Thespian David Wright was born near Christmas in 1946. He died this week in Olympia at age 71. Wright was considered a master of the stage and worked regularly as an actor at many theaters along the West Coast. Wright began working with Harlequin Productions in 1992 in their second season, and performed on the Harlequin stage for 25 years. Wright’s consummate professionalism extended from Shakespearean classics to modern comedies. He played roles large and small with a singularly focused theatrical genius.
Wright considered Saint Louis his hometown. He graduated from Kirkwood (Missouri) High School in 1965, then entered the army and served in Vietnam, touring theatrical productions to Army bases. After his tour of duty was concluded, Wright worked a variety of jobs in the Pacific Northwest, including carpentry. In the Olympia arts scene, Wright will chiefly be remembered for his masterful performances, his even-handed collaborations with many local theatrical troupes and his generosity to other actors, directors and audience members.
In honor of David Wright, the staff of OLY ARTS offers its personal remembrance of this astounding theatrical player, alongside remembrances from many members of the Olympia artistic community.
Stories about Wright have been edited slightly for clarity, discretion and AP style.
Christian Carvajal, writer, director, actor, managing editor of OLY ARTS
I knew David Wright and admired him greatly. I remember telling my wife that when I reached a certain age as an actor, I hoped I did so with the power, grace and humor of David Wright. He was a lion on stage and a pussycat face to face. He meant a great deal to all of us in the South Sound theater community, and I sometimes think that when his generation of actors is gone we shall not see their like again.
I believe I first encountered David Wright through his performance in Harlequin Productions’ Unexpected Tenderness. That was in May of 2011. In a review for the Weekly Volcano, I wrote: “If nothing else worked, I’d still recommend the show for David Wright’s gobsmacking performance as Archie’s elderly father, Grandpa Jacob. My great-uncle Otis had Parkinson’s, and Mr. Wright is spot-on. I’ll be stunned if it isn’t one of the best performances I see all year.” I praised him again in my review of Harlequin’s stunning The Seafarer in 2012.
In May of 2014 I wrote, “Harlequin’s production of Israel Horovitz’s Fighting Over Beverley costars one of my favorite local actors, David Wright, in yet another role for which he gets to growl around the stage and show off a convincing accent and physical infirmity. I’m not complaining — far from it! I’d pay good money to watch David Wright pick his nose for two hours.” I nominated him for a “Carvy” award that year. (He had the bad luck of squaring up against Bill Johns from Middletown.) Somewhere in there I wrote a theatrical adaptation of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and asked Wright to play Slartibartfast in one of its earliest readings. To my great astonishment he said yes, then came in and knocked it out of the park. By now I felt comfortable chatting with him, and boy, what a class act he was — even when dropping swear words like the bombing of Dresden onstage or off.
Also from that interview:
Where else have you performed?
A lot of theaters that no longer exist, and I have worked at Tacoma Little Theatre, Lakewood Playhouse, Centerstage and the Very Little theater in Eugene, Oregon.
What is the craziest theater experience you’ve ever had?
I nearly died playing Polonius at Harlequin in 2004. Ask Scot or Linda (Whitney). It’s a long story.
What advice would you have for an aspiring, young actor?
Practice, practice, practice and be lucky.
What’s it like working at Harlequin?
Harlequin is like home — I helped build the theater.
What is your process for creating a character?
Process? Learn the lines, don’t run into the furniture (and) be generous.
Why do you think theater is important to the community? Why is it important in your life?
Theater tells stories, stories that need to be told. Those stories can be entertainment or a lesson, but they ought to be heard. I do this because I have to.
pug Bujeaud, actor and director
David was my favorite person to share a stage with. He was generous both onstage and off. While he was obviously immensely talented, he was also funny, witty, smart and so very sweet. The world is a smaller, darker place without him. My heart is broken.
James Fulkerson, actor
I loved working with David on stage — always the professional — and the one time I directed him in Turn Of The Screw, he was nothing short of brilliant. I’m sure you’re going to have such an outpouring of love and memories from so many of his theater brother and sisters that you’ll have all the material you need for your piece. I doubt what I share with you will be appropriate for public consumption; maybe it is but it’s not that kind of piece. I’ll share it anyway because I’m still stuck ankle-deep in this wet, sad sand and writing about my friend makes me feel better.
My fondest memories of David don’t take place onstage or in the dressing room or green room. They’re on the job site or sitting on a pub stool sharing war stories. And one of the best times ever, and a story that still makes my eyes water from laughing so hard, is when we were … sanding my back door. I was working on the front of the remodel and he was working on the back kitchen door, or so I thought. Five hours later, I go to check on what he’s accomplished — he had a list of three projects to complete — and I see him fine-sanding (water-sanding) the door. The other jobs hadn’t been touched.
