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Taking Direction: Community Theater

While Community Theater troupes warm up each summer for a season of storytelling, the casts and companies have a tale of their own.

Not until you’re seated do you begin to comprehend the true tenor of ‘community’ in Community Theater. Filing in around you are your neighbors, colleagues, librarians, dentists, doctors and youth. Once the lights turn down and the conversations break off, the players appear on stage and one by one, line by line, you begin to recognize other familiar faces.

Even in the thick of summer, Community Theater troupes turn up the heat with fierce dramas, frank comedies and momentous musicals. This year, one company celebrates 60 years of production, and others continue to entertain with witty and warm performances.

Setting the Scene

It was the dawn of a new decade. In June 1950, Zoe Cloak, the wife of Lawrence University drama professor, Theodore “Ted” Cloak, recognized a need in Appleton for a summer, Community Theater group.

Cloak ran an advertisement in the Post Crescent that read, “Announcing a Summer Theatre Group in Appleton: A course designed to prepare actors for their work. Principles and methods applied in rehearsals. Public performances––a summer company for our community.” Thirty-five applications poured in and twenty were accepted.

The attic of the Cloak residence, 122 N. Union St., held rehearsals and classes, but the ensemble remained nameless until an actor suggested in the middle of practice that the group be called Attic.

The first performance by Attic Theatre, “The Great Big Doorstep,” took place at Knights of Pythias Hall at Lawrence and Morrison streets in Appleton. In its second year, Attic moved to the “new” Jefferson School gymnasium and added a play for a total of four presentations.

Membership nearly doubled by 1952, and Ted Cloak was named theatre manager. That same summer, Zoe took to the stage as the title character in one of the season’s plays.

By its seventh year, Attic was experimenting with a winter season and children’s theatre and surveying the public on performance types. Advertisements began to appear in the program booklets. The troupe was thriving and began to shape meaning in both the community and the lives of Attic actors.

“Attic taught an audience how to use their imagination just as Shakespeare did with the Globe Theater,” says Attic alum Anne Glasner, who first performed in 1959. “Our audience became sophisticated and willing. They learned to walk through the Attic door and leave reality behind.”

The troupe began performing in the “experimental” theatre (the black box) at Lawrence’s new Music-Drama Center in 1959. During this time, audience numbers averaged about 1,500.

“We learned how to act with our backs and elbows, and by tilting our head and wiggling our ears,” says Gordon Cole. “More importantly, we learned to act with each other.”

Cole first auditioned for Attic in 1967 and went on to both perform and direct. From 1976-2001, he served as Attic’s treasurer, also spending time costuming, bookkeeping and serving on the board. “Attic is why I stayed in Appleton,” he admits. “I even ended up with a master’s in theater. It gave me a purpose.”

Fellow Attic alum Carl Wenzel remembers the butterflies he felt when he considered auditioning in 1959. He took up Zoe’s offer to tryout privately and, to his surprise, was casted. His first time on stage was haunting, but memorable. “I had a big speech to memorize and was so nervous I almost turned around and left,” he shares, smiling. “But I knew that if I left, I’d spoil the whole show.”

Wenzel went on to play many leads in Attic performances and today he serves on the board of directors. “It’s a life experience,” he says. “It’s the gathering of friends, and an expression of how we might see various life situations. It brought meaning to my life.”

Toddling Down Memory Lane

In 1961, Zoe decided to resign and a Lawrence graduate and then theater professor, Don Jones, returned to Appleton to take over her position. He directed the troupe’s first musical, “Anything Goes,” and by 1962, Jones was named managing director.

“Zoe wanted to have a Community Theater in which the community was involved,” Jones says. “We had doctors, dentists, bus drivers, housewives, widows and young people. It was a true cross section; everyone depended on everyone.”

An Attic alumnus and long-time Appleton resident, Karen Laws, started with the group as an usher in high school. For six years, she performed and worked on the crew. She played a dancer in “Anything Goes” and the lead role in “Gypsy.” She expresses tenderness towards Attic, having played an important role of her young adult life. “It was the first time in my life when adults treated me like a grown-up!” she reflects. “We all had a common purpose, we were all in together.”

Jones says that the relationships formed and programs produced at Attic detail the history of Appleton.

Other theater troupes throughout northeast Wisconsin have provided the same thespian thrill for their surrounding communities.

As the stage manager of the Oshkosh Community Players, Frank Tower believes that it’s the personal dynamics that make the dramas so bewitching. “You’re working with people where this is not necessarily their profession, leading one to think it won’t be at a very professional level,” he says. “But you find it’s exactly the opposite. We’re here to have fun but provide a high-quality production.”

The Oshkosh troupe dates back to the early 1940s, and like most Community Theater ensembles, it’s dependent on ticket sales, contributions and the goodwill of volunteers and performers.

The troupe will return to its original residence when the Grand Opera House reopens this fall.

More Than Just Shakespeare & Shaw

In 2005, Attic almost collapsed. “I think it was the perfect storm,” Jones reflects.

Lawrence University had scheduled renovations to take place that summer, threatening Attic to find a new venue. Money was tight from the previous season and there was a lack of leadership.

Living in Safety Harbor, FL, at the time, Jones offered to return to Appleton in an attempt to spark community interest again. He suggested that Attic perform a revival show, “The Fantasticks,” which the group had presented in 1967 under Jones’ direction. “I volunteered to come back and act in the show,” he remembers, noting he was the only “old-timer” in it. “It had been so successful for us the first time, I figured the group might be able to rebuild some reputation and put a little money in the bank.”

A Change is Going to Come

Fast forward to this year (five years post-Fantasticks), a big milestone for Attic. Moving from its performance home at Lawrence to the new Communications Art Center at UWFox Valley for its 60th season, the troupe is gaining momentum once again.

In fact, a few of the season performances will take place in the Lucia Baehman Theatre, an experimental venue. In the mid-1960s, Lucia performed with Attic.

Nearly 160 people auditioned for this season, and on June 10, Attic will turn over this new leaf with “Wonderland,” a quirky musical adapted from Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland.”

A comedy, “The Cemetery Club,” and a 1970s drama “The Drawer Boy,” will take the stage in July, and “Carousel” is set for August.

“Community Theater is like no other kind of organization,” says Glasner. “You can go to Rotary or Saturday book club, but in theater you are working with one another with all age groups and all types. It’s very uplifting.”

Community Theater encourages growth. Induces confidence. Hones a craft. Breeds creativity. “If you want to play the flute, you can,” Glasner starts. “If you want to paint, you can. If you want to act…”

“You need an audience, at least!” Cole concludes.

—By Alison Fiebig

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