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Building Community

Gaye Tibbets has rekindled her love for local theater

Published in 2022 Missouri & Kansas Super Lawyers magazine

It took the death of a friend for Gaye Tibbets to return to the stage after a 30-year absence.

The Wichita-based employment and labor attorney majored in theater in college before pivoting to law school and building a three-decade career in employment law. When her friend, Wichita lawyer Doug Stanley, passed about a decade ago, she decided to pursue her initial passion.

“I went directly from the funeral to an audition, because I realized there were things in my life I was not making time for,” Tibbets says. “He died young, of cancer, and it was a real wake-up call that if there’s things you think you might like to do, you should probably do them.”

Tibbets doesn’t recall what the part was, but the role kickstarted her involvement in the Wichita area’s community theater. However, she admits it was a bit more difficult to remember her lines than in her college days.

“In your twenties, you can just jump in, read something four times, and remember it. But when you get older, that’s much more difficult,” she says, laughing. “That was a shock to me. I would say, if anybody wants to get back into it, they should be prepared to have to do a little more memorization work.”

Since her return, Tibbets has been involved in about a dozen local productions, from acting to stage management. Her favorite role was in Stage 9’s 2019 production of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, in which she and her husband, Ron Sylvester, who was a magistrate judge at the time, played the parents—roles made famous in the film by Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn.

“It was super fun for us to act in that together. That’s the only time we’ve both been in a show at the same time,” she says. “I like to think we had a little chemistry.”

For Tibbets, acting isn’t all that different from practicing law.

“Of course, the same skill of being able to speak in front of people and having a comfort level with thinking on your feet helps in both,” she says. “I find being on stage relaxing, because you cannot lose your focus; you cannot be worried about work. It’s much like doing yoga or something: You have to be fully present, or else a lot of bad things can happen. You can’t have your mind halfway one place and halfway another.”

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic abruptly halted local theater productions in 2020. In Hutchinson, Kansas, where Tibbets lives, in-person shows basically stopped for two years. But by serving on the board of the Hutchinson Theatre Guild, she was able to help local theaters and other related businesses apply for PPP loans. Plus, the guild did a few online performances, and her husband participated in an improv show.

“From my perspective, attendance in both professional and community theater is just barely on the uptick,” she says, “but it’s much better now than it was even six months ago. People are a little slow to come back, but it’s going to be great.

“I believe that, with how difficult the last two to three years have been, the arts have really helped people cope with some big themes of mortality and fear and resilience,” she continues. “I think community theater is a part of that as much as any other kind of art.”

While Tibbets doesn’t have her next performances mapped out, she’d love to do some Shakespeare.

“It’s very rewarding when you can bring something where the language is not easy, and make it understandable for people,” she says. “When it’s done well, it’s very rewarding. I’ve done a little bit of Shakespeare in the Park and I really enjoy that. I plan to do some more of it when it’s not 106 degrees out.”

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