While other high school students were worrying about SATs and wondering where to go for college, Benjamin Gonzales was fighting for his life.

Born and raised in Port Townsend, Gonzales spent his junior and senior year of high school battling non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer of the white blood cells. By the time he left the hospital, applying for college was the furthest thing from his mind.

“I had just been released from the hospital in April after a bone marrow transplant,” says Gonzales ’04. “I needed time to recover and a majority of my energy was spent just trying to graduate from high school on time.”

Conscious of his health, he followed his sister to Pullman and Washington State University to pursue a degree in theater production, after spending his childhood immersed in theater, thanks to his mother.

Now Gonzales is one of the two remaining faculty members who teach theater at WSU and is the advisor to the STAGE Student Theatre Group, which gives students the opportunity to experience every aspect of theater, from writing to directing to set production. The group also sponsors Nuthouse, a student improv comedy troupe.

When he arrived as a student, STAGE existed, but it lay dormant.

“Before I got to Pullman the STAGE group was decently strong, but it was weak when I got here,” says Gonzales. “The theater group as a whole spent a lot of time together, most of who were not in STAGE, but it wasn’t very organized.”

Undeterred, Gonzales took part in the main stage theater production. It was during auditions for the play Everyman that Gonzales met Ray Franz, a transfer student from California who was pursuing a degree in education.

“Ben was the first person I met when I got to WSU,” says Franz ’01. “Eventually we became friends and then roommates.”

Gonzales and Franz knew the student theater group was fading out. In the spring of 1999, the end of Gonzales’s sophomore year, the theater master’s program had no candidates, which meant there would be no student-directed plays that spring.

“There was only the musical that spring. There were no opportunities for people not interested in singing,” explains Franz. “There should always be an alternative to the musical.”

That year Gonzales decided he didn’t want to be someone who just showed up at rehearsal. He took the initiative to find another production for the spring.

Gonzales had written a play about his roommates called Seeing the Obvious during his freshman year. He submitted it to the Port Townsend One Act Play Festival the summer before his sophomore year and, without any prior experience in playwriting, won second place.

“It was the first carrot,” says Gonzales. “It said I could really do this.”

He took his play to the STAGE executives, the only active members of the group at the time, and his play was accepted for the spring show. There was one problem: His play was barely an hour and the performance needed to fill two. Franz had the idea to let the students perform some improv comedy after the show.

Thus, Nuthouse was born.

“Nuthouse was my baby,” says Franz. “Ben helped make it part of the community after that.”

After the production, Gonzales saw the opportunity to rebuild the group from the ground up. Gonzales and a group of his theater friends joined STAGE and elected new officers. Gonzales rewrote the constitution, clearly defining the roles of the officers, and established a one-act play festival to build participation.

“Ben basically took the reins and formed a new community,” says Franz.

The new STAGE group was a success. It gave students the opportunity to express themselves without restrictions or requirements and gave them the support group every student should have on campus.

After graduation, Gonzales and Franz went their separate ways. Fifteen years later they keep in touch, still linked by WSU and STAGE.

Franz, inspired by the WSU group, became director of a high school theater program in California. Before he met Gonzales he only saw theater as a hobby, but now he knows if you’re passionate enough anything is possible.

“I always teach my students to follow their dreams,” Franz said. “STAGE opened doors for me.”

After graduation, Gonzales left WSU briefly and then came back to pursue his master’s in teaching. The theater department asked Gonzales to teach the intro to theater class. Eventually his temporary position morphed into three-quarters time, then into an instructor, and finally into faculty.

“They hooked me one class at a time,” Gonzales says with a laugh.

When Gonzales returned, STAGE still existed, but the quality had dipped. He again decided to take an active role. More than fifteen years after he rebuilt STAGE from the ground up, Gonzales is now the main faculty advisor to the group.

“For students, theater is learning and having fun at the same time,” says Gonzales. “Theater makes you smarter. It makes you challenge yourself and open your mind.”