LAKE GENEVA—The three co-founders of the Geneva Theatre Actors Guild all have some professional acting experience, but their latest venture is decidedly less serious than anything seen on Broadway.
The props and costumes are handmade or cobbled together from their own collections. They’ve made script adjustments on performance day, said co-founder Harold Johnson.
In December, while performing “The Man Who Came to Dinner,” some of the cast members were dealing with physical ailments. They sat in chairs and read the script to avoid aggravating their injuries, he said.
And because they’re busy with other responsibilities and don’t have quite as sharp of memories as they did years ago, every show is performed as reader’s theater. Each actor performs while holding a black binder containing his or her lines, he said.
“We don’t see this as something we can make money from, so we’re using it to support the community,” Johnson said.
Proceeds from every show have gone to different local charities, including the Avon Breast Cancer Walk, Friends of Geneva Library, Lake Geneva Food Pantry and Time Is Now, which helps economically disadvantaged families in the area. Each show amounts to several hundred dollars’ worth of donations, co-founder JaNelle Powers said.
Despite the theater group’s quirks, the final product is by no means a joke. Powers won’t let it be.
She has acted professionally since she was 5 years old. She’s performed in Chicago, New York and spent time in touring companies, she said.
No, the community productions inside the Geneva Theater aren’t as glamorous as the ones she built her career on. But she is proud of the work.
“It’s not Broadway, but I take it seriously,” she said. “I try to make this as excellent as we can in a short amount of rehearsals.”
The group put on four plays during the fall, each a one-off performance. They return Feb. 8 with “Love, Loss and What I Wore,” which will benefit a Red Cross blood drive, Powers said.
The group has shows tentatively scheduled for March and April, but it hasn’t finalized its play choices. It does have “The Star-Spangled Girl” on the bill for May, she said.
The Geneva Theatre Actors Guild came together as an offshoot of an effort to purchase and revitalize the then-dormant Geneva Theater.
Powers and others formed the Friends of Geneva Theater, a group that wanted to buy the building and convert it into an art center. But they didn’t collect nearly enough to make a serious bid.
The theater’s eventual new owner, who has since moved on, worked with the group to maintain the original vaudeville stage, built in 1928. The movie theater screen is retractable, so the stage can still be used, Johnson said.
With a buyer in place and the stage preserved, Friends of Geneva Theater no longer needed to save the building. They turned their attention elsewhere, looking for a way to bring back traditional community theater.
The Friends group now underwrites rental costs for theater groups, film groups and other nonprofits to use the facility, Powers said.
That sparked the Geneva Theatre Actors Guild, one of several groups aided by the Friends of Geneva Theater.
Powers, Johnson and Gordon Wisniewski met one day and, less than two hours later, organized a schedule full of monthly shows for their fledgling theater organization. They all suggested scripts they were interested in performing, Johnson said.
Johnson and Wisniewski were not part of the Friends group. But Powers has known Wisniewski for years and recently connected with Johnson through his nearby bookstore, the Breadloaf Book Shop, she said. Breadloaf still functions as the guild’s makeshift box office for play tickets.
Powers said she loves performing and using the shows to make a difference in the greater Lake Geneva community. For Johnson, he listed off several aspects when asked for his favorite part of these productions.
“The audience laughing and appreciating our performance, whether it’s good or bad. The effort we put in ... they find it satisfying, entertaining and uplifting, and that’s what we want to do,” he said.
“The camaraderie—getting back together with other people who like theater as much as I do even though I’m well retired from it.”