A Life: Gillian Tyler ‘was just sparkling’

Gillian Tyler in an undated photograph. (Family photograph)

Gillian Tyler in an undated photograph. (Family photograph) Family photograph

From left, Gillian Tyler, Vicky DeWitt and Kay Morton in the Parish Players' 1974 production of

From left, Gillian Tyler, Vicky DeWitt and Kay Morton in the Parish Players' 1974 production of "Stoop." (Chris McKinley photograph) — Chris McKinley photograph

Gillian Tyler, co-founder of the community theater group Parish Players, has her portrait taken on Aug. 12, 1978. (Valley News - Catherine Pomiecko) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Gillian Tyler, co-founder of the community theater group Parish Players, has her portrait taken on Aug. 12, 1978. (Valley News - Catherine Pomiecko) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News file — Catherine Pomiecko

By ALEX HANSON

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 07-07-2024 5:01 PM

Modified: 07-08-2024 5:16 PM


THETFORD — At Smith College in the 1950s, Gillian Lewis majored in visual art and minored in theater. Those studies presaged the direction her life would take after she moved to Thetford in 1960.

Art was major, at least at first, as she made woodcuts for books and operated her own small press out of the basement of the library on Thetford Hill.

But in the long run, theater was anything but minor. Gillian and Ed Tyler, to whom she was married in 1963, founded Parish Players, along with another couple, Linda and David Strohmeir, in 1966. Linda Strohmeir was very much at the center of the community theater company’s first decade, primarily as a director.

Even so, “I think she attributed the initial vision to Ed and Gill,” said John Griesemer, who started what became a long acting career at Parish Players in the 1970s.

Along the way, Gill Tyler, whose name was pronounced with a soft G, collected a group of young people who seemed at loose ends and would go on to careers in theater, both at Parish Players and farther afield.

“The Tylers were amazing. The most welcoming people in the whole world,” said Neal Meglathery, a Thetford resident who acted in his first Parish Players show in 1968.

Gillian Tyler died Jan. 20, 2024 at Harvest Hill in Lebanon, after a period of declining health. She was 88. She was the last remaining of the four Parish Players founders.

Born in Baltimore in October 1935, Tyler and her older brother, Barnard Lewis, were raised in Larchmont, N.Y. Her father, Oscar Barnard Lewis, a 1919 Dartmouth College graduate, worked in New York City for the Ethyl Corp., where he rose to become vice president. His office was in the Chrysler Building. Her mother, Nan Lewis, a native of the Welsh village of Nantyglo, where her father was a doctor, took classes at the Art Students League. Her parents met in Great Britain after World War I; Nan had been a nurse and O.B., as his name was often abbreviated, was an aviator.

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As a child, Gillian often found herself in her mother’s art classes. At Smith, Gill studied with Leonard Baskin, among other artists. She specialized in wood engraving, the painstaking process of carving a wooden block for printmaking. After Smith, she attended the Brooklyn Museum School on a prestigious Max Beckmann Scholarship, and studied in Hamburg, Germany as a Fulbright Scholar.

When she returned to the U.S., in 1960, her father had retired and her parents had moved to Thetford the year before. She joined them while she worked out what she would do next. She bought an etching press and was given a letterpress by Baskin. With those presses, and some further expertise gleaned from printer Ray Nash at Dartmouth, she set up a printing operation, Cricket Press, and produced limited edition books illustrated with her own woodcuts. (Smith College’s rare books library contains the press’ work and papers.)

“I wasn’t sure I wanted to stay here,” Tyler told the Valley News in an interview published in August 1978, “but when I got the press, it was an anchor.”

In August 1963, she was married to the Rev. Ed Tyler, who was pastor of the Congregational church on Thetford Hill. Her father had died in January of that year. As much as she expressed a yearning for travel, she was tied down to the Upper Valley. A daughter, Hilary, was born in the mid-1960s. (Efforts to reach her were not successful.)

