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McNary’s drama queen taking a bow

McNary drama program coordinator Linda Baker will stage her final McNary musical beginning next Jan. 20. (KEIZERTIMES/Eric A. Howald)

Of the Keizertimes

Linda Baker knows something about the power of theater that often isn’t shared with the audience.

“Last year, I had a boy who was an giant goth child and part of his joy was to go around and be angry at people and make fun of them when they didn’t share his sensibilities, but he was very charismatic,” Baker said.

Part of the student’s schtick was to scorn and make fun of the girls in the Junior Miss pageant when their photos went up in the display case outside the theater.

“Each time he tried out for a play, I would cut his hair, take off his make-up and send him out on stage as the pretty boy. By the end of his second year, he told me he couldn’t [make fun of the Junior Miss contestants] anymore because he knew almost half of them and he liked them all,” Baker said.

At the end of the school year, Baker will bow out of her role as McNary’s maven of dramatic arts –  Hairspray which begins its run at 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 20, will be her final musical – and return to the classroom as a reading teacher, but her history at the school and its drama program will echo long after the final curtain falls.

When she was hired for the job of taking over the drama department 15 years ago, she was given a brief assessment of the state it was in.

“I was told we have a tradition of excellence, we always do a musical and the auditorium is a mess. Basically, it was chaos,” Baker said.

One of her first priorities was switching the musical from the fall term to the winter term, which created the space to build a better production.

“The musicals are a huge spectacle that give back a lot of energy. That energy stretches me in new ways every time, but I get to create something I want to see, she said.

Most high schools typically only produce two productions each year, but McNary stages three and, in especially good years, four.

“So far as I have been able to find out,” said Dan Hays, a longtime Baker collaborator. “McNary is the only high school in Oregon to stage Shakespeare every year.  That’s due to the wisdom and drive of Linda Baker, as is the success of the entire department.”

Given the deep well of experience to draw from, Baker has difficulty picking the most memorable moments.

Staging Sound of Music with Amy Kerr, who went on to become the national Junior Miss winner, makes the list, as does the school’s production of South Pacific shortly after Sept. 11, 2001. In the scene where Lt. Joseph Cable is dying, they brought an orchestra member out of the pit to play taps and the recollection of the moment still causes her to well up. However, the one that stands out as truly transcendent was McNary’s production of Les Miserables.

“It was such a big, powerful show. I would watch it and say I don’t remember directing these kids like this. I just told them where they were supposed to go and they made magic,” Baker said.

Of course, there were also moments that she’s tried hard to forget, like being buried in plaid trying to get the costuming right for two different productions of Brigadoon.

“No matter what, I never have enough of the right plaid to outfit the kids. Both times I ended up at the school at 7:30 at night and tears are coming down my face. Fortunately,  each time a mother has shown up and kept me from hanging myself with a plaid kilt,” she said.

Fifteen years has permitted her to cover a lot of territory on the stage, but her great white whale eluded her.

“There is only one musical I’m sorry I didn’t get to do,” Baker said.  “We tried very hard to get the rights to Wicked, but they simply are not allowing any academic or amateur productions as yet.”

Stepping out from the drama department has been on her mind the past few years, but her reasons boil down to principles as much as anything.

“Once you stop saying ‘yes, and’ you’ve finished building and you’re just maintaining something,” Baker said. “Things that are just maintained eventually deteriorate and it’s time to bring in new blood. My concern was I didn’t want to become the monster that someone else had to live up to.”

Earlier this year, she handed over the reigns of the incoming students to her successor, Dallas Myers. Her hope is that by the time he takes over full control of the program next year, Myers will have a cadre of students who know that he’s the one to go to when there are problems.

The biggest lesson she’s taking away from the job is an oft-repeated refrain: don’t sweat the small stuff.

“But that isn’t the same as detail. Details, like having every kid in the same pair of shoes, are important, but if an actor is missing rehearsal because of a swim meet everything is still going to come together,” she said.

The one lesson she hopes she’s imparted to her charges along the way is the one her goth student learned last year:

“The thing I want them to remember is that we are them and they are us,” she said. “It’s very hard for the cheerleader to ignore the guy from autoshop if he’s had his hands in her armpits for a two-hour dance rehearsal.

“Our differences make strengths and we can find commonalities almost always, it’s what allows people from very different backgrounds to come together and make something amazing.”