Young at Art

Octogenarians Joyce ’50 and Quenten Doolittle ’50 are one dynamic duo.

By Judith Pratt

Quenten Doolittle ’50 and Joyce Donahue ’50 met in 1947, when Ithaca College was still in downtown Ithaca. “We met in a big alphabetized classroom,” Joyce recalls. “I like to say that we met in alphabetical order.”

They married at the end of their junior years. After graduation, they began careers in music (Quenten) and theater (Joyce).

Sixty years later, they are still going strong — as a couple, and as artists. In fact, a phone conversation with them from their home in Calgary (Alberta, Canada) had to be postponed because Quenten, 84, received an invitation to go skiing with friends.

Joyce Doolittle, 81, doesn’t ski. But thanks to her yoga studies, she stood on her head as part of her role in Queen Lear, a play written for her by Eugene Stickland and produced in February 2009 at the Pumphouse Theatre in Calgary.

Does art keep you young?

“It helps,” says Joyce. “And great genes, and staying in shape.”

“Practicing music for years and years creates discipline,” adds Quenten, “and it’s good for the head.”

While Quenten was working on his Doctor of Musical Arts at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, Joyce taught high school drama and English.

“We did ambitious things like Julius Caesar and R.U.R.,” she recalled. She also directed an after-school performance of The Bald Soprano, when playwright Eugene Ionesco was the most avant of the avant-garde.

The Doolittles arrived in Calgary in 1960, after collecting graduate degrees and four children. Quenten taught composition, music history, and chamber music at the University of Calgary.

A few years later, Joyce joined the faculty, teaching creative dramatics, playwriting, and Canadian drama. “Quenten would pick music for plays I directed,” Joyce said — including collectively created versions of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass.

Quenten regularly played viola with the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra and many chamber groups. In 1965, he began composing music.

All 60 of his compositions appear on the Canadian Music Center website, which describes his work as “beginning in free tonality, then influenced by serial and improvisational techniques.” His juxtaposition of styles harks back to growing up in a large, musical family in Elmira, New York, where he heard everything from temperance hymns to jazz.

“For me, it’s really interesting to work out things dramatically with the music,” Quenten explains. That interest led him to write musical scores for many plays and theaters and to compose operas.

Boiler Room Suite, composed in 1989, with a libretto by well-known Canadian playwright Rex Deverell, toured to London, England. There, a critic from the Independent wrote that “Doolittle [has] a sure ear for tonal balance and a strong sense of the orchestra’s role as a virtual extension of the voice.”

The Doolittles “retired” in 1988. Since then, Quenten has composed four operas, including a collaboration with Joyce, Bible Babes, about Eve, Delilah, and Jezebel. They enjoy creating together. “They’re some of our happiest times,” Joyce says.

One of their collaborations was less happy. When their daughter, Amy, was stricken with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, Quenten wrote Elegy for her, setting poems by Emily Dickinson to music for soprano, choir, and small orchestra. Joyce helped with the poetry selection. “Amy had recordings, and we were able to talk about it before she died,” Quenten says. Elegy was performed in 2009 to celebrate the 25th anniversary of New Works Calgary, which Quenten cofounded.

After retiring, Joyce appeared in plays by Lorca, Ionesco, Morris Panych, and Martin McDonagh, winning acting awards and helping to found a theater in an old water pumping station. “A dedicated group of people saved it from demolition and converted it into two performing spaces,” she explained. One of those is named the Joyce Doolittle Theatre.

The Doolittles also have a performance space named for them at the University of Calgary. Appropriately for these two innovative artists, the Doolittle Studio can’t be used for classes, only for rehearsals and experimental and multidisciplinary works.