Arts & Entertainment

Winneshiek Players: Bringing People Together for 87 Years

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From a simple grassroots beginning, this lively group of thespians has spent more than a generation entertaining the Freeport area. Discover what makes them a gem for their community.

Founded in 1916, Winneshiek Players is the oldest continuous running amateur theater in the nation. Productions were first held outdoors, and then, iin 1926, relocated to the third floor of the First National Bank building. In 1936, a land donation paved the way for the troupe’s own theater. Today’s Winneshiek Players still perform in the original, renovated structure.

In 1916, as Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea played silently across the big screen, a live stage production of the comedy Arms and the Man by George Bernard Shaw roared with sound and laughter at the Orpheum Theater in downtown Freeport.

The performing group of Arms eventually went on to become the Winneshiek Players, settling into their own playhouse at 228 W. Clark St. in 1936. In the 87 years since then, the all-volunteer troupe has put on live shows for the enrichment of the community, in what they believe is the nation’s oldest, continuous amateur theater.

Winneshiek Players got its start in small gatherings in people’s homes. “The history of it is truly amazing,” says Mark Jansen, vice president of the board of directors, and director of adult education programming at Highland Community College. “It started out as kind of a social gathering that used to occur in people’s homes, and dramas that would be staged in people’s very large living rooms.”

Winneshiek Players is proud of its grassroots beginnings and presence in the community. “It’s very much our collective thought that arts enhance our lives,” Jansen says. “Without the arts, our lives would be pretty flat and gray.”

All roles are important at Winneshiek, from the people who buy tickets for a performance, to those who perform onstage or work behind the scenes. Membership, ticket sales and financial gifts are the primary means of support for the theater, which welcomes participation from anyone, Freeport resident or not.

“There are very few of us who actually have a trained theater background,” says Jansen, who’s done every job in the theater, from directing to cleaning toilets.

If you have a special talent or interest, Winneshiek will find a place for you. Discovering various hidden talents in people is one of the joys of community theater. In a recent production of Same Time Next Year, Jansen worked with Lucy Roloff, a nurse with FHN health system.

“Lucy has an amazing perception of period pieces, as far as properties and costumes,” he says. “She came in and said, ‘This piece will work … no, this piece won’t work … let me go to my wardrobe and see what will work.’ It was like, ‘We know Lucy, but we didn’t know that part of Lucy.’”

Likewise, it’s fun to see new talent show up for an audition.

“There are the people who we typically see at every audition, but there’s also always a new gem or two,” Jansen says. “They’re either new to the community, or there’s been some change in their lives that’s opened up some time, and they just walk through the door, having never been on stage before, and light up an audition.”

While it’s exciting, the unknown can be a little scary for a director.

“It kind of makes us tense to cast new people, because it’s all new to them – you never know what they can do, what’s going to happen when there’s an audience out there,” Jansen admits. “But our audience really enjoys seeing those new people come across the stage.”

The bright lights of live theater attract a lot of creative types, as well as doctors, educators, lawyers and other professionals. Many find their way to Winneshiek through someone they know.

“I was introduced to the theater through my high school theater director,” Jansen says. “He got a lead role in a musical and they needed help backstage, so I came down to help, then got involved in building sets.” One thing led to another, and in October 1979, the same year Jansen graduated from high school, he directed his very first show, The Passion of Dracula.

Jansen’s colleague and friend, Tana Gundry, who also works at Highland Community College, in human resources, has always had a passion for the arts, theater, film and music. Before moving to Freeport in 2005, from Chicago, she worked in several non-equity theaters, in stage management/production management, while attending film school at Columbia.

“I developed a real passion for theater, so when I moved to Freeport, I knew that Winneshiek was a really strong presence in the community and had been here awhile, and really provided an artistic outlet,” she says.

Gundry got involved with Winneshiek during a benefit performance of The Vagina Monologues (TVM).

