Stories from intrepid reporters attending the Illinois Press Foundation Journalism Workshop at Eastern Illinois University
By Valeria Martinez
On Sat., June 13, The Little Theater on the Square (TLTOTS) performed the fantastical Mary Poppins.
Before the commencement of the show, Executive Producer John Stephens talked about the Little Theater’s history. Built in 1928, TLTOTS had its first live performance in 1957, thanks to Guy S. Little Jr.
TLTOTS started gaining popularity in the early 60s because of the famous TV stars who would work there to create a steady income.
“That’s what put Sullivan on the map,” Stephens said.
Unfortunately, Little Jr. Could no longer take care of TLTOTS because of expenses. The locals wished for more shows; therefore, the community of Sullivan decided to bring back TLTOTS in 1981 as a non-profit organization. With the establishment of an 18 member council and EIA professional actors,The Little Theater once again reopened and stayed that way to this day.
After talking about The Little Theater, Stephens introduced the set.
“The set is 28-feet wide and 27 and a half feet deep,” Stephens said. “When you’re actually up here [on the stage] it seems small; everything has to be crammed in the set.”
Constantly churning out 18 to 22 shows a year, the TLTOTS has a strict schedule on when preparing certain props.
“They [the backstage crew] have 10 days to figure out where everything goes; they’re really creative with figuring out where everything goes,” Stephens said.
The unique setting makes it impossible to store homemade props — therefore they were thrown out, donated, or stored away in a small nearby building TLTOTS purchased in 2004. The building also serves as a place where the backstage crew would work on other props and set designs. With the huge can of hairspray capturing the attention of everyone who came in, obviously hinting to the theater’s next musical production Hairspray. With nonstop productions year after year, space for props become cramped.
“There are about 200,000 costume pieces,” Stephens said. “The crew had to build five new pipe racks because we ran out of storage space.”
The Little Theater’s tight space has also led the orchestra to perform at the bottom of the stage and acting accommodations need adjustments too.
“Between 1,200 to 2,000 people from Memphis, St. Louis, and Chicago audition, over 1,700 applications are reviewed, and only 40 are cast,” Stephens said.
The majority of the cast are certified professionals under the Actors Equity Association (EMC). This means regular pay and proper working conditions for professional actors. TLTOTS has honored the EMC program since their first signed contract in 1959.
“Everyone is paid with the exception of the ushers who volunteer,” Stephens said. “The top salary is $600 and the least is $150. But everyone enjoys it not for the money.
Kenrda Lynn Lucas, the actress who played Mrs. Cory in Mary Poppins, loves performing so much that she would act for free if she could.
“I grew up being around it and I grew a deep love for it [theater],” Lucas said. “My thing is acting and I want to show the [the people] my talent.”
Other actors have similar sentiments to that of Lucas. Many take it up themselves to perform the best that they can.
“You have a job to do and there are people who are counting on you,” Therese Kincade, the actress who portrayed Mrs. Brill in Mary Poppins, said.
Not only do these actors play the best to their abilities, but they also try to stay true to themselves and to the play.
“I don’t want to mimic the movie [Mary Poppins] — that’s not what we’re made to do,” Kincade said. “We want to develop our own character.”
The actors also expressed their desire to reach out the audience by establishing their own mission statements.
“Originally I wanted to connect with people by making them not feel alone,” Corbin Williams, Chimney Sweeper in Mary Poppins, said. “Now I want to show so much heart in it [the shows] to inspire families to be closer and reconnect.”
George Keating, who played Mr. Banks in Mary Poppins, also wants the audience to connect with each other.
“We have our community and you have yours,” Keating said.
“This is an experience you can’t get,” Kincade adds. “All these people have passion and we want your response.”
With a tiny theater and loyal audience, members of TLTOTS put in all their dedication and effort into their professions.
“Working with people who have passion fuels my passion,” Kincade said.