The board of directors, actors and patrons.
Joel McGill said those three elements have been important to the success of Jackson County Community Theatre.
“The talent in our community we knew was there, but they didn’t know it was there,” he said of the early years of the organization. “They would try out, and some of them really liked it. A lot of them were really pretty good.”
His wife, Sarah McGill, said while some people only did one show and checked it off their bucket list, others liked it and stayed with it.
With “Picasso at the Lapin Agile” being staged the next two weekends, JCCT is starting its 50th season.
“The community has always been really supportive,” Sarah said. “There were plays where there are 40 people out there (in the audience), but we just kept going.”
The group’s origin dates to 1969 when A.R. “Slim” Callis directed a production of “The Glass Menagerie” at Camp Pyoca in Brownstown, where he was resident manager.
Community response was positive, and Callis followed with productions of “Our Town” and “The Miracle Worker” in 1971 and 1972 at Brownstown Presbyterian Church.
By 1973, Callis had convinced a group of interested people that it was time for a formal structure to the thespian group, and a board of directors was formed. Callis served as artistic director.
Don Clodfelter, who had been involved with the theater since 1969 shortly after he and his wife, Anne, moved to Brownstown, became the first board president and went to work obtaining JCCT’s nonprofit status. He said that process took at least a year.
In May 1973, Clodfelter received permission from the county commissioners to stage the courtroom drama “The Night of January 16th” at the Jackson County Courthouse in Brownstown. The audience served as the jury.
It then became evident that JCCT needed a permanent location, and the board accepted a proposal to rent the old Royal movie theater from Kenneth “Bock” Ball. The theater at 121 W. Walnut St. was built in the early 1900s by Arch Greger and Victor Sage, and Ball purchased it in the late 1920s and ran it until the 1950s.
Volunteers labored through the summer of 1974 to transform the old movie theater into a stage theater. After Royal closed, it became a place to house horses and was used for storage space.
The repurposed building was christened Royal Off-the-Square Theatre. The first performance there, “A Day in the Park,” happened in late summer with folding chairs loaned by REMC and no air conditioning.
Around that time, Callis began sharing his directing expertise with others, and some new directors began coming on board, including Mike Tormoehlen, Ralph Michael and Joe Persinger.
Sarah McGill said JCCT has been blessed with people stepping up over the years to direct shows.
“They don’t all stay forever like we did, but just the right people came along at just the right time,” she said.
While Sarah was working on her master’s degree in biology at Indiana University, she said she took a makeup class to learn more so she could apply her skills at the theater.
“I never wanted to be onstage, but I just loved being backstage,” she said.
There, however, was one show in the 1990s where the leading lady had to go to the hospital three days before opening night, and Sarah stepped up to learn the lines and fill in.
Joel had a stint as board president and has done acting, set building, lighting, sound and directing, while Sarah serves as the theater’s administrator.
For the Clodfelters, Don was board president for two years and also helped paint and work on sets over the years, and Anne filled the roles of director, actor and musician. They also have been longtime patrons of the theater.
“That is kind of amazing it’s still here and still in the same place,” Don said.
Anne credits the people over the years for making JCCT what it is today.
“We’ve had wonderful people,” she said.
A few years after JCCT established as a nonprofit, patrons contributed funds to purchase Royal from Ball. While it was good to have a permanent home, the building had cramped quarters with severely limited space for a stage production.
Under the leadership of Tormoehlen, with generous gifts of funds, materials and volunteer labor from the community, major building projects in 1988 and 2012 added much-needed space.
In the 1980s, a series of youth productions took place during the summers, directed and acted by high school and college students.
Erin Ortman, JCCT’s grant writer and house manager, said she was among a group in 1985 that participated in the youth summer workshop.
“We were kind of a ragtag group of just nerdy high school kids, but when we met up here at the theater, we were something,” she said, smiling. “It gave us something to be proud of and something that I think kind of bonded us together.”
She later stepped away from the theater when she got married and had kids. Then in 2008, she and her husband attended JCCT’s dinner theater show, and she realized she needed to get involved again.
“It was like coming home,” she said. “Everything looked the same, it smelled the same, the same people were here and it was amazing. I haven’t left since.”
In the summer of 2015, JCCT nurtured the development of a new youth movement, Jackson County Young Artists’ Theatre, for kids in elementary through high school.
Ortman said JCCT has succeeded because of its deep roots.
“Great roots were planted. There’s a very strong foundation, and that cannot be discounted at all,” she said.
She agreed with Joel about the community support being crucial.
“It’s not just on the stage. There’s a whole bunch of talent that goes into running this place — getting the money we need to do that, amazing patrons and the building that we have here,” Ortman said.
“I think it’s so exciting that we’re at a place now where we’ve got this strong foundation and we’ve got these strong roots and we’ve got this history, but we also have a lot of exciting things going on with younger people that are going to be here,” she said. “It’s like one of those things where I feel confident that we’re going to have a 100-year anniversary. I won’t be here to see it, but it’ll happen.”
Ortman’s children are involved in shows at the theater, and she said it’s great to have an outlet like that available for all ages.
“In this age where so much is social media and people are not connecting, this kind of thing, people enjoy this,” she said. “It’s a way of connecting people that is not readily available so much anymore, and I think the community enjoys having a place to go where you see your neighbor and you can then talk about what you saw. The theater has never lost its relevance in the community, so that’s exciting, as well.”
The 50th season begins Friday with the 181st mainstage play. Do you have your tickets?
If you go
Jackson County Community Theatre’s 50th season (2019-20)
“Picasso at the Lapin Agile” (mainstage): Sept. 13, 14, 20 and 21
“The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” (mainstage holiday): Dec. 6, 7, 8, 13 and 14 (auditions at 7 p.m. Sept. 22 and 23)
“Godspell” (mainstage dinner theater): Feb. 14, 15, 16, 21 and 22 (auditions at 7 p.m. Oct. 27 and 28)
“Ordinary People” (mainstage): April 24 and 25 and May 1 and 2 (auditions at 7 p.m. Feb. 23 and 24)
Jackson County Young Artists’ Theatre
“Charlotte’s Web:” July 12, 13, 14, 19 and 20
“15 Reasons Not to Be in a Play:” Jan. 24, 25 and 26 (auditions at 7 p.m. Nov. 10 and 11)
All shows except the dinner theater are at Royal Off-the Square Theatre, 121 W. Walnut St., Brownstown.
The season is supported by a grant from the arts partnership of the Columbus Area Arts Council, Indiana Arts Commission and National Endowment for the Arts.
At a glance
As part of Jackson County Community Theatre’s 50th season, special events have been added to the calendar.
That includes Theater Education and Discussion events at 2:30 p.m. Oct. 20 and Nov. 10 with presentations from people involved in the industry, audience questions and light refreshments.
The 50th season fund drive continues with patrons having an opportunity to sponsor a seat, help spruce up the theater and participate in a 50/50 raffle. The goal is to have 50 new memberships, $50,000 in community donations and 50 new volunteers, both actors and crew.
The 50th season celebration party is set for May 17, 2020.
For information and to learn how to donate to the 50th season fund drive, visit jcct.org/50th-season or jcct.org/get-involved, email [email protected] or call 812-358-5228.