Me: What are you doing?
David: Feel the door.
Me: David, this is —
David: Just feel that door!
Me: Yeah, smooth, but —
David: It’s like glass. (He’s rubbing it with his open hand.) You’ve never felt a door this smooth. It’s a shame to put a coat of paint on it.
Me: This is what you’ve been working on for five hours?
David: To be honest, only four hours. I took (a) break and studied some lines. (pause) What’s wrong? You don’t seem pleased.
Me: No, it’s okay. It’s really a nice, smooth door and at $15 an hour it only cost me $60 for the smoothest door in North Tacoma.
David: You mean $75, right?
Me: I’m not paying for the break.
David: You just fell off my Christmas card list.
I started to laugh, and he started to laugh, and in seconds we were laughing uncontrollably.
Me: I have to tell you this: It’s the wrong door, David. Look at your list. It reads, ‘The exterior side of the back kitchen door.’ You spent all this time sanding smooth the back door that leads into the garage.
David: It was the crappiest door back here. This door was a wreck.
Me: I know it is. It’s a tear-out. It’s on our list for tomorrow and we’re replacing it with the new one that’s leaning up against the garage over there.
We laughed and laughed over this for 12 years.
David and I were both “boots on the ground” in Vietnam. I was combat and he wasn’t and we had many discussion about that war and our experiences. Sometimes they got heated and sometimes they were funny. He was touring a show of Charlie Brown throughout country and they once found themselves in harm’s way and were about to be attacked. They were told to ready themselves for a firefight. David shouted to that sergeant, “We’re with the show. We’re actors. We haven’t been issued any weapons yet. The only thing i can kill them with is a bad monologue.” Thank God they weren’t attacked.
I will miss him dearly. I got to know and came to love this guy and was able to experience all the different hats he wore. He enriched my life and he always had my back. I can get a bit thorny at times, and David always understood why when so many others couldn’t. It kills me to think someone else will someday play the role I wrote specifically for him, but that’s how it goes, right?
Andrew Gordon, actor, writer, director
David was a magnificent actor, a beautiful soul and a great friend. I had the pleasure of working with him onstage throughout the ’90s and early aughts, and enjoying his company offstage since that time. He was just as much a joy in the company of friends as he was in performance, and an always-genuine booster of the local theater scene, even as his health declined.
David was a teacher and mentor to everyone who worked with him. I can hear him laughing at that notion, but to work with him or know him was to learn what it is to be an actor, or to be a man who met life with humor and gruff generosity. I know I speak for numerous other colleagues and friends when I tell you that when I grow up, I want to be just like David.
I was struck by how he moved into the last stage of his life with such a sense of peace. He knew he didn’t have long in the end, but he was so happy to see his friends, talk and laugh about old times, and be completely present, completely David, in spite of everything he was going through. I grieve for his loss, but I’m happy he’s no longer in pain and am so glad to have known him — to have had such a dear, grumpy, authentic and lovely friend.
Jason Haws, actor and director
There are so many many things to say about David. He was a gifted actor, a dear friend, a humble, generous, gentle and a funny, funny man. He was always the first actor to arrive for a rehearsal or a performance. On show days he was always there before the rest of us, sitting in the dressing room in makeup, wearing his green or red bathrobe (depending on the era), doing his lip exercises. He wanted the show to start right away; he hated waiting to perform. “Can we just start now?” There was an endearing grumpiness to his pre-show routine. But he loved performing, and he was always humble about his performance and always complimentary of his fellow actors — but not over-complimentary. When he gave you a compliment he meant it, and he wasn’t afraid to critique. But man, did I hang on his every word. He loved to talk theater, and his observations were astute and oftentimes hilarious. God, he was funny. When I was coming back to acting after a long hiatus, it was David who took me under his wing and helped give me the confidence that I could do this work. I feel so blessed to have worked on so many projects with him. He was a listener onstage and off. He cared so much for his people, always asking about my family and engaging them in conversations after shows. He and my wife and my dad had a special relationship. This past year, David was in and out of the hospital and long-term care units. My dad went to visit him when he was at Mother Joseph’s. It meant the world to David; it meant the world to my dad. David spent the last few months at Harborview and on my second-to-last visit with him we chatted for two hours. It was one of his good days. He told me he had two months to a year left. He choked up and said how hard that was for him to know and accept. He then said, “I just want to perform one more time.” It was heartbreaking and beautiful, just like the characters he played, just like the man he was.
