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'Hairspray' director is at home on and off the stage

Peggy Taphorn returns to Tigard to direct this time around
by: Barbara Sherman LOVES TO DIRECT — Peggy Taphorn, who is directing the Broadway Rose Theatre Company’s production of “Hairspray,” stands by a set piece at the New Stage before the start of one of the first rehearsals.

Rehearsals were underway in early June for the upcoming Broadway Rose Theatre Company production of "Hairspray," and director Peggy Taphorn was missing a few people.

A couple of high school students in the play had graduation events to attend, and the choreographer was a day late coming to town, but in "the show must go on" tradition, Taphorn carried on with rehearsals.

Taphorn, who is now the producing artistic director of the Temple Theatre in Sanford, N.C., is a familiar face to Broadway Rose patrons, appearing in "Chicago" and in "Dames at Sea."

Behind the scenes for Broadway Rose, Taphorn directed and choreographed "Chicago," "42nd Street," "Singin' in the Rain" and "Dames at Sea."

Taphorn has spent most of her career either on Broadway or doing national tours, and fate has nudged her along several times by putting her in the right place at the right time.

Born and raised in Belleville, Ill., where she was the fourth of five children, Taphorn's first "nudge" happened when her older sister wanted to take dance lessons, and Taphorn, age 4 ½,was taken along.

"I got suckered into it," she said of the tap, jazz and ballet classes.

Taphorn's two sisters eventually opened their own dance studio, and by the time Taphorn was in the fifth grade, she was teaching tumbling, tap and jazz to youngsters; by the seventh grade, she also was teaching adult disco classes.

"I taught dancing all through high school," she said. "Our high school had a theater program and did one musical a year. In my junior year, I was in 'Anything Goes,' and in my senior year, I played Nellie Forbush in 'South Pacific.'"

Taphorn got the lead role without ever taking private voice lessons - her only singing experience was in school and church choirs.

Fate gave Taphorn another nudge when it was time to go to college: Her choir teacher took students to various auditions, and "I was a seat filler," Taphorn said.

At an audition for entrance into Webster University's prestigious Conservatory of the Arts, students from all over the country performed well-rehearsed monologues and songs, while Taphorn winged it on the spot, incorporating lines from debate club and music from "South Pacific."

She earned a spot in the freshman class for her unusual and "avant-garde" audition, acknowledging, "My life has been one lucky accident after another."

The conservatory used a cut system in which students were systematically eliminated after sophomore year for not demonstrating the qualities needed to perform, and Taphorn's class went from 42 to 11.

"Of course, we all realize that theater is very subjective," Taphorn said.

At the school, students learned all aspects of theater onstage and behind the scenes, from sewing costumes to using power tools to running spotlights. "It teaches you that you will end up naked in the dark if you aren't nice to your dresser and the lighting technician," she observed.

By Taphorn's junior year, she got cast in a regional theater production of "Rocky Horror Picture Show" and got her Actors' Equity Association card. The show was supposed to run that spring and summer but continued for almost 1 ½ years, so Taphorn left college when she had one semester left because she couldn't attend college and be in the show at the same time.

"I later went back and got my (bachelor of fine arts) degree," Taphorn said.

A college friend asked Taphorn to share a house on Staten Island in New York, and while living there she went to at least one audition a day, taking the ferry so often that the operators all knew her.

Fate was waiting to tap her on the shoulder again: The Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival was putting on a play, "Broadway," by theater and film legend George Abbot, who at age 100 was directing it.

Taphorn had been cast in "Broadway" and showed up on the first day of rehearsals, remembering, "I got a message from a stagehand to read for the lead for Mr. Abbott. I thought I was reading to be the understudy. Mr. Abbott said, 'Can you play this part?' I said, 'Yes.'

'He said, 'You got it.' Mr. Abbott replaced the girl who was cast in the part on the spot!"

The play went on to Broadway, although it only ran for two weeks.

"You go from being on top of the world back to auditioning,' Taphorn said. 'I've learned to never turn down a job as long as there is a modicum of payment."

Taphorn was subsequently cast in more shows on Broadway and in national tours.

"New York City theater is a small world in which it seems that the same 100 people rotate among the shows," she said. "I was fortunate to get into that 'Broadway club.' I was on stage quite a bit. My teaching skills helped me get jobs. I could see something and do it. I could see something and teach it."

Over the years, Taphorn also appeared in London, Canada, South America and the Far East, and along the way, she directed and choreographed plays and musicals too.

"But as much as I loved directing and choreographing, I decided I needed a technical vocabulary," Taphorn said. "I decided I needed more training."

So she worked as a stage manager on several plays and also as dance captain to gain those skills, and luckily, she never had to take a day job outside the business as many performers do.

But after living in the New York area and being on the road for 22 years, Taphorn was ready for a change of pace, and fate was ready to nudge her once again.

A friend working at North Carolina School of the Arts told her about the producing artistic director job at the Temple Theatre in Sanford, and after two interviews, Taphorn was hired. So in 2007 she bought a car, packed up her belongings and moved to Sanford, which has a population of 30,000.

"The theater is a 330-seat, fully restored, vaudeville theater that has great acoustics,' Taphorn said.

"I'm proud to be there and look forward to growing with the theater in the future," said Taphorn, noting that 70 percent of her audiences comes from outside the area.

Taphorn is starting her fifth season at the Temple, and the theater produces six main stage productions per year along with three youth conservatory programs and one special event per month.

"North Carolina is green like Oregon, and I am the most exhausted and happiest I have ever been living and working there," Taphorn said. "But it's fun to come here to Tigard and see how other regional theaters operate."

Taphorn admires Dan Murphy and Sharon Maroney, who moved from New York and started the Broadway Rose Theatre Company 20 years ago, for their accomplishments.

"Dan and Sharon had made a lot of sacrifices, and they do a lot of outreach, like I am doing," Taphorn said. "It is amazing what Dan and Sharon and their staff and the community have done.

'In the six years I have been coming here, I see all the changes they have made, like going to year-round theater.'

When Taphorn took over at the Temple, she found there were a lot of challenges.

'There were no volunteers, no kids, no one hanging out,' she said. 'I had to get all that started.

"This is like a vacation to come here. I have not directed 'Hairspray' before, but I wanted to. It has a great message. It's a big, old-fashioned, flashy musical with a transforming story that takes the audience along with it."

Taphorn and Maroney held auditions for "Hairspray" in New York, and Taphorn flew out here for the local auditions to round out the 31-member cast.

"There is a lot of great local talent, and it's good to meet new people and reconnect with friends I've made here over the years," Taphorn said.

"I have always enjoyed coming to the Broadway Rose. I am looking forward to coming back for its 25th and 35th anniversaries."