Artists’ Ensemble Theater: Gracing the Stage for 20 Years

What started as a troupe of innovative artists seeking a new platform has become a beloved landmark in the Rockford area’s theatrical landscape.

Left to Right: David A. Gingerich, Kyle Adams and Gary Wingert appeared in Artists’ Ensemble Theater’s 2009 production of “Jeeves in Bloom.” (Photo provided)

There is a moment in “The Tin Woman,” the play by Sean Grennan currently being performed by Artists’ Ensemble Theater, where audience members can’t help but get involved. It happens when protagonist Joy, the recipient of a heart transplant, considers taking a swig of bourbon.

“At least three times we’ve heard audience members whisper ‘Don’t do it,’” says Margaret Raether, who, along with her husband Richard, is one of the founders of Artists’ Ensemble Theater.
For Raether, the moment perfectly exemplifies the power of live theater.

“It’s a visceral reaction,” she says. “There’s something about it, when it’s right there in front of you, that is really powerful.”

As theater workers, the Raethers have spent most of their lives creating moments like these. Now, as Artists’ Ensemble celebrates its 20th season, they have an opportunity to not only look back on these moments but to share them with the audience a second time. Sprinkled through this year’s four-show season are three pay-what-you-can retrospectives where ensemble members reprise some of the roles and remount some of the scenes from the company’s previous productions. The first retrospective, called “Lovers & Liars” was performed on Sept. 29.

“We’re showing slides in the background so you can see what we looked like 20 years ago,” laughs Margaret.

“It’s a celebration of past seasons,” adds Richard Raether, who is also producing artistic director for the company. “We have a lot of people who have been with us for a long time. This is a chance for us to say, ‘Come and remember these great shows we’ve done.’”

After two decades as part of Rockford’s cultural fabric, 76 stage productions and 34 original podcast episodes, Artists’ Ensemble Theater has a lot of material to choose from. Along the way it has earned a reputation for shining a spotlight on Rockford’s theatrical talent. That reputation was the group’s goal from the beginning.

“The name Artists’ Ensemble Theater says it all,” says Richard. “We wanted to make sure the art of theater and the artists who create theater were front and center.”

Margaret, who also writes many Artists’ Ensemble original productions, explains it in a different way.

“Sometimes, actors are thought of as large children,” she jokes. “We wanted to make sure the artists are treated with respect, whether they are actors, designers or directors.”

The Raethers weren’t alone. These feelings came to a head in 2003 with a flurry of emails between the Raethers and other like-minded theater artists who were enthusiastic about working together and who shared a common vision.

“We had a group of friends who were saying, ‘It should be like this,’ and ‘I don’t know why they always do it like that,’” recalls Margaret. “Eventually we thought, ‘Why don’t we all get together and do a couple of shows?’”

To prepare for the first season, the company mapped out the season in ensemble members’ living rooms and held what Margaret calls “friend-raiser” events to raise funds. While excitement was building about creating the show aspect of show business, there were also members who knew a thing or two about the business side.

“John Cobb, one of our members, has his MBA,” says Richard. “He said, ‘I don’t know how to do a show, but I know how to run a business.’ That really helped us because we were able to create a business plan and register as a nonprofit.”

Another goal was for Artists’ Ensemble to find a permanent venue. The first season was a nomadic one, with the company splitting time between the Mendelssohn Performing Arts Center and the Cheek Theatre at Rockford University’s Clark Arts Center. By the time the second season rolled around, the Cheek Theatre had become home base.

“We are the professional theater in residence there,” says Richard. “We pay a percentage of our gross to the university, and for that we get use of the space and equipment. It’s a good deal.”
Two decades later, theatergoers still flock to the Cheek Theatre to enjoy Artists’ Ensemble Theater’s varied offerings. Each season typically ranges from four to six shows, all of which are carefully selected to compliment and contrast one another.

“Richard reads a lot of plays,” says Margaret.

For Richard, the goal is to find theatrical works that will resonate with the audience.

