Putting creativity on stage
Community support keeps Bottineau theater group going
BOTTINEAU – Keeping a small town community theater going for nearly 60 years is a feat not possible without a generous amount of local support.
Bottineau Community Theater has that support from area residents who appreciate and look forward to the shows and from dedicated troupe members who enjoy bringing entertainment to their audiences.
There’s a sense of being part of something valued in the community, said long-time member Judy Allard.
“Everybody just loves the Bottineau Community Theater,” she said.
Bottineau’s theater group typically performs a winter musical and a summer or fall comedy as a dessert theater. It sustains itself strictly on ticket sales.
“We’ve developed quite a following. People do want to come see the productions,” said Tim Davis, another long-time member and director. “Some have been going to the plays as long as I’ve been directing, which is wonderful. So, I think theater here in town is a really positive thing. People look forward to it.”
He recalled a letter from one out-of-town theater-goer, who wrote, “God bless you for doing these plays. They are the highlight of our summer.”
Davis, who is in his 52nd year, is one of the major reasons that Bottineau’s community theater is still going and successful, said theater group president Kim Schoenborn.
“Just his experience, his knowledge, his passion for it,” she said.
Allard agreed that Davis’ dedication is a big reason why theater remains a staple in the community.
“He’s so energetic and he makes everything fun,” she said.
When the director of this past spring’s production of “Mamma Mia!” had to step down, Davis took up the directorship role to keep the show on track. Davis said his dedication comes from wanting to see the theater thrive.
“I’m determined that it’s going to exist,” he said. “I’ll push it as long as I can.”
The theater also persists because members readily invite new people, who often start in small roles and end up with lead parts. Davis recalled one new actor whose first role lasted 20 seconds until his character was murdered in the first scene. He played the part so well, though, that he left a lasting impression on the audience, and it hooked him on future performing.
“I enjoy so much seeing some of these people just blossom on stage,” Davis said. He remembers a community member who wanted just a bit part in a play so he cast her as a crowd member. The next year, she went after the lead and got it.
It’s never too late to try out, either, as Davis said his mother-in-law was on stage for the first time at age 82 in “Hello, Dolly!”
In other cases, theater has been therapy for people dealing with grief and loss.
“I could go on and on and on about individual stories of people who have benefited from it,” Davis said. “I would not only say just theater, but you get into any of the arts and what a wonderful thing it is.”
He sees that artistic creativity on stage in the talents of not only actors but costume and set designers. He and his wife, Lana, whom he met through community theater, decorate their home with the works of local artists.
“The number one thing that enthralls me is the creativity that’s there,” Davis said. “There’s so many talented people, I would surmise, in any community, but I see them all of the time here.”
Bottineau Community Theater started in 1961. In the early days, plays were performed at the downtown school and later the armory from 1973 to the late 1980s. When the James Howell Auditorium was built, the theater moved there. The theater group later acquired the former Presbyterian Church and transformed it into Davis Playhouse, named for Tim Davis. These days, the playhouse hosts the dessert theaters and the school stage is used for the larger musicals.
Davis came to Bottineau to teach at the high school and acted the role of the prince in the community theater’s 1969 production of “Cinderella.” He went on to direct multiple productions for the community theater, the high school and for a summer playhouse in the 1970s at Lake Metigoshe. He’s taken plays to the Peace Garden and nearby communities in North Dakota and Manitoba.
“My philosophy, having to do with community theater, is, first, it has to be fun,” Davis said. “It should be fun for everybody, and should allow for their creative outlet. It should be a learning process about how theater is done.”
Davis had attended Lake Region College in Devils Lake and then went on to Minot State University, participating in a number of theater productions before graduating in 1968 with a degree in speech and drama and minors in English and German.
Having taught 34 years at the high school and then at Dakota College at Bottineau, Davis has seen many former students get involved in community theater. Children sometimes get their start through community theater, too.
“We have shy kids on stage. Once they are through with a theater production, they are not so shy anymore. It’s not a cure-all for everybody, but you really see a lot of growth and development, and that’s the fun thing too,” Davis said.
Schoenborn said Davis has been a casting genius as well. Sometimes the group wonders how he does it when they see the final production come off as well as it does, she said.
The shows draw more than 400 people, and a waiting list for tickets is typical, she said. That’s rewarding for the actors.
“I enjoy making people happy. I enjoy making them smile or feel something – just to leave the world a little bit and be entertained,” Schoenborn said.
She also enjoys the camaraderie and sense of family experienced as part of the theater group.
“I always say, at the end of the show, it’s so bittersweet,” she said. “You kind of lose that time with that family.”
She added that keeping a community theater going is challenging because of the difficulty in coordinating people’s busy schedules to arrange for the practice time necessary to produce a show. Bottineau has been fortunate to continue to find new recruits, but Schoenborn noted theater members are active recruiters because they are conscious of the need to maintain their numbers.
Allard’s first experience with the theater was in the mid-1970s when she helped out with costuming.
“After that, I was hooked,” she said. “It’s just a good pastime for the winter months. I enjoy the people and just being active with the different people from all different walks of life. It just keeps me more active and more involved.”
Theater members meet about twice a year to discuss upcoming productions and ensure upkeep on the playhouse. An $82,000 donation from a former theater group member has allowed for installation of an upper level bathroom, handicapped accessibility and construction of a garage for storage.
The theater is just one avenue where Bottineau shows its community spirit.
“We are all pretty active, not just with the community theater,” said Allard, who does a lot of volunteering, particularly at the nursing home.
Davis, who also oversees the local historical museum, has worked alongside numerous other community volunteers in horticulture planting at Dakota College, helping at the food pantry, making nearly 500 dog beds for animal shelters, sorting and selling used books for the family crisis center and printing chapters for inclusion in Braille Bibles.
“I’m overwhelmed with the number of people who volunteer,” Davis said. “A lot of these things – it’s more fun than it is work.”