The Artists’ Ensemble,
With a fireside, radio, pipe and a pet; this is how I’ve imagined my country to be.
By Andrew Whorehall
By the time you read this the Artist Ensemble’s limited run encore performance of ‘Radio Gals will have ended and they’ll be preparing a run of their next play, Steve Martin’s The Underpants. You should know one fact about Artists’ Ensemble upfront, they are this region’s only resident professional theater group. Founded in 2004, AE is an Equity theater group that performs in the Cheek Theatre at Rockford College in northern Illinois.
Why is this important? Because not many people in Rockford, Illinois, specifically the youth around here, know much about professional live theater. Due to hard times, little ad dollars, or parents who are culturally inept, professional theater is starting to look like a long ago art form— much like printmaking. I’d hate to see it leave my community but there’ s a good chance it might if the youth don’t realize what it is and that it exists to enjoy and learn from.
Me? I still haven’t survived the loss of GAP at Cherryvale Mall, but the real nail in the coffin wasn’t Ingersoll Milliing going kaputs in the early 2000s, no, it was Hooter’s pulling their airline out of Rockford Airport (Fly RFD, no, I won’t. It’s just too pricey without the added benefits of tits and wings before I vomit somewhere after liftoff and touchdown.) The Artists’ Ensemble (AE) is very important to the cultural well-being of a mentally run down society. It’s important to know this now and for our city’s cultural future.
What makes a theater group professional? For one, some of their actors and stage managers belong to a union, many having majored in theater at a higher educational institution. Equity theater (Actors’ Equity Association or AEA) is the labor union that represents over 48,000 actors and stage managers in the United States. These are professional actors, not community activists and bored, stay at home moms with trust fund kids that call themselves actors or stage managers just to get out of the house. They’re provided the benefits you’d hope any union would offer their members, such as medical insurance and pension plans. As a professional actor you have other choices for union membership; the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) being one. Equity specializes with fostering and nurturing the production of live theater in communities, often serving as the negotiator on wages and working conditions.
In decades past New American Theater was a prized midwestern location outside of Chicago for Equity actors and stage managers looking for production work. Live professional theater once held a long residence at downtown Rockford’s defunct location, New American Theater, for many decades before being forced to find a new home. The financial fall of NAT occurred a few years after local business woman, Mary Beaver, was accused of criminal acts, theft at a company she worked for after being let go from NAT on behalf of certain things. Ms. Beaver worked at NAT till 2003 as a financial administrative officer, many dollars of debt had piled up during her employment. She moved onto a job at J.V. Pro Inc. where she was finally caught by law enforcement investigators. NAT never stated their reasons for letting her go amidst financial disparity, however they never survived the depths of the financial well she contributed putting them into while serving as a top financial officer at NAT.
I can fill in the blanks pretty easily. The law did too, but she got away clean at the end of it all for NAT. Can I assume she helped destroy a downtown treasure box for live theater that left many professional actors and stage managers out on a limb? Yes, I will assume that because it’s my American right until proven otherwise. How one person could destroy one of Rockford’s most necessary downtown creative and cultural outlets for live theater is just one of many reasons to doubt financial handlers inside most Rockford businesses; and based on the times, most Illinois businesses as well. The area has been an economic disaster for decades because professional idiots without proper math skills or valued, trusted job experience are running the show right into the ground. They’ve been doing it for decades with poor judgement and horrible decision-making skills. Meanwhile the middle class has become the upper lower class everywhere.
It’s a shame what happened to New American Theater, but it wasn’t over night. The same can be said for the entire Manufacturing Industry that used to provide the backbone to Rockford, IL’s once proud, middle class economy. Can I assume that someone like Beaver should be metaphorically stoned by all Rockford area professional creatives for igniting and contributing to the demise of a local downtown treasure many still miss? Yes, again, I can assume that. The facts are this: she finally got caught, but not at NAT. You can read about it at the RRStar online by clicking here. There’s not much, of course, the sandwich minus the meat is the RRStar’s editable specialty.
For every professional actor and stage manager that had to suffer the mathematical errors and poor judgement of another selfish, greedy professional that helped dress up downtown Rockford into the ghost land it’s become, let me offer this statement on your behalves; F*ck beaver. That’s right, with hot sauce and a prophylactic please.
Rockford College stepped in, in 2004, offering their facilities as home base to the Artists’ Ensemble season productions. As of this date, that could be jeopardized next season or the season after due to Rockford College’s own ongoing financial problems that have been building for quite some time. I doubt I can assume blame on any one idiot for their problems yet, however, let’s simply blame years of poor location and tuition cost. It’d be a shame to watch Artists’ Ensemble scramble to find another home leaving many local professional actors and stage managers in another state of wonder and disarray. It’s one of the few and only seasonal, cultural, community events to enjoy without having to go to a bar or a movie theater. It’s rare if the Metro Centre or the Coronado actually brings an event I care about anymore once every 2 years. I enjoy wrestling, monster truck races, and the symphony like anyone can pretend to— but only if it’s free. There’s so much more that could be done with each venue that’s never been done. Those in charge need to be questioned at some point before the homeless make each a warm bed to call their new homes.
The beauty of live theater is this for me; there aren’t drunks talking the ears off and breathing bacteria towards my mouth, nose, etc. I can sit, laugh, think, be quiet with a respectable audience and not have to deal with a special handicapped set of social anxieties that come from being in a Rockford bar. Movie theaters can’t be trusted here either. People throw candy at the screen, take cell phone calls, their dirty children can’t keep their mouths shut plus there’s an always present potential of lice living in the theater seat head rests. Movie theaters stink like 2 day old wet socks. Beyond tolerable.
