All this month on NPR’s morning edition, you’ve heard about how theaters across the country have moved on after being rocked by a few years of closure, illness and social unrest. You can find the entire six-part Next Stage series on NPR’s website. Closer to home, Bloomington-Normal theater groups have felt the same pressures.
As with any performing arts organization, operations at the Community Players Theater in Bloomington came to an abrupt halt in 2020. But unlike professional theater companies that have struggled to find ways to keep their employees working and paid, Community Players is a passionate project of theater-loving volunteers.
The Women’s Club of Bloomington staged a play performed at Turner Hall on March 6, 1923 – and the Community Players Theater was born.
That’s according to Bruce Parrish, chairman of the board and resident historian of Community Players (CPT). Parrish’s involvement began in 1975. After studying acting and elementary education at Illinois Wesleyan University, he was unexpectedly thrust into a role in “1776” – and has remained there ever since. Parrish taught in Bloomington public schools for more than three decades.
“I got there and helped out a bit with the decor. I had been a bit of a technician at Wesleyan,” Parrish said in an interview with WGLT. “My God, we flower in a second, in a third. You don’t realize what you are doing. I’ve been in the store, the house, and the land – all these different jobs. Where I was interconnected.
“That’s kind of what’s happening,” said Nick Benson, vice chairman of the CPT board of trustees and arts administrator at the Center for Performing Arts at Illinois State University. Benson first became involved with the CPT in 2016 with a production of “Shrek.”
“You come, and we’ll make sure you have a place to be,” he said. “Everyone is doing everything they can, knowing that in some cases, if it’s not you doing it, there may be no one at that time who has time to do it.”
Now celebrating its 100th season, the people who make up Community Players do so purely for their love of the arts and their desire to connect with audiences and each other. This was even the case during the pandemic.
“We had to maintain the theater,” Benson said. “There is a passion for it. We know the community needs it, even though there are a lot of community theaters in this city.
NPR’s six-part series explores how theaters across the country, rocked by a few years of closure, illness and social unrest, are changing the future of American theater.
Indeed, Bloomington-Normal has a strong community theater heritage, characterized as a group of semi-professional and amateur theatre-makers, as well as professional actors and technicians working as volunteers. Community Players is the oldest of the local troupes, but certainly not the only place to see a play in the Twin Cities.
Rather than viewing other theater companies as competitors, Benson said they need each other.
“We all do different things,” he said. “We all have a different niche that we fill.”
Benson’s two-year term as chairman of the board of governors ended in June 2020, months after the company shut down for what everyone thought was a few weeks.
“We were doing what every organization does: sit, wait and hope,” Benson said. “It was all we could do because we had no information other than, ‘Go home, stay safe and we’ll be back when we can.’ We went home, tried to stay safe, and kept waiting.
During the pandemic shutdown, something that had been, for decades, Community Players’ greatest asset — owning their building — suddenly became a liability. Unlike professional theaters, they were not eligible for IPO features such as the Payment Protection Program which required paid employees.
“Fortunately, we were financially solvent and knew we could keep paying the bills,” Benson said.
“Once we realized this wasn’t going away in a few months, the board and the community really came together with a lot of ideas on how to do something about it,” said Emily Ohmart, who is working full time. time for a web design company and serves as the president of marketing for community players. She joined the organization with “Into the Woods” in 2018 in order to meet people and reconnect with her artistic past doing choir and high school drama.
“Theater people are just the best people,” she said. “I knew I wanted to make friends and join a community.”
The company managed two performances of “Big Fish” before stay-at-home orders went into effect in March 2020. While managing day jobs at home and online school for their children, members of Community Players have still managed to produce shows online. A collage of videos connected a chorus of Brady Bunch-style Zoom boxes singing “Seasons of Love,” from the musical “Rent.” And “The Show Must Go On” was a collection of submitted songs presented cabaret-style for a virtual audience.
“‘Show Must Go On,’ for us, was a light in that darkness,” Ohmart said. “It was a way for us to express ourselves, to participate as a community even though we were all at home. Seeing this finished product come together and feeling like you worked as a team to make it happen – it was a nice way to spend parts of the pandemic.
Contrary to the trend set by professional theater companies which have seen a drop in attendance from pre-pandemic levels, ticket sales have been up at Community Players since returning to live shows in fall 2021 When the audience returned, however, they noticed the same mustard-tinted seats installed in the 1980s. and additional wheelchair access is underway again.
The pandemic is certainly not the first storm suffered by Community Players. During the Great Depression, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the Vietnam War, they put on shows. During World War II, community actors put together a series of small one-act actors in order to have enough performers. “Man of La Mancha” opened two days after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
“There’s pressure out there to make sure we put something in,” Ohmart said. “It’s not a weight. It’s a joyful pressure. We know we’ll make it out the other side because of the community we’ve built and the volunteer spirit of everyone who makes this theater what it is. Something will happen. We know it. It’s always like that.
Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Jesus Christ Superstar” runs November 4-20 at the Community Players Theatre, 201 Robinhood Lane in Bloomington. “Holiday on Robinhood Lane” takes place from December 8 to 11, and a 20s-themed gala will take place in early 2023. Tickets, seat sponsorship information and more information can be found at communityplayers.org.
We count on your support to keep telling stories like this. You – along with NPR donors across the country – are creating a more informed audience. Fact by fact, story by story. Please take a moment to donate now and fund the local news our community needs. Your support really makes a difference.