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."