On a Monday evening in the Draper Historic Theatre's lobby, more than an hour before the play begins, the smell of popcorn begins to fill the room. One after another, the actors arrive. Some wear makeup. Most are still in their street clothes.
It is a typical night at a typical community theater. A couple of the child actors are already in costume and are laughing as they trot up and down the dimly lit aisles. This production, "Singing in the Rain," calls for them to wear knickers and newsboy caps, and they appear to be frolicking carefully, so as not to lose their caps or smear their makeup.
The producer, Daidreann Wardle, stands behind the candy counter, her laptop computer flipped open. Wardle has a spare minute and she's decided to check her list to see which actors haven't returned their scripts. The production is nearing the end of its run. It's time for Wardle to mail the rented scripts back to the theatrical agency.
Earlier in the run, Wardle sewed a ripped costume, balanced the books and ran the lights. To be a producer means to know the entire operation, she says. This is Wardle's first time producing. She took the job because her husband and son love acting, and she wanted to spend time with them.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the counter, the director, Melanie Kieffer, talks on her cell phone, trying to track down a couple of actors who haven't shown up. A preschooler with a round face appears and wraps her arms around Kieffer's leg. She announces, "I have to go potty." Kieffer and the child, who turns out to be her niece, head toward the ladies room.
Next a woman named Vanessa Nelson comes in looking for a door. That's right, a door. Nelson used to own this theater, before it became a nonprofit, and she is still on the board of directors and also on the board of the Draper Arts Council. She's looking for a piece of scenery to loan to some other organization. Kieffer searches backstage, in vain, then hurries onto the stage to talk to a costumed actor who is setting up props for the first scene. It turns out he knows the location of the door.
At the same time, in the women's dressing room, one young actress applies rouge while she chats about her recent date, a guy who happens to be the brother of another actress. All the while, Chloe Wood, the high school senior who stars in the production, curls her hair and wishes aloud that her sister hadn't been too busy tonight to help her with the crimping iron.
Sitting on the floor in front of the mirror, Michele Rideout slathers her face with some gray-beige goop, explaining this is the stuff you put on when you are 40 and need to look 25. But it's also the stuff you put on when you are a teenager actress wanting a base on which to draw wrinkles so you can play a granny.
When a fellow actress discovers, "I totally left my lashes at work," Rideout responds, "Guess what? I have four pair." She pulls out a brand new box of false eyelashes.
If you ask the actors what they love about community theater, they'll talk about camaraderie. They'll describe the moments of chaos and fun of making art together when no one's paid and everyone is willing to help out any way they can.
As for Justin Lafeen, the first time he acted at the Draper Historic Theatre, he was also working on his MBA. Lafeen decided to help out by drawing up a business plan for this little stage company. Now he's the acting head of the board of directors, and you can find him at the theater tonight willing to talk about the place.
Community theaters do so much for the community, Lafeen notes. They can draw together the generations, offering roles to young and old and presenting inexpensive entertainment for the whole family.
But community theaters never have enough money. And creative people dream big. Someone has to strike a balance between artistry and a viable business, Lafeen says. At any rate, the Draper Theatre's board of directors accepted many of his suggestions.
Lafeen suggested a binder for each job, with written descriptions of the duties. When you need a question answered and you want to know who to talk to, a more formal hierarchy saves time, Lafeen points out.
Eventually, the theater company also reduced the size of its board of directors. As Lafeen explains, when he first came to the Draper Theatre, there were 35 people on the board, which was every interested person in town. When those 35 people burned out, you'd have no one left to call.
Right now, Lafeen says, the theater is in the black. They never spend more than $8,000 or $9,000 per production.
Kieffer says keeping to the budget for "Singing in the Rain" was an extreme technical challenge. If they'd had a little more money, they might have come up with some special effects that looked like rain.
As it was, they projected drizzle-like flashes onto a screen. When it was time for the actor to dance in it, the rain disappeared. Kieffer says they often have to count on audience members being able to use their imaginations.
Luckily, many generations of Draper residents have enjoyed using their imaginations.
The Draper Theatre was built in 1938 as a movie theater. Bert Howell was the owner and, according to family histories of several local theatergoers, the first movie shown there was "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer." Several owners later, in 1951, the building burned. The newspaper carried pictures of the interior, destroyed except for rows of metal posts on which the seats had been fastened.
By 1952, however, the theater was rebuilt and was owned by Frank and Louise Pollard. They charged admission prices of 60 cents for adults and 25 cents for kids.
Nelson and her husband, Charles, bought the place in 1988 and continued to show movies even as they expanded the stage and began planning for live theater. By 1991, they were alternating movies with plays. When Larry Miller built his megaplex in the south end of the valley, Nelson recalls, four small-town movie theaters folded. Theirs couldn't draw more than handful to a movie.
Still, folks kept coming to the plays. Eleven years ago, Nelson hit upon the idea of a children's musical review. Since then "Broadway Kidz" has drawn hundreds for auditions, and every year it is the theater's most popular and lucrative production.
In fact, the female lead in tonight's production, Woods, has been in 17 productions at the Draper Historic Theatre, including nine of "Broadway Kidz." As you listen to her talking with her friends in the dressing room, you realize she's been offered college scholarships in theater at several universities.
Nelson says several well-known local actors have launched their careers at the Draper Historical Theatre. And Kieffer is proud of the skill of Wood and the other leads. But she's also excited about two people who were performing for the first time in that evening's show.
"They are having a great time," Kieffer says.She may have a master's degree in arts administration, but Kieffer hopes she hasn't lost sight of the purpose of community theater. She says community theater is supposed to provide excitement and challenges but, above all, fun for everyone involved.