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Petra Karr emphasized the “community” in community theater, going out of her way to invite people — especially young people she thought could use some help — into the group experience.
“She wanted to make theater as accessible to as many people as possible,” said Virginia Winger, a friend who’d met Mrs. Karr in 1995 at Creator Lutheran Church in Bonney Lake. Mrs. Karr was, as usual, putting together a play, this one for children.
“After that, she became our ministry of drama,” Winger said. “We were a small church but had a pretty good drama department while she was there!”
Mrs. Karr, a resident of Burien, had been in the hospital for cancer treatments last month when she was diagnosed with COVID-19. She died on April 7 at age 60.
At Creator, she wrote original plays (“McGregor Hotel”), staged some familiar ones (“Godspell”) and tried a few memorable experiments like “Ichthys” — an Easter play that set the Passion of Christ under the sea.
“She was always driven toward taking the kids who might be falling between the cracks,” her son Carson Lehman said. “In my baseball team growing up, she’d say: ‘Who’s that kid who’s last at bat and playing in the outfield? Let’s invite him over for lunch!’ ”
Mrs. Karr and her husband, Chris, founded Ascension Theatre Productions in the mid-1990s, changing the name to ACT 1 Theatre in 2008. The company performed in churches, parks, Elks Clubs, furniture stores, established theaters (such as Theatre on the Square in Tacoma) and, from 2011-2018, its own black box theater they’d carved out of a small warehouse in Sumner, Pierce County.
“Some people called us guerrilla theater because we would do shows anywhere,” Chris Karr said. “Didn’t matter to us. We were like vagabonds.”
ACT 1 Theatre Productions now lives at Urban Grace church in downtown Tacoma. Mrs. Karr was its artistic director and center of gravity throughout, Winger said, but the board has decided to keep ACT 1 going.
Mrs. Karr also served on the board of Washington State Thespians, which organizes conferences, trainings, showcases and scholarships for teachers and young theater-makers, where she worked with former Roosevelt High School drama teacher Ruben Van Kempen. “She wanted to give people chances to do something they might not have a chance to do otherwise,” Van Kempen said. “She was also incredibly humble.”
Mrs. Karr also wrangled flash mob-type events: zombie dances to “Thriller,” a pack of dancing scarecrows she and her husband brought to Gig Harbor, Orting, Auburn and other places around Western Washington.
But above all, Chris Karr said, she was a humanitarian.
“She was just a mother to everyone,” he said. “She took care of people, no matter who it was.”