Dreams are Powerful

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Celebrated actress Gretchen Corbett '63 was destined for a life in the theater, and a Catlin Gabel teacher gave her the background for success
From the Winter 2010 Caller

By Nadine Fiedler

One evening at the theater set young Gretchen Corbett’s life on its course. She was in Ashland with her family to see the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, as they had done for many years. They would sit in Lithia Park in the afternoon reading that night’s play, and then they would go to the performance. That night’s play was “Hamlet.”

 “’Hamlet’ completely blew me away,” says Gretchen. “I could not sleep after seeing it. I was overwhelmed with the possibilities of a life in theater, and how moving and important the story that the play told felt to me.”
Her dream was to be onstage at Ashland. She got there, eventually. “Dreams are powerful, as everyone knows,” says Gretchen.
But before she got to Ashland, she received theatrical training at Catlin Gabel that she credits with helping her become the powerful, lauded actress she is today.
The much-beloved “Mrs. Jo,” Vivien Johannes, taught Gretchen English and theater. Mrs. Jo demanded energy, excitement, and passion from her students, and woe were you if you came to class without something in mind to discuss or debate. “If you didn’t, she’d tell you that you were just a pip on a log, and you should get out,” recalls Gretchen.
They worked on scenes in Mrs. Jo’s class for two or three hours a day, performing a play a year. Her eclectic repertoire included some pretty heavy going, like Euripides’ “Trojan Women” and Ugo Betti’s “The Queen and the Rebels.” Mrs. Jo’s space at first was a roped-off section of the Barn, until she and her students designed the Nutshell (the name, incidentally, from a line in “Hamlet”) and the school built it for them.
“Mrs. Jo required us to tap into our self-motivation and passion,” says Gretchen. “This has been essential to my growth as an artist.”
Gretchen won entrance to Carnegie Mellon University through an audition. She was almost immediately cast in Euripides’ “Electra” (which she loved: she had spent two years working on Euripides with Mrs. Jo). And her dream came true when she finally got to Ashland, performing during the summers. After two years Gretchen left Pittsburgh and returned to Portland, taking English classes at Portland State.
That didn’t last long. “This was the sixties, the Kennedy years, when the country believed in the arts,” she says. That fall a representative of a government-sponsored program offered Gretchen roles in “Romeo and Juliet” and “Our Town” in the Repertory Theater of New Orleans, playing to 2,000 high schoolers a day. That phase of her life lasted until she came to New York a year later.
Gretchen was in the city on her way to Europe when she met an agent. “I didn’t know about agents. I didn’t even know how to hail a cab,” she says. But he saw her talent and potential, and soon she was cast in a film, an off-Broadway show, and a Broadway show. “Thanks to Mrs. Jo I could handle heavy classical stuff,” she says.
“When I first played Broadway I walked on the boards as a very young girl with a lot of stage chops. It was unusual to be so young and hit the back of the house with your voice and personality. It was one of those things that has to be learned,” says Gretchen.
She spent 10 years in New York on the stage, in productions with many notable actors, including Alec McCowen, Julie Harris, and Irene Papas, and directors that included Michael Cacoyannis and Abe Burrows. She loved her life in New York theater, so much so that when Universal Studios offered her a contract for film and TV, she refused. The second time they offered, she decided to give it a try and went to Hollywood.
Her life became a constant whirl of roles in films and television, most prominently the unforgettable role of lawyer Beth Davenport in The Rockford Files with James Garner. She also appeared in The American Revolution, with Michael Douglas and James Woods, and a long list of TV series and episodes, including Marcus Welby, M.D., Kojak, and Columbo. She worked so incessantly on so many projects that it’s hard for her to recall everything she’s done, she says, explaining that TV filming takes only a couple of weeks at the most for each project.
