Lunch with Marjorie: A heart for the community and Starlight Theatre

Mike Webb was one of only four graduate students to earn an M.F.A. in directing from Michigan State—too tough for most. They had recruited him at Milwaukee Repertory. They wanted a stage manager with experience. Mike wanted a graduate degree in directing.

Frank Rutledge, chairman of the program at Michigan State, said, “Nobody’s completed it in 14 years, but you’re welcome to try.”

Mike has never avoided a challenge—evident since 1985, when he became head of theater at Rock Valley College.

We lunched at Mary’s Market Bistro on Perryville. I was late, so Mike had eaten. Too bad—I love Mary’s. But I grabbed juice and got right to our chat.

“There’s been a lot of press about Starlight Theatre,” I said.

“There’s always a little jealousy,” he said. “Starlight couldn’t have been done anywhere else in the world, because of the people who came into the project, when they came into it, and how it was going to be done. The community needed a shot in the arm—something they could believe in. Basically what happened—the building was named for Bengt Sjostrom. He had passed away back in 1983. They went to the brothers and said, we don’t want your money; we just want your expertise. They built the original seating bowl for nothing.”

“It’s about community?”

“It’s 100 percent about community—the reason everybody got involved. We were ahead of the curve on technology. I called Jeanne Gang…such a cool architect (and) said it would be really nice if we could open the roof.”

She had friends. She was in New York and went to Tim Macfarlane—the famous London architect.

“I just wanted a roof over the audience. I didn’t want to have to stress over rain anymore. Tim did a pencil sketch showing how it could work, but told her, ‘You won’t be able to afford me.’”

He didn’t take a fee.

“You evoke heart from people,” I said.

“I gave up so much for this—time, energy. I didn’t get extra money for this. You think $12 million is a lot of money. It’s not a lot of money when you look what we got out of it.”

He searched for words. When they shored up the roof, they had a problem.

“They sent it to Tim. He said, ‘I made a mistake. Don’t worry about it. I’ll make this right. I’ll take care of the whole thing.’”

Sjostrom shored up the roof; Macfarlane paid the bill.

“It’s a huge bill…out of his own pocket—and he didn’t take a fee in the first place. That’s the story! That should be celebrated…triumphed!”

One school day, there were people in the building.

“I walk out and it’s Tim, in from London. He said, ‘Are you happy?’ I said, ‘I’m thrilled.’ He said, ‘It’s beautiful, Mike.’ Tears (were) welling up in my eyes…because of this man who had given so much, and on top of it gave even more.”

“Is your life about Starlight?”

“Yes, and family. I’ll give casting priority to somebody whose parent wants to be in a show with a child who has a dream of performing. Putting family into a positive thing that’s not watching television—creating something to give back to the community—is really important.

“I bought a rock. It’s right as you walk in the main door. In each tier are the names of the people who poured their heart and soul into (Starlight). As people came into the project, key people, their names went in. In the bottom bracket are the workers…who gave so much of themselves.

“For example, ‘Joe Maring (Schoenings), had been working hard on painting, getting the colors right…the weather wasn’t cooperating. I was walking (with) him, and he said, ‘I’m going to be able to tell my grandchildren that I helped with this building.’ I said, ‘Joe, I can do you one better. Come here.’ I pointed to the rock, and all the sudden he sees his name, and tears were coming down his face. It was real important to thank these people.”

In the middle of construction, Sjostrom wanted rocks from the original buildings. He got retired stonemasons to come back to do the rockwork.

“It was the coolest thing. They were telling stories of working on the (original) buildings. Now, every single one of those guys…who never went to live theater at all, (are) buying season tickets. Not only that, they’ve become donors. These are the coolest people on the entire planet…giving money to a theatre they believe in. I can die a happy person, because that’s exactly what I’m all about—giving people’s lives meaning.”

Marjorie Stradinger is a free-lance writer residing in Roscoe. She has covered food, drama, entertainment, health, and business for publications in California and Illinois for the past 25 years.

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