Friends, family say goodbye but hope Kay Roth's show will go on

Kay Roth, ca. 2014

B Y  J E N N I F E R  M O O D Y

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

A year ago at this time, Kay Roth was eagerly anticipating the January auditions for 9 to 5: The Musical, a show she loved and couldn’t wait to see on the stage at Albany Civic Theater

She had pitched the show for the company’s 70th season and originally had been scheduled to direct. That was before she was sidelined by complications from atrial fibrillation.

That wasn’t supposed to happen either, especially the way it struck; taking Roth to the emergency room in the middle of watching ACT’s The Unexpected Guest. But Roth was all right with letting Christi Sears and Mirinda Keeling take the reins of her show instead while she worked to regain her strength. 

Except she didn’t. An infected hematoma took her life on Feb. 3 and left friends and family both struggling with how to face a stage suddenly empty of a 15-year volunteer who had done everything from casting to costumes.

And then a new infection, going by the deceptively unassuming name of the novel coronavirus, took the stage away, too. 

9 to 5, which was to have opened May 8, went from vocals and dance rehearsals to Zoom meetings to a quiet, waiting hiatus. 

“Our goal is to perform this show,” Sears said. “Our time frame is unknown.” 

The news of Roth’s death was devastating to the cast and crew, and to fellow volunteers who knew she had been sidelined but figured she’d be back onstage soon.

Melissa Gutiérrez, who was tapped to play Judy, the office newbie, for 9 to 5, had decided to audition purely because Roth said she hoped she would. 

“I truthfully knew very little about 9 to 5 before that, so I did some homework and watched both the movie and the musical. Simply put, I fell in love,” she said. “I was excited to work with Kay again and get to know her better. … Everyone was hopeful she would get better, and then Kay was in hospice care.”

Keeling had agreed to Roth’s request that she be vocal director back in the fall of 2019. At that point, Keeling and Kim Drapek, the music director, were the only confirmed crew.

Then Roth was hospitalized. Time passed. And passed. 

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Kay Roth, left, and Christi Sears pose outside the Albany Civic Theater.

As the audition schedule drew closer, Keeling offered to be the assistant director to make sure the show moved forward, and the ACT Board of Directors decided to appoint Sears to take Roth’s place. 


“Nobody expected to lose Kay, but we were concerned about how long she would need to recover,” Keeling remembered. “Both of us visited with her to discuss her vision of the show and confirm that we wanted her to continue to be a part of the show. 

“We just wanted her to be able to focus on getting better, too.”

The first night for auditions was Jan. 27. A week later, Roth was gone. 

Roughly six weeks after that, Albany Civic Theater’s season also evaporated.

ACT hasn’t been able to stage a traditional show since cutting short performances of Squirrel Lake in mid-March. It’s difficult to sit at a distance in the theater, which seats about 160. And square footage is scarce enough on the stage, let alone in the backstage areas where dozens of cast members used to politely squeeze past one another on their way to makeup, hairstyling, or a costume change. 

The all-volunteer group hasn’t been idle, however. They staged radio-style adaptations of An Evening with Edgar Allan Poe for Halloween and A Christmas Carol for the holidays. More radio shows may be on the horizon, Sears said; it all depends on what the governor says.

Nobody knows when traditional musicals might be able to resume. Vaccines are coming but likely not in time to salvage a season for 2021. 

Fly Babies, Dracula, and 9 to 5 are all just in pending mode still,” Sears said. “We are hoping to regroup and perform down the road.”

And what would Kay Roth have said? What would she have done to ride out the pandemic, to remain a part of 9 to 5, to help the shows go on?

It’s hard to answer that because those who knew and loved her best are still trying to figure out what to say themselves, in the face of her loss, in the face of the loss of nine months of shows and counting.

She would have been bereft without the stage, they know, because Kay Roth’s life centered around storytelling.

Roth, who grew up in Brookings, started doing theater in high school, where she played Aunt Em in a production of The Wizard of Oz, said her daughter, Sarah Roth.

“When she was beginning to think about colleges to apply for, she took out a map of Oregon, closed her eyes, and pointed,” Sarah said. “She landed on Gresham, where Mount Hood Community College is.”

