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Robert Hirsch : Raising the Bar in Corvallis’ Theater Scene

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Although Robert Hirsh left his career in college-level teaching nearly 20 years ago, his latest enterprise springs directly from his roots in the classroom.

Hirsh’s Willamette Stage Company, a non-profit, professional theater group, launched its inaugural season in November with the beloved musical, My Fair Lady,” a play Hirsh directed during his stint as a theater instructor at Linn-Benton Community College in the mid-1980s.

An editor and writer as well as an accomplished actor, Hirsh will direct and also lead the cast as the curmudgeonly linguist, Henry Higgins. He is excited to be working with experienced musical theater actors as well as the Corvallis Repertory Singers, 16 of whom will provide the chorus for the production’s crowd scenes.

As his first season progresses, however, Hirsh plans to fulfill his long-cherished dream of introducing audiences to more “thought-provoking, provocative” drama, with four contemporary plays by award-winning playwrights whose work is rarely if ever seen in community theater.

A self-described “teacher at heart” who began his professional life teaching American politics and foreign policy, Hirsh has chosen plays he believes will “stimulate people to feel and to think, and challenge them to have a deeper and more thoughtful experience with the material.”

In addition, each production will feature educational opportunities-lectures, discussion groups, and presentations-that will help to “amplify what’s going on onstage.”

Hirsh himself “got bit” with a passion for theater while teaching in Eastern Oregon, when he helped a student perform a scene from Tennessee Williams’  Summer and Smoke for her drama class. He ended up playing the lead in the department’s subsequent production.

By the 1980s Hirsh was on track to teach drama instead of political science. His first job, after studying theater at the University of Oregon, took him to LBCC, where he taught for three years before embarking on a freelance writing career while acting in many Portland-based industrial films.

Since then Hirsh has performed in plays at the Lord Leebrick Theatre in Eugene, Albany Civic Theater and Corvallis Community Theatre. Local playgoers will remember his notable performances in Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen, and in the first two productions of Oregon State University’s Bard in the Quad summer Shakespeare series, Romeo and Juliet (2006) and Much Ado About Nothing (2007).

Audiences will surely appreciate Hirsh’s dedication to  “raising the bar” in local theater, says Bard director Scott Palmer, a veteran Shakespeare director and teacher with credits both here and abroad. He is confident Hirsh is equal to the challenge.

“Robert is probably one of the smartest actors I’ve worked with,” he says. “He’s incredibly intelligent with an enormous capacity for understanding language.”

Moreover, Palmer notes, the audience of 4000-plus who attended Much Ado in August proves that “Corvallis is ready for a fulltime professional theater company” dedicated to “high quality” theater.

Hirsh believes the non-musical plays he has selected will enable the Willamette Stage Company to “provide a real service to the community.”

Slated for the season following “My Fair Lady” are Leo Blessing’s A Walk in the Woods (1988), opening in January; Pulitzer Prize winner David Auburn’s Skyscraper (1998) for February; David Lindsay-Abaire’s Rabbit Hole (2006), winner of a 2007 Pulitzer Prize, in May; and David Harrower’s Blackbird (2006), winner of the 2007 Olivier Award for Best New Play, for July.

“We’re not competing with community theater: we’re filling a slightly different niche,” Hirsh explains. “I’m a product of community theater and a firm believer in it, but in the artistic area, rising tides do lift all boats.

“The more theater there is, the more interest there is in theater, and the better off everybody is.”

My Fair Lady will be performed in the theater at Ashbrook School, which has a capacity of 400, and the non-musical events will play in the Corvallis High School’s “Black Box” theater, which seats approximately 75. Tickets, including season subscriptions, are available on the company’s Web site,

www.willamettestage.org

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4 Comments - (Leave a comment! »)

  • Eric said:

    I particularly enjoyed this article about Robert Hirsch and his goal of launching a professional theater troupe. I think there isn’t nearly enough theater in the U.S. and applaud his goal expand the audience. I also think he’s right that a rising tide lifts all boats, both in terms of the quality of theater performances and in public appreciation of the arts.

  • thumbtak said:

    In my option this guy has a great desire to accomplish what he wants in life and thats to work in the theater. He sets a great goal and put his mind and actions on getting to that goal. Some people can’t do that as they get distracted but he wasn’t one of them.

  • alex said:

    A Walk in the Park Was Excellent

    My wife and I attended their production, “A Walk in the Park” and it was absolutely excellent. Everything about the production was very professional and is definitely a cut above “community theater”. It played to sold-out performances so it is obvious Corvallis is ready for solid, professional theater experiences. I highly recommend their performances.

  • roberth said:

    Thanks so much for including Willamette STAGE company in your ‘zine. I especially appreciate that the link first takes readers to the Final Four package promo. I do have one slight concern: the blurb on the homepage says we’re “bringing musicals to the Stage in Corvallis”. I’m afraid that may lead people to conclude that our shows are all or mostly musicals. In fact, My Fair Lady was the only musical in our season. I don’t want people to think the Final Four are musicals. Perhaps it would be better to say something like “bringing provocative professional live theater to the mid-Willamette Valley.”

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