Theatres director makes his exit

Jim Wilhite, artistic director of the Sandy Actors Theatre, has resigned his position and will focus his talents on Portland theaters
by: Contributed photo by JAMES BASS Jim Wilhite, far left, gathers in a circle with cast and crew before every rehearsal and performance.

A man who has inspired many people is leaving Sandy. As artistic director of the Sandy Actors Theatre (SAT) for the past five years, Jim Wilhite has shaped many lives through live theater.

Wilhite, who was asked to resign his position as SAT artistic director, will focus his talents on Portland theaters.

He actually started working with theater in Sandy in 1978. At that time, the group was the Sandy Community Players, and they moved the productions around town and nearby communities to different venues, sometimes using the theater attached to Clackamas County Bank.

Wilhite moved to Portland venues in 1982 or '83, he said, and was artistic director of Stark Raving Theatre about eight years ago, when SAT was formed and moved to its current location.

But times were hard, and the board voted to close the theater doors about five years ago.

'This theater was in shambles,' Wilhite said. 'It was a disorganized mess and in debt.'

Wilhite came to Sandy in August 2006, and proposed doing a reprise of the four best plays of recent years. That move tripled attendance in one season.

'People got excited; people got involved,' he said, 'and we paid off the debt.'

An indicator of SAT's popularity is the more than 200 season passes sold today. Five years ago it was only 25.

With the board's recent action, Wilhite was asked to direct the current play 'Bill W. and Dr. Bob' as an independent contractor, and to direct the summer youth program - but that's all.

Wilhite doesn't hold any ill will against the board for asking for his resignation. He says it's expected that theaters change directors.

He explains it as a difference in philosophies between the creative and administrative sides of the theater business - similar to athletic coaches whose ideas sometimes differ from the team's owners.

There may be a difference, but that fact doesn't mean Wilhite will be less missed, less loved for what he helped so many people accomplish in such a short time.

'He was one of the main reasons I decided to go to school at the Portland Actors Conservatory,' said Patrick Roth, who returned to Sandy only for Wilhite's final play.

'He's a great mentor, and he helped me at a time in my life (early 20s) when I didn't know what to do with my life.'

Roth is referring to Wilhite's other career as a life coach, which he cannot leave behind while directing.

James Bass, who learned directing from Wilhite, says it is his encouraging way that sets Wilhite apart.

'Jim always has been a very different kind of director than I've ever dealt with,' Bass said. 'His way of doing things is to draw rather than push. He eagerly encourages people to do something rather than telling them how to do it.

'Because he's also a life coach, he encourages and motivates people. I've never seen that open and inviting attitude in a director, and it is very nurturing. That's Jim in a nutshell.'

Christine Lyons, who operates the sound board in the current play, says Wilhite affected her profoundly.

'Jim is an incredible teacher,' she said, 'and he will always have a special place in my heart for his ability to nurture and teach.'

Erin Hickman, Wilhite's daughter, has wanted to be on stage all of her life, and has worked with her father in several plays during the past four years. She recently graduated from the Portland Actors Conservatory.

She speaks about the immense amount of hard work and dedication it takes to be an artistic director.

'To make a good theater takes more than a good director or actor,' Hickman said. 'It takes heart and passion and love.

'My father is a kind-hearted man who is ready to take his talent where it will shine.'

During the past four years, Bass has been a close friend of Hickman - and therefore involved with Wilhite's family. Two weeks ago they became engaged.

'Being involved with his family and with the theater changed my life,' Bass said. 'It actually saved my life.

'He took time out of his schedule to counsel me. I have seen him do this with many people involved in the theater. He wasn't just a director; he became a guide, a friend, a confidant. He doesn't care about actors just for their performance. He cares about them as people, and that makes all the difference.'

Wilhite will continue directing the summer youth program, and his philosophy about youths in theater should bode well for SAT.

Beside the fact the board asked him to resign, Wilhite has nothing but good things to say about what the board has accomplished, especially Board Chairman Tim Fritts.

'I want to compliment Tim Fritts,' Wilhite said, 'for the tremendous work he has put into upgrading this building. He has made it beautiful and functional. I also respect and admire him for all the work he has put into the Readers Theater in Gresham.

'We may have differences where we can pound the table, but by the same token I have tremendous admiration for the quality of what he has created in this building, his outreach to the community and his passion for the theater.'

Ask any SAT actor, and you will hear nothing but accolades for Wilhite.

'I never had any acting experience before,' said Lyons of her first entrance to the SAT stage. 'I just came into the theater on a whim.

'I had no idea I would develop this relationship with (Wilhite). He gave me a chance in several plays. I later had a brain injury, and he helped with fundraising to support my family and me.

'He's an incredible man with an incredible gift. It's a gift that keeps on giving.'

Among Bass' accolades is a touch of sadness - even though he expects to continue working with Wilhite wherever he directs.

'The theater is not losing an artistic director,' he said. 'The theater is losing a friend.'