There, Sarah said, her mother “jumped feet first into the theater department there,” doing anything she could — she wasn’t in many shows but was involved in some way with every one of them. 

Kay transferred to what’s now Western Oregon University but wasn’t as involved with theater, her daughter said, because at that point she had met Ken, the man who would become her husband. 

“After they got married and had kids, theater started back up again,” Sarah said.

When she wasn’t acting, Roth told the stories of her communities through more than a decade of work as a reporter, editor, and photographer. 

Kay with Darcy Danielsen, Pippin, circa
Darcy Danielson, left, and Kay Roth as pictured in the program for a ca. 1978 production of Pippin.

Living in Scio, she wrote for both the Scio News and the Jefferson Review, then in 2013 became editor-in-chief for the successor to the News, the Scio Tribune. She also spent five years as circulation assistant for the Albany Democrat-Herald, where she helped write stories for special sections on pets, businesses, and veterans. 

She was particularly proud of graduating cum laude from Oregon State University in December 2014 with a bachelor’s in digital communication and media/multimedia.

The stage was never far away, however. Roth also wrote, directed and acted in Scio’s twice-annual Sheepskin Revue, an evening of skits, songs and storytelling linked to both the holiday season and the spring Lamb & Wool Fair. She also gave the town a junior production of Oliver!.

Roth came to ACT in 2005 by way of Hamlet, which she’d attended with her daughters, Sarah and Becky. Shauna Kiefuk remembers hearing her say she saw the notice for The Rocky Horror Show in the program and said she had to audition.

“I want to be involved with that show some way, either in it or backstage,” Kiefuk recalled. And she was: Cast as a Transylvanian, Kay sang and danced while Sarah became the show’s wardrobe mistress and costumer.

Sears was the director for Rocky and Keeling was the production assistant. Keeling found out she was pregnant with her son, Adam, during the show.

“The cast and crew made me a Rocky-themed baby blanket for him,” she noted. “Adam is a cast member of 9 to 5. It seems to have come full circle.”

For the next 15 years, Kay was as much a part of the downtown Albany theater scene as the marquee itself. She and Sarah played Tweedledee and Tweedledum in Alice in Wonderland in September 2010. She was the mischievous Aunt Queenie in a 2018 production of Bell, Book, and Candle. Other credits include David & LisaRope, and Curtains


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Sarah and Kay as Tweedledee and Tweedledum onstage in Alice in Wonderland, 2010.
Kay Roth, left, and daughter Sarah do each other's makeup for ACT's Alice in Wonderland in 2010.
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Kay Roth with the Laramie Project cast, February 2015.

As much as she loved acting, her passion was directing. Among the many shows she headed were The Cemetery ClubOf Mice and MenA Streetcar Named Desire, Oliver!, And Then There Were NonePippinAugust: Osage CountyThe Laramie ProjectThe Runner StumblesNoises Off!, and The Diary of Anne Frank. She won the 2015 ACT President's Award for Outstanding Service.


She dedicated Oliver! to Dana Brown, her high school drama teacher — Roth had been in his show as a student — and to the late Nancy Fairchild, who cast her in Rope. Fairchild, she told reporters at the time, became a close friend and trusted adviser, the same role Roth herself would go on to play for so many others.


“She loved teaching and watching others transform on stage,” Sarah said. 


Added Kiefuk: “Kay was known for directing dramas. Kay always said, ‘A musical makes you move, a comedy makes you laugh and dramas make you feel.’ She loved making people feel. She tackled some hard dramas that I and others would never dream of taking on. She just had an eye for deep-feeling shows and knew exactly what was needed.”


In fact, Sarah said, her mother’s philosophy on feeling is now a permanent part of her life. During a particularly poignant point in rehearsals for The Runner Stumbles, Kay had reminded her daughter that it’s OK to feel.


“I now have, ‘It’s OK to feel, Love Mom” as a tattoo, in her handwriting, on my arm,” she said.


Roth worked on set design, costumes, and props. She was always available for questions or troubleshooting. Visitors who came through the back parking lot on their way in the stage door would often find her on the bench outside, usually with a group of fellow volunteers, taking a smoke break and telling her latest story.


