Written by Tim Rosenberger
Wednesday, 18 September 2013 00:00
With Peoria Players, the longest running community theater in Peoria and the fourth longest in the nation, celebrating its 95th season from now until May of next year, theater regulars have been discussing its past, their love for the organization, what they would like to see moving forward and why community theater is important.
The theater’s humble beginnings took place on Oct. 6, 1919 at the Peoria Women’s Club with a one-act play called “The Makers of Dreams” by Oliphant Down.
“It was decided to form a ‘players group’ which will be made up of amateur actors, writers, painters and electricians so that all the requisites of a ‘little theater’ production may be furnished at home,” a June 27, 1919 notice in The Peoria Transcript said about the theater.
"Players, having grown a lot since that first year, now does nine shows a year – usually four musicals, a comedy, a drama, a special musical in June, a holiday show in December and a production by the Summer Youth Theatre – variety being one of the keys to a successful community theater," Nicki Haschke, Players’ business administrator said.
Although variety is important, Players cannot do too many newer, more obscure, and avant-garde shows – the type of productions critics of local theater often wish to see more of – due to the financial side of the theater.
“When we do our play selection process, it’s really hard, because it is a business,” Haschke said. “We have to do the shows that are going to sell tickets [and] that the audience members want to see. It’s not always the shows that some of our performers want to do because they’ve been done over and over and over.”
Productions different from the known standards are not always possible, but those running Peoria Players still try to fit in at least one newer show during the season. This year that show is “Shrek the Musical,” which originally opened on Broadway in 2008 and will open at Players in May.
The other shows picked for the landmark season give a lot of options for those wanting to step on stage, Hashke said. The two shows, “Barefoot in the Park” and “The Miracle Worker,” are great for performers who do not want to sing and dance.
The musicals, on the other hand, are made up of popular and classic works such as “Les Miserables, which just ended its run on the 15th, “Meet Me in St. Louis, which Players has never done;” and “Oliver,” which Haschke does not think the theater has done since 1972.
One of the benefits to doing big productions like musicals or shows like “Oliver” and “The Miracle Worker” that have child leads is the chance to cast families and people of different age groups. It is certainly an opportunity Mary Ellen Ulrich, director of “Meet Me in St. Louis,” enjoys offering when she directs shows.
“The reason that I direct more than any other thing is I’ve been in theater since I was in the third grade, and I’ve loved it,” Ulrich said. “I have always wanted to pass my love of theater onto kids that come through.”
Opening theater to a new generation and/or to people who may never have been involved in it in the past revitalizes it, keeps veteran actors on their toes and is another crucial part to a theater’s success, Curt Rowden, a Players’ board member and actor, said.
“I’m hugely impressed by the talent in this area, and you just keep getting new [people],” Rowden said. “You get these kids that are on stage with you at the age of 7 and 8 years old, and you turn around and they’re 18 and they’re blowing your socks off as a lead. It’s so much fun to watch.”
Other than doing it for the love of it, the interviewees all agreed their favorite aspect or one of their favorite aspects of Players was the friendly, family atmosphere. When he did his first show at Players in 2009, Rowden was surprised that there were no prima donnas, saying he was instantly welcomed into the theater family.
For those wanting to get involved in Players or get tickets for a show, they can call the box office at 309-688-4473 or visit Players’ website at http://www.peoriaplayers.org/index.html.
Peoria Players perform in their own theater on 4300 N. University St., but it has had its fair share of moving around. Players has performed at the Peoria Women’s Club, the Majestic Theater and the Jackson Street Firehouse before they had to move out do to the construction of I-74, which caused the theater to becoming a traveling troupe for their 1955/56 season.
The organization has been in its current theater since 1957 and some say the building could use a few updates. Rowden would like to see Players’ current theater expand, with more space being added to the building in order to deal with the theater’s greater storage, costume and large cast demands.
The building was built when Player’s was mostly doing small shows with five to six people in them, but now with all the musicals and bigger productions, there needs to be more space, Rowden said. Unfortunately, this is not a cheap proposition, so renovations such as those may not happen for a long time if ever.
Despite these setbacks, Ulrich and Rowden both have heard patrons say the productions at Players and the theaters that surround it, while not having the same budget, rival shows those patrons have seen in Chicago, St. Louis, Washington, D.C. and even New York due to the immense talent Peoria theater people have.
An extra benefit to seeing shows at places like Players is you can spend the same price or less to see all the shows of the season when you would spend that much or more to see just one show on Broadway.
“You can spend 18 bucks, go to Peoria Players, you can see a live performance, you can support the local arts [and] you can help these artists grow,” Ryan Campen, board member as well as a Players actor and directer, said. “I think art is a very important thing to have. In culture, without art we become decadent as a society and that’s not something we want for future generations to come.”
Last Updated on Tuesday, 17 September 2013 14:21