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Barnstormers Theatre turns 70

We stepped inside the intimate space eager for a respite from the city and life. We found our seats and waited for the transport through time to the misty, mysterious moors of Northern England. Once there, we would learn about the legend of a gigantic, murderous hound.

In all the years of tootling around Southern Oregon, I had somehow bypassed this jewel of a venue. Last Sunday, we discovered Barnstormers Theatre in Grants Pass — Oregon’s longest continuously operating community theater. This year marks their 70th anniversary of bringing stories to life on stage.

Mike Spooner founded Barnstormers in 1952. During the early years, actors and crew produced plays in parks, schools and anywhere they could support an audience. In 1961 the group purchased a 1925 church building at the corner of Sixth Street and Evelyn Avenue and paid off the mortgage in ticket sales and donations.

Today, the small structure, a picture of humility on the outside, houses the hearts and efforts of many dedicated volunteers, including professional actors, who work simply for the love of offering live community theater. The only paid position is one executive director.

Stories are magical however they come — books, movies, songs and definitely live theater. What’s more captivating than watching a cluster of fellow humans populate a stage for a couple of hours, put on different characters, and act out life from another time and place? Fabulous!

Barnstormers derives its name from the barnstorming pilots who flew from farm to farm during the 1920s, landing in fields and delighting locals by putting on shows of aerial nutsiness. Think barrel rolls, wing-walkers/dancers, and even midair plane transfers. Pilots sold rides to those brave enough to leave the sod behind and go soaring. The term came to be used by any traveling troupe of performers who showcased their talents in a willing farmer’s barn.

We had the good fortune of nabbing tickets for the current production of “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” a Sherlock Holmes mystery directed by Tim Coatney. I’d tried getting tickets for “Clue,” the previous production, but they sold out early.

As with all intimate community theaters, there are no bad seats. You’re close to the action, never missing a detail. When the curtains opened, Lane and I were impressed with the set right off. We’d traveled back to 1903 and the sitting room of Baskerville Hall, an ancestral family home in Devonshire, England, complete with roiling vapors and howling winds from the moors just outside the French doors.

The cast of 10 performed their roles admirably — some obviously professionals. Varying levels of experience among actors is part of the charm of community theater. It gives newbies a chance to strut their hour upon the stage. I’m regularly impressed with more mature actors with so much dialog to memorize.

Steven Corelis as the wily Sherlock Holmes is a retired teacher enjoying his fourth show with Barnstormers. He managed his many lines well. As a fan of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories and rather a purist when it comes to story adaptations, I was uncomfortable at first with a female Dr. Watson. However, Gwendolyn Duffy, who played Watson, is a trained actor, and it shows. She gives Holmes a run for his money. I also enjoyed the talented Tricia Drevets as Lady Agatha Mortimer. She’s experienced, with many theater productions under her cap.

These folks, onstage and in the production crew, volunteer their time bringing quality live theater to our area. They deserve robust support. I enjoy our Oregon Shakespeare Festival (when I can spring for a ticket). The quality of their productions, elaborate costumes and set design are second to none. But my heart inclines toward small community theaters. Now, I happily add Barnstormers Theatre to my list of area gems.

There are four showings of the current production remaining, including one this Sunday afternoon. It runs through Sunday, March 13. Tickets are a miserly $18. See http://barnstormersgp.com/ for details. I may have shot myself in the proverbial seat by spreading news of this doozy, but that’s what I do.

Peggy Dover is a freelance writer/author. Reach her at pcdover@hotmail.com.