Janesville32.1°

Plays brings a focus on a school for girls

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GINA R. HEINE
October 15, 2007
— When Susan Finque bought her house—the former Leota School for Girls—four years ago, the theater artist immediately learned of the history she was becoming a part of.

“The first week we lived here I said, ‘We have to do a play in this house,’” she said.


This weekend her plans will unfold as professional and local performers present a fictional play inside Finque’s home that she wrote and is directing, based on the history and secrets of the girls school.


“School for Girls” will be performed in the elegant Queen Anne home that formerly housed the students, many of whom were the daughters of prominent and wealthy Midwestern families.


About 20 audience members will view the opening and closing scenes in the living room and be split into groups to rotate around three simultaneous scenes unfolding in three separate rooms.


“I’ve been in theater 60 years and just (have) never done this particular type of thing,” said Sarah Whelan, a professional Madison actress who plays the owner of the school. “It’s a lot of fun. It is quite a challenge (with) a brand new script.”


There will be five performances between Friday and Oct. 28. Admission is by reservation only, with a suggested donation of $25 per guest. All audience members must be able to climb stairs.


Since Finque and her partner Maria Martinez moved into the house at 443 S. First St., numerous people dropped by or called with stories to share of the school’s history.


“When the stories come at you that way, it just starts to become an aging imperative,” Finque said.


So she started researching with local historian Ruth Ann Montgomery, and the events and secrets she uncovered compelled her to do the play, along with the house itself and her own theater history of doing site-specific work.


The former Leota School, where the play is staged, was one of the most successful girls’ schools in southern Wisconsin during the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s. At the height of its glory, the Leota School hosted about 80 girls during the school term and twice as many for the annual summer camp.


The play has had tremendous support from the Evansville Community Partnership, along with funding from the Evansville Historic Commission, the Evansville Fund, Creative Youth Arts, Women’s Literary Club and numerous individual donors, Finque said.


But Finque wasn’t pasting up new wallpaper in her home or buying masses of new furniture. The shows are workshop performances, with minimum design and an experimental approach, she said.


“The main purpose of this is to find out whether the movement of the play is successful as the secrets of the play are unfolded,” she said. “If we’re in good shape after that, then we can set about raising a lot of money and doing it right.”


Audience members likely will be intrigued by the unique setting and format, Whelan said. It can be engrossing or a little scary for some, just because of how close guests will be as the story is told, she said.


“I’m very pleased to do be doing something that unique,” she said.



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