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Mystery in an Old Red Barn

Blog writer at theatre

Here I am, about to explore the mystery inside the old red barn

In an age dominated by flat digital screens that transmit mind-numbing television shows and formula-driven block-buster films, live theatre is a refuge for people seeking entertainment that stimulates rather than benumbs brain cells. The play is the thing: I do not want to see pixilated images perfectly edited and enhanced by the latest technology; give me instead a stage filled by flesh and blood human beings who work hard to win us over with talent, passion, and wit, their own mental and spiritual resources, as well as their understanding of a text, the play.

There is no escape: We are staring right at them. No film editor will cover up their mistakes. If the actors succeed the audience is rewarded with an emotional release, laughter or tears, and they are rewarded with applause.

The theatre lights go down. The play is about to begin. If a day comes when I do not feel a jolt of energy flow through my veins at this moment then I will know I have become irrevocably jaded and cynical, and the last ember of the fire within my soul has been forever stamped out.

The Barn Theatre

The Barn, the home theatre for Playcrafters of Skippack

For now, that fire is stoked each time I enter an old red barn a few blocks from my house with a sign that reads “Playcrafters of Skippack.” Soon after we moved into town, my wife and I became subscription members of our community theater. With all due respect to our fine retail establishments and restaurants, it is the best deal in town. Many evenings, we have walked to the Barn theatre, up the narrow stairs and taken our seats in this warm, intimate setting and been treated to a thought-provoking drama or delightful comedy.

This year, I decided to get a preview of the 2011 season. I wrote to Gay Hoyle, public relations co-coordinator for Playcrafters of Skippack, and now I find myself on a rainy rehearsal night visiting the director and cast for the season’s first show The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940.

I am used to the Barn theatre on show nights when it is filled with the buzz of conversation and jostling of overcoats. Tonight, it is eerily quiet. I find my way to the stairway that leads to the dressing rooms and backstage area and meet my contact, Thomas M. McGuire, the show’s director.

Thomas M. McGuire, director of this season’s first show The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940.

This is a community theatre: all the people who participate in a production are volunteers. They must earn their daily bread at some other occupation. At the end of a full work day they come to the Barn for rehearsals that usually last between two and three hours. Because of their work, the town where I live and made my largest investment is made culturally viable, an oasis in the suburban desert.

Tom wears his hair close cropped like a soldier in the army, and I am picturing him leading a rag-tag militia defending Skippack against the forces of shopping mall philistinism which seem to have thoroughly conquered most surrounding neighborhoods.

Tom, who in his day job is a professor of biology at Penn State Abington, describes The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940 as “Agatha Christy meets Scooby Doo.” He explains that the production is not a musical, but a comic mystery written and first performed in the 1980s.

In the play, the creative team for a theatrical production company known for staging musical flops is brought together, ostensibly to stage a special performance of a new show for a potential financial backer. However, we learn that there is another reason for the gathering: During the run of a previous show, three chorus girls were murdered. The creative team has really been called together to find out which of these eccentric show biz folks is a serial killer.

There is another mystery: By opening night, Tom will have put more than a year’s worth of work into this production and not one penny in his pocket. Why does he do it?

The Play's the Thing: Linda Friday practices her lines with fellow cast member Steven Zanine

Linda Friday practices her lines with fellow cast member Steven Zanine

“I loved theatre ever since I was a kid,” says Tom, “it was always my avocation. It balances out my work in the sciences. In college, I was a double major; biology and English. I’ve always said that I enjoy both sides of my brain working.”

Tom introduces me to one of the cast members, Linda Friday, an elegant, well-spoken woman from nearby Quakertown who has been acting for many years (she first appeared at Playcrafters 10 years ago), and participates in many community theatre productions. I ask her what distinguishes Playcrafters of Skippack from other community theatres.

“Compared to other community theatres, Playcrafters is more willing to stage productions that are cutting edge or at least slightly left of center,” explains Linda. Many community theatres play it much safer, sticking to familiar plays and musicals to avoid offending the audience or potential patrons.

Linda credits the town that surrounds the theatre. Skippack, with its unusual shops and diverse restaurant offerings, attracts people, visitors and residents, who will support a sophisticated community theatre.

The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940 in rehearsal. From left to right: Bill Lamack, Linda Friday, Elizabeth McDonald, Amy Reifinger, and Steven Zanine.

The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940 in rehearsal. From left to right: Bill Lamack, Linda Friday, Elizabeth McDonald, Amy Reifinger, and Steven Zanine.

After our interview, I am invited to sit in on a rehearsal of The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940. I have never attended a theatrical rehearsal before. Memory cells are jogged as many of the actors are vaguely familiar to me (“wasn’t that guy the lead in last year’s production of Pippin?”). Predictably, the acting is rough around the edges, with actors stopping suddenly to call out “lines, please.” Sometimes, cast members break down in laughter at their own mistakes or find themselves standing at the wrong end of the stage.

But through it all, I sense characters coming into being, a story taking shape. Soon enough, I am hooked by the plot and by the eccentric personalities the actors depict. I want to stay, but force myself to leave. I have tickets for the performance Saturday April 2. I do not want to spoil my night of theatre. Give me the full production. I have learned that the easiest and most enjoyable part is to be a member of the audience.

The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940 is the first show of Playcrafters of Skippack 2011 season and opens March 31. For more information, visit www.playcrafters.org.

My date for the play The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940; let the show begin!

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Categories: People, Theatre
  1. Barbara Hermansen
    March 21, 2011 at 12:45 pm

    In live theater, the actors and the audience are there only for each other and what happens will never happen exactly the same way again. Add such a lovely setting….Enjoy the show, Skippack! Have a wonderful season!

  2. March 22, 2011 at 11:26 am

    I have lived in Skippack Twp. for many years and never caught a show. Shame on me. It has certianly crossed my mind more than once. Your post Michael has peeked my interest again. Thanks

  3. Bob
    March 23, 2011 at 10:43 am

    Theater was made to be experienced in an intimate setting. One needs to connect with the players. The large cavernous “arenas” that one finds on Broadway are not conducive to the experience. They are only passable for musicals and not a place to see serious drama or comedy.
    While the production values and performances are not equal to Broadway; I have found I enjoy local theater more.

  4. jonstolpe
    April 1, 2011 at 8:29 am

    Michael, You have a new regular blog follower. I really appreciate your subject matter, as we are just up the road from Skippack. My father-in-law took our kids to a play at the barn this summer, and they loved the experience. I’m excited to check it out with my wife sometime in the near future.

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