20 yearsof the River City Players

Friday, February 14, 2003

Jeff Statler was a junior in high school when the late Ann Abbott started the River City Players 20 years ago. He worked on the first production, "Same Time Next Year." The company, then called Associated Community Theatre, put on plays in the garage of the old firehouse at Frederick and Independence streets, now the River Heritage Museum.

Statler wasn't involved with the troupe during the 10 years after he graduated from Central High School but now is one of the core members of the community theater company, whose 20th anniversary season begins this weekend with "The Chicago Caper."

Abbott's is a revered name in the company's history. Their annual awards are named for her. She was a high school substitute teacher who loved drama. In those 20 years the organization also has been called the Concord Repertory Players when they presented plays at the Concord Theater on Broadway and later the Broadway Community Theater before taking the name of their latest home, the River City Yacht Club.

The RCP's forte is simple: a good buffet dinner and can't-miss theater. The shows often are sold out.

Some RCP productions have been outlandishly popular. In 1983, the company's first summer stock season, "Death Trap" was continued two weekends past the scheduled run because the demand for tickets was so high. "That one wouldn't go away," Statler said.

More recently, productions of "Bus Stop," "Proposals," "Nunsense," "Steel Magnolias" and "On Golden Pond" drew big crowds. An estimated 75 percent of the company's show sell out.

Compared to Statler, RCP board president Randy Barnhouse is a newcomer. He joined the company three years ago. A history teacher at the alternative education center, Barnhouse became interested after his wife, Debbie, decided to try out for a production and landed a part. The director was having trouble filling another part, so Randy stepped in and enjoyed himself.

"Some of us do not sing or play instruments," Barnhouse said. "This is another outlet for our creativity."

Debbie now is both acting in and directing plays for RCP. Randy served as an assistant director on "A Little Murder Never Hurt Anyone" and on "The Chicago Caper."

In his first play, "Bus Stop," he played Carl, the bus driver whose stop at a diner precipitates all the action.

"Several nights my mouth was so dry I couldn't swallow the cheeseburger and had to spit it out into a napkin," he said.

It isn't being in front of people that scares him. "It's when I drop a line," he said.

Statler recalls having to ad lib for 1 1/2 minutes during a production of "Catfish Moon." In a different play, he had to figure out something to do when one of the other actors missed an entrance entirely. At the River City Yacht Club, the actors wait in the kitchen before making their entrances. "I guess he was getting something to eat," Statler said.

He and Barnhouse are unaware if any former RCP members have gone on to do anything in professional theater. Statler, who owns a hair salon and does Internet sales, has appeared as an extra in movies: "The Firm," "In Country" and "The People Vs. Larry Flynt." Acting for him is "a way to escape."

Community theater can be all-consuming. Rehearsals continue for seven or eight weeks, four nights a week, two to three hours a night.

Six of the eight actors and actresses in "The Chicago Caper" are new faces to RCP audiences. They represent achieving one of the company's goals this year.

"We want new people and new ideas," Statler says. To that end, they are planning to stage "The Chicago Capers" later at venues other than the River City Yacht Club.

They also are raising money to endow a theater scholarship at Southeast Missouri State University.

At the end of 2002, Stacy Storey, who has participated in numerous RCP productions as an actress and director, received the Spotlight Award from the American Association of Community Theatres. The RCP's Chuck Ross won the award the previous year. It is given for contributions to community theater.

The RCP's next production will be "Silvia" in May, followed by the "RCP Follies" in August. The year will end in October with a repeat production of "Same Time Next Year."


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