Happy Birthday Playhouse!

It’s ten minutes ‘til curtain and the actress tells me that she’s sure she left her prop out on the stage but she’s not that sure so would I please check so she can be sure. I step over another actress stretched out on the floor, draw back the makeshift curtain to the dressing room, walk around the orchestra crowded dangerously close to the ladies’ restroom, jump over the feet of a few audience members, grab one of the poles supporting the roof and climb onto the stage. The audience applauds. I explain to them that I’m not a part of the show but I don’t think they believe me. The prop is there and in place. I examine it and wonder how many performances I can get out of single cinnamon roll.

Backstage one actor is touching up his makeup in a mirror attached to the refrigerator, another young man searches frantically for his dance shoes that he’s hidden next to the power saw and extension cords while a lady making her first appearance onstage clutches her script in a death grip while reciting lines to the microwave. Meanwhile, a barista from the next-door Soap Company Coffee House tries desperately to make his way through the room packed tight with actors, costumes, paint brushes, and wigs with a tray of hot scones. Sometimes the show backstage equals the scripted performance about to take place on the stage.

So Rich McCoy retired from a long career of teaching at JHS along with being the theatrical director for most of the productions during his tenure. A native of Mt. Sterling, Rich has both performed and directed in many Central Illinois venues including the Springfield Muni, the Hoogland Center for the Arts, and the Jacksonville Theatre Guild. He met wife Laurie at a friend’s wedding where they danced the polka together and then Rich managed to snag a dinner date for the following evening. That reliance upon friends has translated well into this venture called Playhouse on the Square. “They’ve written, directed, acted in shows and bought tickets,” and that’s been key to the theatre’s success along with presenting plays and musicals that would both entertain and sometimes challenge our local audiences.

This month the 100-seat Playhouse on the Square celebrates its 30th month in existence and in that time the venue has racked up the remarkable record of having presented 35 full-length productions plus a host of concerts, lectures, poetry readings, and variety shows. One show, Genesis, played for two consecutive summers. Roger Wainwright, composer for Genesis, said, “I remember the opening. Rich was struggling to get all the safety and health requirements met and it was literally just a day or two before we opened that we got the final okay. I think that’s called ‘guerilla theatre.’” Wainwright added that The Playhouse is a great venue for a show’s musicians. “You aren’t hearing the singers through headphones and you’re not stuck in some orchestra pit. What you hear is what the audience hears and that’s extremely rare in theatre.”

Jim Yale, a vice president at Horace Mann and a Petersburg resident has appeared in numerous Playhouse productions along with stints on the Springfield and New Salem stages. Speaking of the Playhouse on the Square he said, “Performing at Playhouse on the Square brings together several things that really make it unique.  Here we’ve got a place that showcases locally written and locally produced theater, performed in a very intimate setting.” Yale points to the closeness of the small venue. “No microphones, and not much in the way of special effects or electronics.  It’s just the performers and the audience making connections.  I think it’s more challenging and more exciting to perform with 100 people less than 20 feet from you…there’s nowhere to hide!” Yale says that it gives each production a sense of community. “The Playhouse is the catalyst for that.”

Guy and Alexa Crumley are among the Playhouse’s most loyal fans and they point to the simply hospitality of Rich McCoy as the theatre’s number one asset. Mr. Crumley enjoys the “rustic setting” of the venue. “This allows one to focus on the music and singing and the actors’ expressions.” The Crumleys also appreciate the ease of obtaining tickets from the nearby Our Town Books and the Soap Company Coffee House. “And of course,” said Crumley, “it’s the quality of their shows.”

Kim Shafer, a teacher at Franklin, Illinois, and regular as audience member, actor, and director at the Playhouse appreciates the fact that theatre in that venue is never pretentious. She said, “The goal of the Playhouse is inclusion,” giving a chance to all members of our community. She notes that nearly every show features a debut performance by someone, and the fact that actors keep coming back “proves that the stage and atmosphere are familiar, comfortable.” Ms. Shafer adds that learning the ropes of children’s theatre from Laurie McCoy has been an added benefit.

One audience member who asked not to be identified by name said, “Face it. I’m getting older and I don’t hear so well. At the Playhouse I can sit in the back row and still not be any further than twenty feet from stage.”

Pittsfield resident and avid theatregoer Kevin Dyer especially enjoys the freedom that a small independent theatre enjoys. “A professional theatre or even a theatre guild has to keep its eye on the bottom line. They can’t afford to go to far off the beaten track with their choice of plays. The McCoys can take some chances and show us things we might not see everywhere.”

4th-grader Hallie Mason wasn’t feeling well when it came time for her to take the stage in last week’s production of The Orphan Train, a drama telling the story of how the Children’s Aid Society relocated 200,000 orphaned, abandoned, or homeless children from Eastern U.S. cities to the Midwest at the end of the 19th century. Seasonal allergies had taken the toll on Miss Mason but when 7:30 rolled around she was backstage and ready to enter with a monologue showing true professionalism. After the show she had forgotten about the allergies and proclaimed, “I love this!” Her mother looked at her daughter dressed in orphan garb and said, “She’s hooked.”

Thanks to Rich and Laurie McCoy plus their host of supporters and performers, the Jacksonville area is in for a great many more sudden cures. We’re all hooked.

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