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Rural Missouri Magazine

The OTHER theater
One of two professional theaters in rural Missouri, Ozark Actors Theatre brings live drama to Rolla

by Bob McEowen

Amateur 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, Rolla’s 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 Rolla.

Unlike community theater groups in countless small towns, the Ozark Actors Theatre is a professional drama company — a member of the Actor’s 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.

Child 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 Rolla’s Ozark Actors Theatre in 2003.

“What’s 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 group’s history, also included college students, teachers, a nurse, a church organist and a local government official.

“I’m always amazed by their talents because I don’t have those kinds of talents,” says John Petersen, Rolla’s 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.”

CoCo 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 O’Shea — has brought the Patsy Cline story to theaters across the country, including the Lyceum Theatre in Arrow Rock.

Rolla’s company 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 television performances.

To the audience, however, the distinction between amateur and professional fades as rehearsals turn to opening night.

“The challenge is to keep up and not let the professionals down,” says Kittie Robertson, OAT’s managing director and an occasional actress in the company’s productions. “Even though you’re 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!”

Bagnall’s co-star, 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.

“Lydia and I would run our lines in the morning when we would have a bowl of cereal,” Knoll says.
This close collaboration between equity actors and amateurs is unusual in Missouri. The only other professional theater outside the state’s 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.

Children attending the Ozark Actors Theatre’s 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 Theatre.

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 theater’s growth. “Rolla has not traditionally been a tourist destination on any level,” the Intercounty Electric Cooperative member says.

“People think of Rolla as a stop on the way to Branson. There is no reason we can’t 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.”

Kittie 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 Rolla’s Cedar Street Village, a cluster of historic buildings down the street from the theater.

Together, these 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,” says Petersen.

Former board member, theater volunteer and proud parent Kent Bagnall agrees.
“There aren’t 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 online.

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