by Lorie Lewis Ham
Here at Kings River Life we have a passion for the arts and we try to share that with our readers in every way we can. One way is by doing local actor/director profiles featuring some of the talented people that bring the Valley theatre. However, the person we are profiling this month is such a big part of the Visalia arts community that calling this simply an actor/director profile seems inadequate.
Irene Morse moved to Visalia from Las Vegas in the 60s and has been involved in the Visalia theatre community since 1970 when a friend convinced her to volunteer with the Visalia Community Players. She went to a rehearsal of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and they put her to work selling ads for the program. “I was so smitten with the theatre bug that I saw every performance of that show – including the extra performances the group took to Porterville – and I made life-long friends that last to this day,” said Irene.
Her first acting role was the female lead in The Man In The Dog Suit. “I auditioned for a small part in The Man in the Dog Suit shortly after my experience with How to Succeed in Business and much to my horror, was given the female lead. The play began with me entering in a ballerina’s tutu which my husband (Keith Lindersmith) promptly removed leaving me on stage in, yes, my underwear (although it was very ample underwear). What was I thinking? The director (Sherald Sluka) stood next to me in the wings each night assuring me that I was NOT going to throw up; I’d be fine. To this day, I am nauseous before going on-stage every time.”
Irene’s first experience directing was 6 Rms Riv Vu, which was produced when the Players were between theatre homes. “My production was in the old Title Insurance building on Main St. and featured Players’ founding member, Betty McLain.”
“Irene is one of the most knowledgeable and well versed theatre directors I know,” shared Corey Ralston, who is currently directing The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee for the Visalia Community Players. “She has a voracious appetite for reading and seeing plays. Irene knows what makes a play great and uses that knowledge to produce powerful pieces. I am lucky to call her a mentor and consider myself lucky to get advice from her.”
After her children were grown, Irene returned to college and became a CPA. She uses her financial knowledge to help the arts as well as half of the Players business manager team for many years. Her other duties with them include being in charge of wardrobe and maintaining the costume collection, serving on the perusal committee which proposes the season each year, and representing them with the Arts Consortium. “I [also] staff the answering machine and take reservations for all the plays.”
“I am sure that without her dedication the organization (Visalia Community Players) would not exist today,” said Marn Reich, a member of their board of directors. “Additionally, she has greatly enhanced the productions by consistently contributing her talents to acting, directing, and costume design. No matter what the task on hand, from doing the accounting to schlepping furniture, Irene is always willing and extremely able.”
Irene’s favorite acting roles to date include Amanda in Glass Menagerie and Grace in Grace and Glory. One of her scariest moments in theatre was stepping into a role last minute. “I went on-stage, with a script and with four hours’ notice, for two performances of Philadelphia Story when the leading lady became ill.”
As to a dream role or dream show to direct, Irene stated that it is always changing. “There are a couple of Steven Dietz plays I’d like to direct and I’ve been reading some Hispanic plays by Culture Shock that intrigue me. The role of the mother in August, Osage County would lure me into line-memorizing hell again as would the role of the alcoholic woman in Other Desert Cities. Maybe the dying woman in Wit or the old woman in The Trip to Bountiful.”
Her favorite types of shows are typically dramas, though she enjoys comedies and musicals as well. She prefers shows that inform people and make them think. “I like shows that portray human beings – real humans, not straw figures – flawed, admirable, funny, sad, all colors and ethnicities of human beings. I love the timeliness and relevance of Shakespeare; the tragedy, humor and drama.”
What has kept Irene involved in theatre all these years is not only her belief that it’s very important to the community, but also because she simply loves doing it. When asked what she likes best about acting, she stated that it’s all about putting on someone else’s skin and being her for a while. “Learning what is nice about her, what is not so nice and understanding both. Trying out situations that may be exciting, frightening, dangerous, or wonderful without having to face real consequences. Learning to find the lovable in the despicable woman (and the despicable in the lovable). Learning more about myself while putting myself in someone else’s life.”
What has helped her grow the most as an actor is simply experience—in being in shows, seeing shows, reading plays, and learning and taking a chance. “Trying new things and failing – sometimes not. Becoming old enough to not be afraid of being unattractive on stage and not afraid to examine a character and find that part in me.”
As to directing, her creative process is much different than for acting. “More what I imagine a visual artist experiences when making a painting or sculpture. A director takes someone’s written work, examines it to find what the playwright was saying and then brings it to life on the stage. A community theatre director works with volunteers and has the responsibility of helping to bring the best work possible from the cast, to help form a cohesive group with a common goal, to be true to the playwright’s work and to respect the audience reactions.”
Through the years, Irene has not only been a big part of the Visalia Community Players, she was also involved with Friends of the Fox when they were remodeling the Fox Theatre, has been president of the Tulare County Symphony Board, taught drama and writing at the Creative Center, has written for Visalia Lifestyle Magazine, is a founding member of the Visalia Arts Consortium, and more!
“Irene is a wonderful person to know. She embraces and promotes collaboration in the arts community and she knows a lot about the history and evolvement of the local arts scene,” said Caroline Koontz, Executive Director of the Visalia Arts Consortium.
Irene encourages people to get involved with the arts, and especially the Visalia Community Players. The need for volunteers in every area is always there and you never know where it will lead. She also believes the arts are vital to any community. “An art-rich community provides a lovely environment in which to live and raise children. An art-rich community is a better educated community. An art-rich community more easily attracts businesses and helps bring fiscal health to the area. The ability to participate in the arts makes people more ‘well-rounded’ and makes the lives of citizens richer. Community theatre does not mean less quality theatre, it just means volunteers as opposed to paid professionals – which a community of our size could never support.”
Beyond her involvement with the arts, when she does have free time Irene enjoys traveling, gardening, reading and cooking. She is part of a book club and a cooking group and also enjoys time with the family. “My husband, Gary, and I have a blended family of five children, four children-in-law, ten grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren – with another one coming this fall.”Currently you can see Irene on stage in To Kill A Mockingbird which opened in Visalia this weekend, in the role of the grown-up Scout, Jean Louise Finch. “People who rely on the movie will be surprised because in the film, it was a voice-over. The role is enchanting in so many ways. The first, of course, is the writing – it is so beautiful. The words are a pleasure to say and a delight to hear. The story is timeless and poignant.”
Nancy Holley is directing Irene for the first time in Mockingbird, but has worked with her at the Players for many years. “I have worked with Irene as a fellow actor and as a costume designer. Her professionalism in both roles is unsurpassed.”