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Dinner Theater With a Catholic Twist
By Peggy and Mark Williams
It's standing room only when this Wisconsin parish puts on one of its family-friendly productions.

Q U I C K S C A N

Ambitious Productions
Shared Experience
Proceeds Help Parish
Community Outreach
Recruiting Talent
Experience Not Needed
Christian Hospitality
Growth of Faith Community


Kevin Blakeslee starred as Joseph in a scene from Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's Broadway hit Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, performed by the St. Bernard Players.
PHOTO BY ANDY MANIS

CHAD GROTE played Jesus to a full house in the St. Bernard Players’ 2006 production of Jesus Christ Superstar. When he’s not portraying Jesus, Chad is a house painter who loves to play softball on his days off. Caiaphas was a local doctor, Judas was an animal researcher and the audience was enthralled.

The idea of a parish theater group had germinated years earlier in the mind of Msgr. Michael Hippee, pastor of St. Bernard Parish in Madison, Wisconsin. “We had a gym with a stage that wasn’t being used,” says the priest known as Father Mike. “It seemed [a theater group was] the thing to do to be good stewards of our space. I really thought it was going to be just another parish activity.”

Ambitious Productions

It may have started out that way. But over the years, this project has evolved into a high-quality community theater. It reaches out to the parish, the neighborhood and, in fact, the entire city as cast, crew and audience come together to take part in and enjoy productions as ambitious as Annie and Jesus Christ Superstar.

Some of the people who made this idea a reality include director/actor Mickey Reynolds and producer/actress Tara Reynolds. Mickey and Tara had been living in New York, studying their craft, auditioning for roles, waiting on tables, doing all the things that young thespians do.

When they decided to get married, they moved back to the Midwest, where they wanted to raise a family. It was during their premarital conversations with Father Mike in early 1999 that the priest first mentioned the idea of a dinner theater.

Although the couple agreed it would be fun, “We had bigger things on our mind,” says Mickey. “So it kind of got put on the back burner.”

The wedding went on as planned at St. Bernard, a lovely old Catholic church located on the east side of Madison, a bustling university town and capital of the state.

Later that summer, Ken Sosinski, the parish’s director of music and liturgy, contacted the newlyweds about a fund-raiser he had in mind to buy new chairs for the choir. Mickey and Tara jumped at the chance to direct and produce a small dinner-theater-style music program for the parish.

With a cast of about 30 parishioners, many of them kids and teenagers, that first production was Tales of Wonder, Marty Haugen’s musical retelling of Old Testament stories. An additional 20 or so parishioners volunteered their time backstage, in the kitchen and in the orchestra.

The Players (as they often call themselves) followed that performance with a holiday musical revue based on The Chosen One Montage, a medley of Christmas carols.

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Shared Experience

For the next several years, the St. Bernard Players managed to put on two productions a year. They bounced among variety shows, smaller plays and musicals. These included The Song of Mark by Marty Haugen and The Rented Christmas by Norman C. Ahern, Jr., and Yvonne Ahern.

Madison prides itself on the diversity of its theatrical offerings, from small independent and experimental venues to long-established community, academic and professional groups to national traveling productions.

Within this setting, the St. Bernard Players believe they offer something different: a dinner-theater experience suitable for the entire family, with values and a work ethic anchored in the Catholic faith.

A dinner-theater format was selected “to make it more social,” explains Father Mike. Bringing his parish together for a meal and Christian hospitality is what helps to make parish life a shared experience.

With over a thousand families and individual members, Father Mike calls the diverse parish “a melting pot of ages and professions.” The original purpose of the dinner theater, he explains, was to provide an alternative outlet for members of the parish who hadn’t yet found their niche, in terms of participation. And it worked, especially for the young people of the parish.

“We had this whole group of kids come together, forming community and having a lot of fun doing it, seeing Church as outside of the walls of the building,” he says. “Instead of hanging out on the streets during The Song of Mark [rehearsals], they were hanging out at St. Bernard.”

