Evansville’s theatrical roots were planted in the middle of the 19th century when independent theater companies were established and performed throughout the Midwest. Evansville’s own Civic Theatre traces its history to the 1920s, when the community theater movement swept the country. Today, with creative cousins in regional theaters, well-respected university theater departments, veteran actors, and many special events, there is plenty of live theater to enjoy.
At the University of Evansville, Department of Theatre Chair John David Lutz has built a national reputation and helped jumpstart many careers. Owensboro’s Ron Waite’s musical productions have grown out of the back alley. Our long-running summer musicals showcase the area’s exceptional young talent.
We’ve talked to these people and many others – on stage and behind the scenes – to give you a sense of what there is to see beyond the footlights, just minutes from your door.
John David Lutz enters his 50th year at the University of Evansville By Nathan Blackford
John David Lutz always has looked a bit younger than his age. So when he took a teaching job at the University of Evansville in 1965, he wore a tie everyday to distinguish himself from the students.
Now entering his 50th year at UE, Lutz, 74, still looks younger than his age. But he doesn’t wear those ties anymore.
“When I came here as a faculty member, I was teaching people who had been classmates,” says Lutz. “And I’ve been here ever since.”
Lutz graduated from Boonville (Indiana) High School in 1958, and from what was then called Evansville College in 1964. He had bounced back and forth between there and Indiana University in Bloomington. He also was in the Air Force Reserve to avoid being drafted.
When Lutz began teaching, theater was part of UE’s English department with three faculty members. During his time at UE, the school’s theater department has gained a national reputation as a premiere training program.
Today, theater is its own department with state-of-the-art facilities, a dozen faculty members, and graduates working in theaters and television shows across the country.
“I like the fact that we’ve grown in reputation and in size over the years,” says Lutz. “We attract students from all over the U.S., and we’ve had a lot of success with local people.”
Back in the 1950s, UE faculty member Dr. Sam Smiley began to build the theater operation. That earned the program some attention in the community, and it’s what attracted Lutz. Smiley hired Lutz after graduation, and mentored him for several years.
Lutz has won so many awards they’re hard to count, but they include the Evansville Mayor’s Arts Award, the Governor’s Arts Educator of the Year Award, the Sadelle Berger Academic Faculty Award, and many more.
This year, Lutz will direct one of UE’s four productions; it will be the second time in his career he’s directed “Macbeth.” The other three productions — “The Wild Party,” “Dancing at Lughnasa,” and “A Streetcar Named Desire” — each have a different director.
Those who have studied under Lutz have gone on to work on the stage, as well as movies and television. Students have choreographed on Broadway, written plays, created TV shows, and more. Ron Glass, a 1968 UE graduate, starred on TV’s “Barney Miller.” Rami Malek, a 2003 graduate, acted in the finale of “The Twilight Saga.”
“We’ve had a lot of them go on to be successful,” says Lutz. “It’s a lot more than acting. We’ve been more successful in the last five or six years with people who design scenery and costumes, people who design lighting, and people who are in administrative positions in professional theater. We have professional costume designers employed by the TV show ‘Girls.’ And we’ve had success with students going to graduate programs at places like Yale, NYU, and the University of California at San Diego.”
For many years, UE participated in the American College Theater Festival. At the regional events, theater departments put on plays to compete for awards and the chance to advance to the national event at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Lutz and his students enjoyed several trips to the national event.
“That got us noticed on a national basis, and it also gave us credit locally and with our administration,” says Lutz. “They were aware that we were something more than just a college theater department, because we achieved on a national basis, won awards and things like that.”
UE dropped out of the theater festival a few years ago due to the expense. But as long as graduates continue to find work across the country, says Lutz, the department’s reputation will remain strong.
Lutz didn’t have to stay at UE. He had offers to go other places, although that doesn’t happen anymore. But he never really wanted to leave.
“In my younger days I had offers to go other places, but I’m kind of a homebody,” says Lutz. “Evansville feels safe to me.”
Unlike Lutz, many of his students are from somewhere outside the Tri-State. In fact, of the 130 students in the department this fall, 44 are from Texas. Last year, UE theater students came from 29 states. UE holds auditions all over the country, including Seattle, Chicago, Houston, San Antonio, Dallas, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas.
The theater department is highly selective in its recruitment approach. Students have to fit in with the department as well as the university as a whole. Lutz has picked many of the students himself.
“We look for talent, obviously,” says Lutz. “But we also look at academics. Because we demand so much of their time in productions, they don’t have a lot of time for studying. So they have to be able to stay on top of their studies.”
