You’ll have to pardon Dianne Fett if her acting aspirations don’t include Broadway.
She’s not quite certain she’s ready for prime time—or divine time for that matter.
At least that’s the sense you get from the name that she, her husband and a friend tacked onto their church theater group a few years back. Dianne and Al Fett teamed with Dr. Mike Hetzner to initiate a group called the “Not Ready for Divine Time Players” at Gloria Dei Lutheran Church between New Holstein and Kiel.
The “Not Ready” group was founded back in 2002 and has been going strong ever since. Each year they perform a dinner theater production over two weekends, inviting the community out to their church for a show. Fett handles much of the leg work for the production, including serving as the show’s producer, overseeing the dinner preparation, handling publicity and tickets, and working down to the last detail of enlisting ticket takers.
“It’s a really big undertaking, but it’s something I do as a service project for the church,” Fett said.
Each year, the production involves transforming the worship space into a stage. Church members prepare the meal that is served to guests between the two acts. Member of the cast come out to serve wine with the meal, remaining in their characters from the play.
Rooted in chancel ministry
A lover of the theater, Fett recalls that the “Not Ready for Divine Time Players” got their roots back in a desire to start small group ministries, and particularly a chancel ministry in the life of the church, almost 20 years ago.
“It was Mike Hetzner who suggested the dinner theater,” she said.
“The first play we ever did was, ‘Who Stole the Boston Cream Pie?”
Like all their productions the “Not Ready” group selected a comedy, and it was a big hit.
“We like to do comedies, but we have to be careful about the language, particularly with some of the newer shows,” Fett said.
At Gloria Dei, the theater group is a vital part of raising funds to support missions and ministries in the life of the church. Proceeds have been funneled to local families—this past year to the family of a young man with lung cancer, where the father had lost his job. Other benevolent causes have been served, while the church has also benefit with needs such as new carpeting.
“We probably have well over 1,000 hours of volunteer time devoted to each production,” Fett said. “That includes getting the church ready, baking desserts, meal preparation and getting ready to perform the show.”
When the production is over the group’s fundraising efforts are supported by Thrivent Financial for Lutherans which offers matching grants for the group.
That Fett is even involved in theater is somewhat of a surprise. Growing up, her mother told Dianne that she couldn’t sing.
Despite that early admonition, Fett finds herself attracted to the theater beyond her own church walls in a group called the Calumet County Community Theater.
Her mother would be all the wiser if she knew that some of those productions have been musicals.
The Fetts were encouraged by fellow congregation member Miki Wise to participate in the community group. So Dianne traveled along with her husband to see what the audition process was all about. “I wanted a part in that first show, and they made me sing. I actually did okay,” she said.
She has since had multiple singing parts, including two in a lead role.
“Mothers aren’t always right,” Dianne mused.
Regardless of singing issues, Fett loves being in front of an audience, whether the role is dramatic or comedic. “Mostly, I love to make people laugh. But, I also love drama,” she said.
In one role, for “The Night of January the 16th” she spent most of her time on stage crying—hardly a way to bring laughter to the audience.
“I also did a serious part in Damn Yankees. I am a ham, but when you get a meaty part like Meg Boyd, it’s fun to bring out the character in a drama too.”
For Fett, the stage continues to be alluring. She notes that many of the local theater groups have no trouble finding women to play roles, but often are challenged to find enough female parts to keep all the acting members happy.
Some plays, like Brigadoon, for instance, up and coming on the CCCT performance slate, the group does run into challenges filling younger leads. “When it comes to the younger set, we sometimes struggle getting younger people to the shows and to play parts,” Fett said.
To Fett, the theater is a hobby, albeit one that requires a healthy amount of her attention. “It seems like I go right from one production to the next,” she said. “There doesn’t seem to be any break time or separation. About the only time when I am not involved in doing a show is in the fall.”
If the work isn’t tending the millions of details involved in producing a show, Fett’s labor of love is devoted to learning her lines.
When she has a show coming up, it’s nothing for Fett to get up at 5 a.m. and pour over her lines. She does that every day, except Thursday, when the work of preparing for the theater is interrupted to participate in Bible study.
