GEM Theatrics mourns the loss of theater titan Paul Dreher

Grand Rapids, Michigan theater professionals and patrons lost a giant yesterday. Paul A. Dreher, 80, passed away after a short illness. During his more than 50 years in the Grand Rapids theater community, Paul directed, acted, and lit hundreds of shows and mentored perhaps thousands of theater professionals. As Managing Director of the Grand Rapids Civic Theatre from 1960 to 1999, he guided the theatre from a respected community theatre to the number two community theatre in the nation, providing entertainment to over 100,000 theater patrons each season and managing a budget in excess of $1M. Those numbers are impressive, but it’s the smaller numbers that say the most about this gentleman (and gentle man). My Facebook news feed has been full of testimonials from theater professionals and enthusiasts of all ages, each with a unique story to tell about about his or her personal experience with Paul. And the memories and stories are all ones of generosity and caring.

I only worked with Paul a handful of times (Mary Beth worked with him earlier and more often), but my memories are also bright. I was an actor in High School and College, and had performed for a couple of small community theaters, when I put that part of my life on hold to pursue another career. In 1995, with a career transition looming, I decided to get back into local theatre. My first show back wasn’t for Paul or GR Civic, but for another theatre in town (thank you Rosanne Steffens!) and my welcome wasn’t very welcoming, if the critic for the local paper could be believed. Undaunted, I auditioned latter that year for Paul in Neil Simon’s “Lost In Yonkers.” I had been told that it was hard to get parts at Civic and that Paul was a gruff old bird. Anyway, I went to both nights of auditions and there were just two men there, me and another guy. There were two men’s roles available, so at the end of the night, I shook hands with the other guy and told him I’d see him at the read-through, because we must have the parts (no one had told me that Paul had a habit of calling actors he knew and recruiting them if auditions didn’t turn up the people he wanted — more on that later). The next day, my phone rang and it was Paul. He told me that he’d never heard of me, but that he really liked my audition. Then, he said, “I can’t decide which role I want you for, and I really didn’t care that much for the other guy, so I wonder if you would be willing to play both parts; they’re never on stage at the same time, so it would be possible.” I was silent, stunned. “Look”, he said, “this is either the stupidest idea I’ve ever had or one of the best.” Paul hadn’t seen me in my first show. He didn’t know me at all, didn’t know whether or not I could even memorize a single line and, except for the show a few months earlier, I hadn’t been on a stage in more than 15 years. I was terrified, but I said yes. When we got into rehearsal, Paul moved me around the stage (a process called blocking) and then we started running through the show. After each rehearsal, there would be notes, where Paul would tell us what we had done wrong or what we could do to make our parts better. Most nights, I didn’t get any notes. I became worried. I thought it must be that I was so bad, Paul couldn’t make me better. I didn’t dare confront Paul, afraid that he would tell me to my face that this was the stupidest idea he’d ever had, so I asked one of my cast-mates, Marti Childs, a theater veteran, about it. She looked me right in the eye and said, “Paul only tells you if you’re doing something wrong; if you’re doing something right, he leaves you alone.” Paul himself told me once that he didn’t think it was his job to stroke actors’ egos. “The audience does enough of that” he said.

The following year, Civic was mounting N. Richard Nash’s “The Rainmaker” about a con man who injects himself into a Western family’s home during a drought with the promise to bring rain. I’d been in love with the role of Starbuck, the rainmaker, for years, having seen the film, starring Burt Lancaster and Katharine Hepburn. By 1996, though, I was 42 years old, my waist was a bit thick, and my hair was a bit thin to play the dashing con man. But, I WANTED that part. So, months early, I started to exercise and work out — and I bought a hairpiece. I wore the hairpiece to the audition. I knew Paul would notice, but my hope was that most of the other people wouldn’t, because I wasn’t that well known. Paul’s eyes got a little wider when I walked in, but he didn’t say anything. The only thing he ever said to me about it was during a break in the auditions when he whispered as he walked past me, “Nice toupe.” I got the part and that confidence really boosted me.

The last time I worked with Paul was 1997, when I was on the receiving end of one of those phone calls I told you about. Paul told me he wasn’t satisfied with the men who had auditioned for the part of Merv Kant, the “faux furrier”, in Wendy Wasserstein’s delightful “The Sisters Rosenzweig.” I hadn’t auditioned because I thought I was a bit too old for the part, it was a romantic part (and I didn’t get too many of those) and Merv had to sing a bit and dance and that wasn’t me. Paul said he understood my concerns, but he thought I could do it. I had a wonderful time in the show, perhaps expanded my range a bit, and if Paul ever thought he’d made a mistake, he never let me know it.

That was the last time I was in a Paul Dreher show. I haven’t worked with Paul for more than 15 years, but when I learned yesterday that he had died, all of these memories came flooding back. If he was a tough guy, and I guess he was in his younger days, I didn’t see it. If we worked hard, it was only to put on the best show we could to please the patrons. Civic runs were long in those days, with shows running Tuesdays through Sundays for three weeks or more. We would get tired, but Paul would always say that we had to give our best. “You’ve done this show a dozen times” he would tell us, “but for the patrons in the seats, it’s their first time, and they deserves the best you’ve got.” Maybe in theater, and in life, those are the only words you need to live by.

Thank you, Paul.

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