Thursday, August 17, 2017  

Westmoreland Players
An Amateur Community Theatre in Callao, Virginia  

Community theatres and playhouses have been part of the American cultural and performing arts landscape since Colonial days in America. These ventures saw intermittent periods of growth and decline until the 1920s when the idea of American Community Theatre began to take hold.

Originally known as “little theatres” they presented stories and plays based on real life drama that people from all walks of life could relate to in some way. Perhaps they saw themselves in these productions…or maybe they saw their ancestors, uncles, fathers, mothers, sisters, enemies or friends. Most likely they were a lot like us and just appreciated performing arts and the opportunity to tell a story in a way that they and others could identify with.

In ensuing years, the need for high quality dramatic scripts that mirrored the lives of everyday Americans created an opening for purely “American” drama instead of the “European” plays that had previously been the norm. As necessity is always the mother of invention— the American Playwright was born and cultivated in community theatres all across the nation.

It might surprise you to know that today’s community theatres involve more people in all sorts of theatrical and arts related activities, than all other forms of “American” theatre combined.

Truly, the  Westmoreland Players share a rich theatrical legacy with community theatres all across Virginia and the nation, for their contribution to the life and culture of those who actively and passively participate in each season and production.

Thirty Years and Counting…

Having passed the thirty year mark in 2009, The Westmoreland Players has undertaken a monumental renovation and expansion of its existing facilities that has truly enhanced the quality of live amateur theatre in this portion of Virginia.

For those of you who are not familiar with the Westmoreland Players, they are a non-profit amateur theatre group located in the Northern Neck of Virginia. Their volunteers come from all across the Northern Neck, Middle Peninsula and beyond. Although their permanent home is firmly established in Northumberland County, near Callao, their roots go back to Westmoreland County, when a small but dedicated group officially organized an amateur theatre company in 1979. Their goal and mission was to produce high quality plays and occasional musicals for the community at large.

Since that time a host of volunteers and amateur performers have banded together, from all walks of life, to put on some of the most memorable shows ever seen in our “neck of the woods.” Having gone through many changes over the years and steady, continual growth, they were named the Best Community Theatre in Virginia by the readers of Cooperative Living Magazine in 2005.

As a volunteer myself, I have seen much of what goes on from auditions to rehearsals, to set production and what it takes from a drama point of view to put on a first class production here. Each play or musical, as well as the facility itself is a true labor of love that is continually brought to life by countless volunteers on and off the stage.

Of equal note are the unseen and unsung heroes who make sure that the Players’ facility is the best it can be and that the sets, costumes, lights, sound, props, stage direction and every detail has been executed well and in its place. Everything and everyone has to be ready when the curtain goes up!

Their unseen support, combined with great casting, good direction and authentic costumes translates to entertainment on a personal level that brings a richer and fuller meaning to culture and life. It’s entertainment that we can all identify with and participate in!

The Early Years
In 1979, when the Players began their foray into amateur community theatre, it was their dedication to putting on a quality show with limited funds and no real home that really solidified this pioneering group of core founding members. Initially performing in Hague, they put on shows in numerous locations and school facilities which was quite challenging from a logistical point of view. Scenery, props, costumes and the like were bused and trucked around to different sites which had to be torn down between shows so that the hosting facility could return to its intended use. (Whew! If you know anything about putting on any kind of show, this ought to make you feel tired already!)

In 1995, the Players began renting space in a banquet/rental facility near Callao that was originally used by many throughout the area as a venue for all sorts of community activities and wedding receptions. The building at this time consisted of one large room, a kitchen and two bathrooms. This rented facility would eventually become their permanent home and present location.

There’s No Place Like Home
In 2000 the players were putting on two shows a year and were presented with the opportunity to purchase the rented venue that they called home. This was a wonderful opportunity presented by the building’s owners, who wanted to sell the building and at the same time see the Players continue at this location. It was a tremendous “break” for the players, at a crucial time in their history.

After purchasing the building and grounds, they continued to rent out the facility between shows to help offset the cost of the building. According to Bev Mangan, they soon reached a crossroads which would require a choice.
“We reached the point where we had to decide what we were going to be. Were we going to be a real community theatre and playhouse or were we going to be a part-time theatre and rental facility?”

The addition of creative director Glenn Evans to guide the Westmoreland Players, just prior to this time, brought them to new heights of authenticity and professionalism with each production, during and after the dinner theatre period.
In 2003, the board voted to expand the Players’ offerings by having three to five larger budget shows per year instead of only two. Those of us who attended shows here during this period remember the various stage configurations and the portable chairs.

