Working Hard at Playmaking
Inside Northside, March/April 2006
by Jane Walls
Just off Lee Road in Covington is a little gem, the Playmakers Theater. For 50 years, Playmakers has delighted northshore audiences with its performances. Organized in 1955, it is the 13th-longest continuously performing amateur theater in the United States.
Playmakers’ story is the story of many people wearing many different hats: actor, builder, director, lighting technician, writer, stagehand, painter, musician, dancer, singer, fundraiser, donors—and more. Long-time Playmakers director, board member and local historian Frank Levy adds that the story is also about the building where they ply their craft.
Originally, the Playmakers Theater was called “the Barn” because it was precisely that—a dairy barn. Written on the walls of the barn in pencil were the weights and names of calves that were born there. In 1959, C. Alvin Bertel Jr. generously gave the barn and additional acres of land to Playmakers for use as a theater. A revolving stage was built, the theater was named “The Barn” and, for years, playmaking in the former farm building was alive and well.
In 1976, the original barn burned to the ground. Enter stage left: the Barn’s neighbors at St. Joseph Abbey. Through the kindness of the monks, the theater company staged shows there for the next two years. In 1978, as a result of fundraising lead by Nikki Barranger and Arthur Middleton, a new $120,000 facility was built on the original site. The new structure, known as Playmakers Theater, is almost an exact replica of the original Barn, with significant improvements.
Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc to the building in August. The roof was seriously damaged by fallen trees and required replacement, windows were broken, floors were ruined and dirt covered the theater. After $140,000 in repairs, Playmakers was back in action, ready to begin its 50th season after only a one-month delay.
The Golden Anniversary show
In January, to mark its anniversary, the theater group presented “The Barn, A Tribute to 50 Years at Playmakers,” with Levy directing. The show was comprised of two acts portraying 21 short vignettes from past Playmakers productions dating back to 1956. Some of the scenes relate to anecdotal moments that were not from past productions, but are significant in the chronicles of the theater.
Some of the past shows represented are: “Stalag 17,” “No Time for Sergeants,” “Lion in Winter,” “Follies,” “Christmas On the Bayou,” “Harvey,” “The Front Page/Girl Friday,” “Streetcar Named Desire,” “Sunshine Boys,” “Sound of Music,” “Greater Tuna,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Spoon River Anthology,” and “Pirates of Penzance.”
Levy calls the production an “orphan,” meaning it had no home for months, as the cast rehearsed at a multitude of places in the wake of Katrina. Props could not be built on location, and it was not until one week before opening that rehearsal could finally take place at the theater itself. The format of the show called for a cast of many more than a normal production, so not having a home for rehearsal was all the more challenging.
The people of Playmakers
Several of the original actors who portrayed award-winning parts were back for this presentation, making the show even more noteworthy. Director Levy says that it was a delight and privilege to talk with all the former cast members from years ago as they shared how grand it was to have performed the scenes they did the first time around—and how extra special it was to perform them again in this show.
Ray Perrer, 84 years young and senior member of the cast, says he “felt good about doing ‘The Barn’ and enjoyed reminiscing with the other cast members.” He has been a part of Playmakers since 1980, directing 13 plays and acting in about 17 performances. Born into a Vaudevillian family and a professional dancer from a young age, Ray left that career in 1950 for the insurance business. But he fondly professes that “theatre was always [my] first love.” At Playmakers he was repeatedly persuaded to entwine his dancing into whatever performance he was a part of. He smiles as he recalls how it was sometimes a challenge trying to fit the two-stepping into a particular part, but he “always managed to do it.”
On the opposite end of the experience spectrum—and not to be forgotten—were the twenty-five children who were cast throughout the show. Playmakers’ history is rich in children’s theater, so it was fitting that youngsters would be a part of the tribute.
Jill Lane, two-time Playmaker Alvin Award winner for best actress and best supporting actress, has been part of Playmakers since 1994. She says, “Even though I have a day job like most everyone associated with Playmakers, my first love is acting and the theater.” Jill fondly recalls her parts in “Alone Together” and in Neil Simon’s “Rumors,” both directed by Judy Krosgard and presented by Playmakers in 1994 and 2001.
A noteworthy moment in the anniversary show was the heartfelt expression of love for Playmakers at the beginning of the show by Elizabeth Malone. She is one of the original 19 members who signed the Articles of Incorporation of Playmakers in 1955.
When asked about his greatest moment in Playmakers, Frank Levy says that there was a time when he “believed he would be an actor, and perhaps a notable one, but now he takes more pride in his role as a director.” In that capacity, he “is able to be a conduit for the actors he directs, the one who is a spark for the dramatic process, perhaps a key that unlocks a door for a performer and allows the star to shine.” He takes “great pride in helping them with their growth as actors and relishes the thought that he contributed positively to their success in the roles they play.”
Board member since 1999 and participating actor Ken Richard comments proudly about Playmakers’ devotion to “living up to its charter statement by bringing theatre and culture to the northshore for so many years.” He says he “expects that is just what direction Playmakers will take for the next fifty years.” All those who are a part of the Playmakers organization are committed to that goal, and they welcome anyone, experienced or not, to join them in that effort as part of the front or back stage crew.
Many dedicated people over the last fifty years decided that the art of theater was worth all their hard work. No fire, hurricane or lack of place to rehearse could daunt their devotion to the art of theater: There has never been an interruption of Playmakers Theater during its 50-year history.
It is this commitment of all involved that speaks to the success of the organization, and the firm belief that the show must go on. It can; it does; and one can safely assume that it will for many years to come.
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