Kari Catton dishes out enthusiasm for the Theatre in the Park, the amphitheatre at Lincoln's New Salem State Historic Site near Petersburg. "It's magic," says the jovial executive director.
The outdoor theater, nestled in a scenic pocket of the park, is steeped in history. The drama began in 1918 with The Old Salem Lincoln League's three-hour pageant on two consecutive nights in the grass-carpeted natural hollow, Catton said. A cast of 300 re-enacted Lincoln's life between allegorical tableaus with a three-piece orchestra for some 2,000-3,000 people. In 1936, following work on the site by the Civilian Conservation Corps, Petersburg's centennial was staged at "Kelso Hollow" with Central Illinois Public Serivce donated power lines and lights (most still in use but needing replacement). The site would undergo renovation and see the addition of an indoor theater during the 1970s.
"It is my job to maintain the integrity that has existed at New Salem for 91 years," explains Catton, who as part of a new management team that took over Theatre in the Park in 2003 and created a non-profit organization.
Catton became the organization's leader in 2008. By day, she runs an association management business and is no stranger to theater. She studied it in college, spent years volunteering with Springfield Theatre Centre, writes and directs shows, teaches fundamentals of theater at Springfield College-Benedictine University and runs Wild Loon Productions.
"Theatre in the Park produces live entertainment every weekend, all summer long ... to offer an escape from reality just for two hours and offer a pleasant performance," Catton explains.
Some 11,000 patrons annually experience this community theater's mix of drama, golden age and modern musicals, and more.
"We're not known for song and dance. We're known for our story. Our responsibility is to cover various genres of entertainment, and education is a priority as we put together an upcoming season. ... My rewards are the smiles on their faces as they exit the theatre, go up to their cars and drive back into their own lives."
This season dedicates many productions to the spirit of Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War era and others dedicated to Illinois and Illinois playwrights and composers. A highlight is "Forever This Land," originally commissioned by Gov. Adlai Stevenson and performed more than 100 times during 1951-52, reintroduced this year's Fourth of July weekend.
Catton recalls: "Last fall, Don Bailey (the show's director) came to me and asked if we could find the rights to produce the 1951-1952 script of "Forever This Land." He had a script, for as a young man Don served as assistant to the playwright, Kermit Hunter. Phone calls took me from Petersburg to New York, to Texas, to North Carolina, and speaking to original performers in the production, to the widow of the playwright to the association for Outdoor Theatre.
"We obtained the rights, the script and received a handful of original music that had scribbling in the margins from the original producers 58 years ago. We all gazed at the music in amazement and wonder ... The music had to be re-worked in a composition that would be readable by the present day actors. Don Stephens took the music and set it in a computer program. Now we have a manageable score that can be utilized by the music director, the vocal director, actors and musicians."
Catton thrives on experiences like this.
"I absolutely love the challenge. It is magic to me ... on the opening night of a show to see the lights come up, the music begin, and the actors enter to present the play," she says. "I can't help but recall all the hours given by these talented and gifted people that culminate in this moment ..." Added to the experience are the preshow in the indoor theater and the outdoor preshow entertainment. "You see the excitement of hummingbirds and of tree frogs talking back and forth."
The community deserves credit for the 535-seat theater's success, Catton says.
"They truly love this hallowed ground. They respect the history of the village, the area, and its memory. It's a beautiful setting to create live theater on an unusual stage. It's a beautiful venue and historical to boot. If you've never been out here, you should."
Story published Friday, July 3, 2009 ( Volume 4, Number 4 )