Arts & Entertainment

Artists’ Ensemble Theater: Delivering the Unexpected for 14 Years

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The Rockford region craves art that’s challenging and fresh. Enter Artists’ Ensemble, a professional theater company with a rich lineup for the 2017-18 season. Hear from some of the ensemble artists who have a passion for quality plays.

David A. Gingerich and Dan Klarer in “Whistling in the Dark, a Sherlock Holmes Adventure.” (John Cobb photo)

David A. Gingerich and Dan Klarer in “Whistling in the Dark, a Sherlock Holmes Adventure.” (John Cobb photo)

Catching a lighthearted musical is a cherished experience, but sometimes you crave theater that makes you think a little harder – and maybe even shocks you a bit. Artists’ Ensemble Theater takes pride in sending patrons home with more than a catchy jingle in their head.

“We want to do new and exciting work with quality material,” says Richard Raether, artistic director. “One of the things we discovered, when we started doing our shows, was that there was an audience in Rockford that didn’t really want to see ‘Oklahoma’ for the 15th time and didn’t want to see the same shows over and over again. They wanted to see what was new.”

As the only professional theater with residency in the Rockford area, Artists’ Ensemble revels in audiences who wish to be challenged, pushed and stretched through fresh, realistic content.

Professional theater separates itself from other types through its mission to present quality theater productions performed by trained, paid actors. Artist Ensemble works with theater unions and pays ensemble members for their talent. That’s not to belittle community theater, which provides important opportunities for local residents to present valuable content as well, notes Raether.

Artists’ Ensemble will open its 14th season this fall. The lineup includes “Steel Magnolias,” Sept. 7-24; “The Lion in Winter,” Nov. 30-Dec. 10; “Best of Enemies,” March 8-18, 2018; and “The Woman in Black,” May 10-27.

For the first time in the ensemble’s history, it will offer two bonus shows outside of the ordinary lineup. The add-ons include “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Dec. 10-27 and “Dying for Attention,” March 23-25, 2018.

Both Raether and his cast are excited about the diasporic selection of shows chosen for the upcoming season and encourage people to attend, even if they aren’t familiar with the titles.

Although some shows the ensemble has produced have been outside the realm of “safe theater,” audience members have always been supportive of the selections, says Raether. Artists’ Ensemble has built a sort of trust with its audience members; even when unfamiliar with the productions, people attend because they know the show will be performed and staged professionally, he says.

“We certainly have done challenging shows and some things that have gotten attention, but, for the most part, our subscribers are incredibly supportive,” says Raether. “Even when what we do is off the beaten path, they appreciate the new productions as well as being challenged a little.”

One upcoming production that offers some of the ensemble’s more unconventional content is “The Best of Enemies,” which will open early this March. Based on Osha Gray Davidson’s book published in 1996, the plot follows the true story of an unlikely relationship between Ku Klux Klan member C. P. Ellis and African-American civil rights activist Ann Atwater.

Occasionally straying from “safe theater” is important to Katie Maringer, who’s been acting with the ensemble since 2005. Because Artists’ Ensemble is the only professional theater in Rockford, it has obligation to offer the community opportunities to see a wide array of content, she says.

“Our goal as a theater is to challenge the audience a lot and not just hand it to them,” Maringer says. “Sometimes our audience walks away saying, ‘it was so sad,’ or that they didn’t like the profanity, but it’s all part of the characters and the overall theatrical experience. We have to push the envelope sometimes.”

Raether adds that professional theater provides unique opportunities to peer into the lives of others and gain a better understanding of them, which is what makes it such a powerful asset to any community.

“Through the ensemble, I tell stories about people and I try to look for stories that have people in them that are like people in our community,” Raether says. “The characters we choose are not like everybody in our community, but there’s always somebody like this in our community. We need to get to know these people and to understand what they think and what they do, for our sake and theirs.”

Artists’ Ensemble has brought a number of regional premieres to its stage and has produced five world premieres that originated here in Rockford and then went on to be staged by other theater troupes.

