The curtain is opening on a whole new approach to community theatre in Rockford, with the debut of the Rogue River Community Theatre Company (RRCTC).
“The nonprofit corporation, formed this summer, is taking local theatre to a higher level of professionalism and community engagement,” said President and Chief Executive Officer Kenneth Homrich, head of an 11-member board overseeing the new group.
“We’ve enjoyed tremendous support over the years and I am confident this change will improve local theatre and ensure it’s around for many years to come,” Homrich said. “We are building on a foundation of success and integrity established more than a decade ago.”
The Rogue River Community Theatre Company will be led by a board of directors, including a four-member executive board consisting of Homrich, Vice President Mike Jonkman, Treasurer Stephanie Gamble and Secretary Shannon Rop.
Board directors are John Bagin, Kirsten Bagin, PJ Bevelacqua, John Hogan, Tracy Strome and Brian Thomas. The 11-member board is rounded out by Director of Theatre Patricia Rose.
“Having this level of the performing arts in Rockford is a real community treasure,” said Jonkman. “Everyone in the Rockford area should take advantage of this unique asset.”
Rogue River Theatre started in the late 1990s as a fledging group of Rockford residents offering stage productions once or twice a year. Beyond traditional spring and fall plays, the all-volunteer cast expanded its mission to include Reader’s Theatre productions for adults and Actors del Arte’ Ensemble, which performs dinner theatres in the Grand Rapids area. The three ensembles collectively present about eight productions a year.
In 2003, Rogue River Theatre launched an annual Summer Theatre Arts Camp for school-age children grades K-12. This year’s weeklong summer camp had 62 participants.
The theatre group has been under the umbrella of the Rockford Area Arts Commission (RAAC) and in recent years has been a key contributor to its annual income.
“We don’t look at it as a defection, but a cause to celebrate,” said RAAC Chairman Jeff Lewis. “We’re ecstatic to have community members who are excited to take the helm and expand the arts one audience member or one actor at a time.”
RAAC was founded in 1975 to encourage and sponsor programs and services promoting the arts and cultural activities in Rockford, in part to coincide with the nation’s bicentennial. Signature events include Art in the Park and Taste of Rockford.
The theatre group built its own following with popular plays and met its expenses, so the bid for independence was the next logical step.
He noted that the hugely popular Festival of the Arts in Grand Rapids got its start in 1969 under the umbrella of the Arts Council of Greater Grand Rapids. Festival struck out on its own as a nonprofit group in 2002.
Indeed, the Arts Council of Greater Grand Rapids, established in 1967, last November voted to dissolve after deciding its original mission to support community-based arts organizations had been accomplished.
“Now we can turn our attention to helping and starting other groups like a children’s choir,” Lewis said.
Although the new group will no longer be part of RAAC, the symbiotic relationship will continue, Lewis and Homrich agree.
“We will continue to support RAAC and all the work it does for Rockford and they will continue to support us,” Homrich said.
Much of the theatre group’s success can be attributed to the work of long-time director Patricia Rose, who for years has written and directed plays, sold t-shirts and coordinated construction of props for myriad productions.
The theatre group was mothballed for about a year until Rose arrived in 2001 and took over productions. Under the new organization, she has the title of director of theatre.
Rose has written an array of plays on topics ranging from the life of Jesus Christ to mobsters and bootleggers in New York City.
“We always try to present a variety of material so our productions stay fresh,” Rose said. “We typically present a drama in the fall and a comedy in the spring. Audiences like the variety.”
The work, she said, is daunting. “Before we take the stage, we’ve already had practices twice a week for nearly two months,” Rose said. “Coordinating the publicity, ticket sales, props, costumes and so on is exhaustive, but a labor of love.”
As director of theatre, Rose, herself a seasoned stage actress, dancer and mime, is responsible for writing and directing the twice-a-year stage productions and presentations by Reader’s Theatre. She also coordinates the annual summer camp.
On September 5 RRCTC is holding auditions from 6 to 9 p.m. for its November performance about the sinking of the Titanic entitled “A Ship of Dreams.” Auditions for the largely adult cast will be at Rockford Community Center, 8450 Shaner Ave. NE, located at the northeast corner of Ten Mile Road in the Rockford Ambulance building.
Its fall and spring plays often include dozens of cast members, including more than 40 for last April’s presentation of “The Ragweed Blues.”
Despite the time commitment, participation pays huge dividends, said Kirsten Bagin, who, with husband John, has been involved in the play group for several years. Their children, Jack, 12, and Annie, 10, also participate.
“For us, it’s a family affair,” Bagin said. “It’s a way to come together as a family and be part of the community.”
Brian Thomas, who sits on the 11-member RRCTC board, said the camaraderie keeps him coming back. “It’s a way to develop friendships and keep those friendships alive,” he said. “We have a lot of fun working on the productions and the theatre group is like a second family.”