Did you know that Wagon Wheel Center for the Arts programming includes a robust and growing community theatre? The community theatre program was started at the Wagon Wheel in 2013, shortly after the Wagon Wheel became a nonprofit organization.
A little history…
In early 2013, lifelong theatre enthusiast and educator Jennifer Shepherd was contacted by John Hand, founding Board President of the Wagon Wheel. Jennifer was asked to gather some community members together to determine if there was a desire and need for the Wagon Wheel to develop a community theatre program for adults. The Wagon Wheel had been operating as a nonprofit for only 2 years but had seen rapid growth in the expansion and demand of community-focused programs like Wagon Wheel Junior (formed in 2012). “It was very quickly decided that the community would benefit from a community theatre program and that there was a strong interest by community members to become involved too. The Board agreed, and I took on the task of planning meetings, creating a plan for how we would run the program, and even directed the first Center Street Community Theatre production at the end of that year,” said Jennifer.
You Can’t Take It With You, October 2014. Directed by Jennifer Shepherd. Photo by: Melissa Jordan Photography.
Originally named Center Street Community Theatre, the newest spoke in the Wagon Wheel family, filled a void not only for those who participated on stage and behind the scenes but for the community and vitality of the arts. Eight years since its beginning, the program has been renamed to Wagon Wheel Community Theatre. The program was always a part of the Wagon Wheel family and now shares its beloved name. Jennifer Shepherd, now a board member of Wagon Wheel Center for the Arts, is still an active leader of Wagon Wheel Community Theatre in addition to providing her vision and creative spirit to the whole nonprofit organization.
What Community Theatre Means…
Community theatre provides adults a place for lifelong learning but also fulfills a deeply rooted human desire we all share – to feel like we belong and have great purpose. Participants in Wagon Wheel Community Theatre are all volunteers, donating their time and talents to produce theatre that makes us, the community, feel like we belong, are a part of something bigger, and simply makes us feel joy. Those of us who sit in the audience and watch a Wagon Wheel Community Theatre performance, we watch our friends and neighbors stretch their creativity and talents as they transport us to other worlds and stories. For those who act, direct, organize, and plan a Wagon Wheel Community Theatre show, their experience is that much and more! Here are just a few of their stories…
Wagon Wheel Community Theatre is an opportunity for adults of all experience levels to perform. Whether it is your first time on stage or behind the scenes, or you have loved performing all your life, WWCT gives adults the opportunity to learn new skills and build lasting relationships.
Lori Widman had never acted before WWCT, though she was comfortable on stage singing in the choir and at church. “Having never acted before, joining a production by WWCT was wildly interesting to me! Jennifer Shepherd directing me made all the difference – she made me funny and believable.”
Rebecca Crim, as an elementary choir teacher, knows how valuable the arts are for all ages and is thankful she can continue to perform even as an adult, “I always enjoyed performing when I was younger. Having that opportunity as an adult brings back the same excitement and enthusiasm as when I was younger!”
For some, getting to be a part of WWCT gives them the opportunity to right past regrets. “I always wanted to try theatre but I never did. I feared after college I’d never get the chance again. But WWCT gave me that chance and welcomed me into an amazing world of talented and kind people,” said Charles Brindle who was the assistant director for WWCT’s most recent production of The Odd Couple.
The people are truly what make Wagon Wheel Community Theatre special. The actors, crew, and directors are managers, nurses, engineers, teachers, lawyers, retirees, transplants from outside this community, lifelong residents, parents, grandparents, college graduates, etc. They are our loved ones, friends, and neighbors.
Cindy Nash, a retired teacher who has been a part of WWCT for 8 years now, said “the bonds and friendships you form by being a part of an artistic endeavor are my favorite part of being in WWCT.”
Emilie Barr, an analyst at DePuy Synthes, who has participated in several shows onstage and offstage, similarly said, “My favorite memories of WWCT all stem from the relationships I’ve built. Building a family on a common interest that is more than just a hobby, it’s also hard work!”
“WWCT is so special because we all come from different walks of life but we unify for the sake of art, develop friendships along the way, and then pass those along to the audience,” said Katey Wilks Zemen, Community Coordinator at Cardinal Services. It is no surprise that as audience members, we see the bonds formed when we watch a WWCT production.
Wagon Wheel Community Theatre in the time of Covid…
Wagon Wheel Community Theatre was the first program at the Wagon Wheel this year to welcome back a live audience. The Odd Couple: Female Edition, heralded back laughter, friendship, and most of all community. Melissa Jordan, playing one of the leads Florence Unger, said returning to the Wagon Wheel to perform felt like hope. “On opening night of The Odd Couple, I walked in the back door and saw the stage, dimly lit and ready for a live show.” The Wagon Wheel hadn’t had a live performance on stage since last October, almost 6 months. “On the other side of the stage, ushers and house staff were busy getting ready for the audience – for people to once again be together for the purpose of enjoying life, supporting their families, friends, and local theatre, and celebrating community.”
The Odd Couple: Female Edition. March, 2021. Directed by Nicole Miller. Photo by: Marah Grant Photography.
While the audience was limited to under 215 people in the 836-seat theatre due to social distancing guidelines, Melissa said “the world is slowly opening back up and when I saw that fully-ready round stage on opening night it felt like a renewal of all this is good in life, it felt like hope.”
Dr. Nicole Miller who directed the show felt that sense of hope too, not just from the audience but from being surrounded by the cast and crew during the months of preparing for the show. “WWCT is the friends who are family. Being a part of this production was not just getting the chance to act or direct, but the chance to be surrounded by welcoming, loving, and supportive people.” Something we have all needed during such a difficult year, and something WWCT and the arts provide us all and will continue to provide as we get the chance to engage in community once again.
Wagon Wheel Community Theatre currently produces two plays each year and is also well-loved for its annual audience participation, Murder Mystery production where audience members form teams to uncover “who done it?!” in a fast-paced, fun-filled evening. Wagon Wheel Community Theatre is open to adults 18 and older of all experience levels. Volunteers are welcome on stage as well as behind the scenes in directing, costumes, props, stage management, and more! To learn more or stay up to date on auditions and opportunities to participate, visit the Wagon Wheel Community Theatre program page.