Maplewood supporters assess loss in wake of fire

Tuesday, April 6, 2010 | 6:26 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — The spirits of the faithful of Maplewood Barn Community Theatre seemed as resilient as their recently built stage Tuesday as they planned how to go on.

Apart from a large, black soot stain and a few holes, the Mark Durrant Memorial Stage was structurally sound and all that remained after the fire.

“It’s being considered a total loss,” Capt. Eric Hartman of the Columbia Fire Department said. He said it could be several days before investigators would be able to determine a cause.

Tuesday morning, the fire scene smelled like a soggy campfire and was a tangled mess of fallen roof and burned stage sets and props. A few scraps of colorful costumes poked through the ashes of the barn, which was built in 1877 and was on the National Registry of Historic Places. A few blackened timbers remained defiantly upright as passersby slowed in their cars to get a look at what remained of the theater in Nifong Park.

Board member Charlie Wilkerson was in Lee Hills Hall at MU on Monday night rehearsing for the season's first show, "Arsenic and Old Lace," when director Jim Yelton said the barn was burning. He and the rest of the actors rushed to the scene.

He returned to the site early Tuesday while firefighters were still putting out the last embers of the fire.

“It’s a double loss," Wilkerson said. "It's a historical loss and a huge loss for the theater and community."

But he tried to find some humor in the situation. “I always joked that I’d do it in the parking lot," he said. "Now, we may do it in this parking lot.”

All of the props, sets and costumes from years of productions were in the barn; none was salvageable.

The Maplewood Barn Community Theatre was the only outdoor theater in mid-Missouri.

"As much as the actors bitch and moan about the bugs and helicopters and sirens while they're trying to do Shakespeare, those are the things that made (the theater)  unique," Wilkerson said. "All the performers feel the loss — not just the loss of the history of the barn, but also the history of the theater."

Angel Kenison-Scott and her husband, Russ Scott, were also at the fire site Tuesday morning. They'd been given the day off work to deal with the shock of losing the theater where they both served as board members, actors and directors.

“It just took us down at the knees,” Kenison-Scott said. She said she found comfort in a Facebook post by Jason Cascio, a board member, reminding people that even though the walls are gone, the barn is still there in spirit.

"It's not the building; it's the people that made the memories," Kenison-Scott said she commented in reply.

Others from all over the country have been reminiscing about the theater via a Facebook group called “Friends of  Maplewood Barn Community Theatre.” Some offered to fly to Columbia from Los Angeles and Texas to help rebuild.

Whether the barn will be rebuilt could be decided at a meeting of the theater's board scheduled for Tuesday night.

Meanwhile, the community is reaching out to help the theater. Eric Staley, chief executive officer of the Missouri Theatre Center for the Arts, has already become involved.

"I called (Maplewood Barn board President) Michael Scott first thing in the morning and offered to do whatever we could to help them, including use of our theater," Staley said.

The Missouri Theater has given Maplewood Barn access to its stage and facilities before when the group performed "The Front Page" as part of the centennial celebration for the MU School of Journalism.

"It truly does affect all of us in the arts community," Staley said. "It’s a historic place and it’s part of the fabric of Columbia."

For those closest to the theater, it felt like a loss of a friend. “To us it was a person,” Wilkerson said. "It was a big person."

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