Last Sunday morning I drove west for over an hour to reach the Myers Dinner Theatre in Hillsboro, Indiana, which is just this side of the border between Indiana and Illinois.
This semi-community, semi-for-profit theatre has intrigued me ever since one of its regular artists, Linnea Leatherman, told me that she commutes there every weekend from Indianapolis. Since my brief conversation with her several months ago, this theatre has come up in conversation with other Indianapolis actors, directors, and stage managers as well. When my friend Dane Rogers invited me out to see him in “South Pacific” this month, I decided it was time to make the trek and see what all the fuss is about.
My friendship with Dane is what got me out there the first time. The quirky charm of this overtly Christian theatre, its creative, hard-working owners, and its nostalgic, small town setting are what will get me out there again.
According to my program,
“The purpose of Myers Dinner Theatre is to provide a high-quality professional adult and family theatrical experience in a wholesome Christian atmosphere for audience and performer alike. We want to raise the spirits of those who are low, bring a sense of peace to those in need, hear the laughter reach the rafters, and bring a message of hope through theatre with a purpose.”
The theatre gift shop includes wall hangings and other home décor items with Bible passages on them. The lobby decor includes a stained glass door from an early Hillsboro church. Pianist Christine France plays “Standing on the Promises of God” as part of the pre-show entertainment. Before the salad course is served, Donna Myers leads everyone in prayer.
The prayer includes giving thanks and praise to God, followed by asking God’s blessing for the cast, crew, and audience. I wasn’t taking notes while my head was bowed, but the words were something like, “Dear God, please let the cast and crew do a good job today, and let everyone in the audience just relax and enjoy themselves while they are here. Let them feel they are in a haven. In Jesus’ name we pray, amen.”
I did feel sheltered and relaxed the whole time I was there. I knew that I was in a temporary escape from the complexities of my real life and the real world, but what’s wrong with that? It was comforting, and it refreshed me.
I didn’t actually get to meet Richard Myers this trip because he is recovering from knee surgery and left early. However, I enjoyed meeting Donna Myers and hearing about how she and her husband came to be running a dinner theatre in a tiny, somewhat isolated, Indiana town.
Donna told me that she used to travel and sing and give motivational speeches. She is also a certified hairdresser and decorator. Several years ago, she and Richard were living in Danville, Illinois, and a friend convinced them to take over a bridal store and catering business. They decided to turn the shop into a theatre on the nights they didn’t have a wedding reception, just as a way to make full use of the facility. They discovered that they liked the theatre part best of all, so when they “retired,” they went into the theatre business full time.
Donna says, “It is a LOT of work.” I believe her!
They developed a strong audience base there in Danville. Several groups regularly chartered buses to come to their theatre. After a while, though, the Myers wanted to go back to where Richard had grown up, in Hillsboro, Indiana. They did some market research to see if their bused groups would be willing to ride their buses a little farther, and found that they would. So, now the Myers farm just south of Hillsboro and run a dinner theatre in town.
To be on the safe side, the Myers first rented a building in nearby Waynetown. They quickly outgrew that, however, and eventually bought five buildings in Hillsboro, including a soda shop, two bed’n’breakfasts, and an office/actors’ dormitory, plus, of course, the large theatre building itself. The theatre building includes a restaurant-sized kitchen, a sizable gift shop, and eight individual restrooms which Donna decorated with wit and imagination. The Noah’s Ark restroom, for example, has shelves lined with adorable stuffed animals.
Donna told me they “built the theatre new so that there wouldn’t be any poles” to block the audience’s view of the stage. Masses of twinkle lights give the theatre space a festive feeling year round.
A Business… A Camp…A Retreat
Donna said in her curtain talk that “you can purchase some of my home-made salad dressing to take home with you when you leave. In fact, everything is for sale here except Richard!” While we were eating, her daughter came around to the tables, modeling beautiful reversible jackets and other items from the gift shop.
The Myers cook and bake the dinner themselves. (More about the food in a moment.) They pay their actors, but for actors who commute from Indy, it is really just enough to break even. To save costs, most actors drive out in time for the Friday night show and stay through the Saturday matinee, Saturday evening show, and Sunday matinee. I didn’t get to see the actors’ dormitory, but Dane told me that people sleep on beds, cots, and couches in the rooms behind the theatre office, which is in a separate building across from the theatre. They cut across the street to use the shower in the theatre dressing room as needed.
Stage manager Jeremy Cales told me that whenever a show has under-aged actors in it, the whole cast refrains from drinking alcohol in the dormitory, out of respect for the young ones. “If someone really wants a drink,” he said, “there’s a bar across the street.”
Dane said, “It’s like summer camp.” Myers actors basically spend the whole weekend together, doing the shows and having fun hanging out together in between. I didn’t envy their lack of privacy or down time, but I did envy their bonding experiences and sense of community.
