Lunch with Marjorie: Getting ready for ‘boomer theater’

I met Joan for lunch at Denali’s in Beloit because I knew she was directing a play next spring for Beloit Civic Theater. But, I had many questions—among them, why she spells her name—joan e. cole—with lower case letters.

“Let me say this, there’s no money in theater,” she began. “You cannot make a living at it. So one of the things I had was my own consulting training company. I found a font I absolutely loved. I did it as a marketing tool; it drew people’s attention. Now,” she says, “to un-train them to do it the regular way would be far too challenging—and I like it.” Her “simpler” explanation: “It’s little letters for a little lady.”

Her passion for theater, however, is not petite. Joan is completing her second doctorate. Her thesis: “Creating a theory of directing for senior theater production in a community theater setting.”

“Because?” I asked.

“Senior theater is growing by leaps and bounds,” she explained. “In year 2000, there were 200 community theaters. Now there are probably closer to 600.

“Boomers,” Joan said, “will be different than today’s seniors. It’s not OK anymore to just do plays, charge people for it, and watch seniors make fools of themselves. Horrible,” she winced. “A serious thing is very funny because it’s so bad—but don’t charge people to come and see that. My position is that when we increase the standards, the professionals will come.

“My main concern is this: the baby boomers, as they age are going to be either the actors, the designers, or the audience members. They have far more education than today’s seniors, far more experience in professional occupations, and far greater exposure to the cultural arts—I’m talking about doctors, lawyers, accountants, plumbers, electricians. Those people will bring with them a certain set of expectations into a theatrical setting.”

“How long will it be before they’re here?” I asked, sensing her urgency.

“Not very long,” she smiled, almost rubbing her hands in glee.

“Here’s my goal: Not everyone wants to go play golf and make quilts, or go to Florida and play tennis. They’re not going to pay $25 to see someone sitting in a wingback chair and talk about what it was like the first time I got a computer. They want something intellectually stimulating, entertaining.”

Joan is from Michigan, where she earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Michigan State. She spent summers apprenticing at the Barn Theatre in Augusta—“the oldest equity company in Michigan.” That gave her experience and a philosophy.

“All those equity actors from New York, who moaned and groaned about how little work there was. I mean, I loved it, I just loved it, but in the back of my mind was—I have to be able to support myself, and I’m not going to be able to do it in theater.”

Joan’s hummus and pita arrived. “Oh that looks wonderful!” with characteristic enthusiasm.

“What do you look for in a good hummus?” I asked.

“Cumin, coriander, garlic—this is good,” she said.

A circuitous route took Joan through California, Ohio, Florida, and Colorado, where she completed her first doctorate in interpersonal communication at the University of Denver. But she was dedicated to community theater.

She met husband Carl at a grocery store in Colorado, and soon after they were transferred to San Francisco, and then to Illinois—not Chicago.

“I felt like someone had reached across Lake Michigan with a long hook and pulled me back, because I said I would never return to Michigan until it became as cosmopolitan as Chicago.”

After a period of adjustment, Joan’s love for community theater led her to direct for several community theaters. Now she is president of Main Street Players of Boone County.

“Oh, look at what we have done, what the board has done in three years. We have people who are repeaters, who have 40-hour jobs, kids, family.”

“What brings them back?” I asked.

“Every time we do a show, we up the ante. That was my goal. Every show we did—quality directing, scenes, publicity, organizing the theater, and keeping it going? It’s wonderful. It’s established our credibility. It’s inspiring to the board to look at where they were and where we are.

“Community theater is the training ground for professional theater. That’s where the opportunities are for actors and directors. It’s the place for people who’ve never been on stage.”

Watch out for joan e. cole baby boomers! She has the experience, the standards, and the passion to take our local community theaters to the stars.

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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