Since these earlier days, the Westmoreland Players have continually evolved as a body of volunteers, which includes actors, actresses, musicians, carpenters, cookie bakers, contractors, fundraisers, box office workers, bar-tenders, costumers, seamstresses, directors, singers, painters, artists, light and sound tech’s, stage crews, back stage moms & dads, child actors/actresses and an occasional canine.

Together they have collectively entertained and inspired thousands of eager theatre goers from season to season for over thirty years.

The Evolution of Today’s Facility—Phase One
Today’s theatre building has increased from its original 3,750 square foot size to over 7,000 square feet. This first phase of the building renovation and expansion was undertaken primarily for the benefit of the audience. The entire facility transformation has been a monumental and ongoing effort with striking contrasts to the facility of the past.

From the intriguing and instantly recognizable art deco exterior to the elegant linear lines within the theatre’s lobby, the facility has become remarkable, in every way. Every detail of the art deco theme has been captured and utilized in perfect symmetry from floor to ceiling. Indeed, the wall colors, chrome fixtures and the unique tray ceiling add a deco-esque authenticity and a true flare for drama, which remains unequalled in the region.

“The design of the ceiling evolved into a step tray ceiling as the board wanted us to mimic the front façade of the building within the lobby. The ceiling ironically turned out to be the perfect way to do that. Now almost complete, direct lighting will be installed around the ceiling trays and will be very dramatic. The chandeliers, painting and other lighting is also almost complete,” says Skip Tilley, Technical Director, Westmoreland Players.

Designed for hospitality and refreshment, the lobby area contains a brand new bar area, ample room for table seating and expansion of the restroom facilities for both men and women. The “box office” itself will remain portable.

Theatre Seating
Another major change implemented inside the theatre itself was the addition of permanent seating. In 2002, the theatre was only capable of seating 78— now it has a seating capacity of 150. The construction of permanent risers and seating has allowed the theatre to almost double the number of people to attend each show.

The purchase of these “new” seats is a story in itself and a testament to the dedication of theatre volunteers who left no stone unturned with regard to finding the best seating value for the money. In need of TLC when they arrived, countless volunteers cleaned and refurbished the seats, which now look and feel as good as new.

As a thoughtful way to underwrite the expense of the new seats, donors have been able to purchase plaques to honor and memorialize loved ones or to recognize their own generous contribution to the theatre’s expansion and upgrade. Over seventy seats now bear donor plaques that have been purchased by audience members and supporters for a tax-deductible donation of $175.00 per seat to the Westmoreland Players Building Fund.

Evolution— Phase Two
The second phase of construction, currently underway, will also be completed in the months ahead and is primarily for the benefit of actors and volunteers. The new addition has enabled the Players to finally enjoy a “proper green room” with twelve permanently installed changing rooms. At one time, the green room was actually a tent outside, which presented all sorts of problems for cast wardrobe changes.

A new washer/dryer, sewing area, cast bathroom and well lit make-up area have also been recently completed. The new and vastly improved kitchen is scheduled for completion in February 2011 and has been moved to the area behind the lobby.

State-of-the-Art Lighting and Sound
The current theatre sound system has been updated to include state-of-the-art technology that has significantly added to overall production capability and the audience’s experience, such as realistic sounding thunder that rolls from one side of the stage to the other. This brings an additional sound dimension and believability to each production.

During Annie, (the first musical production that the Players had undertaken in over ten years), the new lighting and sound systems were employed for the first time and made this a real stand out show from the audience point of view. For me the show felt like I was in New York or a big city playhouse, far away from the Northern Neck of Virginia!
Although the changes in lighting and sound were subtle in nature they added an intangible but measurable quality that enhanced my overall theater experience.

The Challenges of Construction and Set Production

Generally speaking, the set for each upcoming production is started at least two months prior to “opening night.” During this time volunteer staff under the direction of Skip Tilley begin building the set and associated props. The average set takes approximately one month to build. The following two weeks painters and artists are brought in to bring the set to life. With two weeks left until opening night, the technical work with regard to lighting and sound is applied. Finally, the last week before the show, full dress rehearsals take place which leaves one week to work out any “bugs” that surface.