Lutz, who has been the head of UE’s theater department for almost 30 years, will probably give up that title soon. And though he’s always resisted the idea, he may be headed toward retirement.
“After 50 years, I think I ought to think about it,” he says. “But I like what I do. Being department chair is something I am going to step away from soon, or I’ll start looking my age.”
For more information about the University of Evansville Department of Theatre, visit evansville.edu/majors/theatre.
Dressed for Success
Costume designer receives the Mayor’s Arts Award By Emily Patton
Patti McCrory has trouble putting it into words what it means to her to be the 2014 Art Educator of the Year recipient, an award given by the Arts Council of Southwestern Indiana at the Mayor’s Arts Awards held Aug. 21 at Tropicana Evansville. Perhaps the reason why it’s a struggle is because the professor and costume designer at the University of Evansville Department of Theatre recognizes her work as a collaborative effort.
“Since theater is a collaborative art, I feel singled out, honored, and appreciated and so grateful to be working with the talented faculty, staff, and students here at UE,” says McCrory. She was recognized for her dedication to the field of education and design. McCrory shared the Art Educator of the Year award with Dr. Hilary Braysmith, an associate professor of art history at the University of Southern Indiana.
McCrory has been a member of the University of Evansville Department of Theatre faculty for 26 years, and she regularly teaches at Harlaxton College, UE’s British campus located near Grantham, England, in the summer. She was nominated for the Educator of the Year Award by UE Department of Theatre chair John David Lutz and arts advocate Judy Steenberg.
“My colleagues in the department make me look good,” says McCrory. “Eric Renschler sees things in me as an educator and artist that I try to make be true. Sharla Cowden teaches us all to claim our talent and she markets the department. Directors R. Scott Lank, John David Lutz, and Diane Brewer trust me as a designer in a life-affirming way. Diane Brewer shows me how to be disciplined by her example. Jean Nelson reaches our students with love, support, and through her own excellent skills. Christina Ward helps us be understood, literally. Chuck Meacham always has time for students and faculty, showing us how to make a positive impact.”
McCrory received her master’s degree from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and joined USA (United Scenic Artists) in 1990. She also has worked extensively with the Kennedy Center/American College Theatre Festival.
“What other job do you get paid to read great works of art, pretend, and then make those ideas come to life?” says McCrory.
Songs of Summer
Public education foundations stage annual musicals By Jessica Able
Nearly 200 teens in Vanderburgh and Warrick counties spent their summer break preparing, rehearsing, and performing in two musical theater productions. The neighboring counties both offer a musical theater curriculum each summer for area high school students.
The Warrick Public Education Foundation sponsored “Children of Eden” on July 17-20 at Castle High School. Eric Antey, a theater teacher at Castle High School and the director of the Warrick County summer musical, says the students involved not only learn invaluable theatricals skills but they also learn what it’s like to form a strong work ethic.
“I am always surprised that this many teenagers are willing to spend their entire summer with us when there are so many other opportunities available,” says Antey. “I think that speaks to their character and the strength of the program.”
Sixty-nine students participated in the cast, 12 worked in the crew, and another 10 played in the orchestra for the 18th Warrick County summer musical. Antey says the teens come together as a “close-knit unit” and form a special bond.
“I want them to take away those friendships and the connections that they make throughout the summer more than anything else,” says Antey.
This year the Public Education Foundation of Evansville presented its 26th annual summer musical —“Fiddler on the Roof” — July 10-13 in the Aiken Theatre at Old National Events Plaza.
Teens involved in the summer musical gain a wide array of useful knowledge including responsibility, teamwork, commitment, perseverance, and how to be on time, says Amy Walker, executive director of the Public Education Foundation of Evansville.
“They have the opportunity to learn from area professionals and are able to perform on the same stages that are used for Broadway touring groups,” she says.
Agreeing to take part in the summer musical is a tremendous time commitment, says Walker. About 85 students ranging in age from incoming seventh-graders to recent high school graduates rehearsed five days a week, 5 to 9 p.m. As opening night approached, those rehearsals stretched to 10 and 11 p.m.
This summer the Evansville foundation also said goodbye to four longtime staff members including Sue Schriber who worked as the director of the summer musical for 22 years. Jack Schriber, who worked as co-producer and in community and alumni outreach, Jan Stovall, who worked as a choreographer, and Dick Bernhardt, who worked as orchestra director, also bid farewell.
USI’s new Teaching Theatre is set to open February 2015 By Nathan Blackford
When it officially opens in February, the new University of Southern Indiana Teaching Theatre will become the gold standard for college theaters in the Midwest. That’s the firm opinion of USI Performing Arts Department chair Elliot Wasserman.
