If a theater survives five years, a theater has reached a major milestone. A decade? That's a relative rarity. Endure for 60 years and it's not so much of a stretch to say you've defied astronomical odds and all common sense. Especially if you are located in the heart of Amish country more than two hours away from a major city ( in this case, Chicago ).
Put Sullivan, Illinois' Little Theatre on the Square squarely in odds-defying category. Since its inaugural production of Brigadoon in 1957, the 418-seat Equity theater in tiny Sullivan, Illinois ( population just over 6,000 at the last census ) has endured.
The man behind the curtain
It's tough to imagine the Little Theatre without the round-the-clock ministrations of John Stephens, 40, who this year celebrates a decade as the venue's executive director and producer.
"I feel like we do sometimes have to work a little harder than big-city theaters, both to get audiences and draw talent. People who had started here have gone on to Broadway, and the major regional theaters," Stephens said. "I love spotting talented people early, and giving them a chance to shine."
This year's six-show season started with Million Dollar Quartet ( ended June 17 ), and continues with Hello Dolly ( June 20July 1 ), Damn Yankees July 5-15, Annie ( July 1829 ), Young Frankenstein ( Aug. 112 ) and finally Noises Off ( Aug. 1526 ). The annual holiday show follows in December.
Of thruples and Astoria Weed
Stephens' affection for Sullivan extends beyond the theater's walls. The Millikin University music education major lives in a Victorian mansion ( about the same price as a one-bedroom in Boystown if local real-estate listings are to be believed ) with his husband of 15 years, Timmy Valentine. For six years, Valentine and Stephens have been in a thruple that includes Tyler Mosier.
While Stephens tends to the theater, Moser and Valentine run the thruple's Astoria Soap Company, a line of luxury bath items they make in their home. The Astoria products range from whimsical soaps ( "Clown Repellent" and "Werewolf Moon" are popular, as is the hemp oil-infused "Astoria Weed" ) to more traditionally scented/infused lip balms, moisturizers and lotions.
"Our house always smells wonderful," said Stephens.
Sullivan doesn't initially seem like the typical town where non-traditional relationships, Equity theater and high-end, weed-themed toiletries line would flourish. The town is the county seat of Moultrie County, where Donal Trump garnered 77.1 percent of the vote in 2016. Demographics, however, don't always live up to assumptions about them.
"It's not an issue, being in a thruple. We're not a secret. People just accept us," said Stephens. "I don't go around talking about who's in what bed, but I think people kind of know. It's honestly not a big deal."
The offstage influence of Betty Grable and friends
Since its inception, the theater itself has been an integral part of shaping attitudes in Sullivan, according to Dr. Beth Shrevey's The Little Theatre on the Square: Four Decades of a Small-Town Equity Theatre. The 2000 hardcover talks about the theater's origins as a for-profit "star" venuea place where touring celebrities were featured starring in short runs of classic plays. Shrevey writes that the influx of actors and other stage folks interacted with the townies, leading Sullivan to deal with issues such as homophobia and racism a lot more regularly and sooner than many other small Midwestern towns.
Started in 1957 by John Little, the 16 Street Harrison Street theater was a commercial venture through 1978. Close to 200 stars performed thereMickey Rooney, Alan Alda, Ann Miller, Don Ameche, Betty Grable, John Carradine, Leonard Nimoy and Forrest Tucker among them. The theater went non-profit in 1981. During Stephens' tenure, it expanded to its six-show season.
Damn the tornadoes
Stephens takes the old "show-must-go-on" credo to extremes. "We're in tornado alley," he noted. "Unexpected things can happen." When a storm cut the theater's power mid-show several years ago, the cast finished the production with flashlights and no microphones. Stephens recalls huddling with the cast and crew in the building's basement during a tornadoand finishing rehearsal after it had passed over.
The Little Theatre is a lean enterprisethe entire season comes in every year at around $1.5 million. That might sound like a lot but it isn't, not for Equity theater. According to an NPR report, it took roughly $87 million to stage Harry Potter. At Chicago's larger Equity houses, expenses for a single musical such as the Goodman's lavish Brigadoon can hover close to the $1 million mark.
Naughty, not dirty
Ticket sales account for less than half the theater's revenue, something Stephens became keenly aware of during the three years he spent in the theater's marketing department.
"Programming a season can be tricky," he said. "We try to do a mix of family-friendly shows, and then at least one that's a little bit edgier. I always say our audiences like naughty, but not dirty. So this year, for instance, we've got Young Frankenstein, definitely not a family show. I mean, there's a whole song about 'don't dare touch our tits', ( Don't Touch )." One year we did Hair," he added. "We did a matinee for seniors where, after a lot of debate and an abundance of caution, we decided not to do the nude scene. People complained that the scene had been cut."
Extrovert in action
For Stephens, ensuring the theater thrives financially isn't just about programming. It's about cultivating relationships with the people of Sullivan, and those that travel from as far as Indianapolis and St. Louis to see Little Theatre shows.
"It sounds trite, but it really is all about reaching out and meeting people," Stephens said. "And I love to make people smile. Good theater can do that. So can just being friendly." A veteran of countless Chamber of Commerce luncheons and tourism programs, Stephens says he enjoys promotional duties. It's tough to imagine the theater surviving if he didn't: Every year, he raises roughly $450,000 of that $1 million budget. Combined with ticket sales and the theater's educational programs, he keeps things in the black.
The secret value of ( fake ) hairdryers
In 2016, Stephens launched an additional $1.2 capital campaign to pay for refurbishments to the theater. He wants to build a scene and costume shop, and install a state-of-the-art movie screen. "Then we can program classic movies too. We'll truly be a 52-a-week operation," he said. He's about $700,000 toward his goal.
He also wants additional storage space, which would help expand the Little Theatre's capacity to rent out costumes and scenery. "We have literally thousands of set pieces and costumes we could rent out. It doesn't make sense, for example, for a local community theater to build a whole beauty salon from scratch for Steel Magnolias. We have all the chairs, all the dryers."
The educational wing of the theater draws interest as well. Stephens estimates that some 275 students are involved in the theater arts and dance-classes. There's also a touring programStudents' Theatre Arts Reach, or S.T.A.R.that takes kids' shows on the roads. Little Theatre records estimate that some 130,000 people have taken advantage of the S.T.A.R. shows.
For Stephens, it all comes down to making people happy. "There is no greater high than hearing an audience laugh or applaud," he said. "For me, it's always been about making the audience feel good, and giving them an escape. People want that. They need it. And I hope we can give that to them."
For more information about the Little Theatre on the Square, go to TheLittleTheatre.org or call 217-728-7375. For more information about Amish Country and other attractions in and around Sullivan, visit SullivanIL.us or call 217-728-4223.
Also see www.windycitymediagroup.com/lgbt/MORE-ON-SULLIVAN-Reminiscing-about-Sullivans-theater/63294.html .