Playing an important role
The McMinnville woman is well-known for the characters she creates at Gallery Theater — a medium in “Blithe Spirit”; a Dutch neighbor in “Diary of Anne Frank”; a Southern matron in “Steel Magnolias”; a fading Broadway rose in “Waiting in the Wings”; and several disparate women in “Love, Loss and What I Wore,” which will open at Gallery this Friday.
She’s been a little less visible, but had even more impact, in her supporting roles as an advocate for the arts.
“The arts are important, absolutely,” said Morgan, former director of the Oregon Coast Council for the Arts and former executive director of the Oregon Alliance for Arts Education.
Whether it’s theater, music, dance, writing or visual art, participating in the arts allows people to use their natural creativity and build communication and relationship skills, she said. And that is useful no matter what else they do in their lives.
“Scientists need to be creative. Business owners have to be personable,” she said. “If you haven’t had an opportunity to experience the arts and humanities, there will be a hollowness in your life.”
Long before she came to Gallery, Morgan acted in plays at Linfield College.
Before that, she staged “elaborate, ongoing sagas” in her childhood neighborhood in Everett, Washington.
“I was organizing the other kids,” she said, recalling how she assigned roles for the scenarios that lasted for days. I was just bossy enough.”
In her teens, she moved to Moses Lake, in the center of the state, when her stepfather was transferred with the Air Force. Used to urban life, “I thought I would absolutely die,” she said.
But it turned out that rural Moses Lake was very progressive, she said. The high school, while considerably smaller than her old school, was staffed by excellent educators who offered a full range of classes.
“I loved language arts and we did a lot of writing,” she recalled. “When I was a freshman at Linfield, my professors marveled with what I’d done in my high school.”
The writing skills she learned in high school have served her throughout her life. “Writing is really where we get fluency,” she said.
At Linfield, in addition to acting in plays, Morgan majored in comparative literature. The choice may have been related to her flair for the dramatic.
“I started as a psych major, but I switched because I was afraid I’d have every ailment I studied,” she said.
After graduating, Morgan married a fellow student and moved to Lincoln City. She took a job with the Lincoln County welfare department covering a section of the coast that stretched south to Yachats.
The job taught her about the coast, its people and their needs, including a large portion of the population who were “on the edge,” she said. She saw that “every segment needed to be treated well, that each had so much worth, value, potential.”
After taking some time off when her two sons, Tucker and Christopher, were small, she created her own job after they were in school. “I started as a volunteer, doing school enrichment, then it turned into a paid position,” she said.
That led her to a part-time job with the Oregon Coast Council for the Arts. She figured she could handle the job-sharing position, family life and acting with the Red Octopus community theater group in Newport.
But the arts council job soon grew into full-time work. It was challenging and “life absorbing,” she said, but she had no doubt of its importance.
“That bumper sticker you see — ‘Art saves lives’ — that’s really true,” she said.
Remembering what she had seen while working with the welfare department, she began to develop programs that used the arts to help solve social needs.
For instance, she teamed up with the agency that oversees children in foster care.
One program brought artists into the areas where foster kids were visiting with their non-custodial parents. Talking about the art often served as a springboard for deeper, more personal communication, she said.
Another program, in conjunction with the local OSU Extension office, taught circus skills and movement. In order to participate, each child had to have at least one adult partner — a parent, a caseworker or someone else who really connected with the child. They learned and had fun together while strengthening their relationship.
As arts council director, she had the opportunity to bring people together and promote the arts in all segments of the community. “It was a golden time. Just the right people coalesced,” she recalled.
During her tenure, Newport built a performing arts center that became the envy of the coast. “Nobody in a small town builds a dedicated arts center, but Newport did,” she said.
The Newport Performing Arts Center project became a finalist for the Kennedy Center for the Arts’ 1990 Arts and Governance Award.
Morgan recalled how she and other planners worked with architects and constituents to make sure the center would meet the needs of all sorts of arts groups, from theater to music to dance to visual arts. They also made sure the building was flexible and user friendly, and that it would lend itself to future expansion and updating.
The facility was well-used from the start. While she was still director of the arts council, she said, about 700 young people a year took dance lessons at the center and gave recitals twice a year. And they were learning more than dance moves, she said: They learned discipline, a good work ethic, responsibility and other concepts they would continue to use all their lives.