Printing was a solitary, labor-intensive process, and while Tyler enjoyed it, she found she preferred the theater and its people.

“I love wood engraving and printing,” she said in 1978, “but the business of living and working by yourself is too much for me ... I like the sociability (of being around actors).”

Parish Players began with a production in December 1966 of Thornton Wilder’s “The Long Christmas Dinner,” in the basement of the Congregational church. Tyler played the title role in “The Madwoman of Chaillot” the following spring.

In the company’s first few years, it performed in multiple locations. A 1968 production of “The Miracle Worker” went on in Thetford Elementary School’s multi-purpose room, as did “High Spirits,” a musical based on Noel Coward’s “Blithe Spirit.” One of the numbers in the musical involved riding bicycles around the stage, and the cast and crew built ramps and planks in actor Peter Pickett’s Thetford motorcycle shop.

They also put on plays in Lyme, in a wing of the Strohmeirs’ Thetford home, in Post Mills and staged a rock-and-roll revue inside Huggett’s Mobil, a garage in East Thetford. The production of “The Madwoman of Chaillot” was the company’s first in the Eclipse Grange, which gradually became Parish Players’ permanent home.

Many of the young people who acted at Parish Players in the late 1960s and the 1970s were new both to the Upper Valley and to theater. Many were urban and suburban refugees and were sometimes at loose ends.

Neal Meglathery came to visit a friend in Thetford in 1968, knowing he was about to go into the Army. He ended up in the production of “The Miracle Worker.”

“I started hanging out with people who were involved,” Scott Caldwell said in a phone interview from Seattle, where he’s lived since the late 1970s. “I was on the fringes and sort of got drawn in.”

John Griesemer was a reporter at the Valley News in the mid-1970s when he went to Thetford to write about the patriotic “Red White and Blue Revue” the players were putting on for the Bicentennial.

“David Strohmeir said, ‘Hey, how would you like to come back and audition for “The Skin of Our Teeth”,’” Griesemer said in an interview. “These people all seemed very vibrant,” he said. He got the part and before long had quit the Valley News to pursue acting.

By that time, the company was well-established and its leaders had received a $45,000 grant through the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act, a Nixon-era program designed to stimulate the economy and to reintegrate Vietnam War veterans. The company used the money to pay staff and a troupe of six actors, including Tyler, Griesemer, Caldwell, Kay Morton and several others, who rotated in and out. The company created “The Tale of the Mouse,” a play based on African folk tales, and toured schools in Vermont and New Hampshire.

“It was wonderful,” Morton said. “It was my favorite job in the world.”

At the same time, the company continued to produce ambitious shows in its converted grange hall, including works by Shakespeare, Edward Albee, A.R. Gurney and many others.

Tyler was an outlier among the performers, by then 40, at least 15 years older than most of the other actors. Griesemer recalled thinking, “ ‘She’s a lot older than I am, but gosh, she’s so game.’”

It was during the 1970s that Tyler took on many of her most challenging roles, including as Emily Dickinson in the solo show “The Belle of Amherst,” and a lead role in Albee’s “A Delicate Balance.”

Caldwell remembered fondly a one-act play called “Stoop” that consisted of three women sitting on a stoop and talking. “Gill was just sparkling in that,” he said.

Tyler was a person of many parts, Caldwell said. In addition to making art and theater, she also was an avid equestrian and operated Ratty’s Tack, in Lyme for many years.

She might have left her biggest mark, though, on Parish Players. In the late 1970s, many people from the early days moved on, including Linda Strohmeir, who became an arts administrator in New York and then went to divinity school. Tyler and others soldiered on, and she ended up directing more shows.

“I think there was a time when she was willing to do a whole season, just to keep the theater alive,” Morton said.

Her obituary asked people to donate to the nonprofit company she’d helped to found, a supporter to the last.

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3207.

CORRECTION: The family photograph accompanying this story was incorrectly credited.