Actors and Actresses Got Big Break
with GTIP and Continue in Profession
In 1988 on a plywood stage, Gladstone Theatre in the Park presented its first show, Oliver! The first season was performed without a band, dressing rooms, or programs. Now more than 100 performances later, the Theatre in the Park will celebrate 25 seasons as it performs Hello Dolly July 6-8 and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat Aug. 3-5.
Susie and Van Ibsen, founders and owners of Ibsen Dance Theatre, wanted to give their students a summer outlet. “Many of them would tell us they only got to perform one musical a year,” Van says. “We listened to the kids talk about driving to other summer venues to perform. The immediate response for us was, ‘Sure we could do that.’” So he wrote a letter to the city. “It was pretty much too good to pass up. I said that we could handle the set, we just needed the park and the electricity. If it works, we could talk. When it was over, we could talk about the future,” Van says. Parks and Recreation Director Sheila Lillis says Van’s letter promoting the outdoor theater program was one of the first letters she received across her desk when she started with the city. “It’s truly a tradition that is part of our community and its success is based on the abundance of volunteers from those on the stage, supporting the actors with instruments or behind the scenes. It is a collaboration to be praised.” During Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat run, there will be a celebration Aug 4, starting at 5 p.m., Lillis says.
Studio pianist Laurie Mayfield played the piano for the show and she has played every year. “We carried the spinet out to the park,” Susie says. “Faye Rader and the North Star Community Band joined us the year after. We heard them at the old Antioch Mall.” The Ibsens have always had their business in Gladstone and are also preparing to mark 30 years as a business.
Van says the plans for Gladstone Theatre in the Park were designed for their students and the first year, they had just enough adults for the show. The following year and every subsequent year, they have had 250 to 300 auditions for the musicals. “In a sense, this is community service,” she says. “With our educational backgrounds, the idea of service is important,” Van says. He is the chair of the theater department at the University of St. Mary’s. With the studio and college teaching, Van understands the importance of watching his budget. “We are thrifty,” Susie says.
The City of Gladstone allots a budget for the musicals. Most of the years, two musicals are planned and a cast of around 80 offers up four weeks of intense rehearsals and performances. In 2002, between Pirates of Penzance and Lil Abner, the stage was torched. Neither Susie nor Van stopped to mourn, rather the cast decided they wanted to perform the musical and the community came out to build a stage similar to the stage used for Oliver!
Michael Dragen spent some time with Gladstone Theatre in the Park. He acted in the Wizard of Oz, 1990; Oliver, 1994; Meet Me in St. Louis, 1996; Guys and Dolls, 1999 and Brigadoon, 2001. “When I was younger, I took dance and acting at Ibsen Dance,” he says. “I really liked Van and Susie. Spending time with them, I knew I wanted to pursue acting. I got to play Nathan Detroit in Guys and Dolls and that is one great character.” He even credits the Ibsens for his own desire to start a community theater in Lee’s Summit. The Summit Theatre Group offered Bus Stop to the community and they are getting ready to stage The Music Man. “We are hoping to see this grow to something as strong as Gladstone. I want to share the love of theater with the community I live in now. I still appreciate what the Ibsens have done. They love theater. Van spurred me to be a professional. I hope I can pay it forward in Lee’s Summit.”
Dragen says he was always fascinated with musicals. “Where else do you get to sing, act and dance at the same time?” For seven years, Dragen worked as a professional actor. He worked in videos and industrial films, including voice work. Now he is teaching. “I was in band and theater all through school so I knew I would have to pick whether I wanted to teach music or theater. They are equal loves of mine.” So now Dragen teaches middle school band. “With the Ibsens, egos are left at the door.” Susie says the pride in their students is the important factor, not the accolades.
Katie Gilchrist, who finished a spring run at the Unicorn Theatre in Everyday Rapture, spent some time with Gladstone Theatre in the Park. Mamie Parris, who has been part of the national touring cast of 9 to 5 where she played secretary Judy Bernly. “I spent nearly every summer with the Ibsens and Gladstone Theatre in the Park,” she says. “They took me in artistically speaking. My parents were going through the recession like most and couldn’t afford lessons, but I found a place with the summer shows. I think my first show was the ‘Wizard of Oz.’ I played a Munchkin and a Jitterbug. The memories are so sweet.” Another Broadway star Betsy Struxness, a dancer and performer, who is seen in Leap of Faith, got her start at Ibsen.
Vanessa Campagna played the lead character Peter Pan in 2003. She liked her time with the Ibsens so much that she studied theater with Van Ibsen over at St. Mary’s University. She’s acted and directed around town including with Padgett Productions. Lauren Braton says she never has strayed far from the Ibsens or Gladstone Theatre in the Park. She played the second-oldest daughter Hodel in Fiddler on the Roof. She tried her more operatic chops with the role of Mabel in Pirates of Penzance. Then she played the lead in the Unsinkable Molly Brown. This summer, Braton picks up another role with Musical Theater Heritage. She will be Marin Paroo, the librarian, in The Music Man Aug. 9 to 26. She also returned as a voice teacher at the studio. “The Ibsens gave me my start. I met Rick Truman and Kent Barnhart from Quality Hill Playhouse when they saw me perform and have had many opportunities to perform at the playhouse. Susie and Van are known for quality productions and giving people opportunities. That combination has been a win-win for the community and for individuals for decades. They give people support. I know I am forever grateful to them and for Gladstone Theatre in the Park.”
While Susie and Van have pulled back from directing and a few of the summer responsibilities, they are still the artistic directors and if something goes awry, they step in to make sure the community musicals come off without a hitch. “Sometimes folks are surprised to see our shows. There are so many highlights. Cameo, our daughter, has performed there and now she teaches with us. Our grandsons have performed. Our studio family has taken part in many shows, either as director or choreographer,” Susie says. “We have had marriage proposals and weddings as part of Gladstone Theatre in the Park.” Van says strangers have walked by him at Oak Grove Park as he is working on sets and given him tools and other supplies. “We have helped shape something that is free and community based. Hopefully it will always follow these concepts.”
Dragen says he is surprised to see how quickly the seasons have passed. “No matter what, Gladstone Theatre in the Park is a tradition. It is something that is a part of countless summer experiences. Unless the weather is just horrible, the crowds keep getting better and better. It is truly an integral part of the Northland.”