Gary Thoren, associate manager of Hillside Dining and Marketplace at Washington State University in Pullman, dreamed of being an actor. After acting professionally for several years he turned to foodservice when he wanted to have a family. Then, when he decided to re-enter the theater world, he quickly realized his new passion was directing.
“I started off acting. There were about two or three years where I did professional theater and did stand-up comedy in between. I made an OK living, but once I realized I wanted to have a family, acting wasn’t going to work out. Whenever I wasn’t working in theater I would work in restaurants, so I found out that I actually liked doing that. Eventually I took that more seriously and gave up theater.
Then I moved to Pullman with my partner. Moving to this area was such a cultural difference for me, so my partner convinced me to get back involved with theater. I was doing theater and enjoying it and then one of the directors told me I had really good ideas for directing. I hadn’t really ever thought about it, but she asked me if I could direct the next play with her. The play was ‘Dracula.’ I assistant directed ‘Dracula’ with her and about halfway through I realized how much I enjoyed it. I hadn’t realized how much of a control freak I was.
What I loved about it was the collaborative effort where literally you have your basic vision and then you have to get these other people involved who have these other ideas that are great and you can pick and choose which to listen to. I realized to direct you need a fairly healthy ego because you have to really have the balls to say, ‘that idea works and that doesn’t.’ The next play I did was ‘Miracle on 34th Street.’ I can’t stand things that are schmaltzy. I found that by directing it I could make it my own. I added these actors we called The Kringlettes, who were women dressed in ’50s-esque Mrs. Claus outfits, and I had them singing and dancing as the action moved. It has so many scene changes that I thought, let’s just have some fun with it. I loved the fact that I could totally create something.
The next play I did was called ‘Greater Tuna.’ What I loved about what I was able to do with it was that usually it is a bunch of men playing women roles. But with my version I cast two women to play all these men. In the play itself they talk about this place called Greater Tuna and really the joke of it is having these men dressing up in women’s costumes. I loved having two women do it because it wasn’t as naturally funny to have two women dressing up as men so they had to find other ways to make it funny.
Another play I did with a lot of great roles for women was ‘Steel Magnolias.’ There were a couple of times in the play where the actors would say, ‘I don’t think this is right’ and I could be like, ‘you’re going to just have to trust me. It works.’ That’s the other thing about being a director. As an actor you get to feel it all but when you are directing you have to understand the feeling but also be able to see how it looks to the audience. There is this great moment in the play where I had the actors staged a certain way that though the actors said they felt silly, to the audience, it was one of the most poignant moments.
‘Little Women’ was one I’d wanted to do for a long time because it has a lot of strong female roles in it. I read over the script again and I had some doubts about it. It’s too precious. Then I decided to embrace the preciousness because it worked. Of all the plays, it was the most satisfying experience because I had so many people new to acting in it. That’s what I’m finding fun now—finding people who you wouldn’t expect to play a role and seeing them succeed.
Now I’m directing about once a year. Next year I’m doing two plays, ‘The Homecoming’ and ‘The Graduate.’ What I love about directing is watching how organic it is. I love how the show goes from what I think it’s going to be when I read the script to what it becomes on stage. It’s never what I think it’s going to be.”