“It is an innovative design,” says Wasserman. “It offers a multitude of staging opportunities. And the shear beauty of the space shows you what happens when architects dream big. This is not simply another university auditorium. I think this is a unique architectural landmark in the Midwestern U.S. When it opens, you will see it featured in architectural magazines.”
New York-based Holzman Moss Bottino Architecture, which also designed the distinctive University Center cone at USI, designed the new $17.2 million theater facility. It broke ground in 2012, and will host its first production in February 2015.
“You have several basic designs of theaters,” says Wasserman. “You have the classic proscenium, the thrust, and arena style. With a big, fixed theater, you make a choice. We were looking for something with the broadest possible application to for the students going forward.”
For many years, USI staged productions in an off campus location on Igelheart Avenue. Since 2006, all productions have been staged in the Mallette Studio Theatre, in the lower level of the Liberal Arts Center. The Mallette Theatre is a so-called “black box” theater, meaning the stage can be repositioned in different relation to audience members. It holds about 100 people.
The new theater, still under construction, will feature a thrust stage with a shallow proscenium area in a 300-seat auditorium. The seats are in a semi-circle of nearly 180-degrees, and even the top row gives audience members a close-up view. There also are other staging areas along the theater walls above the main stage.
The catwalks above the audience and stage offer various lighting opportunities, and also mean that lights can be moved or replaced quickly and safely. Below the main stage is a pit, with nine individual trap areas that can be used to raise or lower actors and equipment. There also are large changing areas along with dressing rooms for show principal and chorus members.
The exterior walls are stone, with about four truckloads needed to finish the job. Some of the interior walls, including those near the lower-level box office, also are stone. The walls inside the auditorium are curved metal, and lights mounted within them can create unique effects.
Eric Cope, a USI Performing Arts Department faculty member, has helped with the installation of the theater’s various technologies. He says the theater’s light-emitting diode (LED) systems will be unlike any other theater in the Midwest.
“It is not just a single color,” says Cope. “It is what we call pixel mapping. There are thousands of individual lights in the walls. It will be stunning.”
The new facility is called a “teaching” theater because students can fill all of the positions in any production. Experts in different areas tutor the students.
“What makes a good teaching hospital is the same thing that makes a good teaching theater: having good, up-to-date technology and state-of-the-art equipment,” says Wasserman. “Everything here is state-of-the-art. There will not be a better-equipped theater in the state of Indiana.”
For more about the USI Performing Arts Department, visit usi.edu/liberalarts/performing-arts.
New Harmony Theatre employs Actors Equity Association performers each summer By Nathan Blackford
From its beginnings, New Harmony (Indiana) has been a place for the arts. The Harmonists and Owenites who lived there in the town’s early years established schools, libraries, and drama clubs.
Today, the University of Southern Indiana supports that legacy with New Harmony Theatre, which strives to bring first-rate professional shows that offer innovative interpretations of contemporary productions.
“I believe that the best days of American theater are ahead of us,” says Elliot Wasserman, producing artistic director for New Harmony Theatre. “Therefore, I particularly wish to include plays in New Harmony’s season that have been written between 1970 and today, the more recent, the better. In the last few seasons, we have featured completely new plays or work that has been recently and freshly revived on or off Broadway.
“I think such a practice is very much in keeping with the history of New Harmony, which always comprised a society of people engaged in the act of learning — in fresh exploration. Of course we may offer our audiences a classic play here and there, but I want audiences to know that any season they come to New Harmony Theatre, they are likely to see something very new. They can count on it.”
New Harmony Theatre operates as a League of Resident Theatre, meaning it has a specific contract with the Actors’ Equity Association — the stage actors union. The actors’ union is more than 100 years old. Wasserman holds auditions each year in January or February in New York City.
“If you want to act on the New York stage, you have to be a member of this union,” says Wasserman. “The best theaters in the country have union affiliation. It is the livelihood of the best actors, so they want a union behind them.”
New Harmony Theatre hosts three plays each summer, running from June through early August. The productions are tailored to fit Murphy Auditorium in New Harmony.
“We are a producing organization, which means the shows that are presented on the stage are designed, built, and directed for that theater and our audience,” says Wasserman. “These are not tours that go from place to place, one size fits all. These are very much about creating theater that is very much our own.”
For more information about New Harmony Theatre, call 812-682-3115 or visit usi.edu/nht.
Performance on the Corner
Evansville Civic Theatre ready for its 40th season By Nathan Blackford
The Evansville Civic Theatre has plenty of history: it was founded in the 1920s, and its home, the former Columbia Theater, was built in 1910. But on stage, it’s all about finding a new twist.
