The small "black box" theater in Centralia College's Washington Hall was at near-capacity Wednesday afternoon. More than 60 guests gathered inside the small studio theater to hear friends and former students share their best memories of Phillip Wickstrom, after which lettering proclaiming the entrance to the Phillip Wickstrom Studio Theatre was unveiled.
At its February meeting, the Centralia College Board of Trustees approved a motion to name the theater after Wickstrom, who taught at the college from 1962 to 1991, and who has directed more than 150 plays since his start with the college. Brian Tyrrell, Wickstrom's successor to the Centralia drama program, wrote a letter to the board last year, asking it to consider naming the theater for his predecessor.
Dr. George Mohoric, one of the five trustees on the CC board, spoke first at the ceremony.
"Every time I think about it, it has a nice ring," said Mohoric, referring to the studio theater's new moniker. "It sounds better than 'the black box.'"
The theater is often referred to as "the black box" in reference to the college's first studio theater. In the 1960s Wickstrom and a group of students painted an unused home economics classroom in the Hanson building black to use for student theater projects. When the new Washington Hall was built and equipped with its own studio theater, the dark, close confines were often referred to as "the black box."Before his tenure at the college, Wickstrom taught for five years at Centralia High School. Lewis County Commissioner Jim Lowery, a CHS graduate, took a literature class from Wickstrom and auditioned for a role in the school play during his junior year.
"You couldn't ask for a better teacher, and you couldn't ask for a better director," said Lowery, who offered his congratulations during the ceremony. "I used what you taught me about not diminishing other people's views, and it's worked well for me."
Rich Garrett, who studied drama under Wickstrom at the college from 1989 to 1991, spoke admiringly of his mentor's deep, distinct voice.
"I would kill for that baritone he has," joked Garrett, currently a sixth-grade teacher in Tumwater. "My zeal for performing was fully realized under Phillip."
Pug Bujeaud began her education at Centralia College in 1977, with the intent of becoming an actor. She recalled her first audition in the Corbet Theatre.
"The first thing I noticed was this very tall man," she said. "The next thing I noticed was the voice. When that voice told you something, you tended to listen."
Wickstrom's tutelage, she said, converted her from a girl who wanted to be an actor into a woman who wanted to become an artist.
"I may not live a conventional life," she said, "but I live a full one. I have lessons learned from that tall man to thank for it."
Tyrrell, since Wickstrom's retirement in 1991, has acted and directed with his predecessor on several occasions. Before applying for the job, he came to Centralia to meet Wickstrom.
"This man led me on a gracious one-hour tour of the building, as if I'd already been given the job," said Tyrrell.
His past 15 years in Centralia, he added, have been just as pleasant.
"It's been just a joy," he said.
Finally, before the lettering above entrance to the was unveiled, a good-natured Wickstrom stepped on stage to address his friends and admirers.
"I sit here and listen to you rehearse my past, and, like a good director, I want to jump up and say, 'No! That's not it at all!'" he said, laughing with his audience.
"You honor me not for what I did, but for work that I got others to do," he said. "I'm thrilled and honored to join the distinct company that we see around this campus."
Staying true to the medium of art that he most enjoys, Wickstrom quoted Lord Polonius from Shakespeare's "Hamlet."
"'Brevity is the soul of wit,'" he said, moments before reciting the tale of the original black box theater. "But he didn't take his own advice, and I won't either."
With the addition of his name to the title of the college's current black box theater, he said, his career has come full circle.
"Life is good, my friends," he said, just before exiting the stage of the Phillip Wickstrom Studio Theatre. "Life is good."
Aaron VanTuyl covers education and religion for The Chronicle. He may be reached at 807-8237 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.