Proceeds Help Parish

Even though the parish was blessed with a stage, it was a pretty small stage in an older gymnasium that was not designed to promote the kind of acoustics needed to put on a quality musical production. During the initial year, the parish put a lot of work into renovating the gym to make it more conducive to the types of performances the Players hoped to do in the future.

Much to their delight, that first performance—and every subsequent performance since—has been a sellout. The cost of tickets has been kept reasonable—usually in the $8 to $18 range—for dinner and performance.

The Players have managed to come out ahead financially on all of their productions. These proceeds have gone back into capital improvements, such as a new stage floor, and sound and lighting improvements. Profits have been used to purchase padded chairs, round tables for family-style seating and tablecloths.

The holiday season of 2003 was a breakout year with the ambitious production of It’s a Wonderful Life. From then on, there was no stopping the young theater group as it went on to perform such notable plays as Annie, Miracle on 34th Street, The Music Man and Jesus Christ Superstar.

Earlier this year, 36 adults and 20 children formed the cast for Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. An additional 80 volunteers made up the support crew.

Community Outreach

While the original purpose of the St. Bernard Players may have been outreach to parishioners, this project also reaches out to the entire community.

“It brings non-Catholics onto our campus for a theater that’s well done,” observes Father Mike. “They might not worship with us but they certainly share in the fellowship we have.”

Ken Sosinski echoes those sentiments: “It’s part of our message of welcome and hospitality. It opens our doors to people who might otherwise not come to St. Bernard. Whether they come from different faith traditions or no faith tradition at all, it gives them an opportunity to experience our parish community. And I think that benefits the parish as well.”

Scott Muller, 23, is an animal researcher with the University of Wisconsin. He fed his love of theater when a friend talked him into trying out for the Players’ production of The Music Man because “they needed men in the chorus.”

Scott admits he was nervous at first about joining a Catholic theater group. Although his family heritage is Jewish, he follows no particular religious belief. To his delight, Scott was immediately accepted into the St. Bernard Players. His religious background has never been an issue.

“I love working with the St. Bernard Players because of their attitude and the camaraderie,” he says. “People in St. Bernard Players are less worried about personalities. They concentrate on having fun and providing a good performance.”

When the Players’ casting call went out for Jesus Christ Superstar, Scott tried out for and won his dream role: Judas Iscariot. Mickey Reynolds says the role of Judas is musically as important as, if not more than, the role of Jesus in this production.

Keith Meyer didn’t let the fact that he was not a parishioner affect his decision to join the St. Bernard Players either. A physician and a medical professor at the University of Wisconsin, Keith has enjoyed roles as diverse as Daddy Warbucks in Annie and Caiaphas in Jesus Christ Superstar.

Recruiting Talent

In the beginning, recruiting for talent, stage crew and kitchen crew was done primarily through the parish bulletin and word of mouth. More recently, Tara and Mickey Reynolds posted casting calls on the Players’ Web site and spread the word through their contacts among the Madison theater community.

Finding people to appear onstage hasn’t generally been a problem. In fact, for Annie, they had the sad job of turning away promising young actresses for the first time. “We didn’t like doing that,” says Tara. “It was very hard, especially with little girls....But you can’t put 40 little girls in Annie. There’s no room on the stage and no room in the dressing rooms.”

Regarding the crews, Mickey says, “You’re just kind of at the mercy of volunteers.” But it turns out volunteers at this parish, even for the often underappreciated roles of stage and kitchen crews, are not all that hard to obtain.

Tara explains her simple solution: “We offer the family members of the people in the cast [first chance to volunteer] in the kitchen. They eat for free and they see the show for free.”

Not only does this method fill the crew roster, but Tara and Mickey have also discovered that it gives whole families an opportunity to participate in something that benefits the parish. Family involvement is especially important to this couple, whose own young daughters have been on their parish’s stage.

Parishioner Mary Perez landed the role of Mary in It’s a Wonderful Life. A professional actress with stage and TV credits, she says she joined St. Bernard Players because it allowed her to share a rare theatrical experience with her young daughter. It also provided an opportunity to be involved in a community theater group with ties to the Church.

Experience Not Needed

One of the oldest continuing cast members is septuagenarian Rose Rebholtz. With 18 grandchildren, she needs little publicity to draw an enthusiastic audience.