“It seems that I cannot think of Albany Civic Theater without Kay Roth,” said Ray Phipps, who was cast with Douglas Hambley to share the role of chauvinistic 9 to 5 egomaniac Franklin Hart.


For Phipps, what stands out the most is his role as Fagin in Roth’s 2011 production of Oliver!


“Kay took on this mammoth task of producing a classic with a large cast of child actors and a mixed group of adults and brought it to life as it was intended,” he remembered. “Kay had a way of encouraging her cast to think of their character as a whole person, not just what the script called for. She would have us all do a ‘back story’ on our character early in rehearsals to help us understand what might have driven them to the point at which the script found them.


“Kay was constantly, persuasively and positively motivating all her actors to reach their highest potential for their character,” he added. “Her favorite mantra to her group of young thespians was to ‘sing out and sing proud.’”


Gutiérrez first met her during Sears’ production of Mamma Mia! As always, Roth was volunteering, too.


“Kay was a steady presence in that production. She always smiled,” Gutiérrez said. “I remember when Christi and Kay complimented me during the run of the show and it meant a lot to me, as I was so new to this! We had an amazing time.”


The choice of 9 to 5 was an easy one for Kay, who loved both the songs and the iconic role Dolly Parton played in the 1980 movie. 


“She was ready to direct another musical and was drawn to the story and the strong female friendships,” Sears said. “Sadly, we do not know what she wanted most to do with the show. That conversation never came up.”


Kay didn’t have a chance to take the show any particular direction. In July 2019 she was at ACT — no surprise there — watching a performance of The Unexpected Guest.


“I suddenly started feeling really rotten,” she would post to Facebook friends several months later. “I couldn’t catch my breath. I went to the lobby and had them call 911.” 


In the emergency room, doctors diagnosed Kay with atrial fibrillation, a quivering or irregular heartbeat. She was released a week later with a blood thinner that caused more complications and sent her back to the emergency room. She was in and out of treatment for weeks while doctors struggled to find a medication that would fix the symptoms without causing insurmountable problems of their own.


Finding a solution was what was supposed to happen. But like so many other things in 2020, it didn’t. A hematoma on her leg burst Thanksgiving day and sent her back to the hospital, then to a rehab center. She never made it home. 


On Feb. 3, as her family would write in her obituary, she passed away peacefully in her sleep. She was 63.


Sears and Keeling had hoped to bring her show to its successful conclusion. When Gov. Kate Brown issued her first shutdown orders related to the global pandemic, 9 to 5 had just finished vocals and dance and directors were getting ready to block the show.


“At first we were doing Zoom rehearsals on dialogue and character work. Eventually, like all of the other shows, we went on hiatus,” Sears said. 


In the quiet of the pandemic, the thespians find other ways to continue their work. The show will go on — at some point. Of this they are sure.


“Kay, before she passed and was still our director, had asked me to audition,” said Kellie McMahan, who was cast as Violet (the Lily Tomlin role, for fans of the movie). “I knew in Christi’s hands, the show would go on. I’m sticking with 9 to 5. I’m raring to go, as the saying goes. I know everyone is worried with COVID shutting things down, but theater will return!”


Added Gutiérrez: “Judy’s story is awesome and I can’t wait to help make it come to life. I also hope to honor Kay’s memory through 9 to 5, along with everybody else in the show.”


In the meantime, as time closes in on a year since Roth’s death, a year since the shutdown, they remember her.


“We had some fun ways we were going to honor Kay during the run,” Keeling said. “We were going to have every show she was involved in listed on the spines of the ‘books’ in the office area. We were also going to incorporate as many of her favorite plots as we could. Kay was going to design the set, but we lost her before that could happen.”


Phipps said cast members are still looking forward to being able to honor Roth with her last show. 


“As I considered auditioning for 9 to 5 this year, I thought of how Kay always made me feel welcome at ACT and how she appreciated the work of her casts,” he said. “As Kay exited stage left forthe last time, I dedicated my role in her last show to her untiring work for ACT and her friendship and support for me as an actor.”