And TV work is particularly crazy and demanding. “You do an astonishing amount of work in a day, shooting 12 hours with a script you may have gotten two days before if you’re lucky, and then you have to walk and talk so you don’t block anyone’s light and you’re in complete synch with the cameraman and the 150 people behind him, and you have to create a believable character and bring life and truth to the words you’re saying.”
She began losing her appetite for TV and film, and felt more pride in her stage work. “I didn’t own a TV and was making a living doing TV. Something was wrong,” she says. When it was time to enroll her daughter Winslow Corbett ’98 in middle school, LA schools were uninviting, and Gretchen looked back to the Catlin Gabel she had loved. She and Winslow moved back to Portland, Winslow entered 7th grade at Catlin Gabel, and Gretchen found herself at a loss.
Gretchen wanted to pursue stage acting in Portland, but the local theater community was a hard one to break into. She found other ways to express herself, including learning to throw pots, but that just wasn’t who she was. After serious soul-searching, she found a way to bring theater back into her life. Gretchen had served as resident director in LA at a nonprofit organization that nurtured new plays and playwrights, so she was familiar with nonprofits. She took a deep breath and launched the Haven Project, which paired underserved children with local theater artists to create and perform plays.
“I had no idea how to get the Haven Project going, but I like having a steep learning curve. I simply started writing grants,” she says. Thanks to Gretchen’s grace and determination, the Haven Project was a great success for its 10-year duration. In its day the Haven Project produced 90 plays a year, with over 200 Portland theater professionals touching the lives of 700 children. “I liked making a difference in kids’ lives, and I liked giving artists a way to give back, in the way they knew best,” she says. Her nonprofit venture brought Gretchen into the lives of Portland actors and playwrights, into the city’s public eye, and onto its stages—where she has received continual acclaim.
Gretchen has acted in many plays with several Portland theater companies, and is a core member of Third Rail Repertory Theatre. She will continue to act, and to awe Portland audiences. When you hear her talk about what it means to her to act on stage, you can feel in your own bones the intense physical and intellectual commitment she has to her art.
“I’m an intuitive actor yet it takes a long time for the character to set in my bones and heart, and for me to discover the character’s secrets. I’m curious about people, especially those so different from myself. I care about literature and the way a story is being told. I care about the brain that has created the words I’m speaking.
“I’ve played characters who have had wonderful senses of humor and a more positive outlook than I have. Recently I played a suicidal woman in “A Lesson from Aloes,” and it took me months to get back to myself. Now I consider more carefully. Acting is so internal that it becomes physical, and it can become difficult to stay healthy.
“At its heart the experience of acting is like any creative art form. What comes out of me surprises me as much as it surprises an audience. It’s as if I’m not in charge. At its best it feels like a religious experience. That’s the creative process. After you do all the work on a character you come to that place. I imagine the same is true for writers, musicians, and painters.
“Some actors are attracted to theater because they like to have fun showing off, like kids. That’s not my impetus. I’m personally shy, an introvert. I open my heart in front of an audience so that we can share and learn together about being human.”

Places Please

By Gretchen Corbett ’63
Hamlet pondered
way out on the apron
That’s all it took.
I moved onto the boards
met my family out on the ice
found home in make-believe rooms
with no walls.
Years collapse. Cities merge.
All over the globe
rehearsal halls without windows
invite unexpected music
I walk down taped-on-the-floor steps
into the heart of a stranger.
Countless nests I’ve built
in backstage branches of tumbledown barns
sleek city centers
gilt-edged arenas
each dripping peonies and
pink powder
each pinned with reminders on mirrors
about flying naked
tight rope walking
the fat lady in the front row.
Places please. Places.
Move down secret, blue-lit corridors
past fly rigging and brick
to the edge of the boards
and breathe
and wait
‘till a hush falls
and wait
then an oboe
inside my body
takes over
the stage erupts
spills exquisite light.
I step out into it.
Send life out into the darkness

Photo: Owen Carey
Nadine Fiedler is the editor of the Caller.