Remembering Doris Harper-White

Flagstaff, AZ – Flagstaff theater founder Doris Harper-White died earlier this week at 82. She played a pivotal role establishing community theater in northern Arizona. And she touched many lives as an actor, as a director but most of all as a mentor. Arizona Public Radio's Laurel Morales has this remembrance.

Doris Harper-White's warm smile greets you when you enter the theater named in her honor. Her presence is still felt by many including Nancy Wonders who has volunteered with the Theatrikos Theater Company for several years.

WONDERS: Every time I and others step in there she's there with us. She is in me. I couldn't imagine who I would be without all the gifts of Doris Harper-White. Her legacy will be lasting she trained people she gave of herself there is a generation now of directors and artists at that playhouse who embody Doris Harper White.

Harper-White will be remembered for her generosity, graciousness and enthusiasm.

WONDERS: I mean she was this tiny little woman and a firecracker of a personality though. She believed that anyone could act anyone could direct. She would inspire and encourage people who never could imagine themselves on stage imagine that as possible.

Long-time friend Carolyn Hunter spoke by phone from California.

HUNTER: She really was willing to give unstintingly of herself to the arts and to her friends.

Harper-White cast Hunter in Harvey, a play they performed in the basement of Little America Hotel in 1975. Together they looked for a better performance space. Doris set her sights on the old library, a building that several people wanted to tear down to pave a parking lot.
But she lobbied the Flagstaff city council until they agreed to make it the theater's permanent home.

HUNTER: She is the constant that stayed with it worked in all kinds of capacities glorious ones and those that are not so glorious in order to keep the interest in the arts alive.

So it's no surprise when the theater board was celebrating the company's 30th anniversary in 2002 they voted unanimously to name the theater the Doris Harper White Community Playhouse.

Linda Sutera recalls when they told her.

LINDA SUTERA: She was just Oh my God' she couldn't believe it. She was so humble about it. It was like embarrassing to her that we would name the playhouse after her. But that was the kind of person she was. She didn't want that much of attention.

Sutera says they always had that in common. Harper-White convinced her to act in the mid eighties.

LINDA: Taking a very, very shy introverted person who can't imagine being on stage and turning me into an actor that loves it. It just literally changed my life in that way. I became more outgoing.

Playwright Warren Doody says Harper-White had a profound impact on him as well.

DOODY: Everything I'm doing in my life right now from teaching to what I teach which is play writing and dramatic lit to writing plays none of that would have happened if it wasn't for Doris. My meeting her was so much a part of my fate and my destiny.

Doody says Doris was notorious for her long rehearsals and her late night phone calls.

DOODY: Whenever the rehearsal was over we could almost predict the minute we walked in the door even if it was midnight the phone would ring. And we would talk about those rehearsals for another hour. And some of those nights were long nights but I would give anything for one of those phone calls now.

The community playhouse relies on volunteers typically with day jobs. Tony Sutera considered himself Doris' greatest challenge.

TONY: She took me from a football coach in 1989 to doing Shakespeare in 1990. When somebody takes you on that kind of journey that quickly and opens up such a part of you that you've never seen before you become really close. We've adored Doris ever since.

Tony and his wife Linda remained close with Doris after she succumbed to dementia in recent years. She was cared for by her daughter Karen and Loyalton, an assisted living community.

TONY: Karen had said, I see Tony and Linda came in this afternoon,' and she said, Oh did they? I bet we had fun.' I think that's the hardest thing this is a woman who prided herself on keeping in touch with everybody always being on top of where your life is and sharing it and to watch her have this terrible disease that took her away from that thing that defined her that was the hardest for both Linda and I.

But the couple will remember Doris' many gifts.

TONY: She had a closing line like any good TV or radio personality would have. And her closing line was always, "you take care of each other" and I still think of that when I think of Doris.

Harper-White is survived by three children, seven grandchildren and three great grandchildren. Her husband director and professor Clifford White died late last year.

A memorial service will be held October 17th at the Federated Community Church in Flagstaff with a reception to follow at the Doris Harper White Community Playhouse.

For Arizona Public Radio I'm Laurel Morales in Flagstaff.