Alumni Spotlight

Filmmaker, director talks about journey to Harlequin Productions

Scot Whitney (North Thurston High School, Class of 1971)

What North Thurston schools did you go to and what year did you graduate?
I started 9th grade at Chinook Jr. High. (This was the olden days, when Jr. High was 7-9). I graduated from North Thurston High School in 1971.  
Did you go to college and if so where?
I was the first student to be accepted to The Evergreen State College in 1971! I only found out about that little fact in the late 1980s. My Mother told me. She had been the secretary to Joe Shoben, the Executive Vice President of TESC at the time. She knew all about the school and knew it was the place for me. Needless to say she put my application on top of the pile! 
At any rate, my first year I was in a coordinated studies program called "The Individual in America". I spent the first two weeks with 150 students camping on Mt. Baker and doing trail maintenance. My first professor was Willi Unsoeld, who was more like my first guru. It was fantastic. But I didn't have the money for a second year, so I chased a girl to Denver. That lasted a month, but I stayed in Denver for five years, mostly working in a motion picture laboratory there. I was a shipping clerk, I had no interest in it, and was a terrible employee, but they had a rental department and I was able to borrow all of their professional 16mm film equipment for free. It was very handy. I lived cheaply, saved my money and made films. 
Then I became a cab driver. I was really good at it and made a lot of money. I bought a motorcycle and took a three month road trip. My bike broke down in L.A., so I decided to stay. I quickly became disillusioned with L.A., so I sold my bike, moved back to Olympia and returned to Evergreen to study film seriously. I wound up attending Evergreen for five years over a period of ten years, but never graduated. I think I have about three credits left. But graduation was never what I was after. I just wanted to use the equipment. Which I did. And I made movies (film, not video) and learned a lot.
What teachers inspired you and/or who/what inspired you to be a director and get into theater (any special classes you took in high school?)?
I'll answer the second half first. My grandmother was a first generation Scottish immigrant--kind of by accident, but that's another story. I loved her to pieces, especially because of her storytelling. She told the strangest, most bizarre stories--not like the ones in the books I had, or the TV shows I watched. They were rich and weird I could have listened to her for hours. All I have ever wanted to do was tell stories. But my verbal skills have never been my strong suit. My brain is always at least 10 feet in front of my tongue. But in my first year at North Thurston (10th grade) there were some radical changes taking place. They actually had a new class called "Modern Media". It almost felt like science fiction! We had access to tape recorders and a 60 pound reel-to-reel box with a big cable and a weird little camera, and we could put skits on and record completely awful, low, low resolution black and white "television". 
That didn't do it for me. But I had to do another project and borrowed my Father's old Bell & Howell 8mm movie camera (circa 1949 or so) and made a couple of little movies on my own. I was instantly hooked. I worked in a couple of gas stations. I worked at the Jacaranda Restaurant (which was on the site of where the Hearthfire is now). I saved my money and bought a fancy Nikon Super8 camera with a ZOOM LENS! I became obsessed with making movies and... did that for 16 years. Then I realized I wanted to work with actors, not equipment, and started a theater company. 
But the teachers! Ms. Foley--I think that was her name. (I'm terrible with names.) And if I remember correctly, she was the first "Ms." I ever heard of! I think it was her first year of teaching. It was her class that got me started in that direction. Sharon Thomas was the most inspirational teacher during my years at NT. "Modern Novel and Composition" was the class, and it jump-started my brain in many ways. It was all about stories, so that helped, but she hooked me on writing, too, and she was just so smart and cool! We would read a book a week and write in our journals and write short stories and essays, and class was mostly talking about what we'd read and what we were writing. 
What were you like in high school – play sports or involved in any clubs/activities? Any funny, embarrassing or inspirational stories you want to share?
Ow. This one hurts. I was bitter. I wasn't really very close to anyone. Most of the friends that I spent any real time with went to other schools. When I was in elementary school, I was always the smartest boy in the class. (The smartest girl was always smarter. No question. That's a lesson I learned very early, and I've never forgotten it. My wife is a genius, and I like it that way.) Being smart was cool. It was a great life. 
The day I entered 7th grade, all of the rules changed. Athletes were cool. I had become a dork. (No, not a dork. Dorks hadn't been invented yet. I forget what we called people like me then.) Everything seemed phony and... well, I loved girls long before it was cool. In elementary school, all of the girls loved me. Once I hit Jr. High... let's just say that I didn't find a girlfriend until just before I graduated from high school. That was a long, long period of disappointment. 
Tell us a little about what you do. What do you enjoy most about your job? 
I love telling stories and working with actors. I love rehearsal. I get to collaborate with gifted and experienced actors who are as passionate as I am about discovering the best way we are able to tell the particular story we're working on. I am also fortunate enough to be able to choose any play I want to direct, so it's always something I'm excited about from the outset. But working with actors to throw aside assumptions and bring fire and imagination to the story, that's the most exciting process I know. The world ceases to exist, and we're living in our own world. Making discoveries; creating and nurturing the development of something beautiful. Blah, blah, blah. I guess you had to be there. 
What is your favorite… food?  
Practically anything, as long as it's perfect! Practically any fresh vegetables out of the garden. A great grilled or pan-seared steak, or salmon, or... Mexican, Italian, French, Thai, Vietnamese, Greek, Indian... Much of my family is from Scotland, but I'm still not sold on their cuisine. Or anywhere else in the British Isles, come to think of it. The Dutch and Germanic countries? Nah. Russia? Nope. So I guess not everything.
