ELKHORN—Linda Kouzes remembers seeing an ad for a new theater group in the local newspaper back in the early 1970s.
She recalls there being about eight people who initially starting working together on the project. Numbers grew originally, but then members started to move away, drop out or, in some cases, die.
“But I think I’m ... yeah ... I’m the only one that has been involved for all 45 years,” she said.
These days, Kouzes serves as publicity director for Lakeland Players Ltd., which is in its 45th season.
Auditions for the Players’ third show of the 2018-19 season, “The Underpants,” took place Jan. 2. The piece, written by comedian Steve Martin, includes parts for four men and two women.
Mary Hubbard Nugent will direct the show, which runs Feb. 15-17 and 22-24. Performances will take place at the 90-year-old Sprague Theater in downtown Elkhorn. Lakeland Players owns and operates the 240-seat facility.
In spring, the Players will host their final show of the season: “45 Years—Alive & Still Kickin.’” David Whitney will direct the musical production, which runs May 10-12 and 17-19.
Every five years, the Lakeland Players perform a review of musical hits from past years, said the group’s president, Warren Radtke.
“Those are always great shows,” he said.
The Players do four shows each season. Radtke said community theater can sometimes have trouble obtaining the rights to certain shows if they are being performed elsewhere within a 50- to 100-mile radius.
Lakeland Players used to charge membership fees, but Radtke said the practice has been done away with. Now, anyone interested in theater—be it performing, technical work or management of the space itself—can be involved.
“We welcome anybody that’s interested,” he said.
Radtke, who has served as the group’s president for three years, first joined years ago in a smaller capacity. He had been part of another Walworth County theater group for 25 years, but when that group dissolved about 10 years ago, Kouzes encouraged him to join Lakeland Players.
Radtke said there’s a “freshness” to community theater that doesn’t always appear in professional shows, where actors and actresses often perform the same material for weeks, months or maybe years at a time.
He looks back fondly on the group’s performance of “Annie,” and he laughs when remembering the show called “Sex Please, We’re Sixty.” His favorite would probably be the group’s production of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.”
“It was sensational,” he said.
Community casts are “real excited” about their shows, Radtke said.
“You can see that in their performances,” he said. “They’re having fun. It’s not a job. They do it because they love it.”
Kouzes, whom Radtke called a good historian of Lakeland Players, said the group used to have to rehearse wherever it could—schools, libraries and other municipal buildings.
But when the Sprague Theater came up for sale almost 30 years ago, Kouzes said the group collected donations and bought the building at 15 W. Walworth St. She described the theater’s initial condition as a “real mess” but said the group upgraded the bathrooms, light boards, sound systems and furnaces.
However, the theater’s lobby and other features were maintained to protect the building’s history, Kouzes said.
She added that in 45 years, the group has never lost money on a show—something unusual for a small theater. She credited the feat to the group’s continued commitment to keeping things under budget.
That doesn’t mean shows are compromised artistically, which is important considering Radtke views community theater as the “breadbox” of live theater.
“Without community theater there wouldn’t be professional theater, because that’s where the actors come from,” he said. “It feeds Broadway.”