Friday, July 27, 2012

ARTIST PROFILE: Pat Rohrbach and Rebecca Kramer--Two Peas in the Family Theater Pod

Rebecca Kramer (L) and Pat Rohrbach (R) enjoy a laugh in Clark's Decker Theater.
(Photograph by Ruth Zschomler)
Pat Rohrbach. Rebecca Kramer. Their names are different, but they have the same smile, the same eyes and the same sense of humor. Both have a deep and lasting love for the theater. They are mother and daughter. Both are Decker Award winners and have long been spotlights shining on the Vancouver theater scene.

Of Rohrbach’s four children Kramer, her only daughter, is the only one active in theater. Kramer has five kids and only one, her daughter McKenzie, is involved in theater, though all have done some acting. However, she says, the family is talented—the others involved in music. McKenzie is a student at Clark College where she takes part in theater. Her grandmother, Rohrbach, is on Clark's theater staff and her mother, Kramer, studied under Dan Anderson, Clark's former theater department head.

The Stage Door Opens

Kramer said she wasn’t hanging out with a very good crowd when she lived as a teenager in California. She moved to Vancouver when she was sixteen and someone gave her tickets to Slocum House Theater and she hasn’t left since. It was the impetus for her turning over a new leaf, she said.

Pat Rohrbach (seated right) in
"The Heiress" (photo provided)
The stage door opened for them both when Kramer got involved in her first show, though Rohrbach did some theater in her high school days. Kramer caught the bug and soon had mom at an audition with her. Mom got a part, daughter did not. That was at Slocum House in 1983 and they have been at it ever since.

Rohrbach is an actress, director and costume designer. She is probably best known as a costumer, having won three awards for costume design (though she's also been recognized with nearly a dozen awards for her acting), but that wasn’t her first foray into the world of drama. Before being asked to take on the position of Costume Designer at Clark she hadn’t sewn so much as a stitch.

Pat Rohrbach (standing) in
"Doubt" (photo provided)
Oh, sure, she did some mending and hand sewing and had tackled a single dress on a  “hunky-dunky” sewing machine she’d bought from a door-to-door salesman. That dress, for her five year-old daughter, didn’t even fit. Kramer laughingly recalled her mom was determined to wrestle the article of clothing onto her small frame. “Oh, I was gawd-awful,” laughed Rohrbach. And Rohrbach never sewed another thing until she started making costumes at Clark College Theater.

Rohrbach had “a real job” for twenty years before she walked out when, at that landmark, no one in the company even showed a sign of appreciation. She said, “I never looked back.” Clark was having tech week on a show and everything was in disarray when she volunteered to help.

Pat Rohrbach in "Harvey" (photo provided)
“Everything was a mess,” she said, “and the costume director was always drunk.” There weren’t even any props so she jumped in and did what she could. She made an impression.

Mark Owsley came to her and said he thought Dan Anderson was going to fire the costume director and asked her if she wanted the job. She told him she didn’t know how to run a sewing machine. She said he said, “You’ll learn.”

And she did. The first show she costumed was a children’s theater show and she hot-glued the costumes together. She’s been on part-time staff at Clark for eleven years. She says she, “acts whenever she wants to” and directs once a year, usually at Clark, but sometimes with Slocum. She is also the costumer for Lakewood Theater in Lake Oswego.

When asked if she loved costuming, acting or directing best she replied, “Yes.” She also enjoys set dressing.

Kramer in "Dearly Departed" for
which she was given a best actress
award. (photo provided)
Kramer, who works a day job as a para-educator for special ed children in the Vancouver School District, is not so interested in the technical aspects of the craft. She’s strictly into acting and directing. She also directs for Thomas Jefferson Middle School. She has been recognized with ten theater awards over as many years for acting, directing and costuming.

“I try to play stupid when it comes to lights and sets,” so she won’t have to do it, she said.  But she can and does when necessary. She’s active behind the scenes in other ways. She’s been involved with Slocum House Theater and the Blue Parrot Theater when it was in Camas, until their building got shut down after a fire in the adjacent business. She now serves as Slocum’s Vice President. She’s done shows at Clark as well.

The Stage is Set

Kramer said there were challenges at the old Slocum House. Mom and daughter agreed that there are differences between doing theater there and at Clark. The stage for one; the Slocum stage, said Kramer, “[was] smaller so the blocking is different.”

“[And] you have to do everything in community theater as an actor, at Clark you come and act and everything else is done for you.”

The new home for the Slocum Players is
at Sassy Ape Theater, 3909 Main Street.
(photograph by Ruth Zschomler)
The Slocum theater has had other challenges as well. In essence the city forced them out of their namesake house by astronomically raising the rent this year. But that has not stopped them. The theater is renting what was once the Sassy Dress Shop, then Ape Over Music. “It’s still an empty room,” she said, “we don’t have permits yet.”

The theater company is now known as The Slocum Players. The theater will be called The Sassy Ape Theater—a name which was, jokingly, proposed by Jaynie Roberts, Magenta Theater’s Artistic Director.