Favorite Movie?  
Favorite Movie!? My favorite plays would have to include Cyrano de Bergerac, The Tempest, The Seafarer, The Weir, The Pillowman, Jerusalem, Cymbeline, Richard II, and Clybourne Park. 
Favorite Hobby/pastime?
I love to travel, though I don't find time (and can't afford) to do it nearly often enough. Linda and I did manage to get away for two weeks in August and spent 15 days in Nicaragua. I didn't want to come back! In the last five years I've become pretty serious about photography, which is a great excuse to travel. It's just another way to tell a story, and I can do it all by myself! It's freeing. As a result, the number of road trips have increased. (I love road trips!)  I love to get up in the mountains or explore new landscapes, wherever I am. People, food, architecture... just finding new ways to see. And it's becoming a growing part of my other life as a graphic designer. I do a lot of photography for my clients. 
How did you come to start Harlequin Productions in Olympia? 
I had been making films for 16 years and had become cynical about the medium. The bigger the projects became, the more they were about equipment. I found that I was more interested in working with actors than machines. I also realized that, as a film director, I had an unhealthy amount of power over a project. At the time I turned the corner toward theater, I was devising a film project that would test my cynical theories, in which no one would know the story except me. It would be shot mostly with single shots of the actors, and they would do their scenes together separately, without knowing why they were saying what they were saying, or what any of the other actors had done. I wanted to do it, not because I thought it was a good idea, but to prove a point. 
I'm glad that I never made that film. My transition to theater was fairly sudden. Linda (my wife) and I had become involved in theater through our graphic design business in the early ‘80s. We wound up designing posters and other print projects for several local theater companies, then Linda started designing sets and costumes, and finally directed a couple of plays. We were also seeing a lot of theater, and I found some scripts that I wanted to try directing. Theater seemed like a much healthier medium for collaboration and creation. Actors are necessarily more active and powerful participants in the theater. It's live. They do the real work. The director has his power in the rehearsal hall, but that power is ceded to the actors who make the real art onstage. 
Anyway, I found some scripts I loved. Orphans, The Dumbwaiter, Waiting for Godot... In late 1990 I took them to the local theater companies. At the time, the theater world of Olympia was basically of your classic community theater variety. Everyone told me something to the tune of, "We need directors, but you can't do those plays in Olympia. How about a Neil Simon play or Oklahoma?" 
I learned early as a filmmaker that committing myself into a project that I wasn't passionate about simply wasn't of any interest to me. Directing is too much work to be thrown away on something I don't care about.
Somewhere right around the first of 1991, Bryan Willis dropped by my office. Bryan is a local playwright that I had met briefly a few months earlier. He had written a new 50 minute play called Ten Seconds in the Life of Fenwick Green. and he was looking for someone to direct it for the Seattle Director's Festival. I told him that I would read the play, and if I loved it, I would direct it. If I didn't, I wouldn't. So he left the play with me, and I went across the street to the newly-opened Batdorf & Bronson Roasters coffee shop and sat down to read. 
I loved it. I cast it. I produced it myself. (It was very cheap!) Calvin Johnson had a punk rock club downtown called Reko Muse. I don't remember how it happened exactly, but he let me use his club for two weekends to put up the show in Olympia before we took it to Seattle. He just let me use it! It was an old gas station, and we had to turn it into a theater. We had access to some 4x8 platforms, and my lighting guy for my film projects, Eric Strandberg, became the lighting designer. He had a DIY lighting system that he used rock shows. Phil Annis, a brilliant carpenter/problem solver who had built numerous sets designed by Linda, jumped in to create our set.
We wound up with seating for 48. We scheduled six performances and made some little posters and put them up on some telephone poles in downtown, and sent a press release to The Olympian. That was the extent of our promotion. We just hoped people would show up. Two days before we opened, the Northwest was hit by one of those rare, massive snowstorms. Downtown was shut down. The day we were scheduled to open, all of the streets were sheets of ice, and downtown was a white ghost town. Needless to say, we were pretty disappointed.
But by 7 p.m. we had sold out, and there were more people arriving. I asked the actors if they wanted to do a second show at 9 p.m. The all said YES! So we kept selling tickets, and by 7:30 we had sold out a second show, including a bunch of standing room tickets for both shows. We wound up selling out two shows a night for all six nights. Then we took the lay to the Seattle Director's Festival and won a Best of Fest Award, so we performed a second time in Seattle. 
We thought that was a pretty good indication that it really was possible to do some edgy theater in Olympia, so a group of five of us pooled our startup capital--$400--and started a theater company. We announced our plan to raise the money, purchase the current building, gut it and create a live performance space in June of 1997. We purchased and took possession of the building in September. We opened in November of 1998. Voila! Harlequin Productions.

Do you have any advice for students who are interested in getting into your career field and/or just in general? 
If you can do anything else that makes you a good solid living, do it. If you still need to act or direct, you'll be able to afford to feed that need as opportunities come up, and still have a sane life. I can only recommend trying to make a career in the theater to someone who is simply incapable of doing anything else.
Unless you have a proclivity for stage management. Then go for it! If you're good at it, you'll get work! Otherwise, it is, for most, a hard, incoherent slog. 

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