The dramatic effect of 90 years
The history of Clark College is not one tale but countless stories of thousands of people whose paths have crossed here. Clark’s theatre department has long been a home for creative people, each with their own backstories, to make—and perform—new stories together.
The department has weathered highs and lows, from churning out an Oscar-nominated actor to closing the department altogether to resurrecting it and, more recently, redefining it for the modern era. Today, the program is re-emerging from the COVID pandemic to flourish thanks to new and old faces.
The namesake of Clark’s theatre, Hermine Decker, was no stranger to drama herself. Decker turned down a marriage proposal from her college sweetheart, Edward R. Murrow, who became a famous broadcast journalist.
According to an oral history recorded by the Clark County Historical Society, Decker didn’t think Murrow would make a good husband. Decker told Murrow’s biographers that she burned his letters to her, but 28 letters and two telegraphs were discovered after her death in 1996.
Decker forged her own path to success, becoming an award-winning playwright before accepting a newly created position teaching in a nascent theater department at Clark in the 1950s.
Stylish and driven
In the 1960s, she rallied to save the historic Slocum House in downtown Vancouver. It was the last Victorian home standing on a block that had been razed for redevelopment. Decker saved the house and got it moved one block to 605 Esther Street, where it was used as a theater for 50 years before closing abruptly in 2012. Today, the house is a wedding venue and event space.
One of Decker’s students was Sam Elliott ’65, who graduated a few months before the Slocum theater opened. Elliott studied theater and ran track at Clark. He was cast as Big Jule in “Guys and Dolls,” and a Columbian review of the production suggested he become a professional actor. He did. Elliott is a character actor known for his full mustache and deep voice. He has enjoyed a long career in Hollywood, appearing in “Tombstone,” “The Big Lebowski” and many other films. He was nominated for an Academy Award for his supporting role in the 2018 version of “A Star is Born.”
Decker was a well-known task master, producing two plays each quarter and requiring her students to act in one and work on the production crew of the other. She drove around campus in her bright red Opel Kadett, a compact and stylish German car.
When Mark Owsley ’79 enrolled at Clark College in the late 1970s, Decker had retired, the theater was shuttered, and the drama program had been eliminated. Owsley went to look at the building and found a woman hauling old costumes out of it and stuffing them into her hatchback.
“I introduced myself because I was a young, gregarious person at the time,” Owsley said. The woman was Decker.
A self-proclaimed drama nerd, Owsley was six feet tall and weighed 200 pounds by the time he was 12 years old. He was cast as Santa Claus in a kindergarten play. In fifth grade, he was cast as the captain in Gilbert and Sullivan’s musical, “H.M.S. Pinafore.” During this production, Owsley made two discoveries: first, he suffered from stage fright. Second, he could work backstage and earn the satisfaction he did from acting without being fearful.
“I made the conscious decision that was what I wanted to do with my life,” he said.
While Owsley attended Clark, the college revived the theatre department by hiring part-time professor Dan Anderson. Owsley worked on several shows before graduating and transferring to Portland State University. Clark’s productions were funded by ticket sales at the time, so popular titles were usually selected.
Love and sunshine
In 1979, Owsley worked on “Arsenic and Old Lace,” a murderous farce, alongside Decker, who played one of the old ladies. Owsley said she had a distinctive, teacherly voice and strong opinions about the show.
After graduating from PSU, where he majored in theater, Clark contracted with Owsley to design scenery and lighting for a show. He has been an employee of the college for more than 35 years and in the last decade has directed several Clark productions.
In 1984, Owsley designed and built the set for “Little Mary Sunshine,” a parody of old-fashioned musical theater. During auditions, Anderson approached him.
“We were short on men,” Owsley said, “which happens.”
Anderson asked him to join the chorus. Owsley was paired with a female dance partner. They hit it off.
“It’s not exactly a theater moment,” Owsley said, “but it’s probably the most important moment of my life.”
The couple married and have been together for more than three decades.
A new beginning
Anderson helmed the department for 33 years before retiring in 2011. Gene Biby replaced him. Biby then became the department’s first full-time faculty member. It was the start of a new age.
