Tuesday, July 24, 2012

"Gladstone Theatre in the Park Celebrates 25 Years" by Jamie Lin

This article is from the June 2012 issue of KC Stage

This summer marks the 25th season of Gladstone Theatre in the Park, the only community theatre in the Northland. In 1988, Van and Susie Ibsen of Ibsen Dance Theatre decided that their community needed local opportunities to participate in theatre so that they wouldn’t have to drive so far south. They wrote a letter to the City of Gladstone and proposed doing one show in Oak Grove Park (Ibsen Dance Theatre would provide all the sets, lights, sound, scripts, etc. and the city would provide the electricity, the park, and the parking) to see if the community would support a summer theatre program. The city agreed and GTIP put on its first production, Oliver, with almost 50 people in the cast and over 800 audience members for each of the three performances. Sheila Lillis, head of Parks and Recreation, loved the response and proposed doing summer theatre in the park to the mayor and the city council. It was unanimously accepted. From 1988 to the present, GTIP has produced two musicals every summer with casts ranging from 50 to 130 people and the audience usually averaging around 3,000 to 3,500 each night.

It seemed that the Ibsens had found a recipe for success: family friendly musicals with large casts and free admission for all. This formula enabled thousands of people in the Northland to be a part of the theatre scene that was previously out of their reach. With the efforts and donations of the community and local businesses, Gladstone Theatre in the Park was able to build a permanent structure in Oak Grove Park in 1995 so that they no longer had to build a stage from scratch every summer. In 2001, however, it was tragically burned to the ground in an act of arson on July 15, Van Ibsen’s birthday. The community was devastated by the loss but rather than canceling Lil’ Abner, which was in its second week of rehearsal at the time, they gave new meaning to the phrase “the show must go on”. “We had more volunteers than I have ever seen come to our assistance,” Van said. “We cleared away the old stage, cleaned the concrete platform and built the set in one weekend with the assistance of people from almost every theatre in town including Shawnee Mission Theatre in the Park, Quality Hill Playhouse, Missouri Rep, River City Players, and so many more that I can’t remember! We opened on time with a wonderful production and with great audience support.” A new structure has since been built and there have been no further incidences of arson or vandalism.

In the face of a crisis, the community rose up to help GTIP have a successful season, but they don’t just show up in times of tragedy. The Ibsens have a team of five advisors that help them keep things running on a day to day basis: Becky Clark, Michelle Coon, Julie Crawford, Lennette Johnson, and Jennifer Kessler. The advisory board is on a 2 to 3 year rotating membership and is responsible for selecting the shows and the directors of both musicals every summer. They also make sure the operation is well organized with every person, staff member, volunteer, deadline, and future growth accounted for. GTIP also has an operation manual that the board follows and updates each year using the feedback from the major participates and volunteers. Gladstone Theatre in the Park is a well-oiled machine and that is why they have been able to be so successful for 25 years.

Because the shows are so popular and so many patrons show up early to save themselves seats, they have even devised a system to ensure that the blankets and chairs don’t damage the grass. This long standing tradition is known as “the blanket run”. At 3 pm on show days, hundreds of excited audience members line up at the edge of the seating area and wait for a whistle to blow. Once they hear the whistle, they rush to beat each other to the piece of grass with the best view of the stage. You can watch a video of a blanket run on their website.

Any theatre company that can generate that much excitement year after year, show after show, must be doing something right. Susie Ibsen attributed much of the success to the actors that audition year after year. “The level of talent continues to grow. We have many performers who have gone on to perform professionally.” Among those performers are well known names such as Lauren Braton, often seen at the American Heartland Theatre and Musical Theatre Heritage, Robert Erik Sobbe, fresh off his starring role in Egads! Theatre Company’s Zombie Prom, and Brian Shortess, another Eubank favorite and commercial actor.

Not only do they put on phenomenal shows that lead to successful acting careers, they are bringing families closer together. For example, three generations of Ibsens are involved in shows on a regular basis. “This theatre gives me the opportunity to work with my wife Susie, my daughter Cameo, and my grandchildren, Evan, Noah, and Roxy on musicals and meet so many different people that also love doing theatre,” said Van. Becky Clark, one of the advisory board members, also mentioned the effect GTIP has on her family. “[I hope] it continues to be a vibrant, full-fledged community theater, supported by the city and its citizens so we can all enjoy performing, viewing and participating in any way we can — now my grandkids come to see and enjoy the shows — the tradition lives on!”

Gladstone Theatre in the Park would like to invite you to join them in celebrating their 25th year. The official party, aptly themed “It’s a Family Reunion”, will be held on August 4 from 5 pm to 8 pm. There will be lots of family friendly activities, a performance from the North Star Community Band, and a ceremony celebrating the Ibsens and all of those who have ever been involved in a show. All former cast and crew members are encouraged to attend so that they can be recognized. Even if you can’t make it to the party, be sure to catch a performance of each of the two shows scheduled to be performed. Hello, Dolly! directed by Jennifer Kessler, can be seen on July 6, 7, and 8 and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat, directed by Danielle Trebus, on August 3, 4, and 5. All performances begin at 8:30 pm with free general admission. Audience members are asked to bring their own blankets or chairs to sit on which, of course, cannot be placed before the blanket run at 3 pm. Anyone wishing to volunteer is encouraged to contact Sheila Lillis at the City of Gladstone or the advisory board via www.gladstonetip.com.

Jamie Lin is a local actress and an avid collector of all things Beauty and the Beast.

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