Actress is force behind new theater group in Woodinville

From the The Seattle Times, August 13, 1998 • Donated by Eddie.

by Sherry Grindeland, Seattle Times Eastside bureau

Feisty stage and television actress Peg Phillips doesn't believe in complaining. She believes in action. When she realized last April that her beloved Woodinville was studded with shopping centers and strip malls, she started a theater group. "My town looks like we had a grand mall seizure," she quipped. "I looked around and there was nothing else to do besides buy stuff. We needed art."

Phillips, who played storekeeper Ruth Anne on television's "Northern Exposure," invited 14 friends over to discuss the problem. By the end of the meeting, Woodinville Repertory Theater was born. "I Hate Hamlet," the group's inaugural production, opens tonight. Even for small theater groups, four months is a rapid turnaround. Phillips, a Quaker, credits that to divine help - "We seem to have a direct line upstairs" - and a core of enthusiastic and hardworking supporters. Donations from area businesses and residents also have helped.

Officially Phillips is the founder and artistic director, with plans to do both some acting and directing. Unofficially, she's the worrier. "That's my job, you know," she said. "I have to worry." She worried about getting actors. Forty-five people, many of them professionals, showed up for auditions. She worried about technical support. "Then technical people came out of the woodwork," she said.

One of those was Woodinville High School drama teacher Hjalmer Anderson, who agreed to direct the play, a modern comedy about the ghost of John Barrymore and a television actor tapped for a Central Park production of Shakespeare. Finding performance space was a challenge, with the current production at Leota Junior High School and future productions tentatively planned around school calendars. The group is part of preliminary studies being done toward building a Northshore area performance center. Phillips has an excuse for not noticing the downtown development in Woodinville until April.

Last year she divided her time between Woodinville and California, sitting with her daughter, Katie, through a terminal illness. Watching Katie die from pancreatic cancer was difficult, Phillips said. They'd spend long hours together and have good times. Phillips would come back to the Eastside for short breaks and to grieve, then head back to California. Katie was the second child Phillips has lost. "Your children aren't supposed to die before you do," she said. "My son, Arthur, died in an accident when he was 20. "At least I had time to say goodbye to Katie. With Arthur, a policeman knocked on the door. "You don't ever get over that shock."

Although she didn't accept any acting jobs during her daughter's illness, the entertainment world didn't forget Phillips. When Katie died, actors phoned Phillips from around the country. Barry Corbin (Maurice Minnifield on "Northern Exposure") called from Texas. John Cullum (Holling Vincoeur on the show) called from New York. "The whole `Northern Exposure' crew stays in touch," Phillips said. "We're in each others pockets. After five years together, we were family."

She lives in a small farmhouse, one of several tucked in burgeoning subdivisions just north of downtown Woodinville. The area was rural when Phillips moved here more than two decades ago. A neighbor interrupts Phillips' memories, dropping off a four-leaf clover. "That's why I have a successful acting career," Phillips said. "She brings me the four-leaf clovers for luck."

Throughout her adult life Phillips has done some community theater, but for 40 years the Everett native worked as a tax accountant. A necessity, she said, because she was a single mother of four children. When she retired at the age of 66, she enrolled as a freshman at the University of Washington drama school. Almost instantly she began to get jobs and now, approaching her 80th birthday, Phillips still needs 1 1/2 years to get her degree.

Whenever work seems to dry up, she considers going back to the U. "Re-enrolling is a sure way to get a job," she said. "I spend two days on campus and I'm back to work. "I want that degree though. My three daughters had seven degrees among them and their old lady hasn't gotten one, yet." Phillips doesn't sit around waiting for her agent's call. She gardens. She visits a granddaughter and her family in Australia. She spends time with her remaining two daughters, other three grandchildren and seven great grandsons.

She reads voraciously. Books spill off the shelves in her comfortable living room. Author George Plimpton shares space with Toni Morrison, Studs Terkel, and a half dozen gardening books. David Halberstam's "The Children" sits on her coffee table. "Books are stacked up in the bedrooms, too," she said. Her own book may soon be among the stacks.

Phillips, at the urging of a friend, has completed her autobiography - at least the first 80 years. She has begun looking for a publisher. In her book will be tales about living in a San Francisco slum where she led youth activities, including midnight basketball games long before they became popular. It will also include stories about starting a theater inside the Echo Glen youth rehabilitation facility near Issaquah.

She jumps up to answer the theater telephone line, her bare feet striding across the carpet. She is happy that someone is ordering tickets. That's what she worried about this week, selling enough tickets to keep the fledging theater production company going. "I want to to sell them all," she said. "I want to sell out all the performances."

Copyright 2002 The Seattle Times Company

Northern Exposure is Copyright Universal City Studios. All Rights Reserved.

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