Rockne Roll/News-Register file photo##Tom Wingfield, played by David Bates, delivers his opening monologue during rehearsal for Gallery Theater s production of  The Glass Menagerie,  in January.
Rockne Roll/News-Register file photo##Tom Wingfield, played by David Bates, delivers his opening monologue during rehearsal for Gallery Theater's production of "The Glass Menagerie," in January.

David Bates: Telling the story at Gallery Theater

Scientists from a variety of fields — including anthropology, psychology and sociology — explain how storytelling is central to the human experience. Animals may hunt, communicate and even build shelter, but our Homo sapiens species is the only one on this planet whose brain and language evolved to a point of developed the need and ability to tell each other stories.

The first person who painted pictures on a cave wall was, in his or her own way, a storyteller. From there, the stories grew bigger and more complex.

As a result, we have archetypes, myths, religions, traditions and history. We have the theft of fire, the “hero’s journey,” Antigone, Hamlet, Alice in Wonderland, Cabaret, fairy tales, Harry Potter, Marvel Comics and Moby Dick.

Literally everyone tells stories. We describe what happened at work or school today. We tell friends and relatives we haven’t seen in a while what’s going on with us.

But some of us go further. Some act out stories for others to watch. We call it theater.

The occasion of Gallery Theater’s 50th anniversary serves to remind us all of the paramount role storytellers — and, in fact, all creators and artists, because most of them are also telling stories in one way or another — play in a community.  

Guest Writer

David Bates has lived in McMinnville since 1996, when he joined the News-Register staff. He has appeared in 17 productions since his involvement in Gallery Theater in 1998. Today, he is a freelancer covering business for the newspaper and local arts and culture for Oregon ArtsWatch, found at . He and his wife, Melissa, have a 9-year-old son who noted the witch in this year’s Gallery production of “Wizard of Oz” was “scarier” than Margaret Hamilton in the movie.

Half a century ago, there was no community theater in McMinnville, aside from productions at the high school and college. But in 1968, some local folks decided stories were important enough to merit a special place in which to tell them. Gallery Players of Oregon was born.

Those patrons included the late Lea New, for whom the building is now named, along with Elmer Fricke, Virginia Davidson, Mort Kresner, Winnie Combs and Paul Little. Some earlier pioneers who added their talents and passions were connected with Linfield College, including Frank and Helene Nelson, no longer with us either.

Those first few shows, which included “The Glass Menagerie” and “You Can’t Take It with You,” were staged in Renshaw Hall, the art gallery on campus.

The theater acquired the building at the corner of Second and Ford streets in the 1970s, which was remodeled it in the 1980s. Today it features two stages, plus rehearsal space, a dance studio and a sprawling costume shop, together occupying nearly a quarter of a downtown block.

Altogether, Gallery has produced more than 340 plays. That’s a lot of stories.

Those of us lucky enough to participate occasionally in the telling come away with stories of our own. Here’s one of mine:

Appearing in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” in 2003, I had in my field of vision one evening Dean Brooks, superintendent of the Oregon State Hospital for 27 years. He played a character similar to himself in the Oscar-winning 1975 film starring Jack Nicholson.

Dr. Brooks — by then retired, but still a passionate advocate for the mentally ill — was seated in the front row. A few feet away, on the stage in a white doctor’s coat, was the late Merle Lingle, portraying Brooks.

It was the quintessential “Meta-Moment.” Afterward, we all went out for burgers and beers at McMenamins and had a grand time — what else? — telling stories.  

I like to think of stories a theater company tells as pebbles tossed into a pond, as you never know how far the ripples will ultimately travel.

For some, particularly young people, seeing a play is literally a life-changing experience. One who comes to mind is Billy Cowles.

Back in 2007, when we performed “The Laramie Project” at Gallery, he was a quiet McMinnville High School kid charged with running our light and sound board. If you were in the audience, you never noticed him.

But those of us on the stage telling the story never worried about light and sound cues, because we knew we were in the hands of someone expert at theater arts to do it professionally.

Today, Cowles is in the administration of one of Boston’s top professional theaters. He’s still telling stories.

Ted Desel, a director I greatly admire and love working with, always convenes the cast and crew before performances and quietly advises, every night, to “just tell the story.”

A confession: The first few times I heard this, I didn’t entirely understand. It was years before it finally dawned on me that “putting on a show” or “doing a play” is not quite the same as “telling the story.”

Now that I’ve reached my own 50th year, I get it: To put on a show worth watching, you must first tell the story.

It’s a cliché to point out that volunteers are the “unsung” heroes in a community, but they really are. McMinnville has many. They volunteer on their own and through nonprofit groups, churches and businesses. They fight fires, feed the hungry, organize fairs and festivals and help teachers in classrooms.

At Gallery Theater, we tell stories.

Sure, there’s a paid manager and part-time box office staff, but the enterprise remains volunteer-driven. The actors, singers, dancers, directors, set-builders, decorators, painters, sound and light designers, production assistants, costumers, prop runners and others are all volunteers.

Regardless of their backgrounds or virtually every difference they might otherwise have, they come together because they have a passion for doing the one thing they all have in common: Telling stories.

Gallery Players of Oregon has been doing that for half a century. It’s quite a story, actually, and one still playing out.

The latest story, on the main stage through Dec. 15, is “It’s a Wonderful Life,” directed by Debbie Harmon Ferry. It’s a piece of family-friendly entertainment based on the Frank Capra film, with a title fitting to cap a golden anniversary.

As anyone lucky enough to do theater will tell you — whether they work their magic on stage or behind the scenes — it really is a wonderful life.
Ask anyone who does it. We have stories.


Russian Doll

Wonderful viewpoint! Thank you for sharing about storytelling and our own Gallery Theater.

Sally G

Thanks, David!

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