by Kelli Samson for OLY ARTS
Jason Haws is a shapeshifter. Whether onstage or in front of a classroom, he glides effortlessly between roles and is utterly unforgettable in each, always stealing the show. As director Brian Tyrrell, who’s known him for over twenty years, articulates, “Jason Haws is a chameleon.”
Though Haws had dreams of a career in football as a little boy growing up in Colorado Springs, his mother noticed his talent for imitating cartoon characters and introduced him to children’s theater. He repeatedly graced the stage in small roles at Colorado College. By high school, he was participating in every theatrical production his school offered. It was while attending his senior year in Portland that Haws learned of The Evergreen State College and set his sights on attending. While a student there, he focused on the guitar. “A friend of mine in the program was stage managing a production of The Elephant Man for Abbey Players downtown,” he says. “I auditioned and was cast for multiple roles. It pulled me away from music and back into theater.” However, he stepped away from the stage again after college.
While earning his master’s degree in Teaching, Haws’ path often crossed with that of his old Evergreen classmate, Peter Kappler, who was by then heavily involved at Olympia’s Harlequin Productions. He encouraged Haws to attend a reading of a play. “Harlequin had just moved into the State Theater,” recalls Haws. “It was completely gutted. We sat around a table on what was to become the stage, and I was so intimidated by those guys.” When Kappler was eventually set to direct Murder in the Cathedral, he offered Haws a role. “Everyone hated the play, but I had a blast doing it,” Haws smiles. While at rehearsal one day, Scot Whitney, co-owner of Harlequin, offered Haws a part in The Tempest. “It just kind of snowballed from there,” says Haws.
Haws has now performed at Harlequin for almost 20 years. “It’s such a family,” he gushes. “The Whitneys surround themselves with people who care about the show and each other. They put so much heart into what they’re doing and have given me such amazing opportunities over the years. I love the high-quality production value there. And that space? It’s just awesome. A lot of my confidence comes from knowing that space so well.”
Andy Gordon, one of the actors who read with Haws that fateful day at Harlequin, speaks to Haws’ strengths. “He’s a very smart actor and understands his role in relation to the entire piece. As good as he is, he knows it’s not all about him. I’ve always found him a joy to work with onstage. He’s funny and a solidly reliable presence in every production.”
Haws understands a performer never stops learning. Some of that growth happened while he was playing Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. “I discovered how to let loose,” he says, “and trust myself and this sense of rhythm I have on stage where I really feel I can sense when an audience wants to laugh. Another pivotal point was while playing the Elephant Man. I learned to physically commit to becoming another person and to study the history of plays and their subject matter. Those two roles gave me the confidence that I could do anything.”
Two motifs run through Haws’ career as an actor: listening and truth. “Being an active listener on stage is one of the most important things that an actor can do. If you’re really engaged in being a listener and willing to compromise, you can breathe, listen, react, and tell the truth.”
Those who’ve been lucky enough to work with Haws over many years have seen him demonstrate the importance of honesty time and again. Says Kathy Dorgan, his colleague at the Creative Theater Experience, “Whether I’m directing him, on stage with him or watching from the tenth row, I look into his eyes and see truth. His work has an honesty and a commitment that move and inspire those of us who work with him.”
Echoes Tyrrell, “He’s always, as Sanford Meisner believed, ‘living truthfully within the imaginary circumstance.’ He’s a great listener, on and off stage.”
Perhaps Gordon sums it up best: “His mantra is ‘tell the truth,’ and it shows. He works hard to find the truth in his work and has little patience for ‘acting’ in himself or others.”
With multiple local awards under his belt — The Olympian’s “Best Actor,” the Weekly Volcano’s “Best of South Sound,” Harlequin’s “Golden Mask Award” — Haws is a cornerstone at CTE, where he’s served as the showcase workshop director for 14 years. “It’s really a leadership program,” he says. “My own kids have done it, and it’s just such positive place. It’s more about the process than the product.”
Haws’ talent as a director will next be seen onstage with the CTE summer production of The Lion King, on stage in July. Haws has worked with Dorgan, CTE’s artistic director, in virtually every arena of theater. “He challenges and encourages kids and staff to be their best,” shares Dorgan, “and they rise to the occasion. Working with Jason makes me better in every way.”
Haws has performed in Olympia School District musicals numerous times, and he teaches drama and social studies at Marshall Middle School. “Middle school kids are such fun,” he says. “You can be sarcastic with them, build relationships, and help them get through the social stuff. I really love connecting with kids about being good people.”
Haws puts on an impressive musical production with Marshall students each spring. He directs, and parental volunteers fill all the other organizational roles. He’s currently directing Shrek the Musical Jr. at Marshall Middle School. Shares Haws, “It’s an opportunity for kids to explore theater who maybe have never been onstage before. Three of our leads this year in Shrek the Musical Jr. have never really done this.”
Does he ever wonder about his boyhood dreams of football? No. To Haws, “Theater is the ultimate team sport. You have to trust yourself and be open to taking big risks.” Audiences will next have the good fortune of seeing him play in Harlequin’s late-summer production of August: Osage County.
What: Shrek the Musical Jr.
Where: Capital High School,
2707 Conger Ave. NW, Olympia
When: 7 p.m. Thursday – Saturday, May 18-20;
2 p.m. Saturday, May 20
How much: $7
Learn more: 360-596-7600 | Marshall Middle School
(tickets only — event takes place at Capital High School)