Red, White And Act

09 stageLinda Burton posting from Topeka, Kansas – “Acting is standing up naked and turning around very slowly.” That statement is attributed to Rosalind Russell; I found it on page 34 of my Sunday theater playbill. The actors I saw today were anything but naked – two men playing nineteen different roles with complete costume changes every few minutes. But it was “no holds barred” on the acting front as they switched back and forth between being old men and young, spiteful women and loving; women totin’ guns and men wearing tiaras; adding sagging breasts or bulging bellies or curly wigs and or ten-gallon hats as the role required. Was it a laugh-a-minute as Amber Windchime and Star Birdfeather paraded around? Did the audience roar when Arles Struvie or Thurston Wheelis took the stage? I was sharing a table; three lovely ladies who had season tickets were missing their 09 rwtfourth friend today, so I sat with Madelyn and Joy and Betty as we enjoyed cheese-scrambled eggs and apricot-topped sweet rolls before the house lights went down. Our seats were grand; the third tier up and pretty much centered; the house was packed. The two men who carried the production onstage were Dan Decker, acting in his 11th show, and Thomas Hughes Jr, who has been performing here for 09 theater frontthe last 17 years. Backstage, the costume crew of eight stood on point, ready for the split-second costume changes; the sound and lighting and stage crew were on their toes; all volunteers. The play was Red, White & Tuna; the setting was the 4th of July in Tuna, Texas; and the reality was the Sunday brunch matinee at the oldest community dinner theater in the country. Its proper name is Topeka Civic Theatre & Academy, and its mission statement begins “Bringing our diverse community together…”

Patrons, donors, and volunteers are the key to the success of any community endeavor, and at TCTA all three come through in magnificent abundance. The appeal, I’d say, is the true diversity of offerings; besides the mainstage plays in the spacious Sheffel Theatre; there is the Helen Hocker Theater and the Oldfather Theater, with lineups that appeal to the widest of tastes. Les Misérables is next on schedule at the Sheffel, where Red, White & Tuna is playing 09 laugh linesnow; Laugh Lines comes up after that. Laugh Lines (with the warning that its humor is not suitable for all audiences) is improvisational comedy that includes audience participation games; it tends to pack the theatre with every show.

And then there’s the Senior Class, an offshoot improv group of “mature” comedians – all actors are over 55. But the youth are not forgot; TCTA’s newest improv group is the Freshman Class. Its comic sketches and games are based on audience suggestions, performed by youth, with humor that appeals to kids and adults alike. Oldies but goodies like Fibber McGee and Molly and the Lone Ranger (Hi Ho Tonto!) are radio plays, and all sound effects are created live on stage by very expressive actors.

The Helen Hocker Theater workshops are geared up for summer to give even the very youngest their first taste of Life Onstage. Ages 5-8 can enroll in Broadway Bound and First Steps to Broadway; by the ripe old age of 9 Production Workshops are offered for horizon-09 hh logoexpanding training in music, dance, acting, improvisation, stage-combat performance, and technical production. Participants also learn how to create a script and perform it as the sessions end.

“Academy Kids put the A in TCTA” is the heading for Summer Camps; the list of possibilities for summertime learning and fun are mind-boggling. And clever! For instance, 5-6-year-olds can go to “Iceland” for a week and learn How the Ladies Stopped the Wind. Why aren’t there any trees in Iceland? How do the ladies and the chickens stop the wind? How did the hungry sheep try to change their plans?

The Peanut Butter Players (2nd and 3rd graders) play Annie’s Kids, the 1930’s in New York; Daddy Warbucks and FDR; Sandy the lovable dog and the not-so-lovable Miss Hannigan. The After School Players (3rd and 4th graders) hang out with Snew White in Wychwood, and with dwarves Snippy, Sloppy, Spiffy, Twitchy, Nosey, Sticky and Brad the Surfer Dwarf while the Magic Mirror convinces the Evil Queen to go into therapy with Sigmund Freud.

09 tct logoOlder students like the Buskin Players and the Act One Players play around with Bird Brains (how to deal with a bully bird) and Goldilocks on Trial (she was arrested for breaking and entering.) The Take Two Players learn how to write a play (can they do it in time?) and the Prime Time Players (all the way to 8th grade now) tackle Questionable, when the National Institute of Testing While Involving Theater, or NITWIT, conducts a hilarious test-taking experience for the audience to determine: Are we really ready for high school?

Behind it all, the Technical Theatre Camp for ages 12+ brings students into the “dark” side of theatre to create scenic, lighting, and prop designs for six summer camp productions. There’s no reason for boredom in Topeka this summer; great fun and readying for the 2013-2014 season, where at the Helen Hocker Theater the lineup includes Shrek the Musical, Nora’s Ark, Unnecessary Farce, and Rapunzel, a Very Hairy Fairy Tale.

09 out doorMeanwhile, back on the Main Stage, the next season promises a variety that ranges from Young Frankenstein to The Tempest. I say buy your season tickets now, or join the cast and crew. Look at Dan and Thomas, who entertained us this afternoon with all those costume changes and crazy roles. Dan and his son Teddy recently appeared together in a show here; Dan also coaches his son’s baseball and football games and has a full-time job. Thomas has been a volunteer at TCTA since 1996 and was chosen as Volunteer of the Year last year. He has been in 39 productions and played almost a hundred different characters.

All of which leads me to believe, acting must be a lot more fun than Rosalind tried to make it.

Note: Jim Ogle, Chairman of the Board of Trustees of TCTA, wrote a piece for the Playbill about the many ways community theater brings a diverse community together. For example, when producing last season’s drama dealing with mental illness, Next to Normal, TCTA teamed with professionals from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) to hold discussions with the cast and interested audience members after each performance. Speakers affected by various mental illnesses shared their stories, along with the professionals who treated them; the cast addressed the challenges of telling such stories in the context of the production; the audience added insight and perspective.

About TCTA,  Be sure to click on the video Harold the Stagehand.