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Safety Net: Lyceum has many links to the community

Friday, February 9, 2007

A promo for a musical on the top of the newspaper's front page?

That was Thursday, Feb. 8. The Lyceum Theatre in Arrow Rock will get mention on three pages in The Marshall Democrat-News Friday, Feb. 9. In big city papers performing arts are usually relegated to an inside section or back pages. It's considered interesting stuff but not news, exactly. Possibly a few readers hereabouts are wondering: Are we making too much fuss over a little theater in a very very little town?

I don't think so.

The Lyceum's value, what makes its productions newsworthy, is only partially because of its function as a bastion of "high culture" out here in the middle of the state. I admit after being bowled over by the first production I saw there, the phrase "Broadway in the boondocks" was flitting through my mind.

The quality of the productions is consistently outstanding, as those who attend performances know well. But theatrical quality is only part of the story and perhaps not the most important part. Any traveling Broadway show that could be persuaded to stop in central Missouri could perform the "infusion of high culture" role.

The Lyceum does that, and does it season after season, but what's more impressive is the way it also persistently connects to the roots of theater and the roots of our communities. It does something extraordinary in the way it manages to link us to the world of professional entertainment and remain grounded in the rich soil of Saline County.

I noticed two things as I attended shows at the Lyceum last summer and fall that seem to illustrate the point. One is the regular use of local talent mingled among the imported professions. The other is the regular "talk-back" sessions that give audiences a chance to discuss performances with the actors, with the director and with each other.

My favorite show from last season was "1776," a portrayal of the days leading up to the signing of the Declaration of Independence that offered some interesting variations from the typical (and typically boring) textbook presentation of that event. The show also featured more local players than others last year.

I talked briefly after the June 28 showing with Andrew Wells, Jordan Brennan, Geoff Howard, Vince Lutterbie, George Appleman, Mike Brennan and Randy Shannon -- all from Saline and nearby counties -- about what it's like for community theater players to join a Lyceum cast.

"It's like going from Class A (base)ball to the major leagues in a second," Lutterbie said. But he and the others said the professional actors were friendly and supportive throughout, often providing generous advice about the craft.

They talked about the challenges of the show, too. For example, Wells noted that as a delegate from a southern state he had to stand in solidarity with South Carolina delegate Edward Rutledge, who passionately argued for the south's right to continue the practice of slavery. "And I had to hold my head up like I agree with him," Wells said.

That he looked for all the world like a proponent of slavery for two hours that night is testimony to Wells' skill as an actor. In fact, I think it's probably only our familiarity with their names and faces that tips us off to which cast members are amateurs. Otherwise, they blended with the professional in "1776" and throughout the season.

In the post-show discussion June 28, 2006, audience members asked wide ranging questions, wondering, for example, how directors manage to find actors who fit so well their parts. Gresham said it was mostly a matter of seeing as many good actors as possible and letting intuition be the guide. "You just kind of know," he said.

One patron asked the professional actors how they felt about coming to little Arrow Rock for the season. One actor admitted to being a bit terrified at first by the unfamiliar quiet of the little village, but he said he came to appreciate the time away from the distractions of city life. "It's like actor's camp for adults."

Another person asked about preparation, whether the actors had done research on the historic characters they portrayed. A few said they had, and what they learned was that just as history textbooks tend to gloss over the human side of the country's founders, the play also veers from biographical fact in service of drama.

Whit Reichert, who was a thoroughly convincing Ben Franklin, had apparently done the most research into his character, having performed a one-man show about Franklin. "I have a real long history with Ben," he said. "I got to know him long before this show."

Those peeks behind the scenes, into the business of casting, into the actors' lives and work, adds tremendously to the experience. DVDs now come with extensive looks at how films are made, with commentary by actors, directors, writers and special effects artists. But the people of film are still only able to talk at us. At the Lyceum, the people who create the show talk with us.

Big difference.

Theater has been part of human cultures -- high, low and everywhere between -- for millenia, helping people laugh, cry and cope. The Lyceum casts and crews include people from our communities (and let's include our long-term guests from the cities as well), so the people who create the magic on the Lyceum stage are us. A community with great theater is a great community.

And that's newsworthy.

Contact Eric Crump at

marshallfaith@socket.net

The Safety Net appears every other Friday.

ERIC CRUMP, Editor
Safety Net