Kathy Wygle has worn many hats during her 50 years in Ketchum. Like many transplants, she had diverse jobs in order to live in the Wood River Valley. But most people would recognize her from the nexStage Theatre in Ketchum, as the smiling face greeting patrons at the door. What some might not know is that she was a trouper behind the scenes, who relentlessly fought to keep the theater open, both as a performance venue and as a community center. After 20 years as executive director of the nexStage, Wygle retired in July.
“What I’ll miss most is being the greeter, being the hostess welcoming people into our community. I will miss seeing so many people. What I will not miss is everything to do with the office. Everything about theater that I loved—well, none of it happened in the office,” she said, laughing.
Wygle directed the nexStage with a guiding principle of “community first.” Even when the building, an old Jeep dealership, was falling apart with structural and electrical problems, when finances were stretched to the limit and when the possibility of closing the theater loomed, Wygle never gave up and never lost sight of her purpose at the helm. She continued to provide top-notch theater while offering a venue to the community for fundraisers, art shows, film festivals, lectures, dance performances, classes, comedy shows and quinceañera celebrations. Wygle said the theater’s mission was “to provide a flexible venue for hosting, supporting and producing the performing arts, in addition to educational, multicultural, philanthropic and community events.” The theater hosted hundreds of events every year, and a 2014 news release stated that more than 25,000 people had come through its doors the previous year.
“In AA they say, ‘Don’t quit before the miracle,’ Wygle said. “The nexStage was too valuable an asset for the town to let it go. I wanted to hang in there.”
Wygle, 70, grew up in Medina, Wash., a Renaissance woman who excelled at math, gymnastics and ski racing. She said she first came to Sun Valley in 1967, against the wishes of her father, an executive at Boeing, after hearing about it from one of her sorority sisters. Wygle’s multiple jobs included parlor maid at the Sun Valley Lodge, bartender and bar manager at the Ore House, restaurant manager and owner, pet shop owner, real estate agent and salesperson at T’s and Temptations. But a tragic accident when she was 20 altered Wygle’s Sun Valley plans, and put her sunny attitude and fortitude to the test.
Wygle and a group of friends were walking down Sun Valley Road near the Horseman’s Center in the summer of 1968 when she was hit by a car. Finding her dreams of ski racing shattered along with her body, Wygle returned home to Seattle, where she finished her degree at the University of Washington.
“It was really life-changing because I thought of myself as a skier. I had an identity crisis. I thought, ‘What am I going to do now?’ It was a good thing, in retrospect,” said Wygle, whose upbeat attitude in the face of challenges remains a defining quality. “I stayed in school and came out to Sun Valley in the summers on and off. While I was working at the Ore House, I discovered that I loved the restaurant business.”
Wygle returned to Sun Valley in 1972, and worked at the Ore House for several years before becoming a co-owner and then owner of the Creekside Restaurant in Warm Springs. The restaurant flourished as part of the après-ski scene, she said. She met her husband, ski patroller Barry Irwin, when he walked into the restaurant on Valentine’s Day. The two have been married for 27 years.
“The ski community called the Warm Springs après-ski circuit ‘doing our ABC’s’—Apples, Barsotti’s and Creekside,” she said with a grin.
In the early 1970s, the Sun Valley Center for the Arts brought in two well-known theater directors—Vincent Dowling from the Abbey Theater in Dublin, Ireland, and Walt Jones from the Yale Drama School—to give acting classes to the community. Wygle had performed in plays in high school and competed in debate, oratory and interpretive reading, continuing with the latter throughout college.
“I can still remember, I competed in interpretive reading and I won with ‘A Raisin in the Sun.’ That was the spark,” she said.
At The Center’s acting classes, Wygle met Doatsy Hoyer, who had moved from South Carolina when her husband was hired as manager of the Elkhorn Resort. Hoyer encouraged Wygle and fellow acting-class members to put on local performances.
“She was the catalyst. I started the Laughing Stock Theater Company in 1977 and Doatsy directed our first show, which was ‘Plaza Suite’ at the Sun Valley Opera House. When her husband got transferred and they moved away, I took over as director. The first show I directed was ‘A Thousand Clowns.’ Wygle and Laughing Stock performed many shows at the Sun Valley Opera House for 15 years.
“When we were doing the big musicals at The Opera House, the whole town came to everything,” she said. “We did shows like ‘Mame,’ ‘A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,’ ‘Guys and Dolls,’ ‘Oklahoma!’ ‘Damn Yankees,’ ‘Oliver,’ ‘Annie,’ ‘The King and I’ and ‘The Man of La Mancha,’” she recalled.
In 1992, Ando Hixon bought the old Jeep dealership on the southern end of Main Street in Ketchum and Kevin McCauley christened it the nexStage Theatre, and started the Sun Valley Repertory Company. When McCauley left town, Laughing Stock began doing plays at the nexStage and the board of Sun Valley Repertory Company asked Wygle to be the new executive director.
“I ran the theater and took over the three-week summer camp. We became the nexStage Production Company,” she said.
As executive director of the nexStage Theatre, Wygle was able to leverage her twin passions of theater and community. Toward the end of the 1990s, Hixon decided he no longer wanted to own the nexStage. The announcement occasioned a community effort to save the theater as a valuable public resource and to keep it from being purchased by developers. While in the process of seeking donations from all and sundry, Wygle had coffee with Tim and Mary Mott, who pledged more than $1 million from the Mott Family Foundation to buy the theater.
“Mary Mott had been in our production of ‘Oliver’ and their son, Sam, played the title role,” Wygle said.
She added that the Mott Family Foundation leased the theater to the newly formed Sun Valley Performing Arts for $1 per year. Several years later, when circumstances changed and the foundation needed to sell the theater, the board and the Motts again stepped up and helped raise the money to buy it, Wygle said.
Twenty years later, numerous repairs were urgently required and it was time to fundraise again. Wygle noted that she was also thinking about retiring, but wanted to leave the theater in good shape and in good hands.
“I wouldn’t have wanted to retire unless I knew it would be a theater. Initially, we were just going to remodel because we couldn’t keep going the way it was. We needed to do so much.”
Thus began a fundraising effort that culminated in the razing of the old car dealership building and construction of the new Argyros Performing Arts Center.
“There’s something about the quality of our citizens—the high-intellect quotient, the level of education that brings a real appreciation for theater. They’re interested in nature and interested in art. If we want to keep theater in the valley, we have to realize that the community has to support it, because it’s not going to make money. I can retire knowing that the place that was so special to so many people is saved for the community forever. My life has been a dream come true. It could have ended so differently if the board, Tim Mott or I had given up, but again the community came through!”
Wygle said she plans to stay in the valley, where all three of her sisters now live. She and her sister Patsy, a professional actress, share a small office in Ketchum and will continue to run Laughing Stock Theatre, which will produce the annual Shakespeare Festival and “A Christmas Carol.” They will also continue their educational programs including Summer Stages and after-school classes, and work with arts supporter Jon Kane and the Play Reading Series. She also plans to do more hiking and skiing and enjoy some vacation time.
“I would never move. I love my town so much. All that I’ve had here has been a joy,” she said.