The Ottumwa Courier

Wapello County

February 16, 2013

Performing arts vital for communities

New festival coming to Wapello County, featuring three musical theater performances this summer

OTTUMWA — A new performing arts festival is coming to town this summer.

The American Gothic Performing Arts Festival, born from a board of directors and focus groups that started in 2011, is an education-based festival celebrating the performing arts, specifically musical theater.

Board president Dennis Willhoit — former director of music at St. Mary of the Visitation — said he and board secretary Miriam Kenning gathered the focus groups in 2011 to discuss the timing of this kind of event.

“We saw that really, things sort of slow down a bit in the performing arts calendar in the summer,” he said. “Also around July 4, there’s not a lot of activity going on in Ottumwa, it seems. It’s a good time to celebrate the performing arts.”

The focus of the festival began with musical theater but was eventually expanded to include all performing arts.

“As it grows we’d like to include a large variety of different performing arts opportunities and events people can attend, with the core of it being that little subscription series with one show in Eldon and the other two in Ottumwa,” he said.

So far, three performances have been secured in the festival’s “Come Fly With Us!” musical theater series:

• The series will open with performances of “Smoke on the Mountain” on June 7-9 at the McHaffey Opera House in Eldon.

• The main stage production will be “Peter Pan” on June 29 and July 4, 6-7 at Bridge View Center.

• “Go, Dog, Go!” will be performed by area high school students on July 2-3 and 5 at Bridge View Center.

The three shows currently planned are not the only events on the schedule, though, Willhoit said.

“We have some other events in the planning stages, which will be released as things are finalized,” he said.

Either this season or in future seasons, Willhoit said the board would like to invite indie bands, bluegrass and many other different styles of performing arts, as well as collaborating with area performing arts organizations.

“I think that performing arts are a reflection of the cultural life of a community, and with so many good resources in our immediate area and in the extended area, I think it’s vital for the quality of life,” Willhoit said.

It’s also a matter of creating destination events for tourism.

“We have some wonderful venues,” he said. “Bridge View is our crown jewel. It’s a new facility with a modern-equipped theater, so there’s lots of possibilities there.”

But he said there are several great outdoor venues, churches and synagogues as well that have outstanding acoustics. And there’s the McHaffey Opera House in Eldon, which is nearing the end of its restoration.

This summer’s performance will be the first live performance at the opera house in around 100 years, he said.

“They’ve worked so diligently on the bones and the skeleton,” Willhoit said of the committee that has worked for the last 18 years on restoring the 120-year-old opera house. “They’ve restored the structure of the building with a new roof, heating and cooling, made it handicapped accessible — all those things which are the really big-ticket items and take so much time and effort.”

And now that the seats have been installed, he said they can focus on the “prettier stuff,” such as restoring the paintings on the walls and other aesthetic qualities.

“We’re looking forward to being part of that and sharing box office receipts so they have some proceeds to help with their continued restoration and preservation,” he said. “I grew up in Wapello County and had never been in it until a couple months ago, and I think it’s just a gem.”

The festival will also include area youth, encouraging them to get involved in the arts.

“We want to have them involved in the production in Eldon, everything from the crew and house responsibilities to the cast,” he said.

Specifically for that performance, Willhoit said he’d like to reach out to the Cardinal school district since they’re so close.

But he said students from across Wapello County and other nearby districts will be urged to join in on the “Go, Dog, Go!” production. High school students will perform in that production since it’s aimed toward a younger audience.

“Peter Pan” will be the first time actors will “fly” at Bridge View Center, he said.

“It’s not every day you put actors in harnesses and swing them around the stage,” he said. “This idea of flying, whether it’s in ‘Peter Pan’ or some of the gospel tunes, lended itself to this idea that we’re taking flight on a new project.”

The show at the opera house was chosen for its style.

“It’s not your typical Broadway musical sound,” he said. “It’s a bluegrass, gospel-y sound,  and it captures the nostalgia of the opera house.”

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