The community in community theater
- Published: April 14, 2011
The value of theater in a small town goes beyond entertainment, according to local playwright Kay Reimers. As well as providing something interesting to do on a weekend night, theater brings people together for a shared experience.
“The arts is a way of uniting diverse elements of a community,” Reimers said in a recent interview. “It unites the artists, the people who take time out of their daily life to attend, and the volunteers who help make it happen.”
While Reimers, a Yellow Springs native who moved back to town with her family 12 years ago, missed the heyday of Center Stage, she’d like to see the energy of that longtime Yellow Springs theater unleashed again.
“That spirit is still here,” she said. “People still want to do something.”
Reimers and a group of local actors, along with the Dayton Mandolin Orchestra, are leading an effort to help restore local theater in Yellow Springs. The effort begins with two fund-raising events to raise money to create a new performance space that organizers hope will fill the void created when Center Stage ended its run. Specifically, the groups want to raise enough cash to purchase baffles for Westminster Hall in the First Presbyterian Church, to enhance that room’s acoustics. Future goals include purchasing dividers to create a more intimate space and enlarging the Westminster stage, which is now quite small.
A member of the church, Reimers and her fellow Presbyterians see an opportunity to not only boost theater in Yellow Springs, but to make the church more of a community center.
“It’s a big beautiful building that’s used only a couple of hours on Sunday morning and shut down the rest of the week,” Reimers said of the church. “That’s not good for us or for the community.”
The effort to upgrade Westminster Hall involves raising several thousand dollars, and that effort begins this Friday and Saturday, April 8–9, with a performance of an abridged version of Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. The play will be presented at the same time next weekend, April 15–16. Admission is $10.
Performing in the play will be Howard Shook, Miriam Eckenrode, Troy Lindsay, Ali Thomas, Marcia Nowik, Gary Reimers, Brendan Sheehan, Natalie Sanders and Thor Sage. Nowik will direct the performance, Amy Cunningham serves as stage manager and Kay Reimers is the producer.
Performing both before and during the play will be a Dayton Mandolin Orchestra ensemble, comprised of Glen Courtright, Devin Campbell, James Kellaris and Mark Hoffman. The complete orchestra will perform a fundraiser for the church on Sunday, April 17, at 4 p.m.
The Cherry Orchard, the classic Chekhov play, looks at a traditional society — in this case, turn-of-the-century Russia — facing changes. But the play is also relevant to any society going about a transformation, including contemporary American society that is moving from a manufacturing base to a more information-based economy, according to Reimers.
Villagers familiar with the play may find that this version is more upbeat than some previous interpretations, according to director Nowik, who said her research into the play led to her emphasis on a lighter touch, which she believes Chekhov intended. The humor emerges from the characters’ human foibles, and “these are funny, endearing characters,” Nowik said.
The effort to enhance Westminster Hall is not in any way intended to supplant the several-year-effort by the Committee for a Center for the Performing Arts to create a new performance space in Yellow Springs, Reimers emphasized. The church would likely never fill the role of that more upscale venue, she said. Rather, it can be used for performances until a new space is available, and after that time, could be available as a rehearsal space and venue for small ventures.
“We’re trying to create a Yellow Springs version of non-equity theater,” she said.
While other performing venues, such as the Mills Lawn gym and Bryan Center, are available for local theater, they are mainly used for other purposes, and therefore not readily available for the three weeks it takes to mount a production, Reimers said. The church, in contrast, could be available for longer periods of time.
In an interview this week, Center for the Performing Arts chair Jerome Borchers said that group is “still active,” and is focusing on working with Antioch College to collaborate on a performance space on campus. The changeover to a new college president in January has slowed that process down somewhat, he said.
“I applaud the effort,” Borchers said of the campaign to enhance Westminster Hall. “It’s always a good thing to have more spaces.”
Kay Reimers grew up in Yellow Springs, the daughter of Mildred and John McConville, who founded Anthrotech. She credits her interest in writing to the two years she spent in the early 80s as a Peace Corps volunteer on the Pacific island of Palau. The combination of an abundance of free time and a newfound sense of her abilities led Reimers to pursue her longtime interest in writing, she said.
Following a short time back in Ohio after the Peace Corps, Reimers moved to Los Angeles, a city with many opportunities to pursue her interest in theater. She also had a job reading scripts submitted to the “slush pile” of a production company, a job that offered a crash course in dramatic structure. Reimers also met her husband, Gary, in Los Angeles and the couple, along with their two children, returned to Yellow Springs 12 years ago.
Since that time, Reimers has focused on writing plays based on actual historic incidents, and her works include All Blood Runs Red, about the first African-American combat pilot, which was produced at Dayton’s Schuster Theater; and Sacred Fire, about the abolitionist John Brown, performed at the Antioch College Area Theater. She also adapted Sacred Fire as a radio play that was performed on WYSO, followed by the radio plays The End of Emerald Street, about the 1913 Dayton flood, and Dangerous Women, about suffragettes. While WYSO offered a venue for her radio plays, the actors longed to return to theater, she said.
Especially after her years in Los Angeles, Reimers appreciates both the talent and the cooperative approach of local actors.
“What I like about Yellow Springs performers is they don’t bring a diva attitude,” she said. “Everyone knows each other, and they work well together.”
Reimers is also impressed with the number of people who have stepped up to offer their help, as volunteers, on the Cherry Orchard event.
“It’s been a wonderful thing to see this lovely response,” she said.