“My favorite was The Music Man,” Rose reminisces. “I didn’t see how they were going to pull it off and was amazed to see how they did it.”

What is the appeal that keeps someone of a certain age who’d never been onstage before coming back? “Well, I played a few of my scenes well enough to make people laugh,” recalls Rose. But it’s more than just applause and audience reaction that motivates her. Being in a community theater “put me in touch with people I wouldn’t ordinarily have met. Getting to know teenagers turned out to be a fun experience.”

Georgia Strebe is one of the teens Rose got to know. While Georgia has enjoyed all the productions she’s been in, she admits that the Christmas plays are her favorites. “It’s a Wonderful Life is just such a good story,” she says. “All of the people, all of the actors and the production crew were so fun to work with. There was a real sense of community.”

In a college essay about the most important activity she has been involved in during her high school years, Georgia wrote about the experience of auditioning, rehearsing and performing with the St. Bernard Players.

Georgia’s parents, two sisters (Lydia and Amelia) and younger brother (James) have all had either onstage or backstage roles during various productions: James has been a Player since he was four. Georgia says her family really treasures this shared experience.

“It’s a blast,” echoes her father, Galen Strebe. “It is a great way to spend quality time with my children.”

Galen was a bit of a latecomer to the group. It wasn’t until after he and his wife, Shannon, saw their three daughters having so much fun in one of the earlier productions that they decided to sign up for the stage crew. Eventually, he auditioned onstage as well, landing roles in It’s a Wonderful Life and The Music Man.

Galen probably did not have to worry too much about the outcome of the auditions. Georgia says, “You don’t really need to have experience to get into the plays. Mickey and Tara are looking more for commitment than experience.”

And that’s probably one of the strengths of the Players, according to Georgia. “There’s a real sense of commitment on the part of the actors and crew. The rehearsals are better organized and more productive” than other theater groups with which she’s worked, she says. The result is that “the actors are better prepared for the performances.”

Christian Hospitality

Even Father Mike gets involved. He’s typically found in the kitchen, where he plans and helps prepare the dinners. “He’s a fabulous chef!” raves Tara.

But Father Mike doesn’t limit his involvement to the kitchen. While he doesn’t consider himself to be a thespian, he does enjoy the walk-on roles he’s assigned in each production. And so do his parishioners, who applaud and roar when he makes his brief appearances.

What was Father Mike’s favorite parish production? “Probably Jesus Christ Superstar,” he says with a smile. In addition to liking the story itself, he says that “the acting was absolutely phenomenal. The set was extraordinary. We had a stage that was constructed so that the crucifixion was right in the middle of the audience.”

This production was staged during the week following Easter. “I had comments from our youngest to our oldest [parishioners] about what a moving experience it was,” says Father Mike. “Several people told me that Holy Week will never be the same. That’s a powerful commentary on the play.”

Father Mike considers how these parish productions differ from those at community theaters. “I would hope that the Christian hospitality would be evident among those who choose to act in the plays as well as those who choose to attend the theater and enjoy the food,” he reflects. “I think the patrons come because it’s good theater, a good meal and a nice evening. But I would hope that we who work the theater would be able to provide a really Christian kind of an environment, of hospitality.”

Growth of Faith Community

Ken Sosinski is introspective about the growth of the St. Bernard Players as a faith community. “I think we started small just because you can’t start out with a production the size of an Annie,” he says. “You build up to that.

“It’s like anything that grows,” he continues. “You don’t know where it’s going to go. We have to rely on the Holy Spirit to guide us. We have to be open to where that growth is going...to rely on and pray on what God is working through each one of us. Soli Deo gloria, to God’s glory alone. We’re a faith community; you can’t micromanage faith.”

Additional information about the St. Bernard Players can be found at www.madstage.com/Companies/stbernard.html. St. Bernard Parish is located at 2450 Atwood Avenue, Madison, WI 53704; phone: 608-249- 9256; Web site: www.stbernards.net.


Peggy and Mark Williams each have been published previously, but this is the first shared venture for the married couple from Madison, Wisconsin.

 


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