Early years of the Masquers Theater
Bob and Shirley Dunlop started the Masquers Theater in 1979. The Dunlops moved to Soap Lake from California bringing with them their experience and expertise in community theater. They gathered together a small group of aspiring performing artists and rehearsed their first plays in one of the downtown buildings. These early productions included Come Blow Your Horn, The Warrior’s Husband, Gaslight, and Blythe Spirit.
Audiences were never large, but actors continued to respond to auditions for new plays. Rehearsals led to opening nights as the theater’s repertoire grew. In 1983, the Dunlops moved back to California, leaving behind a handful of diehards committed to keeping the theater alive. Beverly Hasper became the Artistic Director in 1983. She had been with the Dunlops from the beginning. Although she had taken playwriting and acting classes at the University of Washington, most of her experience came while working under their tutelage.
Up until 1987, the theater offered plays whenever the group got together and decided to do one. Beverly admits, “We didn’t have a lot of experience, but we learned as we went.” Beverly points out that the Masquers Theater is a product of change and the influence and contributions of people who have come along over the years and made a difference.
Cal Seeley had a profound influence on the Masquers group. He came to Soap Lake in 1987 from Flint, Michigan. Cal bought his talents as a teacher of theater arts as well as his extensive experience in community theater. Beverly remembers actors sitting around for hours after rehearsals with Seeley, analyzing the play, the characters, the roles, and the intent of the playwright. She commented that, “These were great experiences and so instructive. They added a whole new dimension to our performances.” Some of the plays produced during this period were: The Mail Order Bride, Honestly Now, The Road to Mecca, and Crimes of the Heart. Cal moved to Spokane in 1989.
Although it has never left Main Street in Soap Lake, the Masquers Theater stage location has changed four times in the last thirty years. Perhaps their greatest testament to versatility is their ability to pack up and move to new quarters, while maintaining a rigorous schedule of rehearsals and productions. The Pied Piper was performed in local schools, and Driving Miss Daisy was presented as dinner theatre at several restaurants.
John Glassco, past president of the Masquers Theater was born and raised in Winnipeg, Canada. John encouraged a series of productions written by Canadian playwrights. These plays, referred to as the prairie intellectual series, were highly successful for the Masquers and included The Mail Order Bride, Border Town Café, and Artichoke. Looking back on this period, Beverly commented, “These plays really spoke to local audiences. They were about rural people and the kinds of issues people here can relate to.”
In 1996, Don Wilkins came to Soap Lake. Don was from England where he had received theater training at the Royal Academy of the Performing Arts. Like those before him, Don helped the actors achieve great performances. He directed Five Women Wearing the Same Dress, one of the biggest hits in the history of Masquers. The author of this play, Alan Ball, received an Academy Award for his screenplay, American Beauty.
After 30 years as the Artistic Director, Beverly Hasper is a dedicated as ever. In a recent interview, she stated, “We’d like to show people in the Basin the value of performing arts. We’d like to bring them theater experiences that will make people think. We want them to be entertained, but also to go away with something to think about. Part of our mission is to give people food for though…something that will stick with them.”
Beverly has directed and acted in many plays over the last thirty years. Directing is a passion for her. She recently commented, “My vision is to find material that I really like, then find actors to fill the roles. Once the actors are on board, I give them a whole lot of freedom to express themselves. As a director, I try and help them understand the role, but let them interpret it in their own way.”
“I’ve worked with actors who are getting their first experience acting. It’s very rewarding to watch them develop. Some people are shy, but when they come to the stage they are able to do what they cannot do in real life. That is one of the most beautiful things about acting. People can play a role and realize that it gives them permission to sound off in ways that they would like to in their life, but are afraid to. A role give someone freedom to express themselves. Theater really is great therapy for people.”
Rural Theater Culture
The role of the artistic director at the Masquers Theater is to establish the creative direction of the group. Choosing plays or performances that will create the greatest impression on the audience is a vital part of that role. It can also be the most difficult.
As Beverly quickly points out, “We have a rural culture here. There are people with many different tastes. In theater, we are looking for ways to reach out to people through a set of values that will allow them to reach back in anticipation of something new or unknown. We want our plays to give them a glimpse of something meaningful, provide them with an experience that is outside of the ordinary in their lives. Finding plays that will do this is our biggest challenge. The theater is a place people can come together and feel life without actually living it. We want to bring our audiences a sense of delight that will keep them coming back”.
One of the biggest projects the theater has undertaken began several years ago. With the help of Hank Worden and the Columbia Basin Foundation, the group started a building fund. Then, Marina Romary donated a lot on Main Street in Soap Lake, and the group began construction of a new state-of-the-art theater in 2001. Local citizens donated virtually all of the $200,000 raised for the first stage of building construction. The largest donation of $100,000.00 came from Jeanette Jolly.
The Masquers Theater is one of the oldest rural community theaters in the state of Washington. Theater volunteers have consistently provided Basin residents with fine comedy and dramatic performances. The efforts of this group are a tribute to the spirit of goodwill that enables any volunteer organization to prevail through years of change and an audience they will never stop trying to please.