“I’m drawn to things that are familiar, but I like to give those familiar things a new twist,” says Christopher P. Tyner, managing artistic director. “I think it’s important to give people what they want but to also challenge them with new material.”
The season kicks off in September with what Tyner calls a “female version” of “The Odd Couple.” The original comedy is flipped and, instead, explores the feminine side with mismatched roommates Florence Unger and Olive Madison in an adaptation by Neil Simon.
“Cabaret” follows in November and is perfect, says Tyner, to celebrate Civic Theatre’s 40 years as it is set in a Berlin club at the close of the 1920s and was the first show at the Columbia and Fulton location.
Civic Theatre’s Nextwave program, one that aims to draw youngsters into Civic Theatre, will then offer its version of “West Side Story” in January 2015, and in March, local actors will stage “The Great Gatsby.”
The season wraps up in May 2015 with “Dearly Departed,” a classic Tyner calls a “beloved southern-fried comedy” wherein the fictitious Turpin family proves that “living and dying in the South are seldom tidy and always hilarious.”
Tyner says Civic Theatre moved into its current historic building at the corner of Fulton and Columbia in 1974, making this year the 40th anniversary at that location.
“We are a community theater that uses local talent,” he says. “And we’ve been working to expand our reach to all ages. Everyone who is in our shows are your friends, your neighbors, and they range in age from just 6 years old all the way up to people in their 80s.”
Eight years ago, Civic Theatre launched its Nextwave program, which gives youngsters 18 and under the opportunity to take part in acting classes and be a part of the regular season productions as well as one production all their own. The result, Tyner says, has been an increase both in membership as well as audience members, and some, like Evansville’s own Lara Jones, have gone on to work in popular TV shows like “Glee” and “American Horror Story.”
To volunteer or get involved with Civic Theatre, call 812-425-2800. For show times and ticket prices, which range from $10 to $18, visit evansvillecivictheatre.org.
Civic Theatre wants to give you goosebumps By Jenny McNeece
Local writers will attempt to channel Edgar Allan Poe, Stephen King, or Dean Koontz when they team up with Evansville Civic Theatre to create an especially spooky experience come Halloween.
Managing artistic director Christopher P. Tyner said the arts organization has selected a handful of original spooky stories written by local authors, which will be read aloud on stage as a part of its inaugural MaCabaret, scheduled for Oct. 18.
Shows will be held at 2 and 7 p.m. at Civic Theatre, 717 N. Fulton Ave., and tickets are $12 for adults and $10 for students.
“This is something new we’re trying this year,” says Tyner. “It’s an opportunity to give local authors and creative writers an outlet to put some of their words on stage as well as bring a few literary and historical characters to life.”
Civic Theatre had a contest in which local writers submitted their tantalizing tales, and Tyner says he will choose between three and five for the storytelling event. The authors themselves, he said, will do theatrical readings of their stories aloud to audience members.
“I see this as a platform for people to tell stories around Halloween, ones that have been passed down through their families, maybe ones that are true or ones that have been made up,” says Tyner. “Perhaps some are about actual paranormal experiences, things that have happened to them.”
For more information on MaCabaret or the Civic Theatre, call 812-425-2800 or visit evansvillecivictheatre.org.
Into the Woods
Lincoln Amphitheatre is an entertaining and
educational venue By Emily Patton
Growing up, Dan Wilkinson was more interested in learning about the 16th president of U.S., Abraham Lincoln, than he was about theater.
But he later found the two interests could go hand in hand. Today, Wilkinson is the executive director at the Lincoln Amphitheatre, a 1,500-seat covered outdoor venue located inside Lincoln State Park, which protects the very grounds that Lincoln walked as a boy at 7 years old to a man at 21 in Southern Indiana.
As a teenager, Wilkinson worked with his mother at the amphitheater and later became active on the board of directors in 2005. He earned the role as executive director in January 2011.
“Most historical venues you go to, such as a museum or visitor’s center, it is a lot static old documents and pictures where this brings it to life through acting, music, and song,” says Wilkinson. “You experience it and get the emotional side of what Lincoln went through and endured. His mother and sister both died. It is a totally different way to experience history than reading about it.”
“A. Lincoln: A Pioneer Tale,” the third incarnation of Lincoln dramas to be held at the amphitheater, is a two-act musical with an original score of 10 songs and performed mid-June to the end of July. There also is an optional dinner service for a pre-show meal and exhibit.
“Most people who haven’t been to the amphitheater are taken aback by the theater itself,” says Wilkinson. “It is this huge covered amphitheater in the woods. That’s the thing that first impacts them. The play itself, ‘A. Lincoln: A Pioneer Tale,’ has really gotten positive feedback. It has the right amount of humor, lively music, and singing. It is very entertaining and very powerful with scenes that really affect people, and a moving patriotic ending. It is really fun, entertaining, and educating for the whole family.”
