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Heart and Soul of the Theater: Drama Department Owes Its Life to Director

His official title is Clark’s Program Director of the Drama Department and drama professor. His resume is stocked with degrees in speech education and theatre history rising up to a Ph.D. in theatre arts. Countless experiences from various universities, and as of 2014, Gene Biby is now a tenured faculty member at Clark.

But who is Biby? Why do students and staff alike claim he not only kept the theater program alive in a span of years burdened by budget cuts, but has also given the program new vitality and focus?

Biby arrived at Clark in 2011, when parts of the theater program were under consideration for cutting.

According to Mark Owsley, stage manager and colleague of Biby, Clark’s theater was community focussed and productions were chosen based on how well tickets would sell.

“He really took the students interests at heart and turned it around,” Owsley said. “Students first, the college second.”

Biby believes theater can “pull people together” and give them insight.

“I want myself, the students and the audience to be challenged with what they’re presented with,” he said. “I want it to make them think.”

Destiny Martin, a Clark student since 2015, admires how passionate Biby is about theater.

“You can just see it in his teaching,” she said. “I honestly couldn’t imagine my life without theater and Biby has helped recreate a program that I was scared was going to get cut.”

Biby was introduced to theater by chance. Originally an enrollee of the speech program, his family moved to the small town of Zeigler, Illinois, and Biby found himself at a school that didn’t offer speech. However, theater was provided and when Biby arrived auditions were held for the comedy “Headin for a Weddin.” Biby claims he still can remember his auditioning lines for what he playfully calls a “god awful play.”

The play sparked a lifelong interest in drama and the arts. Biby received his first degree in theater at Murray State University in Kentucky, recalling that the program was great for a generalization of drama. In the program he acted, worked on lighting, built sets and got his first taste of directing.

After spending six years as a city administrator in Illinois, a job Biby felt stifled in, and alternating teaching speech and theater, Biby decided to pursue his dream of a Ph.D in theater at age 32.

Having just received tenure from teaching at the University of Wisconsin, Biby saw a job opening at Clark.

“I applied to the job on a whim having never seen the college or never visited Washington,” Biby said. “The thing that appealed to me was that it was 100 percent theater. I got the job, quit my old one, packed everything up and came out here. I didn’t know a soul.”

Arriving at Clark, Biby set out to not just seek plays fit for college students, but ones that students would find in a professional theater. This choice resulted in controversy among the Vancouver community due to plays having mature themes, coarse language, a female actor playing a male character and nudity.

“I got nasty letters,” Biby recalled. “It was a rough first three years but for every letter I got criticising me I got another person coming up to me after a show saying ‘Thank God you’re doing this kind of stuff.’”

Now going into his sixth year at Clark, Owsley believes that Biby has made theater more exciting.

“I can tell you for being here as many years as I have, Gene being here has actually made my job better,” Owsley said. “It’s more exciting to me.”

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