by Michael Bowen

She is so accomplished as a dancer, actor, director and choreographer that people assume Kathie Doyle-Lipe was a theatrical child prodigy. In fact, she didn't start acting until she had kids of her own.

"I first got into it when I was a single mom and wanted an outlet," she recalls. "Some folks down at the Heritage Family Theater talked me into it and dragged me into a production of Grease -- this was back in '83." It didn't take long for her talent to be recognized: "My first big role, where I got to sing a solo and everything, was in A Chorus Line," just a few years later. "That was my big breakthrough part." By 1990, she was doing a lot more than just acting in Grease: She directed and choreographed the entire show, this time for the Spokane Civic Theatre. She has been a theatrical triple threat ever since.

Doyle-Lipe has delighted playgoers for nearly 20 years now, acting mostly in productions at the Civic. Her most recent roles include Mrs. Fezziwig in A Christmas Carol, Ouiser in Steel Magnolias, Maggie in 42nd Street, Hubert in Nuncrackers, Snoopy in You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, Alice in My Favorite Year and Miss Adelaide in Guys and Dolls. The list goes on. Doyle-Lipe has also performed in Big City, Carousel, Charlotte's Web, All in the Timing and more.

The Civic's Marilyn Langbehn has worked with Doyle-Lipe many times. "I've seen Kathie play a pig, a monkey, a nun and an extremely cranky Southern woman," says Langbehn. "Reviewers have compared her to our favorite female clowns, including both Lucy and Ethel in the same season. Actors line up to work with her; audiences line up to watch her. She is, quite simply, one of the very best at what she does."

After that initial experience in directing the actors and designing the doo-wop dances in Grease, Doyle-Lipe has gone on to oversee a half-dozen other productions at the Civic: Brigadoon, Fiddler on the Roof, The Wizard of Oz, Meet Me in St. Louis, Gigi and Kiss Me, Kate. But her greatest success so far came with Pinocchio, which she directed for Spokane Children's Theater. The production won state and regional competitions and went to the national finals of the American Association of Community Theaters Festival, placing first among children's theater entries and fourth overall. And Kathie won the national award for best choreography.

So how does an award-winning choreographer devise all those dance moves? "First, I get the soundtrack, and I listen to it everywhere -- in my house, in my car, at the office. I lie awake at night, working out moves in my head. Then I go out on my patio, at all times of day and night, and I dance around, trying out new moves, watching myself in the reflection of my sliding glass doors. My neighbors think I'm crazy."

But she doesn't always have the choreography fully worked out by the first rehearsal: "I'll say, 'Try this, guys.' And if they ask what's next, sometimes I'll say, 'I don't know.' And then -- ask anybody who's ever worked with me -- they know to say, 'Think patio.' Then it comes back to me."

Her favorite anecdote from two decades in Spokane theater? "Well, I'm the only woman in recent memory to have fallen off the stage and into the pit, backwards. This was with Fiddler. I was choreographing, and I was angry with the Russian dancers. I was shouting something like, 'No, you guys, you move like this' -- and I just lost all sense of where I was on stage and flopped over into the orchestra pit. The cast said I just suddenly disappeared from view."

What pops up when she peers into her theatrical future? This Thanksgiving, she'll be directing Honk!, a musical version of the Ugly Duckling tale, for Spokane Children's Theater. She plans to be in Nunsense again next spring at the Civic. "And," she adds, "I'd love to do Dolly Levi and Mame."

Spokane's diminutive grande dame of musical comedy, it seems, wants to rise to the challenge of famous title roles. For two decades -- despite falling into the occasional orchestra pit -- Kathie Doyle-Lipe has been rising steadily in the estimation of Spokane theatergoers.

Bloomsday 2020 @ Spokane

Sept. 18-27
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About The Author

Michael Bowen

Michael Bowen is a former senior writer for The Inlander and a respected local theater critic. He also covers literature, jazz and classical music, and art, among other things.