Throughout the year, Lincoln Amphitheatre holds various shows and events, such as “Route 66,” a musical playing Sept. 12-14, and “Scrooge’s Christmas,” an annual production in December. October’s Trail of Terror walks guests through the wooded grounds, which are full of ghosts, vampires, and zombies.
For more information about the Lincoln Amphitheatre, call 812-937-9730 or visit lincolnamphitheatre.org.
Theater group founded as a safe place for all ages By Emily Patton
Michael Diton-Edwards’ dreams of working in theater always had taken a backseat. The 47-year-old Boonville, Indiana, resident was born and raised in Detroit, where at the time “if you didn’t play sports, you were considered different,” recalls Diton-Edwards. And because he lacked a background in theater, he feared pursuing his dream any further.
It wasn’t until the summer of 2009 when he saw “Wicked” in New York City with his daughter Aly, that he halfheartedly mentioned to her he dreamed of being a playwright.
“She said, ‘Well, then get off your butt and do it,’” says Diton-Edwards, who had been a youth pastor at First Baptist Church in Boonville for two years, but continued to long to write plays. It took hearing from his 11-year-old daughter, who now is 16, for him to shift gears.
“I believe we all have a hunger inside of us to create something and when you do, it changes your life,” he says.
In March, Diton-Edwards created an outlet for people of all ages to express themselves through theater by founding the Stage Theatre Actors of Greater Evansville (STAGE) — an opportunity he didn’t have himself growing up. STAGE is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit theater group committed to bringing quality, original productions and opportunities onstage and behind the scenes. Proceeds from the group’s performances benefit local charities, such as the first ever Theatre for the Cure, held to aid the Susan G. Komen Foundation in January.
STAGE also has partnered with the Arts Council of Southwestern Indiana to increase theatrical opportunities for those in the Tri-State.
“The Arts Council has been instrumental in our efforts to reach out to the area,” says Diton-Edwards.
Oct. 3-5, STAGE will present its sixth production titled, “There’s No Such Thing,” at Showplace Cinemas North. This drama/thriller is written by Diton-Edwards and directed by Otto Mullins, and will be preceded by a 10-minute short play with show times at 8 p.m. on Oct. 3 and 4, and a matinee 3 p.m. on Oct. 5. Tickets are $10 and available at the box office or from STAGE.
“When you give someone an outlet to be themselves, that’s magical,” says Diton-Edwards. “Who knows? If I was given this same kind of opportunity growing up, maybe I wouldn’t have the same kind of fears and anxiety I have today.”
For more information about the Stage Theatre Actors of Greater Evansville (STAGE), call 317-938-7647 or visit its Facebook page.
Back Alley Musicals finds immediate popularity By Brick Briscoe
Owensboro’s Back Alley Musicals Executive Director Ron Waite (15 Minutes, Evansville Living, July/August 2013) has a reason to be optimistic. When he helped start the group in 2010, there were just five people involved. Three of those people remain today, and the board has now expanded to eight members.
“We had just come off of our first show and decided we needed a group that did just musicals,” says Waite. “Actually, we just really wanted to do another show. Then we did a couple more shows with success and the audiences just kept coming and we realized we had done a season.”
It took off from there, buoyed by community support and quality productions.
“We planned a new season and decided to sell season tickets hoping to sell 50 and went to 100,” says Waite. “And last year we sold over 270. We have grown by leaps and bounds. That makes 16 musicals under our belt.”
The fifth season for BAM kicks off in November with “The Drowsy Chaperone.” Waite knows the group members have their work cut out for them even with past success. This year’s season ticket drive is in full swing, with a goal of 300 subscriptions. For $85, a season ticket holder gets four shows, which includes the always popular summer musical. This year it’s “Fiddler on the Roof.”
“Each show is more than the ticket money we take in,” says Waite. “Our underwriters and audience have been very generous, we even receive unsolicited gifts. Owensboro has been very generous. Do we still have to work hard to make it happen? You bet.”
Owensboro’s beautiful RiverPark Center is a great home for BAM, both for the cast and the audience.
“It’s a perfect escape, a musical is an hour and a half being somewhere else other than real life,” says Waite. “Plus people just like to see local people singing and dancing and generally having fun. Musicals are a labor of love; if you love it, you just have to do it.”
