Astoria theater searches for a leader

Wayne Doyle watches a rehearsal of ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang' in the auditorium of Astoria High School.

Theater director Wayne Doyle sat near the front of Astoria High School’s auditorium last week, watching the cast of “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” run through the opening scenes of the classic musical one night before the premiere.

Doyle called out cues and reminders to his young cast, but largely made them stand on their own.

“This is my transition night,” he said. “After tonight, it’s their show.”

Friday and Saturday night will be the final shows of “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.” The shows will also be the last directorial effort in Astoria for at least a few years for Doyle. The captain and battle manager with the Oregon Air National Guard’s 116th Air Control Squadron is transferring to Maryland this summer on a three-year tour.

Doyle’s imminent departure leaves Astoria theater boosters searching for a replacement before the fall.

“We’ve just been talking to the community at large … just to let people know I’m transferring, and we don’t want the program to die,” he said.

Doyle, a math teacher, joined the Oregon Air National Guard in 2002 after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He moved to the North Coast in 2003, teaching in Astoria while at Camp Rilea. In 2009, he went full time with the Air National Guard.

“I would much rather be teaching, but I have a wife and three kids, and that’s hard to do on a teaching salary,” he said.

Doyle has continued substituting. He helped coach football and track, along with an extra duty contract to run the school district’s theater program. Three years ago, he organized a performance of “The Wizard of Oz,” the high school’s first musical in nearly a decade, incorporating middle schoolers.

The cast for “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” numbers nearly 30, along with a volunteer crew of 14, including students and parents running lights, audio and stage devices. River Kroft, a former student, is Doyle’s assistant director.

“We’ve been preparing since March,” she said, adding the cast and crew will spend four hours a night practicing in the week before opening night.

The high school’s theater design class helped build props for the play, including a replica of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. The robotics program, whose driver plays “Grandfather Potts,” provided the Astoria River Bot as his Toot Sweet-making contraption. The orchestra provides a live accompaniment for the second act. Parents of the actors helped sew costumes, along with two air surveillance technicians and former thespians from the 116th.

“I think there are parents that would try to keep it going, but we don’t have the experience of Wayne,” said Brandy Larsen, a volunteer musical director.

“With our success over the past couple of years, it’s growing,” she said of the theater program. “There are more kids involved. The school is seeing the need for it.”

Teachers get first dibs, but theater boosters are hoping to compile a list of possible director candidates to bring to the school district, which makes the final decision. Doyle sometimes wishes there were four of him to manage the different aspects of the production, but said a good director needs to eventually trust his cast and crew when the curtains part.

“You have to believe everything will be fine, so they’ll believe it,” he said.

Last week’s premiere brought in more than 400 people Friday and Saturday and a standing ovation.

“I was sitting in the back row crying, so proud of my kids,” Doyle said.

He hopes to take up theater in Maryland, and after his three-year tour return to the North Coast and start directing locally again. He likes to share one of his favorite pastimes from high school.

“I remember high school, and I can still name every person I was on stage with,” he said. “It’s just a memory you have forever and ever.”

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