Changing Theater Scene Seeks Larger Audience
Home-grown theater in Rockford has changed significantly over the past few decades. Theaters have come and gone, and the people who present stage works for local audiences have changed as well.
Mike Webb is preparing for the next production in his 29th season as Artistic Director of Rock Valley College Theatres. He’ll open “The Wizard of Oz” in December as part of what he calls his “impossible season.”
It started when he decided to stage Agatha Christie’s very first play, “Ahknaton,” in his quest to present all the mystery queen’s works. This one – the story of the murder of King Tut’s father -- calls for a huge cast and several different scenes … and it’s a real challenge for his tiny Studio Theatre stage in what once was a dairy barn.
“So I said, ‘Well, what other shows should we do in this impossible season?’ and we started out with ‘Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,’” he said. “The last time I did it I had two camels and 170 in the cast.
“I always said I would never do ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ but it’s the 75th anniversary of the film, and I thought this is the only time I think I would do it. We go a little bit harder with ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ next. This play still has the same message and soul that it had from the beginning. And then ‘Ahknaton.’”
Webb’s marching orders from the college are to sell a lot of tickets, and he’s pleased that all four shows in the season are basically sold out.
Before this indoor season ends, he will begin work on the outdoor Starlight Theatre season in the 1,000-plus-seat Bengt Sjostrom Theatre. It’s a far cry from the wooden platform with folding chairs for the audiences that saw “Finian’s Rainbow” in 1967 – the first Starlight Theatre production.
“The outdoor choices are directed by the audience surveys that we do,” he said. “We used to do a paper survey and then we went to an online survey.”
Webb also grabs at special opportunities that arise, such as getting “Les Miserables” for last summer.
A specially designed arts building was rejected by the RVC Board of Trustees, so Webb is waiting to see what develops for a new indoor performing space in a renovated classroom building.
Webb is originally from Rockford. He rebuffed opportunities to work in New York after graduate school because he wanted to enliven theater in his hometown.
Likewise, after a Master of Fine Arts degree from NIU and some professional theater gigs in the Chicago area, Jennifer Thompson also returned to Rockford. She was associate producer of RVC theaters before becoming admissions director.
Now she feeds her theater appetite working with community groups. She remembers the old Rockford Civic Theater, which disbanded in the 1970s, and she has directed and performed with the Main Street Players of Boone County and the Pec Playhouse Theatre.
“Community theaters nowadays are on the outskirts of the Rockford area. Performing opportunities are still there,” Thompson said, “and I know a lot of the theaters are still looking for a lot of volunteers and need some help.
“Some of them are struggling more than others to survive and fill seats.”
She says audiences for these groups – including civic theaters in Byron and Beloit as well as occasional other groups – vary in their support.
“It does seem like each one has a group of people who support them wholeheartedly,” she said, “and of course there are those regular theatergoers in the Rockford area who support live theater no matter where it’s at – and that’s kinda awesome.”
Richard Raether, artistic director of Artists’ Ensemble Theatre based at Rockford University, understands that struggle for support. He was involved with New American Theatre in its first season when professional theater was fighting for a foothold locally.
Rockford born and raised, Raether went elsewhere to get a theater degree and acted and coached stage combat in various stock and regional theaters and in New York. He and his wife Margaret returned to Rockford to raise their children, and he eventually wound up at NAT again.
He was artistic director for a few years and left to help form Artists’ Ensemble Theater with a cadre of local actors, directors and other theater artists.
“Artists’ Ensemble Theatre is rather interesting because we kind of created it from scratch,” he said.
Raether is the only full-time paid employee. He works with the participating artists to determine the plays they want to present, and then he takes the proposal to the non-profit board to firm up the financial picture.
Actors, designers and support people are paid on a show-by-show basis. Artists’ Ensemble has a contract with the professional theater union, Actors Equity, requiring roughly 30 percent of the performers in any season be union members.
“We have some really, truly terrific talent in Rockford. It gives me a home base of performers, of artists, designers, actors, and so forth that are right here,” he said, “and then, occasionally, we do bring in guest actors from Milwaukee or Chicago.”
They also give Rockford University theatre students an opportunity to work with the professional group and begin earning professional credentials.
Although Artists’ Ensemble presents plays that may not be familiar to audiences, Raether said the troupe aims for stories and characters to which the audience can relate. And, he says, the quality of their productions is noticed elsewhere.
“So many people, they assume, ‘Well, that’s just the local theater, we’ll go and see a big professional theater in Chicago,’” Raether noted. “Our production of ‘Mauritius’ in 2011 was one of Chicago Stage Style’s top ten shows of the year – including everything in Chicago.”
What do these theater people say to appeal to local audiences?
RVC’s Webb waxes philosophical:
“It’s almost like theater’s kind of its own ministry. These people get together to do these productions that will improve the audience’s lives in some capacity but also change them fundamentally,” he said. “To help each other and to get through it together is a really important issue.”
Thompson touts the personal benefits of involvement:
“A lot of the life lessons I learned about how to be a professional I learned from the theater,” she said. “How to meet deadlines, how to follow directions, how to think on my feet … you learn that from theater, and you don’t get those kinds of life lessons in a lot of other avenues.”
Raether offers a simple invitation:
“Come and see a show. There are so many people in this area who’ve never seen a live play. They go to movies all the time, they watch TV all the time, but they’ve never been to see live theater,” he said. “and I think that, if people were to do that, they would discover something that is incredibly exciting.”