Even the receiving line after the show felt different to me from a regular community theatre’s. There is no escaping it, which is usual, and I felt as shy and inarticulate as ever going through it, but later, Dane helped me identify the difference. He said that Donna and Richard Myers encourage their actors to think of the receiving line as an opportunity to personally thank the audience for coming, not an opportunity to trap the audience and force them to tell the actors how great they were.
(Maybe all community theatres think this way, and it is I whose attitude needs adjusting!)
Dane also said that when there are bus groups, after the show the actors all go on to the loaded buses to say goodbye to everyone. I think that if I had just played a demanding part in a show, having this extra schmoozing responsibility would wipe me out. However, I bet the people on the buses ride away with smiles on their faces from the extra attention.
At the end of the receiving line, everyone receives a hug from Donna, whether you knew her before today or not. The motto of the Myers Dinner Theatre is “Come as a guest, leave as family.”
When you come back, Donna will remember you and hug you at the entrance. I know this is so because I watched her do it before the show began. I laughed when I heard her say, “I have the best job in the world. I get to hug everyone and kiss all the men because Richard’s in back, so he doesn’t know.” She is a woman after my own heart!
Donna says, “Pretend you’re at Grandma’s house: have as much food as you like.”
First come tossed salad, broccoli salad, and fresh-baked rolls, all passed family style at the table. The broccoli salad is famous, and when I tasted it, I understood why. The broccoli has been chopped very finely and mixed with…bacon? Something yummy.
On the buffet is a combination of Myers favorites and items chosen to go with the show. The favorites include “green beans fixed the old fashioned way, the way I (Donna) learned down on the farm,” real mashed potatoes, and Swiss steak and rich gravy. For “South Pacific,” there are also scalloped pineapple, Polynesian ham loaf, and baked tilapia with a light cream sauce. Every menu item tasted good to me!
A slice of key lime pie is at your place when you sit down. Since you’re at Grandma’s house, you may eat it whenever you like, but if you eat your dessert early, don’t try to tell her later that you didn’t get any.
The Myers Dinner Theatre is a business, but it also really is kind of like being at a huge family reunion in that you are sitting at a long table with people you are prepared to like but whom you don’t know well, unless, of course, you came with friends or your real family. I was by myself, and the Myers knew I was a theatre reviewer, so I guess it made sense to seat me with a bunch of other theatre people.
I enjoyed getting to know actor Jack Gramling, for example. I sat on the end, and he sat down next to me. We compared notes about who we knew at which community theatres in the Indianapolis area. He is currently one of the “scare people” at the “Witch Way Out?” Haunted Corn Maze at Beasley’s Orchard in Danville, Indiana. His son, John Gramling, who is also an actor, helped to organize it.
The woman sitting on the other side of him was Jeri Wingler. She told me that her daughter, Amanda Keesling, also helped organize the Haunted Maze, especially the security of it. All proceeds from the Maze will benefit Project A.N.G.E.L.
Across from me sat Melissa Green, who just completed a term of service on the Putnam County Playhouse board in Greencastle, Indiana. It was fun to talk shows (and pets and children and other topics) with her, too.
In fact, everyone at my table had some connection to community theatre. They were all there as fans of “Miss Jodi,” the female lead of “South Pacific.”
The Story and the Cast
Jodi Wingler stars as Ensign “Knucklehead Nellie” Forbush, a young Appalachian woman who has been assigned by the American military to a remote island in the South Pacific during World War Two. She is falling in love with a debonair, older French man, Emile de Becque (Michael Moyer), who fled to the island years ago after killing a man. He has two very cute children, Ngana and Jerome (Ashley Marshall and Alexander Furr) by a now-deceased island woman.
When Nellie finds out about the bi-racial children, she has to confront her prejudices.
In the meantime, wholesome Lt. Joseph Cable, USMC (Brian W. Swick), has fallen in love with a delicate island girl, Liat (Mindy Phillips), who was pushed on him by her mother, the sly and pragmatic Bloody Mary (Linnea Leatherman.) He, too, must confront his prejudices.
His prejudices are not just racial but also age-related. He makes some remark about the ridiculousness of young Nellie falling for the aging Emile to Captain George Brackett (Dane Rogers.) Brackett replies:
“Cable! It’s a common mistake for boys of your age and athletic ability to underestimate men who have reached their maturity. Young women frequently find a grown man attractive, strange as that may seem to you. I myself am over 50. I am a bachelor, and Cable, I by no means consider myself …through.”
I told Dane that I am going to put that quote on my Facebook page. I am 47 and I am not “through” either.
It was strange to see my 26-year-old friend, Dane, playing a 50-year-old man, but he made it believable. I think he channeled George C. Scott. In any case, I loved his gruffness.
