actors share the stage with St. Louis professional Alan Knoll, who
portrayed Fagin in the musical adapted from Charles Dickens
Oliver Twist. Ozark Actors Theatre in Rolla is one of
only two professional drama companies in rural Missouri.
The house lights
dim as a small wooden stage is awash in colored light. Instantly, Rollas
Cedar Street Center for the Arts is transformed into 18th-century London.
A matinee performance of Oliver! has begun.
Few outside south-central
Missouri have ever heard of the Ozark Actors Theatre. But the obscure
theater company has 16 seasons and more than 60 productions to its credit.
The brainchild of
Rolla native Gail Andrews, the drama group performs in a 180-seat theater
housed in a one-time Baptist church at 7th and Cedar streets near downtown
theater groups in countless small towns, the Ozark Actors Theatre is
a professional drama company a member of the Actors Equity
Association, a labor union representing more than 40,000 actors and
stage managers in the United States. Each production includes paid actors
and production staff in addition to area amateurs who volunteer their
time and talents.
actors from Rolla prepare for a matinee performance of Oliver!
at the Cedar Street Center for the Arts. The musical was one of
two productions performed by Rollas Ozark Actors Theatre
really unique about us, and even different from some other summer theaters
in Missouri, is our mix of seasoned professionals and locals,
says Edward Coffield, executive producer of the theater, known locally
as OAT. There are people in Oliver! who are incredibly
well-known in this community. They are doing major roles right alongside
equity actors from St. Louis.
The Ozark Actors
Theatre presented two productions during its 2003 season, which ran
from June 19 through July 20. Always . . . Patsy Cline,
a musical tribute told from the perspective of a close friend of the
singer, featured just two actors, both professionals. Oliver!
boasted a cast of 41 primarily local children who portrayed orphans
and pickpockets in the Charles Dickens classic. The cast, the largest
in the theater groups history, also included college students,
teachers, a nurse, a church organist and a local government official.
amazed by their talents because I dont have those kinds of talents,
says John Petersen, Rollas director of community development.
The gal that played Nancy in Oliver! and plays Patsy
Cline, she is fantastic. Her voice will take the paint off the back
wall with just the quality and the volume.
Sansoni performed the lead role in Always . . . Patsy Cline
with the Ozark Actors Theatre in July. A professional actress from
New York, Sansoni has appeared in numerous stage and television
productions and together with co-star Andreé OShea
has brought the Patsy Cline story to theaters across the
country, including the Lyceum Theatre in Arrow Rock.
of amateur thespians benefits by exposures to these talents many
of whom can sing, dance and act with such skill that audiences are left
to wonder why they are not on bigger stages. Some, in fact, are. Like
CoCo Sansoni, who portrayed Patsy Cline, many of the professionals who
appear at the Cedar Street theater have extensive resumes of stage and
To the audience,
however, the distinction between amateur and professional fades as rehearsals
turn to opening night.
is to keep up and not let the professionals down, says Kittie
Robertson, OATs managing director and an occasional actress in
the companys productions. Even though youre local
and not being paid, the expectation is still there that you will perform
in a professional manner.
To help achieve
this end, the company holds a two-week drama camp each summer to prepare
children for the stage. One product of the camp is 7-year-old Lydia
Kent Bagnall, who played the title role in Oliver!
Alan Knoll, is a professional actor from St. Louis who has appeared
in 11 OAT productions. Ironically, Knoll found summer housing in the
home of Intercounty Electric Cooperative members Kent and Lindsay Bagnall,
the parents of Lydia and her older sister, Hannah, who also appeared
in the musical.
I would run our lines in the morning when we would have a bowl of cereal,
This close collaboration between equity actors and amateurs is unusual
in Missouri. The only other professional theater outside the states
big cities is the older and better-known Lyceum
Theatre of Arrow Rock.
Those involved with
the Ozark Actors Theatre are quick to compare their company with the
highly respected Lyceum. While the association clearly flatters OAT,
it is not without merit.
attending the Ozark Actors Theatres summer drama camp practice
a dance routine. The camp helps develop talent for future performances.
Many of the professional
actors who appear at the Cedar Street theater have also performed at
Arrow Rock. Coffield, who oversees the Rolla productions during his
summer hiatus from the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, has an even closer
tie. His twin brother, Phillip, is associate producer of the Lyceum
If the Ozark Actors
Theatre can claim equal status as an equity theater, it has not yet
matched the Lyceum in terms of repertoire or attendance. While OAT members
say their season will expand with time, they are not leaving ticket
sales to chance.
Robertson, a professional
meeting planner, says public perceptions of Rolla have hampered the
theaters growth. Rolla has not traditionally been a tourist
destination on any level, the Intercounty Electric Cooperative
of Rolla as a stop on the way to Branson. There is no reason we cant
be a tourist destination.
To help fill its
seats, the Ozark Actors Theatre promotes matinee performances as the
centerpiece of day tours to Rolla. Increasingly, tour bus operators
rely on Robertson to provide an entertaining excursion to the I-44 community.
Three years ago we had six bus tours come in, she says.
This year we have about 20.
Robertson, managing director of the Ozark Actors Theatre, escorts
a tour group into the Cedar Street Center for the Arts. To increase
ticket sales, the theater group includes matinee performances as
part of a day-long bus tour of the Rolla area.
Besides an afternoon
play at the Cedar Street theater, groups tour local attractions such
as the USGS mapping center or the Memoryville USA antique auto museum,
visit local wineries and see historic sites. Typically, groups eat lunch
and shop at Rollas Cedar Street Village, a cluster of historic
buildings down the street from the theater.
sites are beginning to offer visitors a reason to do more than merely
gas up at the interstate off-ramp. We are taking the leadership
role for tourism in Rolla, Robertson says.
Petersen, a member
of the OAT board of trustees, says more than just boosting to the local
economy, the theater adds to the quality of life in Rolla.
Having a theater
like this is a real asset when people are looking at living in a place.
Is this a good place to live or not? Live theater makes Rolla a little
more attractive not such a backwater like people might think,
Former board member,
theater volunteer and proud parent Kent Bagnall agrees.
There arent that many small towns that have a live theater.
This is what separates one small town that just sits there from a small
town that has life.
For more information
write: Ozark Actors Theatre, P.O. Box K, Rolla, MO 65402; call (573)
364-9523 or visit www.ozarkactorstheatre.org