The ensemble formed after about a dozen actors and theater technicians exchanged emails about starting up their own theater company as Rockford’s New American Theatre (NAT) came to a close. Raether says it’s common for professional theater workers to grumble about how they’d run things differently if they were in charge – but it’s pretty uncommon for them to actually take matters into their own hands, as happened in Rockford in 2004.

Many of the original Artists’ Ensemble members came from NAT, which closed in 2006 due to economic issues.

The name “Artists’ Ensemble” came about as a way to embody the idea that theater workers, both on and off stage, are artists.

“We wanted to put the focus on art, to put the respect there, so that’s how we came across the name,” Raether explains. “We wanted to say that this is an art form, that we do respect this, and that we respect the people who create the art – we want that to be the foundation.”

Starting out, the group was ripe with talent and ready to act. Members were already familiar with each other, on and off stage.

Crucially, the original group also had members with accounting and marketing experience; the well-rounded mix of theatrical talent and business gusto was vital to getting the theater off the ground. Raether and other early coordinators called in some favors to get their first season going. It took about a year of planning and crowdfunding before the group was ready to host its first production.

Unsure of how many people would be interested in Artists’ Ensemble productions, the members simply crossed their fingers and worked to bring in a good audience for the first show.

“When we first started, we decided to do a couple of shows and that would be it,” Raether recalls. “We really went into it with no idea that it was going to be running for 14 years.”

The group’s first show was “Dinner with Friends,” which required just four actors and a simple set. The troupe performed in what would later become its theater of residence, the Clark Arts Center at Rockford University. Remarkably, it sold out its first show and those that followed.

A little dazed by the unexpected success, the cast soon realized there might actually be an audience for the type of theater it longed to offer. Once people started showing up for the shows, excitement pushed the theater forward into additional seasons.

“We had to beg, borrow and talk people into things the first year, but after having such a great response to our first season, we were able to build up some capital and have kept the ball rolling ever since,” Raether says.

Artists’ Ensemble became especially important to talented actors in Rockford who didn’t want to go to big cities like Milwaukee or Chicago to perform.

“Some people just don’t want to go to Chicago to fight the rat-race every day,” Raether says. “A lot of actors in Rockford have comfortable lives here but still want to engage in professional theater, without leaving their homes or their families. We offer people the chance to pursue their passions, while still maintaining their own lifestyles.”

Maringer says she enjoys working with Artists’ Ensemble because it allows her to work other jobs and raise her child, while also pursuing her passion as an actress. Daily travel to Chicago or Milwaukee for rehearsals just wouldn’t fit into her schedule.

After 14 years, the ensemble is still going strong and cast members are exploring opportunities to bring in a new generation of theater-goers and artists.

“Most of our audience is probably over 50 and it’s challenging to get that younger audience,” Maringer says. “That’s why we try to present opportunities for younger people to get involved with the ensemble.”

Artists Ensemble offers Rockford University students the chance to work with a professional theater before they’re out of college, through a partnership with the university. Students act and build sets, thereby building impressive portfolios while they’re studying. The arrangement is a win-win, because the ensemble benefits from the energy that students bring to productions.

Interns at Artists’ Ensemble participate in a community outreach program in which they host a children’s show they create, called “Tall Tales, Small Tales,” presented in 11 parks throughout Rockford. The interns receive voice, movement and acting lessons from Raether, and the opportunity to showcase their talents in an open forum.

Another offering from Artists’ Ensemble is radio play broadcasts. The most recent was a rendition of “Whispering in the Dark, a Sherlock Holmes Adventure,” which aired July 15 on the WNIJ public radio station and can still be enjoyed online.

“We’re continuing to pick really interesting seasons and, if we continue to do shows that audience members love, they’ll keep coming back,” Maringer says. “A lot of people in Rockford understand the value of having professional theater, but we’re always looking for fresh faces to share the value of our productions with.”

Season subscriptions can be ordered online at artistsensemble.org/Tickets, or by calling the Clark Arts Box Office at (815) 394-5004 from 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Mon-Fri. Individual tickets may be purchased at the Clarks Arts Center, 5050 E. State St., at the door. Senior citizens and students enjoy discounts.

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