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History of The Round Barn Theatre at Amish Acres

Amish Acres

 

Amish AcresIn 1971 George Bledsoe, a fraternity brother and college roommate, and I produced an eight week season of dinner theater in Amish Acres new 100 seat restaurant. I Do, I Do! and Star-spangled Girl sold out the house, cut our table turnover by 2/3 and lost $10,000. Did anyone see those shows at our expense? Before the accounting, plans were drawn for a 400 seat dinner theatre. George held out for a full orchestra, I held out for a piano. That theatre died on the drawing board.

Fast forward 11 years to 1985, a replica of the Locke Township Meeting House was under construction as a movie theatre to feature our documentary film Beyond the Buggy. Jill Stover, a Nappanee neighbor and then owner of Enchanted Hills Playhouse, asked if we could cooperate in any theatrical enterprise. I said sure as long as it is Plain and Fancy, a delightful 1955 musical about the Amish of Pennsylvania and cosmopolitans from New York. So another 8 weeks was thrown up on stage. 4 actors, an upright piano and 6" high stage. Peter and Papa Yoder were the same actor who would change from his fatherly beard to the dashing Peter Reber while running from the stage to the rear entrance out of doors, using an umbrella when necessary. Sold out, lost more money.

Another 11 years later, Plain and Fancy opened in the 375 seat Round Barn Theatre, which is another story, surpassing 3,000 performances, to become the national home of the musical for over a quarter of a million people. Both the show’s composer, Albert Hague, and author, Joseph Stein, have made pilgrimages to Amish Acres to reminisce and celebrate their first musical show. Hague went on to win a Tony for Redhead and Stein’s credits include the improbable Fiddler on the Roof, acknowledged by many critics as the best and last of the golden era of American musical theatre. He recently opened his newest play, The Skin of your Teeth, based on Thorton Wilder's Pulitzer prize winning drama. For the first time since Zorba, Stein collaborated with John Kander and Fred Ebb, the musical team famous for Cabaret, Chicago and The Kiss of the Spider Woman.

Because of his encouragement and insistence, Amish Acres took an unprecedented step and became Indiana’s only resident repertory musical theatre company for the 1996 season, joining Plain and Fancy, in repertory. Repertory is best explained by the day we performed a special performance of Oklahoma! at 10 a.m., a 2 o’clock matinee of Plain and Fancy, followed by an 8 o’clock repeat of Oklahoma!, a feat requiring nearly 1,500 costume, set and prop changes.
It’s simply unprecedented.

Subsequent productions of Fiddler on the Roof, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Annie for the holidays, with Godspell thrown in for fun, created Indiana’s first truly up-and-coming regional theatre, not to be compared to summer stock theatres, but taking its place with Stratford, Ontario’s Shakespeare Festival, Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theatre and Niagara-on-the-Lake’s Shaw Festival.

A regional theatre combines the best talent each production requires. Talent from the region has no preferred place but is actively pursued. Jenny Yoder was discovered by Jerry O’Boyle during a church service solo. With her mother, Susan, the Yoders carried perhaps two of the most dramatic scenes in Fiddler... in the 1996 production. David Millbern, an accomplished Hollywood movie actor, was most recently seen in the Academy award winning Gods and Monsters. David had his first life-lasting, career-creating, theatrical experience, believe it or not, in Nappanee Civic Theatre’s production of, you guessed it,
Plain and Fancy
in 1967 as one of the young Miller boys.
It was the first time I ever saw the show.

David returned to Nappanee three decades later to star in Joseph... in which the seminal role of the Narrator went to Joanna Armington, a school music teacher at South Bend’s Jackson Middle School, who has a masters of music degree from the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. For Annie, nine year old Sarah Jane Mullins came to local auditions from Lagrange, Illinois. Broadway is her goal and we can say the two Annie’s in the contentious news about the 20th anniversary return of the show to the Great White Way have nothing on Sarah Jane. We surrounded her with five orphans from northern Indian, including the three of the five Abbott sisters from Roanoke, who commuted over an hour each way for each of 43 performances. They are returning for The Music Man.
Our full time professional staff has grown from artistic director Jerry O’Boyle to five full time, year round multitalented people.

Although a private business, the Round Barn Theatre has assumed all of the responsibilities of a regional theatre, that usually grows from a sophisticated community. Over 10,000 children have enjoyed productions of Whinnie the Pooh, Charlotte’s Web, 1776 and The Diary of Ann Frank in the last year and one half. We give tickets to Nappanee’s Elder Haus, Goshen’s Greencroft Center and Elkhart’s Hubbard Hill and Oaklawn retirement and emotional health programs as well as area nursing homes. We have produced a second stage of productions, including Indiana: Music on my Mind, celebrating the music and poetry of Hoosier luminaries Hoagy Carmichael, Cole Porter and James Whitcomb Riley.

Over dinner with Mr. Stein in Manhattan during our New York auditions, he agreed to update some jokes that are now 42 years old and meaningful only to those who voted for Eisenhower. Further, he is collaborating with us on the production of his The Baker’s Wife, a romantic French fantasy that never saw the lights of Broadway. He recommended the show’s composer, Stephen Schwartz’s son, Scott from New York to direct our production. Devoted to the development of new musicals for Broadway and regional production. Schwartz is best known for the scores of Godspell and Pippin and collaborated with Leonard Bernstein’s on his Mass. He was nominated for Academy Awards for Disney’s films The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Pocahontas, for which he won the Oscar for the original song, "Colors of the Wind." He won the same award for Dreamwork's The Prince of Egypt.

Add to this the Midwest regional theatre premiere of State Fair, only the third post-Broadway license given by Rogers and Hammerstein’s Library. Add to State Fair, Music Man with Harold Hill’s character recreated by Dirk Lombard, who played the part during last year’s Stratford Festival production. He dances like Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins. We finished the Americana series of our season with Shenandoah, a Civil War family saga. Chicago based actor and director Ray Frewen, who gained national recognition as the lead in the tour of Les Mis, played Charlie Anderson under an Equity guest contract. Returning for the holidays will be 42 performances Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

As you’ll soon see and hear, musical theatre is a natural extension of Amish Acres mission of bringing the past to life to educate, entertain, capture one’s imagination, and create tolerance through understanding of the inclusive cultural diversity of the United States that is unrivaled anywhere in the world. Today 36 million American homes hear a language other than English spoken there, more than at any other time since the era of the tintype.

Richard Pletcher, Producer