January 19th, 2021

Rooted in McMinnville: Gallery Theater’s Cathy Willoughby

Two small floor lamps cast a lonely pool of light near the front of the Gallery Theater stage. No one has uttered lines from that spot since the cast of “Noises Off” shouted “BLACKOUT” on March 1.

Sitting high in this otherwise empty McMinnville auditorium nearly 11 months later, Cathy Willoughby looks down to the light and explains how a community theater group meets its mission when gathering actors on a stage and patrons in seats is not possible.

Cathy is president of the Gallery Theater board of directors, a responsibility she assumed in January 2020. It was not a year she anticipated. As an actor and costumer, she says she loves the theater, the people, and camaraderie created while staging a play or a musical. Still, in the era of COVID, she has found rewards in doing things differently.

She recently agreed to meet – masks on, of course – to answer a few questions.

Q: Most people think theater has gone dark, shut down since the pandemic arrived. Gallery Theater didn’t shut down, though. What have you done?

Cathy: We had shut down in-person, inside activities. But, yes, we have tried to keep as active as we can and we’re trying to engage our creative contributors safely online or through the things we can do outdoors during the summer. We are trying to keep in touch through communications of various kinds with our patrons, our season ticketholders, and donors who really believe in the Gallery Theater.

We were able to do some fundraising. We were able to host some safe outdoor events in our courtyard by closing off the street. And then we’ve also done some things online to help keep our community growing.

Q: What has been the response?

Cathy: I look back and I think it was a good year. It was not the year we wanted. It was not the year a live theater expects or hopes for, but it was successful. People are very, very engaged. We all miss theater together. We all miss being together and being that in-person team. We are deferring that.

Q: Once the pandemic is tamed, how does Gallery Theater return to the indoor stage?

Cathy: Hopefully sometime this year it will be safe to have in-person, socially distanced, clean air, clean everything, small casts on the stage. I think the first thing we’ll have to do is assure the community of the safety precautions we are putting into place to make it a safe place to come.

We’ve used grant dollars to upgrade our air supply system to clean the air. We’ve upgraded how we’re going to clean an area before and after a performance. We are seating people distanced according to parties. That means we will not have 250 seats. We will have maybe 70 or 80 seats available in this large space.

Q: Will the stage performances be different?

Cathy: The performer on stage will be no closer than 25 feet to the first audience member. We also want to have the right types of productions, ones that will have very few performers. We’re not going to have any musicals this year. We are going to have very small casts.

We did a reader’s theater of a show called “Tea for Three” last summer in the courtyard which had three president’s wives – Lady Bird Johnson, Pat Nixon, and Betty Ford – with three separate monologues. They never appear on the stage together. That is the type of show we will be doing this year.

In fact, well, I think I can tell you this. We are going to be putting that on stage here and I will be Pat.

Q: What keeps you rooted in McMinnville?

Cathy: Oh, I love this place. I’m getting teary-eyed here with you now. We came to McMinnville due to my husband’s job. But what has kept us in McMinnville? It’s a love for the community. We love the size of the town. We love the diversity of the town. We love the tourism element of the town. We purchased a home within walking distance of Third Street because we wanted to experience the community.

I love the fact that during normal times walking down the street you will see friends and get the opportunity to meet new people.

Dan Shryock

Dan Shryock regularly writes about McMinnville and Yamhill County.