Tiny Missouri town gambling on 'A Christmas Carol'

Written by Muleskinner Staff

The Kansas City Star

(ARROW ROCK, Mo., AP) — Thespians who arrive here to perform at the Lyceum Theatre know they’re not in New York City anymore when they pass the road sign that says, “Arrow Rock. Pop. 56.”
For decades, the Lyceum has been a summertime destination for actors, technical crews and theatergoers drawn to the most pastoral of arts venues. In wintry weather, however, the 400-plus-seat theater and historic village surrounding it settle into a fairly deep hibernation.
But this holiday season, the Lyceum is launching what townspeople hope will be an annual tradition, staging Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.”
Opening night was Friday.
Goose, mashed turnips and plum pudding are the fare for now at Catalpa, Liz Huff’s little restaurant.
Residents and shopkeepers have placed candles in the windows and hung fresh-cut wreaths everywhere. And for the first time in the Lyceum’s 54-year history, visitors by the hundreds are traveling the two-lane blacktops that lead to Arrow Rock — 95 miles east of Kansas City — for a Yuletide production, The Kansas City Star reported (http://bit.ly/1w9UzzQ).
“You walk around and see mid-19th-century architecture all over the place,” said producing artistic director Quin Gresham. “It’s where Dickens ought to be.”
What seems like a tourism no-brainer has been a long time coming, which speaks to the risks and challenges that go with an out-of-the-way town committed to serving up professional theater.
There are performers and technicians to house, sets to build, sponsors to sway, two rigorous weeks of rehearsal — all of which could wind up lost beneath the snows that bury central Missouri this time of year.
Sedalia businessman Rob Lamm nonetheless wrote a five-figure check to help move plans along.
“I’m a big fan of Christmas,” said Lamm, chief executive of a consulting firm called LammTech and a Lyceum board vice president. “I may be nostalgic or whatever, but I think back to small towns and sleighs and kids doing snowball fights. Nowadays, people spend the holidays lining up for the big blockbuster movie coming out.
“Maybe mid-Missouri could use something like this.”
The run ends Dec. 21.
The artistic reach of the Lyceum — a former church at the edge of the Big Muddy National Fish and Wildlife Refuge — might surprise.
Its 2014 season drew more than 10,000 audition requests, many from off-Broadway actors willing to spend December amid the cows and cut-down cornfields of Saline County.
Gresham traveled to New York in March and spent two weeks evaluating some 400 auditioners in a dance studio.
Cast members picked to perform in Arrow Rock don’t always take to the surroundings. At least not at first.
“Some will panic,” said Gresham, “particularly if they’re accustomed to the chaos of New York. The silence here is deafening.”
Many others, after a while, can’t seem to get enough of the village and its community of artists. (The recorded population of 56 does not include weekend escapists who own second homes here.) Founded in 1829, Arrow Rock is designated a National Historic Landmark.
Timothy Shew’s acting credits include 10 Broadway shows and more than 1,700 performances as Jean Valjean in “Les Miserables.” He got his start 35 years ago at the Lyceum and recently bought a house he has long admired in town.
“My wife, Jane, and I met here 22 years ago” while both performed in “Brigadoon,” Shew said. A son from an earlier marriage “basically grew up here over the last 35 summers” and pursued his own career in theater.
Shew flew in from New York to play the Ghost of Christmas Present.
Taking on Ebenezer Scrooge is Ron Wisniski, “a committed actor capable of playing a monster,” said Gresham. He wanted Wisniski from the start. His career spans more than three decades and 150 plays around the country, including a half dozen shows at the Lyceum.
“We have the Lyceum all-star team coming in for this,” said resident scenic designer Ryan Zirngibl. “Everyone really wants to be a part of it . like our own family Christmas.”
Never mind that cellphone reception is iffy. And there’s nowhere to grab a burger and beer without driving several rolling miles into the town of Blackwater.
The fact is many who gravitate to the theater do come from rural places and value the peace and solitude.
“This is Eden,” Zirngibl said.
Even so, a tiny-town theater with a $1.2 million annual budget can’t splurge. The local postmaster, Tempe McGlaughlin, will contribute to a mostly volunteer ensemble cast, along with children from the region.
Six-year-old Cooper Rainwater of Columbia plays Tiny Tim, which is convenient because his mother is the choreographer.
It also helps that Dickens penned “A Christmas Carol” in 1843.
“No royalties involved, which is one reason a lot of theater groups do it,” said Steve Bertani, the Lyceum’s managing director. “And actors tend to be available in December.”
Cast and crew members brought into Missouri stay at the theater’s 24-room dormitory on the west edge of Arrow Rock. It’s a two-story building with all the charm of a Super 8, but sufficient. The tenants take turns driving a Ford Windstar, which they reserve on a sign-up sheet hanging in a common area.
For the past several days, they have often been the only people out on the streets as they walk to rehearsals in a one-room brick building that once was the schoolhouse.
The local shops and bed-and-breakfasts that thrive in summer typically sit silent, many closed, after leaves fall from the trees.
Those establishments are happy to be back in business.
“This is huge for us,” said Kathy Borgman, executive director of Friends of Arrow Rock. “Our only industry is our visitors, and the theater is Arrow Rock’s economic engine.”
If the show is a hit — more than 3,000 tickets already have been sold — the vintage boardwalk of shops will be bustling as they are in summer. From June to September, the Lyceum managed to stage eight productions with just a week between each run. Supporters renovated the lobby too, which long ago was the church sanctuary.
When the group tours roll in, activity erupts at The Hodgepodge, where Judi and Lou Hodges sell gifts and Lou’s hand-built cabinets and dressers. So many patrons at times, said Judi Hodges, “you can’t stir them with a stick.”
Said Gresham of the Lyceum: “It is a little miracle, the nucleus this place has become,” which he credited to an infrastructure of theater enthusiasts and financial supporters dating to the early 1960s.
“Anymore I don’t think you can start something like this from scratch,” he said. There’s just too much risk for most little communities to sustain.
And believe it, this effort at starting a Christmastime tradition is risky.
A snowstorm could keep hundreds of tourists away, next week or next year, Borgman said: “It’s a psychological deal” for people in Columbia and Kansas City to avoid venturing into the boonies when white stuff is on the ground.
“I’m taking a leap of faith,” said restaurateur Huff, who can imagine getting stuck with a pile of turnips and goose breasts. “If weather strikes, I’m eating ramen noodles in January.”
Information from: The Kansas City Star, http://www.kcstar.com.