Two days after Christmas, the Theatre of the Highlands announced that the curtain had fallen and they were ending their 14 year run.
The Theatre of the Highlands (TOTH) was for many years a wondrously bright spot in the early summer for the theatre types – a place where they could get together in the best Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland tradition and put on a show. Over the last decade, hundreds of kids/teens/adults learned and practiced their acting/dancing/singing skills under the tutelage of the Theatre. I know. I was one of them.
In 1998, Eugene & Tammy O’Reilly and Ray & Karen Klemchuk got together, rented Highlands School’s multi-purpose room, and launched TOTH with three rousing performances of Gypsy. The new community theatre had caught on and the next summer the troupe was back with Music Man. My eldest daughter, Claire, joined the 2000 production of Bye, Bye Birdie and her sister Grace enlisted the following year for Fiddler on the Roof.
Unable to resist the lure of the stage myself, and wanting to spend time with my daughters, I auditioned in 2003 for Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, the same year that TOTH left Highlands School for the big-time stage at LTHS’s Reber Center. I still cringe at my often off-key singing (I made the mistake of watching a video of the performance), but I was hooked.
Joseph was a huge production and packed the Reber Center with audiences of 400 or 500 or more for each of their four performances. TOTH had hit the big time.
Grass-roots community theatres (unlike, say, the Theatre of Western Springs) live a precarious existence, dependent on generous donors and plump attendance at their shows. And attendance is rather dependent upon cast size (the bigger the better) and the number of children in the cast (the more the merrier).
TOTH found this out the hard way the next year when they produced A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. It was a teens-and-older show and attendance was way down. Even an all-teen production that same year of Godspell did not help the financials much. The following summer TOTH declined to mount a production.
In 2006, seeking to replicate the success of Joseph, TOTH went big time with Beauty and the Beast. It had a huge cast with lots of kids. And not only were there ample kids on stage, but Beauty was a story that appealed to kids. And it was a huge success, doing great box office for 8 shows, twice the usual run.
Beauty was followed by Oliver!, which again brought in plentiful theatre goers intent in large part on seeing their child on stage.
TOTH reached its pinnacle (IMHO) in 2008 with its production of CATS! CATS! is a demanding musical, with (almost literally) tons of make-up and costumes and wigs. And dancing . . . lots of dancing. CATS! was a bona fide hit, both artistically and financially.
It was all downhill from there.
No, I don’t mean that the quality of subsequent shows suffered. Sweeney Todd (2009) was a great production of a difficult show. But attendance was way down, in large part because Sweeney Todd had, like Forum, an adult/teen-only cast – and mostly teens at that.
Sweeney Todd was followed in 2010 by How to Succeed in Business, another fine production without kids, and, like Sweeney Todd, the story and songs in How to Succeed had no appeal to kids. Perhaps predictably, How to Succeed was poorly attended and the financial cushion that had been built up by Beauty and Oliver! was depleted.
TOTH declined to mount a production in 2011. Even more damaging, the O’Reillys and the Klemchuks parted ways that year. After some brisk fund-raising by a new Board of Directors, an O’Reilly-only TOTH returned last year for Hello, Dolly. As usual, it was first-rate and even had some children in the cast, although it was by no means a children’s show, and the audience was sparse. It was the death knell for Theatre of the Highlands.
As mentioned, community theatres lead a precarious existence. Surely, the Theatre of the Highlands could have continued to be successful by putting on shows that both appealed to children and featured large numbers of them in the cast. Stage Door Fine Arts is doing that very thing. But as teachers, Eugene and Tammy O’Reilly and Karen Klemchuk also do this in their day jobs, so it’s understandable that they would want to try something challengingly different for their summer production.
On the other hand, the North Riverside Players have been successful without pursuing the kids market, putting on two shows each year for the last 20 years, most recently Guys and Dolls and Dracula, hardly children’s fare. But the Players pay little for their space or their costuming, and there are other vital differences – but I’m already over my word limit so a more in-depth comparison will have to await another column. : )
Let me close this column by stating the obvious – the Theatre of the Highlands was a success. It was a vital part of the community and taught us, the actor wannabes, so very much about the theatre, about singing and dancing and acting and stagecraft and more. My daughters both went on to appear in numerous productions at LTHS, winning several Singletaries (LTHS’s version of the Tony award) in the process. Grace was also prominent within the College of DuPage and Elmhurst College theatre scenes, while at U of I Champaign Claire went on to produce and star in The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, Lily Tomlin’s justly famous one-woman show. And I’m still actively acting and have even directed two of my own shows: Bye Bye Birdie in 2009 and The Wizard of Oz in 2011. And I owe it all to TOTH.
So, all hail the Theatre of the Highlands. Thanks for everything. The community is richer because of you.