The upcoming season features:
• November 13-16 – “The Drowsy Chaperone,” Jody Berry Theatre, RiverPark Center
• February 26-28 – “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” Jody Berry Theatre, RiverPark Center
• April 9-12 – “Smoke on the Mountain,” Jody Berry Theatre, RiverPark Center
• July 18, 19, 25, 26 – “Fiddler on the Roof,” Cannon Hall, RiverPark Center
Find out more or contact BAM at backalleymusicals.com, call 270-683-8510 or email firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
Theatre Workshop of Owensboro brings the stage to life in two historic landmarks By Nathan Blackford
Nestled inside the oldest example of gothic architecture in Western Kentucky, the Theatre Workshop of Owensboro has created a unique auditorium to stage its productions. And the group, founded in 1955, has even bigger plans for the future.
The Theatre Workshop of Owensboro (TWO) was original founded in 1955, but with no source of income, it disbanded in 1959. In 1967, former members came back together to participate in the Owensboro Festival of Arts, and the show was such a success that TWO was reformed and reorganized.
The city of Owensboro, which had acquired the former Trinity Episcopal Church in 1972, offered the building to TWO in 1975. The church, built in 1875 and now known as Trinity Centre, underwent a major interior renovation in 1999, when new risers were added to allow for an audience of about 95 people.
Wes Bartlett, a TWO board member, actor, volunteer, and director since 1972 says TWO stages five to six plays during the school year, three children’s shows, a musical, and several shorter plays each year.
“We’ve got more people involved that I would have ever dreamed,” says Bartlett. “And we’ve had quite a bit of community support. The city and county governments have been very good to us.”
In 2011, TWO purchased a 1912-built movie theater, known both as the Malco and the Empress. For several years, it was Goldie’s Best Little Opryhouse. TWO is planning to launch a capital campaign to fund a $1.2 million renovation of the old theater.
“We’ve been able to do some shows there, but there are no bathrooms in the back, there is a lack of dressing rooms and a lack of wing space,” says Bartlett. “We are looking at the seating and the ceiling, and really taking it back to its original design.”
Usually, TWO has a fulltime program director, a fulltime education coordinator, a part-time office staff member, and a fulltime executive director.
Most of the actors at the theater are local, and all are amateurs. Plays staged at Trinity Centre usually run for three weekends. Performances at the Empress Theater generally run for two weekends.
TWO sends its youth coordinator to schools in Daviess County, Kentucky, to teach seminars at elementary and junior high schools. The theater also hosts a youth camp on Saturday mornings.
For more information on the Theatre Workshop of Owensboro, call 270-683-5003 or visit theatreworkshop.org.
Mysteries of Murder
Reitz Home Museum digs up tales of unsolved killings By Nathan Blackford
Each year, someone is “murdered” inside the Reitz Home Museum. Then guests take a trip through the museum as they try to figure out who the killer is.
It’s the annual Reitz Home Museum Murder Mystery, which was held this year on Aug. 16. Most of the roles are filled by well-known community members, like Mayor Lloyd Winnecke. And instead of simply sitting and watching a play, guests walk through the historic home and watch as scenes are acted out in six different rooms.
“You’re with a group of 12 to 15 people and a guide,” says Matt Rowe, executive director of the museum. “It isn’t exactly interactive theater, but you are in a room with the actors right in front of you. That’s an unusual way to experience theater, and I think it’s fun.”
The actors repeat the scene 15 to 20 times on the night of the event. Students from The Salon Professional Academy help apply very elaborate hair and makeup.
This year’s murder mystery was the 22nd for the museum, where it has become a signature fundraising event. The play usually has around 30 roles, and each is sponsored by a business, individual donor, or community organization.
Kelley Coures, executive director of the Evansville Department of Metropolitan Development and an amateur historian, has written the plays for the last four years. Coures’ plays are based on actual unsolved murders from Evansville’s past.
“You get a little history lesson whether you like it or not,” says Rowe.
All tickets must be preordered, and the event is followed by a cocktail buffet and dancing at Tropicana Evansville.
For more information about the Reitz Home Museum, call 812-426-1871 or visit reitzhome.com.
Beyond the Grave
Voices of Elmwood tells tales of Owensboro’s past By Nathan Blackford
It sounds scary enough: wagon rides through an old cemetery where actors portraying some of the people buried nearby tell their stories. But rather than trying to spook anyone, Voices of Elmwood is really a history lesson about Owensboro, Kentucky.
Organized by the Owensboro Museum of Science and History, Voices of Elmwood uses thorough research, professionally-written scripts by volunteers, and local actors to give guests insight into what different eras were like in and around Owensboro.
“It fits into the museum’s mission to educate the community about our history,” says Kathy Olson, museum executive director. “It brings history to life in a meaningful way.”