When the lights go down and up again with live theater, you’re there, you’re in the performance with everyone else as a witness and audience participant. Sometimes it encourages laughs and a few times I’ve been able to accidently slip a nap in. There is nothing better than dozing off in a room filled with other people who may or may not know you just couldn’t stay awake in their presence. Like a quiet middle finger, I always imagine being in high school again, surrounded by people I just don’t want to know or really care about. A lil’ nigh’ night in broad daylight while in public is good for everyone’s soul once in a awhile.
Which brings us to Radio Gals. This past winter I attended a seasonal revue for AE at Rockford College. Little performance skits introducing the production season’s 2010-2011 lineup of performances while they finish up the 2009-2010 lineup. I witnessed great previews at the time for Italian American Reconciliation, Moon Over The Brewery, and Steve Martin’s Underpants, amongst others that my memory fails on. The one that stayed with me the most was Radio Gals. Not for good reasons either, I fell asleep. The skit was longer than the others and I wasn’t in the mood for a musical performance out of actors, or musicians for that matter. I clonked out. At the time, it appeared as if they were only reminding people to come see it again this July 2010 on a brief run being it was their most successful 2009 season performance. Elderly people love Radio Gals is what intuition was telling me. I love elders but I need to be prepared and healthy for a dark room filled with them. Having caught a whiff of that thought, I assumed at the time, Who cares, zzzzzzzzz.
This year I’ve been fortunate enough to see, Jeeves in Bloom, written by AE’s Margaret Rather; filled with british humor, accents, great performances and very funny. Italian American Reconciliation, by John Patrick Shanley, featuring well casted, scripted moments shared by actors, Katie Maringer and Lance Retallick. The latter practically carrying the entire production. He is an amazing midwest actor to witness working the audience with phonetic precision. I greatly look forward to his next play with AE whenever that is.
Overall, I’ve never seen a dud play between NAT to AE’s productions over the years, many of them carrying and sharing the same midwest professional talent. Credit director, Richard Raether, for knowing his actors and which scripts / stories to cast them into. Richard is a local saint/artist. It’s already hard making a buck producing anything in Rockford, IL, so it can not be easy producing live professional theater in Rockford, IL. Especially when every mom and pops’ shop is closing. Even something as simple as finding an ice cream cone in this town without having to go to McDonald’s has become such a stressfull weekend challenge for residents like me.
Yawning, I agreed to go to Radio Gals a few days ago. I did not look forward to this play, a musical. For all I knew it was a play that took place in my sleep with 3-5 part harmonies. It’s a phenomena I’ve never grown to understand as a man in this world, to love music (all genres) but not musicals. That is, til seeing Radio Gals in its entirety, funny enough. Old time, folk, Americana performances on an upright piano and swinging violin matched by an occasional ukulele and a snare drum carrying the bulk of a two act pre-President Hoover-era soundtrack. Tim Anderson’s musical direction, piano playing and acting along with local violinist, Rachel Handlin, are a joy to listen to and watch, serving the ensemble from the background and holding down the pace. The harmonies are the lead act here, often 3-5 parts in perfect pitch and rhythm. Occasionally 7 sing at once reenacting a radio play put on in the living room of Hazel Hunt’s living room from Cedar Ridge, Arkansas during the late 1920s. An old General Western 500w Radio Transmitter and 2 mics serve as their ‘pirate ship’ electrical engine. Actor, Steve Vrtol, plays O.B. Abbott, sent by Mr. Hoover to investigate their pirate radio production and prohibition era promoting products. Without giving it all away, ‘Abbot’ discovers he has a lot more talent to share with people than being a revenue investigator for the honorable, future president, Mr. Hoover.
The set is a place I’d live in, my perfect America, old radio, chimney, piano and various instruments laying around for the learning and the playing. Besides each member’s performance and ability to convey 1920s America in the music, Steve Burnside’s set design and Pat Staaf’s props are the real stars here, offering the audience a place to escape to; to remember what America used to be about before technology took over while providing the cast a playground to perform fluidly within. Jodi Beach, local musician, shines in beautiful, childlike ways on Dear Mr. Gershwin, while Patte Armato Lund destroys air with A Gal’s Got To Do What A Gal’s Got To Do. These solos offer focal points stripped from the powerful group harmonies that weave the majority of the production and performance together.
Steve Vrtol’s solo take as O.B. Abbot steals the show with, A Fireside, a Pipe, and a Pet. I’ve seen Vrtol in many plays over the years, most recently as the French chef in the British flavored, Jeeves, and a few years ago in Art at NAT. He’s always memorable; watching Vrtol on the accordion, ukulele, singing and acting, while convincing the audience without even trying that he is one of the region’s great artistic talents. To act is one thing, to perform music while acting is a tightrope act reserved for the artistically gifted. This can be said of all involved with Radio Gals. Instead of being deep in a nap on a Saturday afternoon, I imagined being on the other end of a radio somewhere in America, late 1920s, tuning into WGAL. What a beautiful, innocent country it must have been like then.
If only for 2 hours, what a great escape, Rockford, IL. Do not let the Artists’ Ensemble go the way of manufacturing.
dD | andywhorehall.com