“One of the guiding principles of Artists’ Ensemble Theater is to do shows that our audience can connect with,” he says. “Whether they’re comedies or drama, we want to recognize these people on stage. Is it relatable?”

The confines of the space and available assets are another important factor.

“We need to be able to do a play and do it well,” says Richard. “That’s important. We only have so many resources. We have to be pretty imaginative.”

One of the company’s strengths is that it has playwrights in residence. The company produced two world premier productions written by member Rufus Cadigan. Margaret is also a prolific contributor, with five adaptations of P.G. Wodehouse’s Wooster and Jeeves stories that were so popularly received that they have been mounted on stages in the United States and across the pond. Raether has written 16 plays in total and has enjoyed success as an award-winning, celebrated playwright.

“One of my Sherlock Holmes adaptations is being done in Seattle this year, and ‘Jeeves Saves the Day’ is being produced in Door County next summer,” she says. “I’ve had various productions done in New Zealand, Australia, Canada and England.”

Margaret’s work is particularly popular at the NC Stage Company, in N.C., whose top five grossing shows were all written by Raether.

“I’m pretty big in Asheville, North Carolina,” she laughs.

While Artists’ Ensemble Theater has been drawing sellout crowds for most of their shows, there was one season where Cheek Theatre remained empty. The company’s 17th season, in 2020, coincided with the COVID pandemic, which forced the shutdown of theaters across the country.

“We kept thinking, ‘How can we do a show?’” says Richard. “Can we do a two-person show or a one-person show? Can we do anything?”

While other theater companies folded, Artists’ Ensemble pivoted instead, taking their act to the airwaves.

It was not an unfamiliar process for them since they had done radio dramas in the past.

“We did an Agatha Christie play for WNIJ,” says Richard. “We thought, ‘Can we set up our own recording studio and do this on our own?’”

The end result was a podcast called “Mysterious Journey: Theater for the Mind.” Offering radio dramas that are based on both original material and works found in the free domain, Artists’ Ensemble Theater has found success in this new medium, with 34 episodes that have been downloaded more than 13,000 times in 65 countries.

“It was a whole new skill set to learn, and it gave a whole new outlet for a bunch of actors who were anxious to get back to performing,” says Richard.

With its triumphant return to the stage in 2021, Artists’ Ensemble Theater is steadily growing its audience back to pre-pandemic numbers. Now, as the Raethers and the rest of the company celebrate their 20th year, they have a chance not only to look back at past success but to coax future audience members to put down their TV remotes and venture into the Cheek Theater and be transfixed by a live performance.

“There are studies that say, ‘If you want to develop empathy, go to see live theater,’” says Richard. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a drama or a comedy, you get involved. You get caught up in their story and their problems. You’re not looking at pictures. You’re watching real people on a stage telling you a story.”

Artists’ Ensemble Theater: Coming Soon

Nov. 2-9: “Lifespan of a Fact,” by Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell and Gordon Farrell
“It’s a battle between a writer who believes in the power of story and a fact-checker who believes in the power of the truth,” says Richard. “It’s fascinating because there is no villain or hero. It’s a very funny, very smart play.”

Dec. 15-16: “Holiday Havoc”
More scenes, songs and stories from past seasons. Check for dates and times.

March 7-24: “Julie & Jane,” by Margaret Raether
“The League of Women Voters approached me about this and lent me the long out-of-print book ‘My Friend Julia Lathrop,’ written by Jane Addams,” says Margaret. “Julia Lathrop championed the concept of a separate juvenile court system and juvenile detention…. This is a period piece with a lot of history, but really, it’s about a friendship between two astonishing women.”

April 5-6: “Friends & Fraudsters”
More scenes, songs and stories from past seasons. Check for dates and times.

May 9-26: “Annabella in July,” by Richard Strand
“Two years ago we did ‘Ben Butler,’ which is a historical play set in the Civil War,” says Richard. “This play is by the same author, but it’s completely different. It’s a delightful romantic fantasy with terrific dialogue. It’s a brand-new play, and I think people are going to be charmed by it.”

To reserve tickets call (815) 394-5004 or visit