For the past 40 years, the Olathe Civic Theatre Association (formerly the Olathe Community Theatre Association) has been an example of fortitude. The next 40 will be more than just strength, but a concerted effort to let everyone in the Kansas City metropolitan area know that Community Theater can be stellar.
First, the group does not shy away from “community.” It is that volunteer community that has helped raise the bar year after year. “We are an all-volunteer organization from the board and staff to the actors and crew. We have offered up more than 200 shows in the last four years and thousands have participated in the shows,” says Peter Leondedis, Board vice-president and occasional actor. “We stage five shows each season from musicals to comedies and dramas.”
The theater company practiced a more vagabond spirit early on until July 1977 when OCTA purchased the Reformed Presbyterian Church, built in 1870. About four months after the purchase and shortly after the first production of Arsenic and Old Lace in the newly-christened Buddy Rogers Playhouse, the Fire Marshall closed the building for 22 code violations. The building remained closed until November 1980 when it reopened after extensive renovation. Then vandals set fire to the basement and the damage hit the lobby and some of the stained glass windows. The theater crew bounced back and opened in 1983. Since 1980, the original church pews were replaced with theater seats, the lighting and sound systems have been upgraded, the parking lot paved, and the basement remodeled with task lighting and additional restrooms. Further capital improvements included adding air conditioning in 1990, allowing year-round productions, and a new roof in 1999.
“Right now, we are in a current campaign to update the stage lights to more efficient and versatile LEDs,” Leondedis says. OCTA Board President Ted Collins says the volunteer board sets the theater direction, but it’s not uncommon to find them cleaning the theater too. “The joy is that as volunteers, we fill the voids or serve in a capacity that is needed, plus we have a great volunteer coordinator in Rebekah Grieb.”
Shelly Stewart Banks often directs at the theater. She is in charge of the Buddy Awards, the annual presentation to honor those who are part of various shows in front of and behind the scenes. “We are the sort of organization where the volunteers take ownership in all that we do.” Banks also applauds the board members and their longevity to the organization. She will direct Schoolhouse Rock Live to open the 2015 season.
In mid-February (Feb. 13 – March 1), the theater offers up The Musical of Musicals (The Musical!). The satire looks at what five composers or composing teams would do with the same basic tale: June is an ingénue who can’t pay the rent and is threatened by her evil landlord. Will the handsome leading man come to the rescue? The variations are: a Rodgers & Hammerstein version, set in Kansas in August, complete with a dream ballet; a Sondheim version, featuring the landlord as a tortured artistic genius who slashes the throats of his tenants in revenge for not appreciating his work; a Jerry Herman version, as a splashy star vehicle; an Andrew Lloyd Webber version, a rock musical with themes borrowed from Puccini; and a Kander & Ebb version, set in a speakeasy in Chicago.
Leondedis says an additional strength lies in the selection of the season. “We let the vast community of directors offer up their suggestions for plays or musicals they want to direct. We ask them for their passion and vision for the theater and in doing so, we produce good shows.” Nino Casisi directs The Musical of Musicals and Darren Sextro will direct God of Carnage which runs April 10-26. Leondedis is elated with God of Carnage in the hands of Sextro. “Darren’s artistry and the intimacy of this theater will serve the play well.”
The season ends in June (June 6-21) with The Summerland Project by Rob Merritt and directed by Patrick Poe. This Kansas City premiere fits with the expanding nature of the Olathe Civic Theatre Association, Collins says. “The play is new and I am excited to bring it to OCTA for its Kansas City Premiere with a new director. The talk-backs with the playwright should be extremely interesting.” The play looks at modern medicine, ethics and a possible future as a police officer has the chance to place his wife’s consciousness in an artificial body.
The 41st season has already been announced. Along with Schoolhouse Rock Live, there are several cutting-edge shows including the musical Dogfight and the Tom Stoppard play Arcadia. Banks says she is thrilled with Dogfight, a new musical.
“Seasons are often a mixed bag. However, within that eclectic mix, we are sure to stumble on a play or musical that someone will like.” Leondedis added. “We know there are those who clamor for musicals and we love to offer those. Our audiences are as varied as the shows we present. However, good quality is a common thread that runs through them all.” Of late, Collins says the theater is making a concerted effort to add more female roles into the diversity. We’ve stretched our actors and our audience with strong female shows like A Piece of My Heart, a play about nurses during the Vietnam conflict,” he commented. “Audiences were especially moved by talk-back sessions with nurses who served in the war.”
Banks explains the stigma that community theater faces. “Some think community theater is full of sitcom-style shows, but for many, including The Barn Players, the White Theatre at the Jewish Community Center and us, we are expanding our efforts. The fundamental thing is that we do this strictly for love. We have to be inventive with our resources in order to make shows happen. The budgets may be small, but there is tremendous creativity.” Leondedis added that the volunteers and the “whatever it takes” mentality keeps the community theater thriving.
“Plays need us,” Banks says. “We have to support our plays. People are doing their best work and often these shows are the ones that go unnoticed.” Collins explains, “People come here and see heart in the shows. They are entertained whether we do a musical, comedy or drama.”
As for the future, Collins wants the theater to be around for another 40 years. “As arts programs change, we might be one of those key places to give younger people an outlet to explore art. As part of the Olathe community, we need to stand firm in supporting the development of the arts. It’s an impact that can be tremendous.”