Each year, local researchers from event partner Daviess County Library come up with new candidates, which are then narrowed to 15. Writers then get to pick their favorites and write the scripts.
Rosehill-Elmwood Cemetery & Mausoleum was founded in 1852, though the earliest graves are actually a bit older. Characters portray those who were buried in Elmwood from the 1830s through the 1950s. This year will include more contemporary stories, through the 1980s.
“It is not just necessarily individual stories, it’s about Owensboro and its history as well,” says Todd Reynolds, museum educator and program coordinator.
Voices of Elmwood is held during the first three weeks in October on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights. For large groups and those who can’t take the wagon ride, tent shows during the final weekend bring the actors together in one place. The event, held annually since 2008, usually sells out weeks in advance and supports the cemetery’s tombstone restoration efforts.
For more information about the Voices of Elmwood, visit owensboromuseum.org.
Not Acting His Age
Mark Atchison is a fixture in local theater By Jenny McNeece
At 64 years old, Evansville’s Mark Atchison has devoted much of his adult life to entertaining the masses.
At 27, he found himself among Civic Theatre’s veteran actors after enrolling in an eight-week acting class. He landed a small part in “The Music Man,” and, as it turned out, it would be the first of many.
Over the last 37 years, he has played dozens of lead roles, including in 1999’s revered “A Tuna Christmas,” as Doc Lyman in “Bus Stop,” and Banjo in “The Great American Backstage Musical.”
Civic Theatre has actors well into their 80s, and Atchison says he plans to be among them.
“I am so energized by these young actors,” he says. “It’s like therapy for me. I always say that if I don’t do at least one show a year, I get a little bonkers.”
Atchison, a self-proclaimed reserved personality, says being in Civic Theatre has afforded him opportunities to meet amazing people and hone his craft, so much so that he has branched out and acted in productions at the University of Southern Indiana and with Evansville Shakespeare Players as well.
“I plan on acting until I just can’t anymore,” he says. “It’s one of those things — by continuing to do it, it should be easier to remember where my car keys are.”
Vocal director, instructor promotes creative thinking By Emily Patton
In the last 26 years, Dana W. Taylor has seen many aspects of theater change at the Fine Arts Academy at Mount Vernon Senior High School. But one thing has always stayed the same for him — it’s about the kids.
Taylor, the academy’s vocal music director and technical theater instructor, believes in sacrificing his own personal time to aid in the success of a student. The Fine Arts Academy provides students with opportunities in instrumental, vocal music, musical theater, acting, technical theater, and traditional and digital visual arts.
“We are in a school district that allows us to try things, that sees value in what we do,” says Taylor. “Mount Vernon has always been a school that believes if it is good for kids, it’s good to explore. I am willing to do things with kids that have taken more time, such as working with Evansville Philharmonic Orchestra, Evansville ARC’s ‘Really Big Show,’ and the Evansville Ballet, and it does demand taking time away from home. There is no good reason not to try. There is no telling what the kids might be capable of if you take a chance on them.”
In March, Taylor became the first high school educator to receive the Distinguished Achievement Award in Education from the U.S. Institute for Theatre Technology during its annual Conference and Stage Exposition at Fort Worth, Texas.
Beauty to Blood
Makeup makes it look real By Erin Miller
There are several different terms used to describe the industry Megan Leavitt works in — makeup, cosmetic, theatrical professional, skilled professional — but she simply calls it the beauty and special effects industry.
At Henderson County High School in Kentucky, Leavitt was involved in the theater department, and president of the drama club during her senior year. She graduated with a theater degree from the University of Evansville in 2001.
Leavitt attended the Make-Up Designory professional makeup school in New York for film and television makeup, and moved back to Evansville about four years ago. Now, she finds herself mainly doing film and prep work for independent films and commercials.
“It’s a lot of zombies,” laughs Leavitt. “People are really into the zombies and the vampires right now. There’s a big misconception about how much time it takes to do things.”
The industry has introduced Leavitt to several different types of people and theater groups around the Tri-State.
“Theaters will have a makeup artist come in and then the actors will actually do their own makeup,” says Leavitt. “It’s basically learning how to work with your own features and learning how to change those best for whatever production you’re doing.”
Choreographer designs dance for stage By Jenny McNeece
Ricki Smith Newman’s first steps likely had more rhythm than most.
“My dad was a magician and a tap dancer,” she recalls. “He and my mother were performing together before I was born.
“I joined their act when I was 4 or 5, and we were the ‘Magical Tapical Smiths.”