Morgan is proud that the Newport Performing Arts Center project became a finalist for the Kennedy Center for the Arts’ 1990 Arts and Governance Award. Judges noted that by teaming up with arts organizations and social service programs, “Newport and the Oregon Coast Council for the Arts made a commitment to construct a catalyst for renewing self-esteem, direction, hope and fun.”
Morgan said she’s most proud, though, “of all the kids who grew up being in a real facility,” she said. “Now their generation sees the value of the arts ... of being an audience, participating, taking their kids to dance lessons or play rehearsals.”
Fifteen years ago, Morgan decided to move to McMinnville so she could be closer to her daughter, Erin, and grandchildren. Erin had come to McMinnville to run a branch of a Corvallis shop, the Golden Crane, then had opened her own store, Mes Amies.
She stayed with the arts council for several months after moving inland.
Then she signed on with the statewide Arts Education Alliance on the condition she could work part-time and mostly from home. Naturally, she said, the position grew to full-time with a great deal of travel.
“I didn’t make many connections to McMinnville” during that time, since she was gone so much, she said.
Luckily, she found Gallery. “It was really doing theater that gave me my connections to the community.”
Morgan enjoys bringing characters to life. But that’s not the main reason she does theater.
“For me, it’s the working together, the people, not the role or the performing,” she said.
For instance, another favorite of her Gallery plays was “Octette Bridge Club,” the story of eight sisters who meet weekly for cards and conversation. She liked the story, but loved the experience.
“Working with those eight women was a delight,” she said, adding that it’s an example of life imitating art. “We’ve become really close friends.”
Now officially retired, Morgan remains busy with her family, Gallery, volunteer work and clubs. She’s particularly thrilled to be a member of the McMinnville Shakespeare Club, which is more than a century old.
She also has her own cottage industry, which she calls Cutie Patootie Uncommon Fabric Creations, or, as her license plate reads, QTP2T.
A lifelong seamstress, she makes napkins sold at the R. Stuart winery, along with pillowcases, aprons and children’s clothing. She also has helped with costuming for Gallery Theater shows, such as “Quilters” and “Honk!”
She started the business, she said, to support her fabric habit.
“I’ve always collected fabric,” she said. “I just love finding fabric and combining fabric. I had to do something to justify buying more.”
As a child, Morgan dreamed of being a dress designer. Now she compares the time she spends on QTP2T to childhood play.
“You have to get into a job or a hobby or avocation that satisfies you,” she said.
Starla Pointer, who is convinced everyone has an interesting story to tell, has been writing the weekly “Stopping By” column since 1996. She’s always looking for suggestions. Contact her at 503-687-1263 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Founded by an employee at the Marine Science Center, the group was named for a popular exhibit. In fact, its first productions were staged at the center.
Morgan had taken a years-long break from acting following her graduation from Linfield College, as there was no community theater in Lincoln City, where she lived.
But she indulged her dramatic side at home using books. “Some things just need to be read aloud,” she declared.
She often did her dramatic reading in the bathroom, where the acoustics were particularly good. When her children were young, they’d sometimes ask, “Who’s in there with you, Mommy?”
When she was working in Newport, and the Red Octopus was mounting a production of “Threepenny Opera,” she was ready for the stage again.
“I loved Red Octopus,” she said. “They were interested in learning and growing, so it was a really fun place.”
She found some of the same qualities at Gallery Theater when she moved to McMinnville 15 years ago. She is particularly excited about the summer theater camp for children and the Kaleidoscope program, which offers three weekends of readers’ theater each August.
Her first role at Gallery was as Mrs. van Daan in the “Diary of Anne Frank.” As she entered the building to prepare for the opening night performance, she said, she tripped and smashed her face.
She soldiered on with the performance, though — and with subsequent ones, by which time she was sporting “neon purple and green” bruises. “Thank goodness for theatrical makeup!” she said.
Morgan has appeared in many subsequent plays, including “On Golden Pond,” “Over the River and Through the Woods” and “Waiting in the Wings,” a show about a group home for retired actresses. One of her favorite roles was Madame Arcati, the medium in “Blithe Spirit.”
“I would like to do her again, this time as a Hungarian,” she said, dropping into a convincing Eastern European accent.
She will use other accents — a Southern drawl and a New York inflection — in her next show at Gallery, “Love, Loss and What I Wore.”
Morgan is one of several women in the cast of the show, which opens Friday, Aug. 1, for a three-performance run. Done readers’ theater style, it’s part of Gallery’s “Kaleidoscope” series.
“Love, Loss and What I Wore” will play at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 1 to 3. Tickets are $10.