The New York Times reported new National Endowment for the Arts chair Rocco Landesman is going to visit Peoria, IL to see what plays there. Peoria is my hometown. I was born there, and I moved to Canton, IL, which is about 30 minutes from Peoria, when I was 9 years old. At 12, I started working in community theatre in The Fulton County Playhouse. Just before I moved to New York City to study theatre, I had the honor of performing in Big River, Metropolis and Lucky Stiff, all produced at Eastlight Theatre in East Peoria, IL. Central Illinois theatre was integral to who I am.
It was at Eastlight I first had exposure to Actors Equity Association, performing with a guest actor from Chicago. It was at Eastlight I performed in a Midwest regional premiere of Metropolis. It was at Eastlight I decided to become a professional in the theatre. The opportunities I received at Eastlight and The Fulton County Playhouse taught me the essentials of what I do every day. I learned how to build sets, how to act, how to write, how to run sound (with lack of barking recordings, I found myself backstage “playing” the dog in Steel Magnolias), and how to work as a team.
When I read the original interview in the NY Times last week, I was put off. I didn’t say it out loud to anyone, but I was. I needed a few days to digest it. There’s always a stigma on community theatre. I get it. It’s for people working as doctors, lawyers, teachers, chiropractors, and IT techs that have decent voices, did theater in high school or college and still have the bug. It’s not professional, it’s not as good as Chicago theatre, and it’s certainly not Broadway. But, if one delves into the New York theatre scene, a vast majority of theatre artists trying to make it in this unforgiving business work as bartenders, waiters, temporary assistants, nannies, paralegals, and real estate agents. They are New Yorkers, pursuing careers in theatre, but they do other jobs to pay the rent. These artists return to regional theaters and grace them with their talents, inspiring young people to pursue insane lives as vagabonds, directors, raconteurs, clowns, actors, designers and artists. We’re all artists. We all matter. We’re just having different experiences.
The Peoria Players Theatre, Cornstock Theatre, and The Peoria Civic Center, which brings in professional national tours of plays and musicals like Broadway Bound with Zeljko Ivanek, (who’s career I’ve followed since I was in high school) and Cats (of course) are other wonderful Peoria theatres that inspired me through their productions and programming. I would be remiss in not mentioning them. Though I never worked for those theatres, many of my former colleagues did. They still invigorate the city of Peoria, IL. They produce plays from Broadway and Off Broadway, bringing New York playwrights to the Midwest. They encourage young people just starting off to passionately pursue this profession.
Fortunately, Kathy Chitwood, executive director at Eastlight, and Suzette Boulais, the executive director of ArtsPartners of Central Illinois had the tenacity to reach out to Mr. Landesman and challenge him. I’m very proud to know Kathy, and I wish her all the best when meeting with Mr. Landesman. From what I’ve heard he’s a tough nut, but he’s a fair one. Mr. Landesman said of Kathy and Ms. Boulais’ invitation to visit Peoria, “I think it’s something we’re all going to have good fun with. It’s great for the Peoria folks — having some attention. And we can make a statement about the N.E.A. — we do intend to be everywhere. I’m looking forward to it.”
Eastlight’s recent production of Rent is just closed, but if it’s like any of the shows they produced 15 years ago, it was professional and well acted. They include outstanding singers that bring the Heart of Illinois together to drink theatre in like an oasis in the desert. I’m happy to hear Mr. Landesman is visiting in early December when Eastlight presents its annual production of Joseph and the Amazing Technecolor Dreamcoat. It’s a fantastic representation of what they do.
There’s a reason for the old saying “Will it play in Peoria?” They’re cultured. And the only reason they are cultured is because its theatre companies bring plays like Albee’s The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? and Lindsay-Abair’s Rabbit Hole to their stages. When you see a mob of high school students craning their necks in Times Square, blocking the sidewalk because they are jazzed that they’re going to see Avenue Q or Hair on Broadway, it’s because of these fine artists living in Peoria and thousands of other smaller cities across America. They are our life blood. If we cease to support them, we cease to exist. It is very important Mr. Landesman understands this when he visits.
One more thing – I have to credit two other people when touting my current career path. Jim Carter and Ilene Carter are my parents, and without their encouragement and support as I worked my way through these estemed institutions (existing longer than most New York theatre companies) I would not be a playwright, producer and advocate of theatre in all its splendor. Thanks to them for all their support.