By DAVID DUPONT
BG Independent News
The Black Swamp Players celebrated 50 years of drama and comedy Saturday night at the Clazel.
That’s 232 plays, noted Lane Hakel, the troupe’s president. Those plays were staged in 28 different venues.
After an admittedly unscientific poll at the Ohio Community Theatre Association conference, Hakel confirmed, for himself at least, his assumption that having a community theater company survive that long without its own home is rare.
As much pride as the Players may take in beating the odds – “it’s a testament to our fortitude” – they want that to change.
Hakel announced that in honor of its 50th anniversary the troupe is launching a campaign to raise $50,000 – $1,000 for each year the troupe has been entertaining the public. That would be the start of the fund that would be intended to either acquire the troupe its own house, the dream outcome, Hakel said, or rent a space more suitable to their needs.
Since 2000, the troupe has been more or less in residence at the church hall at the First United Methodist Church. Hakel said the Players owe a depth of gratitude to the church for letting them use its space. But the room has limitations.
It’s not a great place to act because of the acoustics, and there’s no infrastructure for sets and staging.
Also because the shows are presented in the church there are constraints to what kind of material can be presented. Anything with “adult language” either can’t be done or must be “sanitized” as was the case for last season’s “Sylvia.”
The troupe also often must hit the road in late fall, when the church puts on its own annual dinner theater.
Last November, the troupe, after rehearsing at the community room of Stadium View Apartments, staged Charles Durang’s “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” a play with adult themes, at the Clazel. The production was a hit. That was a further sign for the Players that their future may lie elsewhere.
The venue, Hakel believes, is one reason the troupe is “withering,” with less audience and fewer people auditioning for shows. This despite an influx of younger talent in the past several years. The first show of the new season, Hakel said, did draw a number of Toledo actors, but they were attracted by the script, “Baskervilles,” by Ken Ludwig, a favorite among the Players and community theaters in general. The screwball take on a classic Sherlock Holmes tale will be staged at the church weekends Sept.22 through Oct. 1.
Hakel said the board of directors hope raising $50,000 will get momentum going toward finding a place, though, he conceded, they’re not sure how much they will need.
He was buoyed by the early donations. Two couples – Tom and Diane Klein and Milt and Lee Hakel – have each donated $10,000.
The Kleins were at the gala. Tom Klein, a retired English professor, said: “I think theater is the dramatic conscience of a community. … I look to the theater to see what people are thinking about and what kind of challenges they are facing.””
Local people, he said, “choose the plays and the plays show the issues people are interested in. “
He said whenever he and his wife travel they make a point of attending theater. When they return to his native Chicago, they go to the Steppenwolf and Goodman theaters. “We always feel morally and emotionally challenged. When we do that.”
Diane Klein, who taught a humanities class at Bowling Green High before retiring, said they also made the donation to honor Lane Hakel’s service to the community. As a teacher he educates the children of Bowling Green, but also entertains the whole community.
Hakel said drama has enriched his life. Now 53, he said he didn’t start acting until he was 40. His first role was in an old-time melodrama, “Nell of the Ozarks,” directed by the late Barbara Lockard-Zimmerman and staged in Needle Hall. Now he acts both here and in Toledo.
A display of photos, costumes, and other memorabilia from the Players’ first half-century is now on display during business hours at the Four Corners Center in downtown Bowling Green.
And this year, the troupe will be hanging banners on the light posts in the city to announce the opening of their season in September.
That’s fitting, Hakel said, for the Black Swamp Players’ “banner year.”