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Joan Welch, Interplayers Ensemble co-founder, dies at 84

Bob and Joan Welch toast each other in front of the fireplace in their acting roles in the 2004 Spokane Interplayers production of “Painting Churches.” Joan Welch died Sunday; her husband died in 2006. (File)
Bob and Joan Welch toast each other in front of the fireplace in their acting roles in the 2004 Spokane Interplayers production of “Painting Churches.” Joan Welch died Sunday; her husband died in 2006. (File)

Joan Welch – actress, director, co-founder of the Interplayers Ensemble and one of the key cultural forces in Spokane – died Sunday morning at her home in the Rockwood Retirement Community in Spokane. She was 84.

She died in her sleep, according to her son, Chris Welch, of Los Angeles. A memorial service will be held at St. Peter Catholic Church at 3520 E. 18th Ave. on Friday at 2:30 p.m., with a reception at a location to be announced.

Michael Weaver, who worked with Welch and her late husband for years at Interplayers and is now appearing at the theater in “Greater Tuna,” said her influence on the cultural life of Spokane was “total.”

“Without her, professional theater would not exist in Spokane,” Weaver said. “The idea wouldn’t exist.”

Joan Welch was born on Oct. 14, 1927, and raised in Mineola, N.Y., on Long Island. Soon after high school she went to New York City and attended the Dramatic Workshop at the New School for Social Research. She became friends with classmates and future stars such as Walter Matthau, Tony Curtis and Marlon Brando. She was in a singing group with classmate Harry Belafonte.

“She even wrote some songs with him,” said her daughter Robin Welch Greer, of Omaha, Neb.

She met Robert (Bob) Welch at the New School, and they were married between their matinee and evening performances of “The Male Animal.”

They moved to Spokane in 1954 after Bob took a job as an announcer on KXLY-4. The couple were active at the Spokane Civic Theatre and appeared on stage in many roles.

Because of her diminutive size and youthful good looks, she often landed “ingénue” roles – but in reality she was a powerhouse of energy and exuberant talent.

In 1959, Joan Welch got a job as a dance instructor at Fort Wright College, and she soon took over the drama department. Bob joined her on the faculty later. It was at Fort Wright that they began to attract an audience of serious theatergoers who wanted to see challenging contemporary plays and classics. In 1981, after Fort Wright College closed, the Welches launched the Interplayers Ensemble, a professional theater with its own downtown space.

Over the next 20 years, Joan and Bob Welch built Interplayers into one of Spokane’s premier cultural institutions. They staged thought-provoking, literate plays by classic and contemporary masters such as William Shakespeare, George Bernard Shaw, Tom Stoppard and Wendy Wasserstein.

Michael Weaver said that at the height of their reign at Interplayers “they turned it into one or the powerhouse theaters in the country.” He said playwright Tony Kushner’s agent once called the Welches and offered the Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Angels in America” to Interplayers because of the theater’s reputation. (The Welches had to decline due to staging issues.)

“When I traveled around the country, people knew of Interplayers and knew the quality,” Weaver said. “That’s what Joan taught me: that quality is what’s important. You have to have integrity. Every production counts and every performance of every production counts.”

Joan Welch directed many plays at Interplayers, notably “Art,” “Sylvia” and “Da.” She also acted in a number of meaty roles at Interplayers – and prior to that, at the Civic. She and her daughter Robin memorably played Annie Sullivan and Helen Keller in “The Miracle Worker” at the Spokane Civic Theatre in 1963.

At Interplayers, she and Bob performed one of their favorite plays, “The Gin Game,” both in 1983 and 1998.

During the 1998 run, Joan Welch told a reporter, “We are really actors, and even though we have done this other side-trip, in developing Interplayers, we love to act. I feel like acting is what we should be doing.”

“In Welch’s performance, Fonsia lives as a character with a past so real and so touching that it hurts,” said a review of the 1998 production in The Spokesman-Review.

“I learned by watching her,” said Weaver. “Every moment onstage mattered. Nothing was superfluous or overlooked.”

The Welches retired in 2001. They returned to the Interplayers stage in 2004 to appear in “Painting Churches.” That would be their last performance; Bob died in 2006.

Yet the theater they created, Interplayers Ensemble, lives on in its original space as Interplayers Professional Theatre.