According to Technical Director, Skip Tilley, “it takes between four and eight people to build the set itself and associated props. Between four and ten painters/artists are then required to bring a set dimensionally to life. Another four to five volunteers work the lights and sound, still others are needed back-stage. All totaled, a minimum of twenty-five to thirty volunteers are required to get ready for Showtime. An additional staff of about fifty volunteers is required to assist with parking, bar-tending, baked goods, ticket sales, box office, ushers and the like.”

The greatest challenge during the theatre expansion and construction has been to keep the theatre fully functioning for performances, while simultaneously building sets for each production. It is a challenge that has been met admirably by all those who have volunteered their time, talents and resources toward such noble ends. We have all been the beneficiary of their dedication, exacting standards and support of community based amateur theatre.

To date, the Players have been able to accomplish almost 80% of the overall master plan with regard to expansion and will soon be focusing on the “pretty things” throughout the theatre like painting, new light fixtures and a dedicated office for theatre board members.

Current Happenings at the Player’s Theatre
With sell-outs dominating the 2009–2010 season, from Miracle on 34th Street to Annie, the newest season is already off to a great start! A full play season of comedies and a powerful drama, along with the Performing Arts Series and the renowned Missoula Children’s Theater Drama Camp in July, has something for everyone!

The three remaining “main stage shows” featured for the 2010-2011 theatre season are:
All My Sons, A powerful drama by Arthur Miller: February 19 – March 6, 2011
The Government Inspector, A hilarious farce by Jeffrey Hatcher: May 2 – 22, 2011
The Sunshine Boys, An uproarious comedy by Neil Simon: August 6 – 21, 2011

The Performing Art Series brings performing artists, musical groups and seasonal entertainment to the Players audience that is sure to delight and inspire.

The remaining Performing Art Series events for the 2010-2011 season include:
Get ‘In the Mood’ – A big band concert: January 16, 2011, at 3pm
Mardi Gras Jazz Concert: March 13, 2011, at 3pm
Love Gone Wrong: April 17, 2011, at 3pm
Missoula Children’s Theatre: June 27th–July 2nd, 2011
Rosie the Riveter & Good Queen Bess: July 10th, 2011, at 3pm

For more details on these upcoming shows and the Missoula Children’s Theatre Drama Camp, please visit the Players online at www.westmorelandplayers.org.

The Westmoreland Players Need You
If you’ve never been to a Westmoreland Players production, just one visit to the website will convince you that there is a lot going on around here! If you click on the “past performances” link, many of the past shows will have the playbill posted, which lists how many volunteers from all age groups and walks of life were involved in every production as actors, actresses, artists, directors, stage hands, technical support, ushers, hostesses and more. For each actor/actress that is seen on stage, there are numerous support roles that had to be filled to support each character. You might even recognize the name of someone you know.

In short, the Westmoreland Players Theatre would not exist in its present form without the generous financial contributions of its patrons, supporters and devoted volunteers. This area is blessed with such amazing talent and resources that have stepped up time and again, wherever and whenever needed. They have grown to love the theatre, the camaraderie of friends and also know that the show must go on whether there is a foot of snow on the ground or not.

It is amazing how one common goal can unite people from all ages and walks of life who go on to form friendships that last a lifetime, regardless of their individual differences!

If you think you’d like to drive a nail, pick up a paintbrush, work in the box office, bake cookies, act, advertise or help out in some other way there is a home for you— with the Players.

Over and over again, there are stories of those who entered to audition for the first time and were welcomed with open arms, well-wishes and, to their astonishment, landed parts! Children have grown up here and gained confidence, self-discipline and learned to work as a team with people from vastly different backgrounds. Indeed, it is not unusual at all to find multiple generations of the same family participating in one way or another, from season to season. It is safe to say that once you have been bitten by the acting or volunteer bug it is impossible to go back. The sense of family and accomplishment that grows with each show is truly priceless. The applause is great too!

Special thanks to Westmoreland Players President Brian Tilbury and Technical Director Skip Tilley, who were vital contributors to this article and Bev Mangan, a long time supporter, volunteer, stage manager and a matriarch of the Players clan who gave me the low-down on the players’ early history.

Thank you also to my good friend Anita Harrower, a veteran actress and volunteer with the players who encouraged my daughter Caroline to audition for Miracle on 34th Street. Also a special thanks to Joanne Cox for her input as a long time actress, director and volunteer with the Players and Bob Wilson and Pat Draper for their many photos of past Players’ performances.

Article and Facility photos by Karin Andrews. All other photos by the Westmoreland Players.