By Clark Nicholson
David Newhouse, who died on March 4, was a most admired journalist and professional in the press, as evidenced by the fact that he received the Pulitzer Prize for his work.
The impact it has had on the central PA region, as well as the world, is immeasurable. I would like to take this opportunity to tell you stories of his other work: that of the theater.
I got to know David, his first wife Katharine and their lovely daughters when his youngest child, Magdalena, signed up for classes at the Gamut Theater.
It was obvious to all of us at Gamut that the Newhouses were the champions of performing work. They were so invested, not only in the development of their children, but in the perpetuation of performing arts in their adopted community of Harrisburg. I will never forget when Katharine invited me to Mechanicsburg Little Theater to watch David in the energetic and silly farce, “A Tuna Christmas”.
In the Tuna plays, two actors are called upon to play all citizens of the fictional town of Tuna, Texas. Knowing the script, I was ready to be entertained. I was not ready to be surprised. For the next hour and a half I saw this man, in a whirlwind of silly creation, play a country music DJ, a faith healing preacher, a malicious grandmother, and many more.
And, watching, I thought, “Wow. This guy isn’t just good. . . He’s better than me. As a professional theater producer and director, this awareness has not aroused jealousy; it let me know that I had to work with this man.
And, we’ve worked together, in so many different shows. Our first was my company, Gamut Theater, Free Shakespeare in the Park, the production of “Henry V” by Shakespeare.
David and I got to know each other during this particularly difficult production. It was designed in a Suzuki style, a Japanese production aesthetic that demands extreme mental and physical focus and focus.
None of the actors ever left the stage, and when they were on stage, they were called to stand perfectly still. My “home base” was a stool directly to David’s left, and over the course of a month of rehearsal and another month of production, David and I spent many hours of total silence. Like shrewd kids at the back of the class, he found that we could talk to each other, like a ventriloquist, and comment on what was going on and how we were resisting the physical demands of the harsh Suzuki style. Just like a couple of kids, we might also try to crack each other up and get into trouble.
David was a pro, but he was also a pal, and that approach was essential in getting us both to the other side of this hot, regulated and demanding production. The experience has made friends for us. David discovered that I had a great interest in formal Improv Comedy training. I told him I wanted to study at the Upright Citizens Brigade in Manhattan, but had no idea how I could afford housing on top of the tuition.
To my surprise, he told me at the next rehearsal that he had arranged for me to stay in New York for a month. I was overwhelmed. It was an incredible generosity, as I had rarely experienced in my life. I thanked him eagerly and left for my training.
On my return, I brought back the knowledge and training that the Newhouses had enabled me to acquire thanks to their generosity. And, because of this, our in-house improv ensemble, TMI, was born and flourished in Harrisburg to this day. Later, Gamut mounted our production of “A Company of Wayward Saints” by George Herman, a modern fable about a dysfunctional Italian Commedia D’el Arte theater company.
I chose David as Harlequin, the besieged, serious and frantic leader of the troop, a character I have often identified with throughout my professional life. David and I had long conversations about building that character: about the difficult balance between being a leader and the chief clown, both at the same time.
I have often found that my work, as artistic director of Gamut, is exactly that kind of seemingly opposing dynamic. David took what I said, added his own experiences as a leader in the newspaper industry, and found exactly the right combination of gravity and scamp. I always thought that his incarnation of this role was some kind of gift to me, and I am forever grateful to him.
Eventually, David would also play the title role of the Mad King in Shakespeare’s “Richard III”, directed by our own Jeremy Garrett. I took a break from this production, but watched it, like so many others have, and marveled at how such a good and honest man could come to play a character too. corrupt and evil. But, David happily played the part.
Every actor loves to play a good bad guy, and David loved it and, on stage, lived it. I will also never forget sharing the stage with David in the production of Gamut’s Stage Door ensemble of “Dracula”. I played the vampire hunter Van Helsing, and David played the earl’s maniacal sidekick, Renfield.
David did a great job, but what comes to mind about this production is that when he was on stage he was Renfield, but when he was off stage something something of great weight seemed to weigh him down.
Next month. the Penn State / Sandusky scandal broke, for which David and the Patriot would receive the Pulitzer Prize for journalism. Meanwhile, David had been the consummate professional in both of his jobs. My last scene memory of David is the most cherished and the most resounding. Local director Dan Burke was hired by Gamut to direct Ronald Harwood’s play about a ragged Blitz-era Shakespeare company in England, “The Dresser”. I had long been a fan of the movie version with Albert Finney and Tom Courtney, and it turned out David was too.
I was to play the senile and desperate leader of the company, known only as “The Mister,” and David was to play the role of Norman, the longtime dresser and personal assistant to Mister. The story is varied and subtle, highlighting the cruelty and eerie camaraderie between a tyrannical business leader and his oft-overlooked assistant.
David and I threw ourselves into these parts, dissecting the many layers of co-dependent relationships that were alternately romantic and borderline abusive. The play was alternately hilarious and heartbreaking, ending with the death of my character, “Sir”.
As I stood still after my “passing” each night, he lamented my death and cried, giving the heartbreaking last line “I had a friend”. It was all I could do not to tear myself apart as I lay under my sheet, in the center of the stage, mourned by my friend.
This is how I remember him, a pillar of the community with a mischievous kid hiding behind his eyes, an award-winning reporter who gritted his teeth into jokes to make me crack and get us both in trouble. He was all of these things, and more.
And, ultimately, he was a patron and a practitioner. Her gift to me, my efforts, and the entire Central PA area was this: 6 years ago, when my wife, Gamut CEO Melissa Nicholson, and I decided to raise money for the purchase of the new Gamut Theater at 15 North 4th Street. in Harrisburg. The first donors and supporters of this endeavor were our friends Nicholas Hughes and dear Ellen Hughes, as well as Katharine Newhouse and David. They gave the first gifts which continue to this day.
It’s David. “I had a friend. “
Clark Nicholson is founder and artistic director of the Gamut Theater Group.