Dreaming on Midsummer Nights

By - Aug 1st, 2003 02:52 pm
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By Ken Morgan

THE FIRST DECADE:

The Unsinkable Molly Brown…Guys and Dolls…Fiddler On The Roof… Brigadoon… Oliver… West Side Story… No, No Nanette… On The Town… South Pacific… Anything Goes…

It’s not the oldest youth theater company in America. It’s not the biggest. But there is nothing else quite like it anywhere.

Most people would be surprised to discover Manitowoc, Wisconsin is ripe with a thriving art scene. With a population of only 35,000, Manitowoc boasts an unusual level of diversity in both industry and arts. The Rahr-West Museum is a venue for all genres, there are two dinner theaters nearby, and there’s the Masquers Little Theater, now in its 72nd year. A Lyceum Circuit-era theater serves as a venue for both local and touring productions.

But it’s the Peter Quince Performance Company that truly stands out. Founded in 1969 by two stage struck youths, the company produces one musical every summer and, for 35 years, has been managed by the local youth involved in the productions. While children as young as seven have worked there, the age requirements — originally 13 to 21, now up to 23 — mean adults have had little to do with the success of the company. It is perhaps America’s only true youth theater.

THE SECOND DECADE:

Bye Bye Birdie… Oklahoma!… Carousel… Dames at Sea… The Boy Friend… The Pajama Game… Gypsy… Grease… The Wizard Of Oz… Where’s Charlie…

“The company adopted its name from a character in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” according to Co-founder Reed Humphrey. “Peter Quince is a carpenter who organized an acting troupe to entertain for royalty. He worked under adverse conditions: none of the cast was professional, there was no rehearsal stage until shortly before the performance, and there were few props. The willingness to seek responsibility for what seems to be an impossible venture is the contagious spirit of Peter Quince and the real magic of theatre.”

Stage Trek – Generations.

At least one “Quincer” has gone on to act on Broadway, another is now a famous composer and one has even crossed to the other side as a theater critic; however most of the people work there for the love of performing and producing musical theater.

Dropping in at rehearsal for the current production of Footloose, the enthusiasm of young people is infectious. Originally, productions took place at local schools. They now enjoy the main stage at the Capitol Civic Center. Technology not available in the 1970s has further improved production values. Shows are now miked. Boom boxes and a synthesizer are used as the cast snaps into the opening production number. The rehearsal hall at the Masonic Temple in Manitowoc trembles as the 20-plus voices of musical youths hit the notes both high and low.

Sets and costumes are designed, built and crewed by the members. A full orchestra with brass, woodwind and percussion instruments fills the theater with sound. The local dance schools turn out top-notch choreographers —Milwaukee Ballet principal Amy Fote learned her trade in Manitowoc. The school music programs guarantee everybody can carry a tune, belting it out to the cheap seats.

“My involvement with Peter Quince was as a member of the orchestra pit,” reminisces Peggy Turnball, a Quince alumna from the first season in 1969. “Someone called my house and left a message with my mother, asking me if I’d join the orchestra (I played the french horn). I was happy to get involved. As I recall, I was impressed and excited that I would be part of an accompanying orchestra. I wasn’t aware of an orchestra being used in any other local musical production before — just pianists. So I was proud to be there and aware that Peter Quince was something special.”

Leaders Of The Pack.

Peter Quince is managed partly as a democracy. The Company is governed by a set of bylaws that has changed little in three and half decades. There’s an Executive Committee consisting of Producer, President, Vice President, Secretary/Treasurer, and Public Relations Director, General Committee, and The General Membership. Every year, the company votes in the production team for the next show. The opportunities are awesome — some General Directors have been as young as 18. Many Quince executives are in college. The current director, Jamie Strutz, is a 21-year-old senior at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. This is her first opportunity for such a big project; her only previous directing experience a short scene for a class in college. Over the years, a learning curve has had some effect on the success of each subsequent production. Cast members who started at 13 can have ten years experience by the time they become board members. A generational body of knowledge has sharpened the skills of the members, with each production building on the success and experiences of the previous.

THE THIRD DECADE:

Diamond Studs… Musical Chairs… Lucky Stiff… Leader Of The Pack… Damn Yankees… No, No, Nanette (again)… Smile… Once Upon A Mattress… Bye, Bye Birdie (again)… Cinderella…

Another Kind of Capital.

The average theater company goes belly up in the second year. Managed mainly by teenagers, Peter Quince has flourished for thirty-five. Peter Quince is supported by ticket sales, corporate sponsors, individual sponsors and the patrons who donate money. Rehearsal and construction space is donated, advertising is sold in the programs, and a there are a variety of fundraisers.

Which explains nothing. Other companies do the same, and don’t last two years. Peter Quince’s success and longevity are due to the judicious use of another kind of capital. Things that may seem, initially, like intangibles, but are directly responsible, at least in part, for Quince’s continued success.

Peter Quince has a legacy. Many current Quincer’s are the children —even grandchildren — of former members. Community pride is another factor. Like the football and basketball teams, PQPC is a Manitowoc institution. Local businesses stampede to get their names in the program.

PQPC also benefits from Manitowoc’s deep commitment to fostering a rich and diverse cultural climate. The local parochial schools have choir and music programs that begin in first grade. The orchestra and choirs at both the public and Catholic high school provide training as good as any conservatory. Art, dance and stagecraft classes are offered in dizzying varieties. For a theater company to grow, it must be planted in fertile ground. Manitowoc makes a tremendous investment in arts education. The result is a diverse and vibrant arts community that is out of proportion to the size of the town. It’s a powerful example to other communities questioning the value of arts funding.

AND SO IT CONTINUES:

Li’l Abner… Anything Goes (again)… High Society… Crazy For You… Footloose… on into the fourth decade…

The Peter Quince Performing Company’s 2003 production, Footloose, opens at the Capital Civic Center theater in Manitowoc on August 7th, and runs through August 10th. Call 920-683-2184 for tickets. More information can be found at www.peterquince.org.

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