Community theaters support local drama
Missourian Archives
Cast members of "Dark of the Moon" rehearse at the Maplewood Barn Theater in May 1983.

Four local groups offer actors and theater fans a place to grow.


COLUMBIA — Judy Olson has been involved in theater since she was in high school. She holds a bachelor’s degree in theater from Stephens College and a master’s degree in theater from the Yale University School of Drama. Throughout her career, Olson has acted, directed and taught on both professional and amateur levels.

For the past 21 years, though, Olson, 71, has been a constant presence in two community theaters in Columbia: the Maplewood Barn Theatre and the Columbia Entertainment Company.

“Working with community theater is more than a hobby for me; it is a passion,” she said. “I believe in community theater because it provides a service to the community; it brings the art and experience of theater to the people of the community through participation and as audience members. It is a learning and enriching experience for everyone involved, plus it is just plainfun,” Olson said.

Because of Olson’s work and that of scores of other volunteers, community theater has prospered in Columbia. Last year, approximately 8,100 tickets were sold to the 10 performances of Maplewood and CEC.

Although providing quality live theater to the residents in mid-Missouri is a common goal shared by the Maplewood Barn Theatre andthe entertainment company, these groups have much more to offer than an admission ticket.

Part of what makes community theater important is the commitment to “enriching the community and providing great entertainment for families,” said Lee Black, a member of Maplewood’s board of directors.

Since Maplewood began in 1973 and CEC in 1979, they have provided outlets for creative expression for mid-Missouri citizens.

Community theater allows people such as Charlie Wilkerson, a member of Maplewood’s board of directors who graduated from Bradley University with a bachelor’s degree in theater, to use his talents through acting and directing.

Wilkerson, a talk-show host for 10 years at KFRU and then at KOPN, has been a stay-at-home father for the past nine years. Last year Wilkerson acted in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and this year will be co-directing “The Front Page” with Byron Scott.

Positions on stage and behind the scenes are available to everyone, regardless of age or experience. “That’s what makes it community theater,” Wilkerson said.

Vivian Benedict, who has been with CEC since 1981, says each person plays a vital role in the final product.

“It takes a whole community of volunteers to keep a community theater running, and each is important in his or her way,” she said.

Every year, the two community theaters produce a variety of plays, from Shakespearean dramas and modern musicals to smaller blackbox productions. Generally, classic musicals tend to attract larger audiences, said Betsy Phillips, president of the Theater Society of CEC. For instance, last season at Maplewood, “Oklahoma” averaged 150 patrons a night for the three consecutive weekends it ran, Lee Black said.

Located in Nifong Park, what appears to be a run-of-the-mill red barn will soon be alive with theater rehearsals. The Maplewood Barn serves as a constant backdrop for the community theater’s annual productions performed May through September.

Across town from the barn, at 1800 Nelwood Dr., members of CEC are in their fifth month of production for the 2007-2008 season. At the indoor theater, community members are singing, dancing, running lines and building sets in preparation for “The Full Monty,” which opened Feb. 21.

Although their stages host different shows at different times of the calendar year, the Maplewood Barn and CEC theaters share roots in the past as well as similar goals for the future.

The Maplewood Barn Theatre, now in its 35th season, was established as a nonprofit outdoor theater within Nifong Park in 1973.

With quality performing-arts outlets in Columbia affiliated with academic institutions, the Maplewood Barn Theatre filled the vital niche of community theater in Columbia.

Since the theater’s pilot season, led by Randall Bane, Maplewood has performed an average four plays a summer. The outdoor atmosphere poses “challenges both cast and crew and audience members face together,” Wilkerson said. An array of noises, such as police and ambulance sirens, animal noises from the children’s zoo nearby and unpredictable weather are all part of the environment enjoyed by patrons and Maplewood Barn members.

In the late 1970s, some of Maplewood’s board members wanted to establish a theater that performed during the winter monthswhich led to the creation of the CEC, the Columbia Missourian reported in 2002.

Former President Debbie Baldwin said the company, founded by Pat McGrath, Vernon Wilde and Richard Cowan in 1979, was originally intended to serve as a professional theater company. She said it established itself as a nonprofit community theater in 1980.

Without a permanent establishment to call home, for the next seven years, members of the company performed in grade-school gyms, high-school auditoriums, church basements and college recital halls, said Board Member Sandra Tyler.

From 1987-1990, the company performed in the Columbia Art League’s warehouse on Locust Street. In 1990, Jim Weaver donated land next to hisbusiness, Weaver Manufacturing, on Nelwood Drive, to CEC to build a permanent establishment. A ribbon cutting for the company’s new home was held April 6, 1991.

The construction costs of the new theater were estimated to be about $40,000. Sitting in a circle of chairs, Betsy Phillips recallsthat company members all took bills out of their wallets and tossed them into the circle. That was the start of fundraising.

CEC and Maplewood rely on ticket sales, fundraising, grants and sponsors to cover expenses. Last year, Maplewood earned approximately $20,000 in ticket sales and received $5,000 in gifts and grants, said Byron Scott, professor emeritus of Journalism at MU and Maplewood treasurer.

Currently, Maplewood receives grants from the City of Columbia’s Office of Cultural Affairs and the Missouri Arts Council.

Although they are still separate community theaters, the Maplewood Barn Theatre and CEC share common goals of providing quality entertainment to the residents of mid-Missouri, while also serving as an outlet for people looking to pursue an interest in the performing arts.

During the past few years, Maplewood and the entertainment company have started to look for ways to bring the two community theaters together. Sharing resources, such as actors and materials, and joining together in grant efforts will only enhance the overall community experience, said Michael Scott, who serves on both boards. “By working together more, we will make each other stronger.”

As Maplewood and the entertainment company have found their niche in community, new up-and-coming theaters in Columbia are hoping to do the same.

In the last year, two new theater companies have formed. LR Hults established Theatre NXS in June 2006 and the Independent Actors Theatre was co-founded by Charles Willis, Shawna Kelly and Ross Taylor in August 2007.

The mission of both theaters is to produce works of artistic and social significance and in turn stimulate conversation within the community on important topics.

“We want to push the envelope,” Hults said.

Just as the establishment of Maplewood filled the role of a community theater outside of the academic institutions, NXS and Independent Actors Theatre aspire to fill their own niche by offering the community an alternative genre of theatrical productions.

Excited for the new companies, Byron Scott said, “There is plenty of room in Columbia for all varieties of community theater.”

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