One of the most recognizable faces in Washington D.C.’s theater scene isn’t an actor, isn’t a high-profile writer or even an artistic director—it’s fan and patron Barbara Bear, who regularly sees more than 100 productions a year and has totaled over 5,000 theater performances since moving from Newport News to Arlington in 1961.
“I moved there when I was 19 and there was so much more culture than what I had experienced previously,” Bear says. “I loved movies and went all the time, but I started seeing these ads in the paper for these great theaters that had interesting plays and I wanted to see them all.”
Last night, for being a longtime supporter of theatre in the area, Bear was honored by DC Theatre Scene with the 2014 Gary Lee Maker Audience Award, given each year to outstanding individuals from the audience. Previous winners include David Tannous in 2011, Tom Holzman and Alison Drucker in 2012, and Linda Elyse Bryce last year.
“I’m honored but in shock. I thought there would be so many more people who would be deserving,” Bear says. “I’m really thrilled and I can’t wait to take a picture of the award and post it on Facebook to show all my old friends.”
Her first-ever “professional” show was The Music Man at the National Theatre starring Forrest Tucker. Bear was so excited that she waited outside the stage door to get her program autographed.
Today, she has boxes and bags full of programs from all the shows she has seen throughout her five decades of going to the theatre. She even has her original Beatles program from the Fab Four’s DC appearance in 1964.
“I save every program—I need an intervention,” she jokes. “Not only do I save them, but I started to clip things out of the paper about a particular actor or show—the way my mother used to—and I stuff them into the program and make them all fat with articles. It has to stop!”
The last time Bear counted her programs for a given year was in 2011 when she totaled 110, but even that number was inaccurate because many of the shows she saw twice. She believes the numbers for each of the year’s since has increased, guestimating that the 2014 total will come closer to 150.
Although in the beginning she used to get autographs on all her programs from someone involved in the production, she only does so on rare occasions these days. The last one she collected was from Hugh Jackman when she saw him on Broadway. She will, however, go up to an actor or director to talk with them.
“I had an actor tell me once, ‘we’re just people.’ I like to chat with them and see what they are doing next or just what is new,” she says. “I just love theater and talking about it.”
Bear loves all performance art forms. She learned to appreciate ballet and opera while living in Germany from 1969-1972, and of course, still gets to the movies whenever she finds time.
On one recent Saturday, Bear saw Sunday in the Park with George at Signature during the day, raced over to see the movie The Drop at Cinema Arts, and then finished the evening by taking in Three Sisters at Metro Stage.
“I had a pretty busy day, but that’s not uncommon,” she says. “It’s just what I enjoy doing with my time.”
Bear has a lot of friends in the theater community and is often invited to join someone on an outing to a show. Even if it’s something she has seen already, she will most always respond with an enthusiastic acceptance. For instance, she’s already seen Sunday in the Park With George four times and was planning a fifth visit before it closed.
Unlike many theater fans, the acting bug never hit Bear and she never had any real desire to get on stage herself.
“Deep down, maybe I thought that would be fun, but I never pursued it or gotten involved in any capacity with acting,” she says. “I’ve volunteered at theaters, I usher or stuff envelopes, but I think it’s probably too late for me to learn how to memorize lines now. It might be fun, but probably too nerve-wracking so there is probably no hope for me now.”
The Gary Lee Maker Audience Award is in memory of Gary Maker, a fellow enthusiastic audience member, who was always lending his time and personal support to see that theatre in the Washington area not only survived, but thrived. Barbara Bear was nominated to receive this honor by No Rules Theatre Company.