I’m sorry to ramble, I love that man so much. He was and always will be a gift.
Gabriel McClelland, actor
The Weir at Tacoma Little Theatre was cast with myself, (Robert) McConkey, (Brian) Jansen and Ellen Peters — who was not only new to our theater scene, she was new to our coast. Our “Jack” was actually the father of Vanessa Postil (our stage manager). He kept running into problems. … Other than him, the show was strong and we blocked the whole thing. … Two weeks before opening, our Jack quit. He quit because he knew it was too much for him. (Director) Pug (Bujeaud) asked David to fill in. He agreed and his inclusion turned the show from solid into magic. His presence gave us all peace of mind. But he was worried because his memory was affected by some of his medication. His worry was dealt with when one night he forgot a line during performance and the place he thought to pick up would’ve skipped over half the play. But he couldn’t think how to get us back to where we needed to be. I wrenched us back from the abyss with an ad lib and followed with my regular line. He thanked me afterward for the save and I told him he never had to worry. We were all there for him. Every show before house opened, you could find the whole cast sitting at the bar. We were all comfortable there like we had been going there our whole lives. I will never forget that show — or David. He saved us, and I saved him. That play was full of beauty and love, and all because of miscommunications and saves and slip-ups and skill. It was the most human show I have ever done, and the cast was the most close-knit group I ever worked with. David will be missed. He was the Jack to my Finbar and I wish I could have another pint with him.
Sharry O’Hare, actor
David Wright was an exquisite actor. On that issue there is no debate. On stage he could make a statement with silence, enhance a character with one profound move. Regrettably, I never had the opportunity to work with David on stage, but I had the privilege of being his friend for over 40 years.
We met in 1975 where we were both performing theater at Fort Lewis. We were young and ready to set the world on fire with our talents and budding skills in the trade. We attended the same pretzel-and-beer parties because all of us had minimal funds in those days. In the ’80s, the parties had better food and drink and we were enjoying middle-aged prosperity, still with that burning desire to conquer the theater world. As time passed and we reached that inevitable zenith of attending luncheons and reunions, we slipped into the chapter of our lives where we were comfortable in ourselves; perhaps not looking to place a Tony Award on our shelves anymore, but still having the desire to act … to create a character … to tell a story.
During those years, David and I shared many events. He was of great comfort to me when I became a young widow. He had the occasional dinner here at the house. Begrudgingly, he would help people move — sometimes up five flights of stairs, swearing to “never do that again.” Of course, he always recanted if someone needed him. We were often in the same audiences and if he did a subtle eye-roll, that physical gesture spoke volumes about what he thought, (as did) those same eyes twinkling with approval and accompanied by a thumbs up. Over the years we began attending monthly lunches with the old Fort Lewis crowd, which gave us a wonderful opportunity to continue our relationship — though he and I did not linger in the past (but) rather spoke of future projects and events in our lives. Sadly, we found ourselves running into each other at too many memorial services and then, this final week, (we spent) precious time together at the Franciscan Hospice: the Circle of Life.
One of my favorite times spent with David was at the grocery store. We’d see each other frequently during the month, and usually in the produce department where we would chat for 45 minutes or so. On one of those occasions, he saw me buying apples and said, “No, no! Don’t buy those. Try the Honeycrisps. They are just the best.” And he was right. I have never looked at apples the same since, and I suspect I’ll be seeing his face every time I buy one now. Maybe he’ll toss one in my cart from the other side.
Having a friend is a gift. It is a blessing to have someone who is so special and unique as David floating in and out of your life for nearly five decades. He will always be with us because of the memories we’ve all made and the love we all shared. He is our spiritual souvenir.
Vanessa Postil, actor, director, stage manager
I had heard about David Wright long before I ever met him. Besides his acting magic, everyone commented on his voice. I was stage managing The Weir at TLT with Pug, and he came into the project a couple weeks into the rehearsal process. I was on the stage alone before his first rehearsal, and I heard this voice behind me: “You must be Vanessa.” I knew this must be David Wright before I turned around, because this guy had the voice of a sunlit oak tree. He was so incredibly kind to me. We didn’t work on any other project together but every single time I saw him he gave me a big hug and told me I was doing a good job.
You’ll find many other remembrances of David Wright on his Facebook page, here. We, his friends and admirers, note his passing with grief in our hearts but his astonishing legacy in our minds.
OLY ARTS will be adding to this page as the weekend progresses and as we receive more contributions from other writers, thespians and friends and family of David Wright.