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Meet Debbie Lyman

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Meet Debbie Lyman

Like a Shakespearian play, much of Debbie Lyman's life has been 'unexpected.'


Like most people, Debbie Lyman was introduced to Shakespeare in junior high school and, as a young adult, had a book of his collected plays in the house. She was a fan, but she certainly never expected just how much time—a couple of months each summer, plus other time throughout the year—she would end up spending promoting his work. Debbie, you see, is the community coordinator for the Heron, Montana performance of Montana’s Shakespeare in the Parks, which takes place this year on Saturday, August 21.

Unexpected is almost a theme word for Debbie’s life. Born in Milwaukee, Wisc., she actually grew up in Southern California, where her family moved after her father got a teaching position there. In 1969, she attended the University of California at Berkeley, where she majored in anthropology and met her future husband, Dave Lyman.

“We grew up in cities, and it never occurred to me we wouldn’t live in one,” she said, but nevertheless, after graduation and a trip to the Heron area to help a friend building a house, Dave and Debbie moved onto a 90-acre parcel just out of ‘town’ and there they’ve settled, becoming almost as permanent a part of the landscape as the jagged peak of Sawtooth Mountain, one of Debbie’s favorite views and a signature image for the thousands of people through the years who have gathered on Heron’s ballfield to watch the professional touring theater that, through an outreach program of Montana State University, brings the Bard to the backwoods every year.

Like many who moved to the area in the 70s, the Lymans planned on building a home without benefit of a bank loan, and moved into an old outbuilding that stood on the property while they built. “Having no clue how long anything would take and never having built, we thought we’d have the house done by the end of summer,” Debbie laughed.

The house was, unsurprisingly, not yet complete when unexpected struck again soon after; Dave was badly injured in a car wreck their first winter in Montana. 

“That was a life changer,” Debbie said. “There we were: no work and we’d lost our vehicle.” Then Dave, who had worked as a toolmaker before coming to Montana, was hired while he was still in the hospital to make hydro turbines for a local guy.

“We made ‘em in the kitchen,” said Dave. “It was about a 14x14 foot building, with our kitchen and food on one side, and the lathe and equipment on the other.” At that point, with their house still under construction, an old grain storage shed joined the brood house as their ‘homestead.’

That accident set the direction for their future, leading to a job with benefits that lasted six years. The house was brought to a point in construction where they could move in ‘76 and Debbie settled in to raising the couple’s two children, Jessica and Nick. “I was really lucky, I got to be a stay-at-home parent,” Debbie said.

Debbie volunteered in the schools and in the mid-70s the couple helped others in their community with starting a fire department—Debbie even attended training to become a firefighter. Dave opened a business—IDA—making tools for companies in Spokane and doing small production jobs. And they continued to work on their house, a job that Debbie admits now, “will never be done.” And in 1987 they saw their first performance of Shakespeare in the Parks—The Rivals—at the Huckleberry Festival in Trout Creek.

Dave—who spent three years in college majoring in math before he realized he wasn’t that enamoured of it, and switched to Slavic languages—was a fan of Shakespeare (“a lot of Russian literature is heavily themed with Shakespeare) and the experience stayed with the pair. So when the area coordinator for Shakespeare in the Parks retired (it had moved to Noxon by then), Debbie “rather casually said, ‘I’ll do it’,” and the works of the man who is widely considered as the greatest writer in English of all time became an almost permanent bedfellow.

“To me, the thing about Shakespeare is he wrote to be seen, not read,” Debbie said, and she avers that nothing is a better introduction to, or reminder of, the universal appeal of Shakespeare than gathering on the ballfield with a picnic dinner and a bunch of friends to watch the talented performances of MSIP. 

Montana Shakespeare in the Parks is an outgrowth of the outreach provision for Montana’s land-grant universities. These institutions of higher education, funded through the sale of federal lands, are charged with a focus on agriculture, science and engineering, and are heavily involved in serving rural communities. MSIP is the only professional touring company in the state that produces Shakespeare’s plays, and the only Shakespeare company in the country that reaches out so extensively to rural areas. The Heron ‘arm’ of this production takes place in one of the smallest participating towns in the state, and has one of the largest audiences; several hundred people show up each year for the show.

Local tour coordinators raise the funds to pay for and advertise performances, and Debbie and Dave, along with two other families, house the performers while they and a large group also feed them on their Heron leg of the tour. 

“We cover a lot of territory,” Debbie explained. She plasters posters and press releases from Trout Creek, Montana to Sagle, Idaho, and play-goers come from areas even farther. Debbie raises around $1,400 each year in order for Heron to host the tour. Those donations, by the way, do not include what’s given on the field, as the field donations go directly to Montana Shakespeare in the Parks.

The best part of the season, for Debbie, “is when it’s all over!” she laughs. Although August is historically one of the lowest precipitation periods for Heron, records still show an average of 1.34” for the month, and Debbie spends the month prior to the show worrying about weather; rain is welcome on any day other than the third Saturday of the month. “When the actors take their final bows, and people begin to gather their things, and the rain has held off, then I relax,” she said.

Another occasional complication is the Festival at Sandpoint, a two-week music festival that starts on the first Thursday of August each year. At times, that means a Festival concert is taking place at the same time as Shakespeare in the Parks. “Luckily, we’re past that for a few years,” Debbie said, pointing out the Festival ends on August 15, six days prior to this year’s Shakespeare performance, 

The performance this year is “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” a comedy featuring fairies, a magical forest, a love story and mistaken identity. Joel Jahnke, MSIP’s artistic coordinator and a professor of theater at Montana State University, said the play set has been designed so that the “real” world of Athens, where the play is set, will have a monochromatic flavor while the world of the forest will be a “richly textured, magical world that although controlled by the fairies is also a place of danger, of dark shadows, of mysterious things that happen to the lovers when they least expect them.

“I have been strongly influenced by both Disney’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and Tim Burton’s new version of ‘Alice,’” Jahnke said. “I’m looking to create a world that is exotic and colorful with just the right amount of mystery and danger to keep it interesting.”

The performance starts at 6 pm (that’s Montana time), and the ballfield is located just behind the community center, right off the main drag. To reach Heron, take Hwy. 200 and, near mile marker 3, follow the sign for the turnoff. Heron is located approximately 30 miles from Sandpoint, Idaho and around 50 miles from Thompson Falls, Montana.

The production is FREE to the public, though donations are gratefully accepted. Attendees are invited to bring a picnic meal and the beverage of their choice, as no food is available on the field. Bring chairs to sit in, and be prepared not only for August’s occasionally tumultuous weather, but for an experience you’ll never forget. 


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Landon Otis

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People, Debbie Lyman, Dave Lyman, Shakespeare in the Parks, Heron, theater

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