Marilyn McClain’s powers of persuasion are quite remarkable.
Just ask Cynthia Berg, artistic director of the Old Schoolhouse Players.
“Marilyn called me to ask me a question. I went over to talk to her to answer the question and never left,” Berg recalled with a chuckle.
That was 15 years or so ago.
And thanks to a dedicated bunch of actors, their families and volunteers – like Berg – the Old Schoolhouse Players are celebrating their 25th year of showcasing “Broadway in the Country” at the Bud Allison Memorial Auditorium in the Mt. Pleasant Township Community Center in Hickory.
McClain, 83, is among the co-founders of OSP, and believes one of the secrets of the group’s longevity is quite simple: They have a permanent home.
“Some other places have disbanded because they don’t have a home. We’re very fortunate. We have always had a place. The auditorium is ours,” McClain said. “We do pay rent. We get no tax money at all. Everything that’s keeping this going is the renters.”
But McClain conceded that along with a home comes the upkeep, which takes time and money. They are currently trying to replace the old wooden seats in the auditorium, which were bought secondhand and are starting to break down.
To help finance the project, OSP will hold a Valentine fundraiser at 7:30 p.m. Sunday in the theater. The evening will be filled with songs, skits, dancing and “old-fashioned fun.” Cost is $10 and includes a slice of cake and a beverage. Tickets will be sold at the door.
The Old Schoolhouse Players got their start at the urging of Bud Allison, for whom the auditorium is named, when he realized how much fun McClain and others were having while performing skits for the Hickory Lions Club.
“Bud said, ‘You guys are really enjoying this. We should start a theater group,’” McClain said. “We all had such a good time. I had done shows in high school, the ham that I am. I said I’ll ask some people.”
She had no trouble finding some kindred souls, such as Kathy Leadbitter, another OSP co-founder, who, ironically, had no acting experience, but figured she could at least paint scenery.
“I recently found myself at loose ends,” she said. “I had lost my husband, and my kids were grown. The next thing I knew, I was in a play. I think to myself, if I can do it, somebody who’s had no training, anybody can do it. Don’t be afraid to embrace it.”
Leadbitter said she particularly liked playing Golde in “Fiddler on the Roof” and Mother Superior in “Nunsense.”
“I had a little role at first, then it kept building and building until I enjoyed a couple of good roles,” said Leadbitter, who will reprise her role as Golde at the Valentine fundraiser.
“It’s almost like therapy. Acting lets you put all of your problems down over there and be somebody else for a while. I won’t say it’s easy, and it’s not. I told Cindy (Berg) one time, ‘I never worked so hard sometimes to have so much fun.’ I still get nervous. That’s a good thing, I think. If you’re not nervous, then you don’t care.”
What Berg enjoys most is the diversity of the cast and crew.
“We have people from all walks of life,” she said. “Where else can you work with a judge, truck driver and plumber? We all have one thing in common, and we share it with the community and each other.”
The group was christened Old Schoolhouse Players because they perform in the former Hickory Vocational High School, the predecessor to Fort Cherry High School. The building is owned by the community center, which, Leadbitter said, has treated the group extremely well.
“We’re very lucky that way,” Leadbitter said. “A lot of theater groups don’t even have a home. We’ve been really, really blessed. Whatever we’ve wanted to do, they’ve always been encouraging and helpful.”
Added McClain, “When we started, we didn’t have any money. The community center loaned us $250 for books. We did one or two shows a year, then built it up.”
Indeed, they did. Since those humble beginnings, OSP has presented 70 dramatic and musical productions, and they have never lost money on a show. This year, they will perform five comedies and/or musicals that are sure to please their audiences.
That is another reason the Old Schoolhouse Players have been so successful in producing quality community theater: The productions they select appeal to theatergoers of all ages – a lesson they learned from the very beginning.
“We have a certain audience, and that’s who you have to play to,” said McClain, whose favorite role was in “Arsenic and Old Lace,” which she’s performed twice with OSP.
“It’s not like the people in Pittsburgh. I could go listen to something. I may not think it’s funny, but I’m not a child. I can take it,” McClain said. “I remember Bud Allison, before we first started, said what do you think about some of the language? … Well, you could probably get away with hell or damn, but I don’t know if you could go any further than that.”
Added Leadbitter, “We pride ourselves in being family entertainment. We don’t like to use swear words. About the most risque thing we did was when Cindy (Berg) had to change from her pajamas into a dress on stage.”
McClain said they have found that their audiences don’t respond well to Shakespeare, either.
That’s why Berg spends a lot of time carefully choosing productions she believes will attract an appreciative audience.
“I kind of look at what is popular. What is it that people really enjoy seeing?” she said. “In these times, the bottom line is keep those seats filled.”
And Berg, who has a degree in theater from Point Park University and is a retired drama teacher at Canon-McMillan High School, has a knack for it.
“It’s my job to recognize what is the climate of our area and the clientele,” she said. “I am not going to do something what we call cutting edge, where you can’t bring anyone younger than 12, and you can’t bring grandma, either. I’ll kind of look at that, then start pulling things together that fit the bill.”
A committee of actors then meets and does play readings. They determine what kind of work force is needed and the size of the cast.
“During the winter months, it’s harder to get a lot of people together, and you have to be careful not to kill the worker bees,” said Berg, especially since actors also serve as ushers or sell tickets and refreshments when they aren’t performing in a production. “That’s the hard part: the behind-the-scenes work,” Leadbitter said. “It’s not just building the sets, it’s finding the money. I’ve got to admit, some years it’s been more fun that others.”
The elaborately designed sets also enhance the community theater experience for the audience. McClain recalls the brick wall Berg built for “A Gift to Remember” in December. Some people didn’t believe it wasn’t brick, and even went on stage at intermission to feel it.
“For ‘Man of La Mancha,’ the wall was made of stone,” McClain said. “For that reason, we still have a place.”
In fact, McClain has been told by several season ticket holders that they prefer watching shows in Hickory to those at the Benedum in Pittsburgh.
“We’re not professional, but we act professional pretty much,” McClain said. “People have said, ‘We cannot believe you can put on a show like this in a little town.”
Berg said her favorite set was “A Christmas Carol,” which was done to ‘Gloria.’ She had huge wings built, and flooded the stage with dry ice and purple lights.
“When the song ‘Gloria’ played, I heard the audience gasp. That was one of the most rewarding moments,” Berg said. “They see the vision, and feel something you hope they would feel. It felt like, ‘Wow, that was powerful.’
“When you make the audience feel sympathy or empathy for a character … When you hear the audience respond in a way, for that brief time you were the character you were playing, that’s what it’s about. We’re community theater, and we were able to do that.”