For One Small Town, the Curtain Rises

[imgbelt img=Paula+Helle.jpg]Can a home-grown theater help keep a village relevant and looking toward the future? The proof may be in the line of cars parked outside the Opera House in Ellisville, Illinois, on performance day.


Forgottonia barn in the west central part of the state, the town’s population sits at an estimated at 95. In 2000, the population was 87. That’s approximately a 9% increase in a decade.

How does a relatively isolated village on a county road actually grow? Here’s part of the story from an occasional visitor who goes through Ellisville on the way to Peoria or while driving the back roads of the area.

Imagine a long, straight road heading downhill through farm fields. As the road levels out in the Spoon River Valley, the speed limit drops with no warning, and then you are in the middle of a group of old buildings. The stop sign forces you to pause in the center of the village, a good thing, because these are lovely store fronts from the 1800s that are being stabilized and restored by the Historic Ellisville Restoration Organization (HERO).

So, what’s the attraction on this Sunday afternoon? The Spoon River Rascals, a youth theater group, are doing Oklahoma! in the historic Opera House. We don’t know what to expect.

The streets are full of parked cars. The Opera House entrance is not in front, but far down the side of the building. A set of long, worn, wooded stairs leads to the second story theater space above a small shop. As we walk up, the smell of popcorn is tantalizing.

Inside, the theater is old style, a large room with iron pillars down the middle, a large cast-iron stove up front and a narrow proscenium. Seats are old (and hard) bentwood chairs. There are perhaps 150 guests in the mostly filled house. A hand-painted set by volunteer Kea Runyan that is simple but beautifully done to match the perspective of the small stage.

The lights come up and a voice rises from the back of the house. “Oh what a beautiful morning! … ” Oh, what a beautiful voice. If Curly’s singing (Ryan Spangler, 18) is any sample of what’s to come, this show is going to be a treat.

And so it is. Kaity Spangler, 17, plays Ado Annie. Her rendition of “I Cain’t Say No” is a show stopper. When Brittany Chatterton, 18, sings as Laurie Williams, it is breathtaking.

Fast forward to October. It’s time for the Jr. Spoon River Rascals to perform the “Rascals Radio Hour,” with performers aged 4 to 13. The program, on “WSRR,” opens with an 11-year-old “local celebrity,” complete with fedora and necktie, introducing the show, which includes old commercials, big-band era music, a tribute to the WLS/WGN Barn Dance (1924-1968), and an audience sing along. “A Tisket, A Tasket,” sung by a 7-year-old girl, showed spunk and humor. “Buttons and Bows,” sung by a 10-year-old, had polish beyond the singer’s young age.

[imgcontainer left] [img:Paula+Helle.jpg] [source]Photo by FarmProgress

Paula Helle, director of the Spoon River Rascals, gives the group a pep talk before they go on stage. Helle formed the Rascals in 2003 as an elementary school troupe and later expanded it to include older students.

Directing young singers and actors takes a certain type of person who is capable of focusing high energy and drawing out and developing talent. Paula Helle lives in Ellisville and teaches music at Galesburg High School, 30 miles away. She is the chief organizer who makes it all work, with significant assistance from volunteers around the area who help with sound, costumes, props, lighting, carpentry, painting, promotion, concessions and all of the other things needed to put on a stage production.

Helle’s motivation for this work, which is taxing and time consuming, comes from her evident passion and two other sources. First, her great grandfather helped build the Opera House as an Odd Fellows Hall. The Opera House used to be a place of “fine times,” according to Helle’s grandmother. For Helle, the theater is a connection across generations.

Second, Helle wants to give the kids an opportunity to perform and learn. She recognizes that area schools have limited resources. The talented youth are out there: 27 of them for “Rascals Radio Hour” and 17 for Oklahoma! Now, she has the energy and drive to bring them together to do wondrous, magical theatre.

Karas Hall

Ellisville’s Main Street is lined with historic buildings like these, which the Historic Ellisville Restoration Organization is working to save and refurbish.

Timothy Collins is assistant director for research, policy, outreach, and sustainability at the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. Opinions expressed here are his and his alone.