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ICT Production History

A Personal History of
Iola Community Theatre

By Mary Martin, ICT President 1978-2004

Forty years later, it’s hard to remember what Iola was like before community theater. However, without the effort of a few dedicated individuals and the overwhelming support of the citizens of Allen County, the Iola Community Theatre might never have been born.

Each of those who have been involved over the last 40 years has a storehouse of memories generated by ICT and the people we’ve met there.  I once asked Theatre founder, Maureen Simmons why she chose to start a community theater at an age when most people choose to retire.

"I was sitting in my garden one morning drinking coffee," she said.  "I had just sold my clothing store, you know, and I was wondering what to do with the rest of my life.  I remembered that some of us had been thinking about getting together to put on a play.  It made me wonder just how one went about starting a community theater.  So, I drove to KU to talk to Dr. Tom Rea in the theater department, and the rest is history."

It certainly is!  Mrs. Simmons invited Dr. Rea to come to Iola to talk to a group of interested people in the fall of 1964.  He told us that the average life of a community theater was seven years and that it wasn’t enough to just "put on a play" but we must be concerned with quality in all phases of production.  He further said that broad community involvement was absolutely essential for success.

Thanks to Dr. Rea, with his KU connections, and Mrs. Simmons, with her dedication to detail, the Iola Community Theatre was given a firm foundation upon which to build.  A loyal cadre of support personnel soon sprang up.  People like Spencer Gard, Bob Stadler, Russell Goes, Ev Harlan, Jack and Alberta Jeffery, John Foust, Helen Lacy and others came forward to help launch this great endeavor.  Many of these people provided financial backing for the first few years.

The first production, "Teahouse of the August Moon", took place on March 5 and 6, 1965, in the Memorial Hall on North Washington Street.  It was directed by a KU graduate student and starred lots of local people, and one local goat who drank strawberry pop.  The sets and costumes were all made by volunteers from the community.  The total cost of the production was $1,227.46 and it made a profit of $424.59.

There was no detail of production too small for Mrs. Simmons to oversee in those early years.  She was tireless and when others might have been inclined to settle for less she wasn’t.  "The details make the difference" was her motto and it became so ingrained that ICT still expends great effort on the details.

When Maureen Simmons retired as president of the theater board in 1968, she turned over the reins to a woman whose strength and determination were, at least, equal to her own.  Ann Curry was a talented actress, singer and administrator.  Under her guidance the group grew and prospered for the next 10 years.  She and Maureen had many things in common besides their love of theater.  It was amazing to watch how they could both, by merely showing up, turn a rehearsal from mediocre to marvelous.

Strangely enough, the Iola Community Theatre was first incorporated as the Allen County Arts Council.  It was the first county-wide arts council in the state of Kansas, and one of the few in the United States.  The original idea was to provide an impetus for not only the theater, but a community orchestra, chorus, and visual arts group.  Interestingly, all of these groups now exist separately, and the other functions of a local arts agency are vested in the Bowlus Center.  So, it seems the seed grew, even though the name was changed in a few years when it became obvious these arts groups each needed their own identity.

For two years, in 1966 to mid-1968 ICT had a full time paid director, Richard Sharine.  Unfortunately, our income was not sufficient to continue this expense after Mr. Sharine left to pursue other interests.  Since then, all ICT shows have been directed by volunteers, who are given a very small stipend to help cover their expenses.

A list of participants in ICT Productions would read like a who’s who of the last 40 years of area history.  Thousands of people of all ages and walks of life have come together on-stage and backstage to enjoy the magic of doing live theater.  Cast and orchestra members have driven from as far away as Emporia, Fort Scott, Garnett, Yates Center, Burlington and Chanute to take part.  Our alumni have spread out all over the USA and beyond.  Young people who took part in early ICT productions are now grandparents watching their grandchildren perform.

Whenever ICT people get together, the memories come out and laughter soon follows.  They’ll tell you the best stories happen off-stage.  We see new people as a chance to make new friends, and more than one romance has blossomed between the overture and the final curtain.  I think Mrs. Simmons would probably be amazed at what has evolved from her daydream over a cup of coffee in the sunshine.

               ... Mary