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Bill Becvar, PLU professor, director who helped found Tacoma Actors Guild, dies at 76

William Becvar
William Becvar

A man who helped bring professional theater to Tacoma and trained many actors and actresses in the area has died.

William “Bill” Becvar passed away Friday, days before his 77th birthday.

He was the director of theater at Pacific Lutheran University before he retired to his childhood home in Decorah, Iowa, and he was instrumental in starting the Tacoma Actors Guild in 1978, the city’s only resident professional theater company at the time.

He directed many performances the school and at the company before it closed in 2007.

“He was demanding, sort of the court jester one moment and cracked the whip the next,” said Jeff Clapp, who was a student of Becvar’s and until recently held his post at PLU. “And he got great work out of people.”

Clapp remembers the extensive notes, in impeccable cursive, that Becvar would write about his charges’ work.

“Most of us directors will hold the cast after rehearsal and give your notes verbally to the cast, which can last a long time,” Clapp said. “Bill would write the notes down and post them with the admonishment: ‘If you don’t read them, I will know.’”

It’s the same beautiful handwriting and detail with which Becvar would write to Clapp’s son, to whom he was a godfather, Clapp said.

And, Clapp said, he had the best Oscars party in town to boot — with televisions in the bathrooms and all.

Another close friend, Jeff Mandels of Sammamish, recalled Becvar as an especially gifted instructor and listener.

“He was completely immersed in his profession,” Mandels said. “He loved sharing information. I think that’s why so many of his students enjoyed him. It was something Bill made exciting.”

Mandels married Becvar’s ex-wife, actress Cheri Sorenson. Becvar directed her in several plays for the Tacoma Actors Guild. Each time, Mandels said, Sorenson would say she’d never work for Becvar again.

“She continued to tell me that each of the seven times they worked together,” Mandels said, laughing.

They did good work together, Mandels said.

“Because of his love of the work, some of the best stuff TAG did, Bill directed,” Mandels said.

Sorenson died in 1996. Becvar helped take care of her two daughters, supporting them when they pursued college and vocational training.

Becvar also donated to the university. There’s a script library he gifted the school, a scholarship for theater students that he established, and a new Dr. William J. Becvar Studio Theater Stage.

He directed a comedy called “Rumors” by Neil Simon at PLU in 1998, and it happens to be returning to the stage on campus next month.

In light of his passing, the school is dedicating the production to Becvar, and Clapp is working to invite students from the 1998 show to attend.

Becvar did comedy well and would probably get a kick out of the timing of the show, he said.

“He taught people how to be funny,” Clapp said. “His comedies were awesome. Ultimately, he was funny.”

Alexis Krell: 253-597-8268

alexis.krell@thenewstribune.com

@amkrell

Staff writer Adam Ashton contributed to this report.

In his memory

Donations can be made to the Dr. William Becvar Theatre Scholarship at Pacific Lutheran University.

In his words

Becvar gave The News Tribune in 1998 the following accounts of some of the Tacoma Actors Guild shows he was a part of during the group’s first 20 years:

“Guys and Dolls” (1978): “The Temple Theatre hadn’t been used for a show in I don’t know how long, and one of my big concerns was the hemp rope to raise and lower the sets. We were in the final run-through, and I was moving toward the stage to correct something when, all of a sudden, I hear this ripping noise and somebody yells, ‘Run!’ The next minute the whole mission set is crashing down. The rope had broken. The set sort of bounded toward the orchestra, where everybody and their valuable violins were sitting. Bob Musser was conducting the show, and when he saw the set coming, he greeted it like Hercules unchained. He stopped the whole thing with his bare hands.”

“Desire Under the Elms” (1981-82): “Lee Corrigan, a fine actor who’s now deceased, played his role better than most of us will ever know. There’s a whole scene where he goes upstairs to bed while the young son gets it on with the stepmother. He’s in bed for a good 20 minutes, the lights are off of him, and then we switch back to him. Well, I kid you not, in the space of those 20 minutes, he fell asleep. Out cold. When it was time, we switched back to him and — nothing. We hear nothing. We see nothing but an inanimate object on the bed. One of the other actors finally ad libbed a wake-up call, and he came to. I had the pleasure of explaining that Lee was very comfortable in the role.”

“Of Mice and Men” (1982-83): “That was the year of the dog auditions. There’s a big part in the play for a dog, of course. He’s on stage for a good half-hour, but he can’t be too frisky. After all, one of Steinbeck’s lines is something like, ‘You should kill that dog. He’s too old.’ Well, we had about 30 dogs audition. It was an absolute hoot. The big question was whether they could lie down and be still, so Rick (Tutor) had the actors yell their lines to test the dogs’ reactions. Eventually, we found the perfect dog — a Labrador about 14 years old who was, well, deaf. All he wanted to do was sleep. He was a champ.”

“84, Charing Cross Road” (1984-85): “An exquisite production — my favorite of all the shows I did at TAG. Bill Forrester gave me the best set — the bookstore — I’d ever had. At the very end of the play, Frank has died, and Helene finally goes to London. The whole set is supposed to move out for a new set of a deserted bookstore, and you get 30 seconds to do it. Then Helene comes in and says her final words. Well, the sound of the set being moved was like a jet screaming down the runway. It broke the whole mood of the final scene. So I said, ‘I’m gonna cut the other set.’ Now, we’re talking about a $3,000 or $4,000 piece of carpentry, plus manpower hours. But I did it. I cut the final set. It was the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make as a director, but the integrity of the show had to be preserved.”

“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (1986-87): “We’re at St. Leo’s School (TAG’s home from 1979-1993), and it’s the Nick and George scene — you know ... it’s a little intense. Well, the whole play’s intense. Anyway, in the middle of the scene, here comes this little patter of rodent feet and, oops, there’s Mickey Mouse followed by Minnie. They’d fumigated downstairs, see, and mice are no dummies. They just moved up one floor for fresh air. In the middle of the show. But that wasn’t the worst of it. The actor playing Nick, who shall remain nameless, spots the mice and decides he’s going to be clever and play off of them with some improv. ‘Oh look, George. You’ve got mice.’ Rick (Tutor, who played George) could have wrung the poor kid’s neck. I’m sinking in my chair, thinking, ‘No, no, don’t go this way. Do not turn this into “Who’s Afraid of Mickey Mouse?”’ Too late.”

“The Belle of Amherst” (1987-88): “We had a party after the show, and there were a few candles around for ambiance. It was on the third floor of St. Leo’s, where we had no business being, of course. But it was our party room. Everyone’s buzzing after the show, and I’m talking to Priscilla Lauris (who played Emily Dickinson), and the next thing I know her hair is on fire. She had really long hair, and a candle flame caught it. Luckily Priscilla had the presence of mind to roll on the floor to put it out. It was a sobering experience to say the least.”

“Sea Marks” (1988-89): “We were in previews. Cheri (Sorenson) and Todd Jefferson Moore played the lovers. We’ve got an Irish cottage on one side of the stage and New York on the other. Todd has to come out to this little cabin, but it’s a straight shot through the door, so we didn’t put down any luminescent tape. Besides, it’s a good 8 feet to the end of the stage. All of a sudden, in the dark, there’s this great rumble. Todd actually went off the end of the damn stage. Our stage manager knew right away what had happened, so needless to say, the house stayed dark until Todd could pull himself together. He did a pretty good job of it — except for the hair.”

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