This week, let’s quickly wrap up the series I promised on interesting places where I’ve worked. Precisely NO ONE is insisting I do this, but I am a man of my word (at least, I try to be), and it would definitively IRK the obsessive-compulsive half of my head if I failed to even half-heartedly ATTEMPT to fulfill my foolhardy I.O.U.
This is, incidentally, the eighth entry for this weekly blog. We are now two months in to this word-heavy voyage, and I have been giving some thought as to the direction in which I would like things to head. I believe I have struck on the course we shall next chart, but before we press on, setting sail for distant shores, let us once more glance back. To save time, we’ll do all my past places of employ at once in one go.
Let us, then, sally promptly forth in EFFICIENT fashion, touching BRIEFLY on each theatre in turn. These are ALL excellent establishments, each worthy of much gushing and long tributes in song, but our attentions are limited and life itself all too short. For clarity’s sake, we shall proceed chronologically.
Timber Lake Playhouse
Located deep in the heart of rural Northern Illinois, between two cornfields and across from a campground, sits the awesome institution that is Timber Lake Playhouse. To imagine it, picture your typical summer camp complete with sketchily constructed cabins, spider-infested showers, a central campfire, and various communal buildings. Now imagine someone pushed all these buildings together into a tight, though erratic formation around a THEATRE, added a scene shop, a costume shop, and some storage, and then called it a day.
I did my first round of professional summer stock at TLP. It paid almost nothing, but they provided free housing and free food, so with no bills and nothing else to do in the middle of nowhere but rehearse and cause trouble, it was really the perfect way to begin the strange Bohemian life we actors so often lead. They do amazing work at TLP. They take it very seriously. The choreography, particularly, is topnotch. I, it must be said, did not dance there. That probably had something to do with them taking it seriously.
My second summer of stock, as they call it, was spent at Weathervane Playhouse in Newark, Ohio, which had only recently been renovated. Formerly, it had been open to the elements, boasting only a roof with no walls around the stage and bleachers. I am UNSPEAKABLY GRATEFUL that I arrived after walls and AIR-CONDITIONING had been added.
My time there was mostly defined by the strong bond the cast developed. I do not know how housing works there now, but in the summer of 2011 they had rented an entire dormitory at a steep discount from Denison University, just down the road, and everyone stayed there together, each with their own room. The actors stayed on the top two floors, with the techs staying on the bottom floor. The entire thing was like a mad slumber party whenever we were not in rehearsal or performing. It was entirely too much fun. No one got much sleep. But we were all young and crazy and it didn’t matter.
Blue Gate Musicals
I have worked twice for Blue Gate Musicals - once right out of college, and once again in 2015. Originally founded in Shipshewana, Indiana by the owner of the Blue Gate Restaurant and a few compatriots from Nashville, the company now runs shows at four different locations in four states, specializing in producing original musicals based on best-selling Amish book series, which are REAL things that sell in the MILLIONS.
It all sounds like some sort of SNL skit, but it is all very real. And it is brilliant business. The shows are produced at established Amish tourist traps in picturesque parts of our country and sell out to people guaranteed to be interested in the subject matter. Blue Gate is EXTREMELY clever when it comes to understanding its audience and marketing its products, and I would actually like to discuss some of the lessons I learned there in a later essay. For now, let’s move on.
In the fine state of Michigan, just above the border from the slightly finer state of Indiana (state of my birth), in between the storied cities of Battle Creek and Kalamazoo, right next to M-96, you will find a 400+ seat Equity theatre constructed out of an old dairy barn. This, my friends, is the Barn Theatre. Originally founded in the 40s, it is an amazingly ramshackle old structure, every inch utilized and ONE-THOUSAND PERCENT HAUNTED. It just IS. If you don’t believe in that, fine, but YOU try going into that basement by yourself after everything is shut down and YOU explain the footsteps, etc. I DARE YOU.
At the Barn, like at many places, unless you are a union company member or a guest artist, you are a member of the “apprentice program,” which is code for hellish internship. Let me stress that I say this fondly, as internships are a widely KNOWN TO BE TERRIBLE, and you should know what you are getting into when you sign up. I did. It was hard work, and stressful as all hell, and in the end, we did a lot of great shows and good work. Stress dissipates in the end, and you are left with only the Art that you made.
Oregon Cabaret Theatre
I love all these theatres, but I currently love the Oregon Cab the MOST. It is a lovely place, run by lovely people, located in the beautiful town of Ashland, Oregon, which is a hilariously perfect POSTCARD of a town populated entirely by wealthy retirees, hippies, and tourists. The theatre is in a deconsecrated, classily remodeled Baptist church, complete with upper balcony seating and a gorgeous, antique chandelier from a 1920s movie house that hangs above the audience. It is dinner theatre done RIGHT, with a complete wait staff, an amazing chef that works wonders, and a menu with specials that change for every show. I cannot speak highly enough about it. If you are ever in Oregon, check it out.
As an actor, one of the really special things about OCT is that it is TWO BLOCKS away from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which is a world-renown theatre company that produces Shakespeare, other classics, AND new works. Very rarely, when working in regional theatre, are you near enough to another theatre to get to see theatre yourself, so it is a genuine pleasure to be able to walk down the street and see multiple shows at a place as legit as OSF. So, go check both places out. If OSF’s production of Coriolanus bums you out, go see a song-and-dance piece at the Cab!
Maples Repertory Theatre
In the humble hamlet of Macon, Missouri there sits an old, crumbling opera and vaudeville house called the “Royal Theatre,” which is the current home of Maples Repertory Theatre, a formerly community theatre now gone professional. It is a small town, and the only thing that keeps a professional theatre running there is tremendous community support. Right down the street is the train tracks, and right next to that is a large factory that manufactures chicken nuggets. They probably make other things, too, but you can definitely tell they make chicken nuggets, because when the ovens are on, that is just about the only thing you can smell in that part of town.
The rehearsal space for the theatre is a block across the way, on the second floor of another tumble-down building right above the costume shop. The room possesses a memorably antique floor that creaks dangerously whenever large casts of actors are dancing. I can only imagine how the costumers feel, peering anxiously up from their sewing machines, no doubt praying fervently that the actors tap dancing over their heads continue to remain comfortably ABOVE them.
I could, of course, continue to ramble on and on and ON about the many intricate eccentricities and detailed specificities of these theatres, but let us end there for the present. In the coming weeks, I would like to begin looking forward, examining first why I think acting (and live theatre in particular) is increasingly vital and relevant in today’s world and then looking at ways I think theatre companies could work better in today’s economy. If you would care to join me, I will see you next week. If you wouldn’t, well, the internet is LARGE. I am sure someone else has some drivel posted which would better please you. I wish you well.