While it may now sit as an empty shell it will likely be a godsend for the company. “It will definitely have more seating,” said Kramer citing the increased auditorium space and a balcony. They have a plan on paper, “but it is not set in stone yet,” she said. Their goal is to do their first show before the money runs out.

Rebecca Kramer in "The Green Room"
(photo provided)
There’s lots of work to do before that happens and the first shows may not be all out, full-fledged theatrical ventures. They are hoping and planning to have comedy shows and other smaller events to help keep them afloat while construction moves forward.

“My personal goal,” said Kramer, “is to have the grand opening on my birthday” at the end of August.

Kramer’s favorite part of the theater scene is serving as House Manager. She enjoyed getting to know the patrons and the family-feel at the theater. Regulars at both Slocum and Clark have been made up mostly of seniors. Both see that changing some in the future.

Coming Soon to a Theater Near You

First of all, Rohrbach and Kramer note—not to be crass—“those people are dying off.” But secondly those in power are calling for change in content. Slocum will no longer be holding themselves to the “old Slocum House rules” set up by founder Hermine Decker who called for producing only Victorian plays. They’d already departed from that restriction before the city forced them out.

“We have to make money,” said Kramer, “and you can’t do that with Victorian plays all the time.” They want to do edgier and more popular material to draw in the younger crowd.

Clark College Theater has also made and will continue to make changes in that direction in an effort to appeal more to the students at the college. Both desire to make up for the losses in theater programming and funding in local high schools, hoping to inspire a new generation in the craft.

“No one is growing up with a passion for theater [any more],” said Kramer, “It is hard to cast a complete show [with actors of all ages].”

“This community for the most part is a conservative community,” said Rohrbach, “[but] you cannot survive by doing Music Man over and over.”

“Our community isn’t used to doing things that make you think,” she said, but the Associated Students of Clark College has called for more shows that students would want to see. Due to budget cuts, they will no longer be doing large musical-theater shows or dinner theater in Gaiser Hall. All productions will be mounted in the Decker Theater.

“So we’re not doing My Fair Lady, but Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Rent. Clark Theater is expected to support itself. I’m sorry, but we aren’t doing fluff any more.”

Neither Clark nor Slocum theater has ever felt a competition for theater-goers and talent. Like the other theaters in town, they work together so that shows are different and don’t overlap. While Clark doesn’t have as much control over dates as do the other theaters due to the school’s academic schedule, they do endeavor to cooperate through VATA, the loosely associated Vancouver Area Theatre Alliance. They even share actors, costumes and props.

The Green Room

The cast of "Opal", Rohrbach is seated center, Kramer is
seated on the right. (photo provided)
Rohrbach and Kramer may work primarily with two distinct theater companies, but they also work together when they can. The last time they really worked together, though, was three years ago when Kramer directed Opal. That was the first time daughter directed her mother and not the other way around.

“I was willing to do whatever you said,” Rohrbach interjected, “as long as I agreed with it,” as both of them laughed.

To stay sharp—exercising her mind so she can easily memorize lines—Rohrbach plays video games, but she said her games were intelligently challenging. “I don’t do blow-ups and that kind of crap.” She makes her own costumes and many others. Kramer also sews and has been since she was twelve. Her mother wasn’t sewing then; a neighbor taught her.

Both are passionate about theater in Vancouver. Both are miffed at the city government’s lack of support for the local theater scene. They also feel the local newspaper has shown a sad lack of interest.

But that’s a song sung blue by many of Vancouver’s major theater players. And speaking of singing both Rohrbach and Kramer swear neither of them can sing a lick, but both have been cast in musicals, Kramer said Rohrbach, “even had a solo.”

Rohrbach’s favorite play is On Golden Pond. She directed it for Slocum and costumed it for Lakewood. She’s always wanted to direct a show in a theater with a fly system. It’s on her bucket list. Kramer couldn’t come up with a favorite, but she said she would like to find a show that she, her mom and her daughter could do onstage together.

Kramer said her biggest blunder on stage was with Blue Parrot’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. “We had to build a nurses station,” she said. “One door in and out. Behind the audience was the table with the sound booth, lighting and stuff.” She was playing a nurse and went in the station door and the light didn’t go on as she expected.

“I was looking at Mary in the back [at the control booth] and she was mouthing, ‘no, no.’” She was in the wrong scene! And she couldn’t get out so she “turned to count the pills in the medicine cabinet” for the duration of the scene because another actor had a part in the door's window. When her actual scene came up she “pretended she was tired from staying up all night.”

Rohrbach’s most memorable blunder came when she was in Ghost in the Glass playing a maid that had to hide under the couch and be discovered for the first time at a scene’s opening.  “It was July or August,” she said, “and it was very hot.” She was under the couch waiting for the curtain to go up in her stuffy Victorian maid costume. Another actor took a cloth and was fanning her when the curtain went up and no one was supposed to know she was under the couch.

Curtain Call

They laughed heartily together, poked one another and playfully slapped at each other during the interview. You could tell they loved both each other and their life in the theater.

Rohrbach closed the evening off with final words that both were behind, “Come and support Sassy Ape Theater,” she said. And they meant not only as patrons, but that people would come and help with the remodel in the interim.

By Gregory E. Zschomler

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