Last Lectures

Kathleen Worley [theatre 1985–2014]

By Chris Lydgate ’90

Prof. Kathleen Worley might never have come to Reed were it not for an incident that was both comic and tragic. 

In 1977, she was an actor living in Portland and busy rehearsing a major role in Ben Jonson’s Volpone, directed by Prof. Roger Porter [English 1961–], to be put on by the Portland Conservatory Theatre. A few days before the show was due to open, however, the cast members discovered that the theatre had been padlocked—the company had run into trouble with the IRS.

The show was canceled and Worley was out of a job. She got a one-year, quarter-time gig at Reed teaching an acting class, then moved to Seattle to be a professional actor. In 1985, she applied for a position at Reed and found her true role in life.

Originally hailing from Reno, Nevada, Worley earned a BA from Pomona in 1969 and an MFA at UC Riverside, both in theatre. She acted at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Montana Shakespeare in the Parks, ACT, Seattle Rep, Artists’ Rep, and Profile Theatre. As an actor, she is probably best known for her original one-woman show, Virginia Woolf: A Spark of Fire, which she has performed around the country.

At Reed, she joined a department that managed to put on amazing shows despite conditions that sometimes verged on the Kafkaesque. No one could ever find the light switch in the theatre. At one point, the fire marshall declared that no more than 40 people could occupy the studio theatre—including the cast. There was no soundproofing. ”You could hear everything, including people dragging cords on the floor above you. You had to work together to get anything done.”

And she did. Worley taught acting, directing, intercultural theatre, and 20th-century experimental theatre, supervised 80 theses, and directed hundreds of students in productions such as On the Verge, Crimes of the Heart, Our Country’s Good, Arcadia, The Beggar’s Opera, Measure for Measure, A Bright Room Called Day, and Julius Caesar. She also directed the premier of the WPA play Timber! In gratitude, the cast gave her a cedar seedling which is now 25 feet tall and stands in her back yard.

She witnessed many breathtaking moments on stage, but some of the most remarkable came during rehearsals. In 1990, she directed Twelfth Night. One student auditioned for the part of Feste, the fool, but Worley cast him instead as the lovesick Duke Orsino. Unfortunately, the student who had won the part of Feste found it difficult to learn the music. Orsino cast off his resentment, rode to the rescue, and taught Feste his songs. “Those are the moments you live for,” Worley says.

“Kathleen is a source of inspiration for me, both as an actress and educator,” says Clara-Liis Hillier ’09. “She demonstrated how to remain a strong, powerful woman on stage and to prepare intellectually and emotionally for your roles onstage. I cherish the time I spent at Reed with her.”

Worley’s sense of humor comes through in a Gary Larson cartoon on her window sill depicting an elephant seated onstage at a piano. “What am I doing here?” the elephant thinks to himself. “I can’t play this thing! I’m a flutist for crying out loud!”

A somewhat more profound maxim is rendered in a graceful script above her desk: “Life is not a rehearsal.”