“I was pretty excited when I heard about TVM being performed as a benefit for Voices Domestic Violence,” she recalls. “They were going to do a staged reading for two nights as a fundraiser, so I went down to the theater and auditioned for that play because I thought it was such an important piece to bring to the stage, and especially for our local community. I was actually cast in the play.”

Once Gundry was involved in the theater production and saw how things worked from the stage side of things, she wanted to do more.

“I realized that, hey, I’ve done some backstage things, and I’ve directed in Chicago, and I’d be interested if Winneshiek were ever looking for directors or other creative talent,” she says. “I’d love to help out because I think it’s such an important thing in the community. I was asked by the executive director of the Voices agency to direct the next staging of TVM.”

Gundry’s directorial roles continue; she’s directing the 2013 production of God of Carnage (GOC) by French playwright Yasmina Reza, opening in February.

In March, Winneshiek will perform a one-night reader’s theater presentation of the play “8” by Dustin Lance Black, which deals with both sides of the issue of marriage equality and uses actual court transcripts from the federal trial of California’s Proposition 8.

Both of these productions are intended to bring the community together in conversation.

“When we programmed this season we thought, ‘Let’s do some different shows,” Gundry says. “Yes, let’s do the crowd pleasers, like the musicals and things that are going to get people in the doors, because they’re outstanding and they’re fun, and it’s a great fun night of theater. But theater is also designed to make people think, so in that vein, we chose GOC. GOC is funny – it’s a comedy, definitely – but it’s also a challenging script and different than what has been done at Winneshiek before. It definitely contains some strong language, and that was a really big concern, believe it or not.”

The concern over the content led to a public script reading and discussion of the play before auditions.

“I say ‘believe it or not’ because I think that the language is so incidental to the entire piece itself, but there’s some strong language, so we thought, ‘Let’s present a reading of it with some actors that have worked on the stage before and provide the audience members who attend with an opportunity to talk about what they did or didn’t like about it, what their concerns are and that sort of thing.”

The staged reading of “8” is also an opportunity for community dialogue. Jansen notes that the performance doesn’t comment on the rightness or wrongness of the case for marriage equality. However, after the reading, there will be a Q&A with marriage equality advocates so the community may learn more about the fight for equality in northwestern Illinois.

To encourage more people to get involved with community theater, Winneshiek will host an open house on Saturday, Jan. 19, from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Visitors can get a behind-the-scenes look at what goes on behind the mysterious gray door. Future open houses may also include training sessions for aspiring directors and tech crews.

“We have the idea to provide a Winneshiek University to provide workshops for the community,” says Gundry. “It could be for high school students and anyone in the community who has an interest and says, ‘I’d like to act,’ or ‘I’d like to direct,’ or ‘I’d like to do lights or tech crew, but I’ve never done it and it would be so weird just to walk in – I don’t know anybody there.’

“We’re here not only to provide a resource for those individuals who enjoy or want to experience live theater, but also to provide an outlet for those who may have loved being onstage in high school or college,” says Jansen. “This is an outlet for people to let their creative things go.”

The rewards of being involved with Winneshiek are many. Gundry enjoys the unique relationship she’s developed with the actors through directing. “Even a year or two after the fact, like with TVM, I have this bond with all of the women that I shared the stage with the first year and then directed the second year.”

“I know that I wouldn’t be employed in the field and in the position I am if it weren’t for my theater teacher introducing me to theater at a high school level,” Jansen says. “And I can, without pause, say that many of my leadership skills and all of my public speaking skills were honed in this building and in my high school theater department.”

Jansen adds, “I started college as a performing art scholar, and it was my goal at age 18 to go into theater, become a theater designer, make it big on Broadway and go to New York City and do all those things. None of that happened, but all of the theater stuff happened. I mean, I’ve never stage-managed a Broadway musical, but I’ve stage-managed on every stage in Freeport. So the release, the artistic output, of being involved in theater has happened for me.”

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