“She always wanted to have a good time, to nurture others, to make sure everyone succeeded, and make everyone’s role special for the actors,” Sears recalled. “For me, she was my go-to AD and dear friend. Kay was the sister I never had. She always knew what needed done and could take on tasks without asking, knowing it was part of the process. She always got things done. She was a constant volunteer with every production since she found us.”


Kiefuk saw her as a mentor to many people, including herself.


“She was a huge help to me when I selected my shows for my directorial debut,” Kiefuk said. “She designed every single one of my sets, I will miss that. She was an amazing designer who had the perfect eye for each production. I will greatly miss my fellow set decorator. We always knew what the other was thinking and what was missing.” 


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Kay Roth with Ray Phipps as Fagin in Oliver!, 2011.

Sarah was there as her mother slipped away. Afterward, she went down to the theater. Fellow volunteers showed up there, staying to hug, chat and share memories. 


“I stood on the back dock and just cried,” she said. 


“I miss her every day, but things aren’t always sad, things are becoming fond memories instead of sadness and anger,” she said. 


“This pandemic has caused my healing to be slow and lonely,” she went on. “I realized a few months back that I will only truly be able to heal is when we are able to be back at the theater and be back with the people who loved my mom.”


Christi Sears

She always wanted to have a good time, to nurture others, to make sure everyone succeeded, and make everyone’s role special for the actors. For me, she was my go to AD and dear friend. Kay was the sister I never had. She always knew what I needed done and could take on tasks without asking, knowing it was part of the process. She always got things done. She was a constant volunteer with every production since she found us.

I miss my best friend. Her unexpected passing was/is hard on everyone.


Douglas Hambley

She was a confident director, was good with her cast, and I appreciated her love for the theater.


Kellie McMahan

Kay always had a hug and a smile for me,  I loved that about her. I always loved working with her on shows both on and off stage.  I've done costuming,  hair and makeup and helped paint stashes with and for Kay. It's still hard to believe she's gone. she was such a shining light.


Shauna Kiefuk

She has been a mentor to many people, including me.  She was a huge help to me when I selected my shows for my directorial debut.  She designed every single one of my sets, I will miss that.  She was an amazing designer, who had the perfect eye for each production.  I will greatly miss my fellow set decorator.  We always knew what the other was thinking and what was missing. 

Kay was known for directing dramas.  Kay always said, a musical makes you move, a comedy makes you laugh, and dramas make you feel.  She loved making people feel.  She tackled some hard dramas that I and others would never dream of taking on.  She just had an eye for deep feeling shows and knew exactly what was needed.

She was someone who could always find the silver lining in things.  She knew how to cheer others up and knew how to bring a smile to my face.  I miss her so much.  I really miss hanging out with her at Christi’s house.


Melissa Gutiérrez:

I first met Kay Roth when ACT put on Mamma Mia! and my husband and I both auditioned for it back in June 2019. We were both ensemble members on that production. Kay worked with Christi Sears on the show and was always involved. Kay was a steady presence in that production. She always smiled. I remember when Christi and Kay complimented me during the run of the show and it meant a lot to me, as I was so new to this! We had an amazing time. Kay definitely contributed to the success of Mamma Mia!.


For 9 to 5 I hope to share Judy Bernly's pain, growth, loss, and success with the audience. It's been fun becoming Judy. I can relate to the insecurity and metamorphosis that comes with trying something new and stepping into being a new person like she does. She experiences grief at the loss and betrayal of her relationship, awkwardness in trying a new job and fitting in, and frustration at disparaging superiors at work. She also gains so much confidence in learning that she can acquire new skills and overcome serious challenges in the workplace and in her personal life, all while gaining a few new friends. Judy's story is awesome and I can't wait to help make it come to life. I also hope to honor Kay's memory through "9 to 5" along with everybody else in the show.

I learned we had lost Kay through Christi, as I had been following her updates on Kay's health. Everyone was hopeful she would get better, and then Kay was in hospice care. She later passed away and the community felt her loss. It was shocking and saddening. Kay was deeply loved by so many people. She had been involved in countless productions at ACT; her influence spread far. It was strange auditioning for a show that Kay was supposed to direct, but wasn't able to direct anymore. I'm sad I wasn't able to work with her more and get to know her better.


Ray Phipps

Kay will always be with us on stage at ACT.