I also loved the chemistry between Nellie (Jodi Wingler) and Emile (Michael Moyer), and the beauty of their strong, rich singing voices. Michael’s voice, especially, made me swoon.
I laughed at the antics of the two back-up groups of sailors and nurses. The sailors are Luther Billis (Matthew Long), Stewpot (Keith James), and The Professor (Michael Howard.) The three actors play their roles with hilarious physicality: tumbling and flipping and bashing into things as well as dancing. Matthew Long even makes the ship tattoo on his bare tummy dance.
The nurses are Lt. JG Bessie May Sue Ellie Yaeger (Laura Breece), Ensign Dinah Murphy (Lacey Kriston), and Ensign Janet MacGregor (Mindy Phillips.) I especially loved their saucy rendition of “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out-a My Hair.” Laura Breece also choreographed the show.
“South Pacific” has music by Richard Rodgers and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, with book by Oscar Hammerstein II & Joshua Logan. It is adapted from James Michener’s novel, Tales of the South Pacific.
Michael Moyer directed and music-directed the Myers production. Jeremy Cales is the stage manager.
The tri-level set, designed by Richard Myers and Michael Moyer, is splendidly exotic and versatile. Joan Bennett’s painting of the Bali Ha’i island in the distance made me ache to go there. Michael Moyer’s lighting design includes a lovely, subtle effect that reminded me of a giant seashell. There is a real, working shower on the beach!
(Set construction was by Richard Myers, B.J. Allen, and Nicholas Stine. Set painters include Ann Nelson and Richard Myers. Set decorators include Donna Myers and Richard Myers. Richard Myers was the technical director. Jeremy Cales is the light and sound operator.)
The musical accompaniment is pre-recorded and well balanced. Michael Moyer was the music track engineer.
Donna Burgner, Donna Myers, and Mindy Phillips are the costumers. There are a lot of military uniforms in this show, plus lots of 1940s civilian outfits and colorful island dresses, not to mention a plethora of grass skirts. The costumers did a good job with all of them.
The first act is about an hour and twenty minutes. The second act is shorter, around 40 minutes.
By the way, at the end of the intermission, Donna asks each table if there are any birthdays or anniversaries to celebrate. Those people receive a little gift from a basket that one of the servers carries around. All of the servers at Myers on Sunday were pleasant and helpful.
After the show, Jodi Wingler was kind enough to take me on a tour of the dressing rooms and green room (waiting area.) There are three or four small, individual dressing rooms for the lead actors right behind the stage.
The rest of the cast gets ready downstairs, in a large room under the stage. There is a boys’ changing cubicle to one side, and a girls’ changing cubicle to the other, with a bank of make-up mirrors on the wall in between. The “green room” is actually a sort of pit filled with sofas. Jodi told me that actors who rest there between scenes have to be careful not to make too much noise because the sound carries up and out easily.
After my tour, I hung out with Dane and Jeremy for a while on the bench that is in front of the theatre. Out of the corner of my eye, I kept seeing the mannequin that is in the old-timey (and not used – you pick up your tickets at the gift shop counter) box office window. She is startling (!) but fun.
The small town of Hillsboro seems quaint to me. The folks there have Internet access, but if you want to use a cell phone you have to stand on one leg with your head against the street lamp on the corner. (Or was Dane just pulling my leg when he told me that?)
From the theatre you can walk to – heck, you can almost touch! – the town hall, the post office (which is where everyone picks up his or her mail), the soda shop, the bank, the karaoke bar, the log cabin bed’n’breakfast, and the Pizza King. If you want groceries, however, you will have to drive to Crawfordsville.
You can also walk to the cemetery. Just as the sun was going down, Dane and I walked over to the cemetery because I wanted to see what it was like. Dane knew something about its history and the people that are buried there, but unfortunately I was no longer in note-taking mode by then, and now I can not remember the details. Some day I would like to go back with tracing paper and a charcoal pencil to carefully “rub” more information from the fascinating old grave stones that are there.
If You Want to Go
“South Pacific” continues at the Myers Dinner Theatre on weekends through Saturday, October 18, 2008. There are evening performances on Fridays and Saturdays and matinees on Saturdays and Sundays. There is also a special Wednesday matinee on October 15.
Tickets for “South Pacific” can be reserved by calling the Myers Dinner Theatre office at 765-798-490 2, ext. 2. Cost is $36 for dinner and show, including tax. Bring some extra cash to tip the servers. Dinner for the evening shows begins at 6:30 p.m., for the weekday and Saturday matinees at 12:00 p.m., and for the Sunday matinees at 1:00 p.m. Myers Dinner Theatre is totally handicapped accessible.
Hope Baugh – www.IndyTheatreHabit.com