Performing more than 80 roles since 1980 on Orange County’s community-theater stages has done absolutely nothing to diminish Harriet Whitmyer’s exuberance.
“I’ve come to realize how important this level of theater is. It’s a training ground for a lot of people,” says the retired MBA. “I think we old-timers have a responsibility to make sure [newbies] realize the team they are becoming a part of.”
The red-haired dynamo has made herself indispensable at theaters from San Clemente to Long Beach, both behind-the-scenes and onstage. Her acting chops range from the musical, murderous stage business of Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd to the quiet strength of Linda Loman in Death of a Salesman.
Laughter erupts from her entire being as she sits on her character’s couch for a photo shoot at Newport Theater Arts Center (NTAC), where she has served on the board for the past 10 years.
Costumed in garish florals come curtain time, she reins in her boisterousness and pins up her titian hair to play Lettie in A Murder Is Announced, a McGuffin-filled Agatha Christie tale. The bun stays put while her characterization unfolds in subtle layers, fueled by quicksilver impulses and a keen attention to her fellow players. “We have a young man in our show—it’s the first show he’s ever done—and he has a teeny-weeny part, but he’s so committed, so excited”—words that describe Whitmyer perfectly.
“I’ve always—and I don’t know if this is printable—looked at theater as my drug of choice,” she says. “Okay?” Her laughter fills the theater when reminded just about everything is printable in the Weekly. “It just puts me in another world, ever since I was a peanut.” Her parents began taking her to live theater when she was 3 or 4. “I used to be the person in the neighborhood who organized plays, fairy tales, and we charged money. We made enough, this little club—I think it was all girls at the time—that we all got to pay for our admittance to the zoo,” says the California native, who moved to OC to attend graduate school at UC Irvine.
Her creativity and organizational leadership came together professionally afterward, as managing director from 1981 to 1985 at then-community theater Laguna Moulton Playhouse. Artistic director Doug Rowe brought Alex Golson out from New York to direct an original play. “And then we met, and he decided to stay,” she says of her husband. The play was about an acting school—but it’s just a coincidence the two went on to run an acting academy at Laguna Moulton. “Doug kind of just let us do our own thing, for about three years. It was extremely successful.”
Golson went on to teach at Orange Coast College. “I have to be very honest,” Whitmyer says, “I think I got my real serious, straight acting training from working with Alex. It really opened my eyes as to what acting really was: listening.”
Whitmyer retired in 2012 after 15 years as human-resources director for UCI Extension and devotes herself to theater and travel. “I pretty much split my time, as far as doing shows, between here [NTAC] and Long Beach [Playhouse],” where she also volunteers, maintaining the production archive. “I think theater in general has a big role in this time of total insanity—that’s the only way I can describe it,” she says, hope in her voice. “Doing our art is so important because it keeps us in a community where we can continue to explore our beliefs. I suspect in the near future someone will write a play about this whole debacle, and I hope we get to do it.”
Lisa Black proofreads the dead-tree edition of the Weekly and writes about the arts and South County beaches. Her OC roots go back to the Cuckoo’s Nest but she left to create original theater on four continents, then returned to bodysurf small waves.