By Ryan Richardson and Joe Hadsall
Globe Staff Writer
JOPLIN, Mo. —
Joplin Little Theater was empty during the last part of January, except for 10 actors huddled over scripts. They studied musical changes to the song "Day by Day" from the 1971 musical "Godspell" in preparation for an audition.
Several of these actors had just wrapped up a weekend run of "Laundry and Bourbon" and "Lone Star," two one-act plays paired as a single production. But they had already switched gears to the next project as a professional actor should, even though their casting credits are short.
They are part of a large crowd that enjoys theater enough to get involved, and that's a lot of people, said Nicholas Gilmore, artistic director of Heartland Opera Theatre.
The percentage of theater groups putting on performances in the Joplin area doesn't just seem high -- it is high, he said.
"We're in a place where there are a lot of blue-collar people, and usually, people interested in the arts in those areas just leave," he said. "But this area really is a gem. I think it's fantastic that this area has so many who love theater enough to make it available to the community."
Hooked on stage
Consider the Springfield area, with a population that easily eclipses Joplin's regional area. Springfield offers at least three major community theater groups at first glance.
The Four-States Area has at least six groups that put on regular shows throughout the year, as well as a handful of other acting companies, such as DreamSpiral Production, that do acting-related projects such as historical re-creations.
Joplin Little Theater and other theater groups attract more than just patrons. The theater gives "Godspell" director Jim Lile the opportunity to showcase the best up-and-coming actors that the area has to offer.
Tryouts were held for "Godspell" in January, attracting actors who have cut their teeth on Missouri Southern State University and Pittsburg State University's stages. Lile, who serves as the theater department's chair at MSSU, has 26 years of directing experience, but still finds joy in putting together a production with the actors that the theater attracts.
"We've got people, despite their youth, who have the experience in production that makes putting on something like this a delight," Lile said. "But we have to attract new people because they are central to the Joplin Little Theater's growth, and I feel that we are very welcoming to new people."
Mollie Sanders, a MSSU stage veteran, said that she took the opportunity to audition for "Godspell" at the 65-year-old theater because of the opportunities it gives her.
"We can be experimental here, and that gives me room to grow," Sanders said. "It is challenging in the best kind of way, because I don't know everyone here, and those new people can teach a lot of things once you get out of your normal comfort zone."
Fellow performer Halley Sageng echoed Sanders' sentiment during the audition process.
"There are more resources here, and it has a different structure because there are more people to draw on," Sageng said. "We're not just one school, we're people from all over. We've got people who are out of school or who never went, but they have the talent and drive to come out and do this. That's the commitment and the opportunity that brings everyone back here."
Even after nearly three decades, Lile said he feels that the theaters give him the opportunity to continue his growth as an artist, too.
"You have to keep growing artistically to keep going because there is always something to discover," Lile said. "That's also reflected in why we are doing something like ÔGodspell.' Like the theater, each generation of actors has came back to it and taken a fresh look at it to make it their own. That's what we are all about at the JLT. That has to be our approach to keep it interesting for both us and our audience."
Theater has always been important to the area, said Betty Bell, a longtime member of Stone's Throw Dinner Theatre in Carthage. Involved with the group since 1973, she remembers when music clubs in the '60s and '70s put on big musicals in churches and other large spaces.
"We needed a place of our own," Bell said. "We had a big fundraiser in 1988 that raised $11,000. Then (Precious Moments creator) Sam Butcher and other organizations pitched in until we had enough money to build."
Stone's Throw is incorporated under the name Community Theater for Southwest Missouri. The nonprofit group is governed by a 15-member board, with members hailing from Carthage, Joplin, Lamar and Neosho, Bell said. It recently finished a production of "Nana's Naughty Knickers," and has tackled productions as intricate as "The Mikado" and as classic as "Lost in Yonkers."
Joplin Little Theatre has been around even longer. The theater, located at 3008 W. First St., has been open since 1948, when it started at the Park Playhouse. It is kept open strictly on ticket sales from the six productions a year that are put on.
Most of the area's community theater groups work that way: They receive no tax revenue from the state, operating solely on sponsorships, donations and ticket revenue.
Audiences are varied, Gilmore said. Heartland shows such as "Hot Scandals" attract a younger, date-night crowd, while its revues draw older fans looking for something "golden." Its recent production of "Hansel and Gretel," a full opera featuring a full cast, crew and orchestra, drew everyone between the ages of 5 and 85, he said.
That's just his group's shows. He noted that productions by other companies draw similar crowds, and not just in Joplin. Gilmore included shows in Pittsburg, and Bell pointed out theater groups at Crowder College in Neosho and Lamar.
Communities are expanding facilities to meet demand as well. Gilmore said that the recently completed Route 66 Center in Webb City was built in part to have a space big enough for performances. HOT has performed a handful of shows in the facility.
"They knew the power of having a theater downtown," Gilmore said. "And there's a lot of talk about a new performing arts center in Joplin. They are pushing for it because they know it's great for the community."
Volunteers are a big part of what the theater groups do. Bell said that it's sometimes hard to find enough people for a production. "It's hard to commit themselves to acting four or five nights a week," Bell said. "But there's enough willing to do it so that the theaters can keep going."
Volunteers do everything from starring in productions to stitching costumes together, Gilmore said.
"About 99 percent of people featured in our theaters have a job doing something else," Gilmore said. "They are doctors, store managers, teachers. They take part in theater because they love it."
In addition to theater-hungry patrons, both Gilmore and Bell give credit to teachers at area universities and high schools for their strong theater programs, including the dance and voice teachers who work with students on individual bases.
"We have some great dance studios in the area," Gilmore said. "A lot of the talent we use for our productions comes from those programs. And we have extremely gifted voice teachers who push students to do their very best."
Cast and crew
Here's a breakdown of most of the theater groups that run regular plays and musicals throughout the year:
Joplin Little Theatre. In operation since 1939, it is billed as the longest continuously running community theater west of the Mississippi.
Its season includes five or six major productions a year, including musicals, comedies and dramas. It also puts on a few fundraising shows each year.
Next production: "Godspell," March 20-24.
Stone's Throw Dinner Theatre. In operation since 1984, the group puts on five or six shows a year. Dinner, prepared by Chef Leann Cole, is served before each show.
Next production: "Twice is Better," March 15-24.
Stained Glass Theatre. A part of the Stained Glass Theatre group in Springfield, the Joplin chapter puts on three to four shows a year. The group is a ministry that channels its creativity through acting and music.
After losing its theater building in the 2011 tornado, the group is raising funds to build a new theater on donated land near 26th Street and Maiden Lane.
Next production: "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown," dates TBA.
Heartland Opera Theatre. Established in 1998, Heartland Opera Theatre focuses on more musical, operatic endeavors. It produces three or four shows a year, from cabaret-style revues to full operas.
Next production: "A Little Mozart," April dates TBA.
Pittsburg Community Theatre. An adult education class eventually transformed into this theater group. It performs four shows a year and performs for groups, clubs and the City of Pittsburg.
Next production: "A Case of Libel," March 1-9.
Lamar Community Theatre. The group performs three to four shows a year, including musicals and comedies.
Next production: TBA.
Want to help?
All of these theater groups are looking for volunteers, from singers and dancers to costume stitchers and stagehands. People interested in volunteering or learning more about upcoming auditions may contact them.