Theater veterans tackle “Educating Rita,” a love letter to education

by | Jul 14, 2023 | Arts and Entertainment | 0 comments

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Rick Wallace and Harriet Owen-Nixon run a few lines from their readers’ theater production of “Educating Rita,” which plays Friday, July 14 and Sunday, July 16 at Tyee Wine Cellars.

No sooner had Charlotte Headrick, Harriet Owen-Nixon and Rick Wallace taken their final bows for last year’s readers’ theater performance of “Chapatti” at Tyee Wine Cellars than they started thinking about what to tackle for 2023.

In retrospect, considering that Wallace and Headrick both are longtime theater educators and that Owen-Nixon studied under both of them, their eventual choice seems inevitable: “Educating Rita,” Willy Russell’s comedy about the power of education to transform lives.

“You are changed when you get educated,” said Headrick, who started teaching theater arts at Oregon State University in 1982.

Added Wallace, who taught at Corvallis High School: “The more you learn, the better-educated you are and the more choices you have about your life.”

Their readers’ theater production of “Educating Rita” plays Friday, July 14 at 6:30 p.m. and Sunday, July 16 at 2 p.m. at Tyee Wine Cellars, 26335 Greenberry Road, south of Corvallis. Friday’s performance has sold out, but tickets still are available for Sunday’s show. Tickets are $15; click here to buy tickets. Some of the proceeds for the show will be donated to the Corvallis Public Schools Foundation to aid the Corvallis School District’s theater program.

The play follows the relationship Rita, a 29-year-old Liverpool hairdresser who takes an English literature course and her tutor, Frank. (Playwright Russell worked as a hairdresser before entering academic life.)

Frank is a middle-aged, alcoholic career academic who’s taken on the tutoring work to pay for his drinking. But over the course of his meetings with Rita – the play takes place entirely in his office – he becomes recharged by her zest for learning.

And Rita herself is transformed – although her lessons also involve learning how to avoid an academic pitfall or two.

Although the themes of “Educating Rita” are universal – and still relevant – the play is very English, and Headrick, Owen-Nixon and Wallace all have life experience to draw upon.

Headrick has lived and worked in Liverpool. Wallace studied theater in England. And Owen-Nixon was born in England.

The three also have the advantage of familiarity with each other, thanks to their work together in classrooms and on stage — including, for the past three summers, on the stage erected in the barn at Tyee.

The roles have changed for this production, though: Owen-Nixon, who directed the first two Tyee productions, now is on stage, playing Rita (a role she’s played twice before). 

Owen-Nixon has appeared on stage with Wallace before, but this is the first time she’s been in a two-person show with him. 

“It’s been really fascinating and fun to work with that and have that energy that I got to see the last two years (as a director), but now I get to be part of it in that way,” she said.

Headrick is directing this year’s production and had praise for her cast and the play.

“Harriet is channeling her inner 29-year-old beautifully,” Headrick said. “And I’ve always liked the play because of what it says about education, teaching and learning.”

The play debuted in 1980; a movie version with Julie Walters (who originated the role of Rita) and Michael Caine followed in 1983. The play has aged well, Headrick said.

“It’s very lyrical,” she said. “It’s very much like a song. … Absolutely it’s still relevant, because it’s about people communicating, It’s about about people coming together and learning about each other and enjoying each other. … It absolutely is a human story.”

And that notion of people coming together and enjoying each other is echoed in the relationship of Headrick, Owen-Nixon and Wallace.

“We speak the same language,” Wallace said. “And we have a lot of  respect for each other’s experience and knowledge about theater.”

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