“I was asked to refocus and think about the fact that it was a college theater, and we were there to serve students,” Biby said. “Which I was excited about because, ultimately, I was not thrilled about redoing classics from the canon. I’m more excited about what’s currently happening in the theater world.”
During the pandemic, Clark’s theatre productions halted. Even Broadway shut down and many small theater companies around the country permanently closed. At first, Biby wasn’t interested in streaming productions online.
“Theater is a live event,” Biby said. The magic depends on audience members being in the same room as the cast, watching events in real time.
The pandemic dragged on and Biby relented. He directed a one-act radio play, written years ago by a friend, that he felt was suited to a remote production.
“It’s still up on YouTube, actually,” Biby said, “it’s called ‘The Churning Skies,’”
In spring of 2022, the department produced a collection of one-act comedic plays called “All in the Timing.” Biby invited a mix of current and former students to direct and act in the short pieces. It was so successful that he selected a similar title for spring of 2023, a contemporary play written during the pandemic called “Technical Difficulties.”
“It’s going to be live but there will be a mix of media as well, with screens and some actors who will be remote,” Biby said. Again, Biby has invited former students to direct.
Biby sometimes worries about the future of theater. He asks his students’ opinions about the art form and its current relevance.
“I just wonder how long it’s going to remain viable,” he said. “Most students don’t think theater will die out altogether, but one of the criticisms is that you have to go at a certain time to a certain place and it tends to be expensive.”
Clark’s theatre program holds an advantage— tickets are free for students and just $15 for members of the general public.
“If we can continue to keep it affordable,” Biby said, “that will continue to open up new audience members for us.”
‘Night and day’
Today, student activity fees pay for Clark’s theater productions rather than ticket sales. The department reports on its participation and proposes a yearly budget to the ASCC.
“With the declining enrollment, I’m wondering how that’s going to affect our budget in the future,” Biby said.
Owsley said the funding shift has resulted in more interesting plays.
“Instead of having to choose shows that we know are very popular and well-known and can bring in revenue, we can choose shows that are more reflective of our student body, of young, new thinking, that are more inclusive.”
Clark practices colorblind casting and encourages diversity. During a recent production, Owsley said a student was transitioning genders. The student’s audition was so good, according to Owsley, that they could have played a male or female role in the play. Owsley let them choose.
“I was able to support what they were going through in their life and that helped them move forward,” said Owsley. “They knew that they could be a part of the program and have an equal part. They belonged.”
Priya Oetmann is a current Clark student whose cousin is a choreographer on Broadway. Oetmann says attending one of his shows in New York City sparked her interest in theater at a young age.
Oetmann has participated in school plays since elementary school. Clark’s theater program helped inspire her to enroll in Running Start, a community college preparatory program for 11th and 12th grade students.
“I wanted something more than what my high school offered,” she said, and Clark productions are much more professional. “It’s just night and day difference,” she added.
Oetmann took an acting class at Clark and performed in her first Clark production, “The Great American Trailer Park Musical,” in March 2023. Oetmann, who is Latina, said the Clark production was more racially diverse than any at her high school.
Tim Busch ’17 said his most memorable show at Clark was “Avenue Q,” a raunchy Tony-award winning musical comedy that features puppets and human actors. Busch was cast as the main character, or rather the puppeteer of the main character, Princeton. In the play, Princeton moves to New York City with big dreams and little money. The hardest part of the show was learning to maneuver a puppet while acting, including speaking, singing and hitting his marks.
“It was tough,” Busch said of the play. “That one definitely pushed me to another level. After that show, I was like, ‘Huh. I did that. I can do more.’”
For Biby, who also teaches speech communication at Clark, that kind of realization is what makes theater so valuable.
“I always say, I’m not training students to become actors. I’m training them to stand up straight and walk with confidence, to speak in a meeting, to give a toast, to go through the world being comfortable expressing themselves.”
For Busch, the training has done exactly that in his life.
“I don’t even have to think about speaking in front of people now,” he said. “Doing theater took away any fears that I had. I don’t get nervous about big bosses because I know I can stand up on stage with 50 to 100 people just staring at me.”
Story by Lily Raff McCaulou. Photos by Wei Zhuang.