack Freimann poster collection exhibition, featuring a "special selection" of theater poster art donated to the college by Freimann, the former director of HJT.

On Saturday, Ed Joy, '66, and James Joy, '57, shared remembrances of their father Harper Joy, '22, the theater's namesake, and Doris Woodward read a selection from her 2007 book "Man of Many Faces: Harper Joy."

An independent student theater group performed for the event's attendees at lunchtime, and playwright Nagle Jackson, '58, showcased the West Coast premiere of his new play, "Kafka in the Wings," about a director who is determined to start a theatre troupe in a small Pennsylvania community.

Two panel discussions featured alumni who have gone on to use their theatrical education for many different lines of work. Graduates who have used their skills in "unexpected ways in the professional world," led the session entitled, "I Kept My Day Job," while the professional panel discussion featured alumni who have gone on to have sucessful careers in various aspects of the theater industry.

Millie Mitchell, '75, has worked for various symphonies and ballets and is currently the director of development for the university libraries at the University of Nevada, Reno. Upon arriving at Whitman, she did not think a theater degree was something she wanted to pursue.

"I was not a very good actress," she said. "It never occurred to me that I could have a career in the arts, but it's the experiences I've had here in the Harper Joy Theatre, doing a little bit of this, and a little bit of that ... that I lean on everyday."

Mark Chamberlin, '75, an actor living in Seattle, said his college theatre training has helped shape his career.

"Harper Joy Theatre gave me a lot of things," he said. "But in the big picture it gave me life as an actor, and I learned how to work in this theater ... I learned to do a few things well, and I learned to make a lot of mistakes, which I think is the greatest gift that you can be given in an artistic environment."

For Steven Carlson, '74, president of High Speed Design Inc, a consulting company in high-technology intellectual property issues, owes much of his success to his unconventional decision to double-major in theater and physics while at Whitman. After graduation, he went on to develop the first computerized lighting control system used for the Broadway musical "A Chorus Line." While he had not planned to be involved in the theater in college, once he got involved, he was hooked.

"Once you walk in here, you cannot go out," he said. "How could you leave?"

Lara Goodrich can be reached at laragoodrich@wwub.com.

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