UPDATE: Maplewood Barn supporters assess loss in wake of fire

Tuesday, April 6, 2010 | 10:20 p.m. CDT; updated 11:02 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, April 7, 2010

COLUMBIA — As they planned how to move forward, the devotees of Maplewood Barn Community Theatre seemed as resilient Tuesday as their recently built stage. 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.

Board members met Tuesday evening to discuss the future of the program and said they were determined to continue the program with as much normalcy as possible.

Tuesday morning, the fire scene smelled like a soggy campfire and was a tangled mess of fallen roof, burned stage sets, props and power tools. 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 passers-by 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.

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.

The time table to rebuild the theater depends on how long the city decides to treat the site as a potential crime scene, which they were as of 3 p.m. Tuesday, said Lee Wilkins Black, vice president of the theater's board.

Meanwhile, the community is reaching out to help the theater. Eric Staley, CEO 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.

Wilkins Black said the Maplewood Barn Association is grateful for the offer but is waiting to clarify the particulars of any offers they receive and check in with the city of Columbia on their expectations for the site. Columbia Entertainment Company has also offered to loan costumes and set pieces.

"We've had a lot of formal and not-so-formal offers of help, and we're trying to figure out how to organize that," Wilkins Black said.

The Missouri Theatre 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.

"Our pipe dream is to have a barn-raising at the barn," Wilkins Black said. "There's nothing that can replace it — it was a 150-year-old barn. In a way, the best thing about this is we've wiped the slate clean."

Fund-raising was also discussed at Tuesday night's meeting. Thanks to highly successful fund-raising last year, the company has enough funding to put on a normal season and had already paid for the new stage completely. Wilkins Black said that more fund-raising will occur, but no plans have been made yet.

The Maplewood Barn Association hopes to present the city and community with a plan as soon as possible. Wilkins Black anticipates that time and tools will be needed the most in the months to come and wanted to tell people, "If you don't have money, pick up a hammer."

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."

At this time the Maplewood Barn Association plans to continue with their season as planned although the location may change depending on how long it will take to haul away the debris and scrape the land clean.

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