An Unexpected Journey: 25 Years of Memories for Departing Centralia College Theater Leader


Brian Tyrrell said his life has always been a lot like the Robert Frost poem “The Road Not Taken.”

In many instances during his career, two roads diverged, sometimes rather inconveniently, but it was the hard decisions and following his heart that led him to unexpected places and grand adventures.

So it should come as no surprise that’s exactly how he’s approaching retirement.

“I’m looking forward to it but it’s going to be a brand new challenge,” Tyrrell said. “Retirement is something your parents do. I never thought I’d be in a place in my life to say these words in earnest … In some ways I’m totally unprepared but excited for this new part of my life that will be a whole new adventure.”

June 17 is Tyrrell’s final day as a member of the Centralia College faculty, but Saturday night marks a poignant point in his 25-year career leading the Theater Department there: closing night for his final production. “Once on This Island,” which ends its run  Saturday night on the Corbet Theatre stage, is the 205th production at Centralia College since 1925. Tyrrell, only the third faculty member ever to lead the Theater Department, has produced 95 of those. 

He said the decision to retire came because 25 years felt like a nice, round number and he will be 65 years old this year.

“I think I have another one-quarter to one-third of my life left and there’s so many things I’m toying with and not all of them are crystal clear yet,” Tyrrell said.

Those who know Tyrrell for his theater may be surprised to learn that the first fork in the road for Tyrrell came when he decided not to become a sportscaster. A lifelong sports fan, Tyrrell said growing up in Selah he pictured himself being a sports announcer when he grew up. But part way into his college career at Washington State University, an instructor told him there were too many people in the program and most likely not enough work for all of them when they graduated. Then his high school theater teacher, Doug Kerr, came to WSU for graduate school and encouraged him to consider theater.

“He’s the reason I found my way into theater,” Tyrrell recalled. “I thought ‘I like this. I could do this.’”

Kerr said one of his favorite times with Tyrrell was in 1992 when he, then an instructor at Pierce College, brought a production of “Death of a Salesman” to Centralia College that had previously toured in Korea. The cast came not only needing a stage but also someone to play Biff Loman, and Tyrrell agreed to fill the role.

Over the next few years, the two colleges partnered to create a theater company that toured the Northwest and then Poland. Throughout their careers, Kerr and Tyrrell’s paths have crossed many times and they have stayed in contact with one another. Kerr said he has always enjoyed working with Tyrrell as well as watching his career grow.

“He’s very thorough, very serious about what he’s doing and he’s like me in the sense that he considers himself a role model to his students and everybody else who is working in his plays,” Kerr said. “Some of my favorite theater memories involve Brian.”

Tyrrell graduated from WSU in 1973 with a double major in theater and English and was hired to teach at his old high school in Selah. After three years teaching high school he applied and was accepted to the University of Oregon for graduate school but at the same a former administrator offered him a job at Capital High School in Seattle where he’d basically be able to build his own program from the ground up. He taught there 1976-1978.

It was a parent from Capital High School who encouraged him to explore Purdue University’s graduate program. Purdue was where he met his wife of 38 years, Jana, who works at Tumwater High School’s career center.

Tyrrell graduated from Purdue in 1980 and taught one year at Franklin Central High School in Indianapolis. He then auditioned for the National Shakespeare Festival when it visited Chicago and was hired in 1982. At the time he and Jana were engaged to be married.

“It was 10 men and two women in a bus we lovingly called Kate and off we went and every day was a different college campus,” Tyrrell recalled of his time with the company. “We traveled to 45 of the 48 continental United States. It was the sort of thing you do when you’re young but for a year it was a defining moment to me that I could make it.”

After his stint with the National Shakespeare Festival, the couple moved to Seattle and were there for one year before Brian was offered a job with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Oregon, where he worked 1984-87. In Ashland, their son, Jake, now 31, was born.

In 1987 the Alabama Shakespeare Festival made him an offer and they moved to Montgomery, Alabama. And then to Chicago where their daughter, Megan, now 28, was born at a hospital just a few blocks from Wrigley Field. He said the family always jokes that it is the reason his daughter is a Cubs fan. The growing family arrived in Chicago just a bit too late for Tyrrell to make the general auditions for most of the theaters in Chicago, so he took a job selling shoes at Athlete’s Foot.

In 1988, the family would move back to the Northwest for an offer for Tyrrell to teach at Gonzaga Prep in Spokane. He sent Jana and their two young children ahead to get settled. But no sooner had he arrived in Washington than he was both offered a role in a production of “Merchant of Venice” in Chicago and a job teaching at Tumwater High School. The family made the decision to move to Olympia.

“Talk about the road not taken,” Tyrrell noted.

Tyrrell was hired at Centralia College in 1991, only the third faculty member after Margaret Corbet (25 years and at least 10 productions) and Phillip Wickstrom (29 years and 85 productions). Brian’s stint at Centralia College, Jana Tyrrell noted, is the longest the family has ever lived in one place. 

When her schedule has permitted, Jana has been involved in many of Brian’s productions at Centralia College, both as an actress as well as behind the scenes. She said the experience has been a joy for both of them. But she noted that the rigors of teaching and directing shows left Brian with very few opportunities to accept roles as an actor and she said she is excited for him to be able to take advantage of opportunities that come available.

“Instead of being in charge of everything, he gets to just be in charge of Brian,” she said.

One of the highlights of Tyrrell’s time at Centralia College was the creation of Washington Hall, which opened in 2001. Previously, the theater department had been housed in the much smaller Corbet Hall on the other side of Washington Street. Tyrrell said one effort he hopes to be remembered for was his campaign to have the smaller theater in the new Washington Hall named the Phillip Wickstrom Studio Theater. 

Wickstrom today lives in Bothell but while he still resided in Lewis County following his retirement, he and Tyrrell worked closely together, including Wickstrom acting in three shows under Tyrrell’s direction. And Wickstrom directed and taught classes during the 1997-98 school year when Tyrrell took sabbatical to earn his MFA. Wickstrom said he felt Tyrrell was a good fit for the job and the chance to work with him only solidified that belief.

“What he leaves behind are two fine theaters, both first-rate in every aspect as good as any community college in the state of Washington and a two-year theater program that still exists and produces excellent work,” Wickstrom said. “Besides a talented director and actor he really is a fine person and very skilled.”

Advocating for his program is a legacy Kerr believes Tyrrell leaves behind. He explained that community colleges are mandated by state law to provide a balanced curriculum but often in the age of budget restraints, some colleges opt to cut some art forms in favor of others that are easier and less costly to provide. He said theater faculty must constantly work to prove their department’s viability.

“There’s a constant redefining yourself to the decision makers and I always thought he did a good job at that,” Kerr said.

The relationships he has built throughout the seasons with cast and crew will be what Tyrrell said he will miss most in retirement. He predicted it may be hard the first couple of mornings when he doesn’t have to get up to drive to work anymore.

“I couldn’t have asked for a better 25 years,” Tyrrell said. “There hasn’t been a day I haven’t looked forward to going to work.”

And while many theater regulars expressed optimism about the future of Centralia College theater, they said it will be sad to see Tyrrell no longer be part of it. Katie Medford, who has acted in multiple of Tyrrell’s shows said it was hard to think of an easy way to sum up the man who essentially built a strong theater program as a single person. She said it will be sad to see him go, but exciting to see what road he takes next.

“Scholastically it ends but the theater goes on,” Medford said. “Thank goodness for that.”