By SARA ARTHURS
The saying at the Fort Findlay Playhouse is “We have no friends. We just have theater people.” That’s because these theater people spend so much time together, there’s little time for outside activities, said Jim Toth, a member of the board of trustees.
The theater’s production of “Arsenic and Old Lace” will open Thursday. It’s one of many shows from the past five decades being reprised this season as the Playhouse celebrates 50 years at its current location.
Cast and crew spend many volunteer hours at the theater preparing, often in addition to full-time jobs and family commitments. But those interviewed said they do it because they love it. Rehearsal began at 7:30 p.m. and continued past 9:30 the evening The Courier visited but, although it was getting late, the cast maintained a high level of energy on stage.
“Arsenic and Old Lace,” which opened on Broadway in 1941, revolves around “the two charming old maid Brewster sisters. Abby and Martha pursue a mission of mercy by helping homeless and lonely men escape a life of sadness by poisoning them and burying the bodies in the cellar,” the Playhouse website states. “Assisted by Teddy, a brother who believes he is Theodore Roosevelt, all goes well until nephew Mortimer discovers one of the bodies. To further complicate matters, an unexpected visit by brother Jonathan, a serial killer, and his intoxicated friend, Dr. Einstein, throws the family into even more turmoil.”
“It’s a wonderfully funny show. … You laugh and laugh and laugh,” said director Vicki McClurkin.
McClurkin is a recently retired University of Findlay theater professor who has been involved with the Playhouse off and on since 1973. Some cast members told The Courier one reason they’re excited about this production is the chance to work with her.
‘Being someone else’
McClurkin started rehearsal this particular evening by calling out, “Could all of you come out please so I can see your bodies and your little faces?” Those who weren’t immediately needed on stage were sent to a basement lounge, where a closed-circuit television allowed them to watch the rehearsal.
One of those downstairs was m James Porter Foust, who plays Officer O’Hara in “Arsenic” and volunteers at the box office.
He first got involved with the Playhouse about 10 years ago when “they needed Munchkins” for “The Wizard of Oz.” He brought his children, one of whom played the Munchkin coroner. Foust himself, who had acted in college, thought he’d try it out. He was cast as a member of the chorus — a crow who harangued the Scarecrow: “I was a Tin Man polisher and I was one of the Winkie guards.”
Since then, Foust has acted in about 28 productions, not counting others for which he has done lights, sound or stage managing. Foust said he’s willing to tear tickets if that’s what’s needed to help the theater.
Why does he dedicate this much time to it? “Because people need, and want, and deserve good entertainment.”
Castmate Samantha Henry has also been involved with the Playhouse for about a decade. In college, she too tried out for “The Wizard of Oz” and went on to play a Munchkin, a flying monkey and an Ozian. Soon, she was painting sets.
“They suckered me into doing lots of different things,” Henry said.
She’s now president of the board of trustees. She created the period costumes for “Arsenic,” and plays Elaine Harper.
“It takes a lot of hours” to make a production happen, and most people work full time, she said. Many of the people handling the costumes, sets and other behind-the-scenes aspects dedicate many weekend hours to the cause.
“It’s like a family,” she said, and group members travel to see each other perform in other productions in communities like Tiffin and Van Wert.
Pat Courtney plays Martha Brewster. She started acting later in life, after bringing her grandson to audition about 14 years ago. He didn’t get the part, but she was cast. “And I was hooked.”
“I just really like being able to develop a character and become that character,” she said.
Courtney said rehearsals can be “rough” — but then it’s opening night and there’s a crowd and “you get that adrenaline rush.”
She said the production involves “tons and tons and tons of work,” but “you make so many close friendships.” If she has a problem in her life, she can call anyone in her “theater family” and they will be there for her.
“You got to be a special (kind of) crazy to do this,” said Brad Schlumbohm, who plays Dr. Rev. Harper. Ego might get you through the door, he said, but it won’t keep you there.
His favorite role was Scrooge in the musical “Scrooged!” He was 65 and, as the part was “an old guy … obviously they typecast me.”
Jonathan Seeberger, who plays Mortimer Brewster, said he enjoys the experience of “being someone else.” He works the night shift at Cooper Tire and usually heads to work after rehearsal. He is missing some work, and income, because of the play. And, he has an 8-month-old baby at home.
So, how to make it all work? He has a “very understanding wife” who reads lines with him.
Seeberger said he’s met great people through the Playhouse. And, in “Arsenic,” “every part is funny.”
‘Arsenic’ and new auditions
McClurkin said the people involved in “Arsenic” are “wonderful,” committed to showing up for rehearsal and being prepared.
“They really own the show. … They don’t have anything invested in it but themselves,” she said.
When she directs someone new to acting, it’s “a fun challenge” — but, yes, “most definitely,” once they start they get hooked.
She said Findlay also has a loyal group of audience members who have grown to love the Playhouse and “look forward to every season.”
McClurkin started her career in the arts overall at age 7. Her parents didn’t have much money, but recognized talents in their daughter and worked to expand them by making sure she could get voice, music and ballet lessons. She graduated from Otterbein University with a degree in theater, speech and English education. She said it has always been “in my soul” to act and direct.
She’s now 74, and said she read that dancer and choreographer Martha Graham retired from dance at age 84. McClurkin plans to work until at least that age, and perhaps longer.
“I am not going to quit until I have to quit,” she said.
Jordan Gottschalk is producer and assistant director on “Arsenic and Old Lace,” overseeing props, costumes and set building. New volunteers are always needed to help with props, set construction and set dressing (that is, decorating), as well as lights and sound, which, Gottschalk said, are simple to learn.
He said about eight to 12 people are volunteering with this show, some until the wee hours of the morning.
Gottschalk, now a sophomore at Bowling Green State University, got involved with the Playhouse as a student at Liberty-Benton High School, at the urging of his grandmother.
Tyrek Hyde, 17, plays Police Lt. Rooney in “Arsenic,” his second show at the Playhouse. He said acting allows him to see the world through a character’s eyes. Playing a sociopathic character in another play, he found himself doing research on psychology.
Hyde lives in Tiffin and doesn’t have a driver’s license. Sometimes his mom brings him to Findlay, but cast members have also been willing to provide transportation.
Hyde, who has also acted at the Ritz Theatre in Tiffin, said he’s enjoyed the atmosphere at the Playhouse, noting that if someone took a picture of the basement lounge when food was laid out during a play intermission, “I would think this was someone’s house.”
He hopes to pursue a college degree in theater, then try to make a career in the field. But, if he can’t get paid for it, even as a volunteer, “I’d be happy doing theater for the rest of my life.”
The Playhouse produces five to seven shows each year. The day after the final “Arsenic” performance, auditions will begin for “Daddy’s Dyin’, Who’s Got the Will?,” which will be performed in February 2019.
Auditions are at the theater at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 17 and 18. They are open to anyone in the community.
Showtimes for “Arsenic and Old Lace” are 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Dec. 14 and 15; and 5 p.m. Sunday and Dec. 16. The theater is located at 300 W. Sandusky St.
Tickets are $12 and can be purchased in person at the theater or via phone (567-525-3636) from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Mondays through Wednesdays, or online at http://tickets.fortfindlayplayhouse.org