Newman, now 63, took dance lessons from local dance instructor Nancy Arbuthnot, owner of Arbuthnot Dance Studio, and after performing in musicals while a student at Harrison High School, she returned to teach with her beloved instructor.
It was then she got involved with Evansville Civic Theatre doing choreography, a move that marked the beginning of a 30-year career with the organization. She would go on to be a powerhouse in the local high school theater circuit as well, choreographing hundreds of musicals.
As she now splits her time between Aspen, Colorado, and Evansville with her husband of 27 years, Kerry, whom she met through Civic Theatre, the amount of work she takes on is somewhat dwindling. She still is involved in community theater in Aspen, and when she returns to Evansville, she will choreograph the University of Evansville’s upcoming production of “The Wild Party” in September.
On the Road
Many theaters are within a day’s drive of Evansville By Nathan Blackford
For those with a love of the performing arts, Evansville can feel more than a little off the beaten path. But there are many theaters — some big, others small — within a day’s drive that offer nearly every kind of stage show.
Ken Meyer, owner of Lifestyle Tours, started organizing theater trips in 1983. Some of the trips he plans are to places like New York or even London, England. But many of them stay far closer to home, with destinations like Louisville and Grand Rivers, Kentucky, Nashville, Tennessee, and St. Louis.
One of Meyer’s favorite places to see a show is the historic Fox Theatre in St. Louis. It opened in 1929 as a movie house, but was renovated and reopened as a live performance venue in 1982. It was the place Meyer took his very first theater tour group in 1983 to see Lauren Bacall star in “Woman of the Year.”
“When the Fox Theatre was renovated, it was big news,” he says. “It is a beautiful, big old theater. It’s like a larger, more detailed version of the Victory Theatre. If you like the Victory Theatre, you need to see the Fox Theatre. We’ve even taken group tours just to see the theater, not to see a play.”
Meyer says he doesn’t usually choose trips based on theaters, but rather the shows. Certain plays, like “Cats” or “The Lion King” draw in a wide audience. He does try to find new shows, like planned trips to the Fox Theatre to see “Dirty Dancing” and “Kinky Boots.”
“We see a variety of shows, but we try to aim for a broad audience to get the numbers of participants that we need to make our tours successful,” says Meyer.
For those interested in taking a day trip to attend a live performance, here is a list of some of the possibilities, many of which are also destinations for Lifestyle Tours.
Old National Events Plaza: 715 Locust St., 812-435-5770. Five traveling shows will perform this season: “Cirque Dreams Holidaze” on Dec. 2; “Guys and Dolls” on Jan 14, 2015; “Flashdance the Musical” on Feb. 8, 2015; Beauty and the Beast” on March 2, 2015; and “Memphis” on April 21, 2015.
RiverPark Center: 101 Daviess St., Owensboro, KY, 270-687-2770. Upcoming shows include: “Anything Goes” on Oct. 10, “A Christmas Story” on Nov. 14; Guys and Dolls” on Jan. 12, 2015; “Sister Act” on Jan. 26, 2015; “Stomp” on March 19, 2015; and “Memphis” on April 22, 2015.
Derby Diner Playhouse: 525 Marriott Drive, Clarksville, IN, 812-288-8281, derbydinner.com. Upcoming shows include “A Mighty Fortress Is Our Basement,” The Return: A Beatles Tribute,” “A Wonderful Life,” and “Rudolph.”
Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts: 501 W. Main St., Louisville, KY, 1-800-775-7777, kentuckycenter.org. Home to the Louisville Orchestra, Kentucky Opera, Louisville Ballet, Stage One, and others. Stage One will perform “Petite Rouge,” “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever,” “And In this Corner… Cassius Clay,” and “Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse” during the 2014-2015 season.
Badgett Playhouse: 1838 J.H. O’Bryan St., Grand Rivers, KY, 1-888-362-4223, grandriversvariety.com. Plays are put on by the group Variety! Music, Memories & More, with a wide selection. Shows include “That 70s Show,” “Civil War Letters,” “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and others. The theater also hosts music acts and movies.
Fox Theatre: 527 N. Grand Blvd., St. Louis, MO, 314-534-1678, fabulousfox.com. The theater was originally a movie palace, built in 1929. Upcoming shows include “Miss Independent,” “Dirty Dancing,” “Annie,” “A Christmas Carol,” and more. The season runs August through May.
Tennessee Center for the Performing Arts: 505 Deaderick St., Nashville, TN, 615-782-4040, tpac.org. TPAC presents a series of Broadway shows, and also plays host to touring theater troupes. It will host the Tony Award-winning musical “Once” from Sept. 16-21.
For more information on Lifestyle Tours, call 812-682-4477 or visit lifestyletoursonline.com.