“Even on the morning of the last show, I still get up and go through the script to make sure I am on my game,” she said.
It’s lot of work indeed—for a hobby.
Still, she wouldn’t give up the theater for anything. In fact, Fett is already part of a group trying to resurrect the Bauer players, a New Holstein Community theater group that was once headed up by the late Jim Bauer.
Luan Leonardelli—Women of the Theater
Luan Leonardelli—Women of the Theater
by Mike Mathes
Unlike many theater enthusiasts, Luan Leonardelli didn’t fall in love with theater from being under the lights.
She doesn’t feel a particular call to being on stage, or even acting out her favorite role.
Leonardelli literally loves everything else about the theater just as much.
She found her passion for theater out of a search for friendship.
Almost two decades ago, she was a newcomer to the Manitowoc area, and found herself invited to join her spouse and some co-workers to see a play in Tisch Mills.
“I got to know the others who came along and they invited me to come to meetings of their club that does plays.”
The organization was The Masquers, Inc.—a well-known non-profit theater group from Manitowoc.
“I wasn’t looking to join the club to be on stage. I was looking for friends and I found them,” Leonardelli said.
“From the moment I walked in the door, I was impressed by the warm, friendly welcoming group. I had always enjoyed plays, but I found myself thinking, ‘This is a nice group of people.’”
None left a greater impression on Leonardelli than an older couple, Loris and Leo Touhey, who have since passed on.
“They had done the season ticketing process for many years, and they asked for someone to help them. I volunteered, and they mentored me in the process,” she noted.
But Leonardelli took more than season ticket advice from the Touheys.
“Leo is the one truly who empowered me with his passion for the theater. He was like a 65-year-old kid-in-a candy store when it came to sharing his love of theater,” Leonardelli recalled.
He offered her a tour of the Coach House, the Masquers clubhouse next to the Rahr Museum. He later took her on a tour of the Capitol Civic Center.
“I remember him telling me that no matter what role any of us have, when we walk through those doors, we are a Masquer,” she recalled.
“Leo’s energies were amazing. He always shared his vision that anything is possible. That was so amazing for someone who had been with the organization for more than 50 years,” Leonardelli said. To this day, she tries to keep that spark in front of her fellow club members. There is great value in being willing to try things, even if they seem too big to tackle on the surface, Leonardelli learned from her mentor.
“He would always say, ‘Let’s try that, or let’s do that,’ He was one of the oldest members, and yet we were all able to see his passion and say—’Why not?’” she noted.
Passing the torch
An interior designer by trade, Leonardelli has worked her way through the Masquers organizational hierarchy to its presidency. Her greatest hope is that she is continuing the torch passed to her in welcoming everyone’s contribution as well as being able to think big.
After years of ticket sales, and working behind the scenes, she responded to the call to take the helm of the organization a few years back, when it was facing trying financial times.
“We really needed to pick up the pace financially, and I felt that I had some ideas I could offer to help make things better,” she said. “We have had some bumps in the road, but I feel like I have helped taken the club down a road they didn’t expect to go.”
In an effort to reach out to new patrons, Leonardelli helped steer the group away from its typical conservative production selections. She also brought a business sense to the operations. “It’s more than just a club. Yes, we want to have fun, but if we are going to do this for a really long time, we have to run it like a business. That means we have to create production budgets, sell tickets and get sponsors. If we can’t go out and find the funding for what we want to do, we will be out of business and we won’t have the club,” she said.
As the president of Masquers, Inc. Leonardelli has the task of overseeing all the committees that carry out the function of the theater troupe. Her involvement comes as an ex-officio member of those groups.
Beyond organizational work, Leonardelli has used her business mind to find another way to become involved in the theater.
In her many years as an observer, she would make notes about improving sets, productions, scenes and the like. As that outside observer, she eventually became attuned to the things an audience would want to see. Over time, that’s what prompted her to raise her hand to volunteer as a show producer.
“Eventually, the things I would see would point to the need for a really good producer to tie all the loose ends together and focus on some of the details that would be forgotten. I thought I could put a little bit more of my organizational skills into the way I produced,” Leonardelli said. “They were pleased with the results. Apparently, I have both left and right brain skills and that’s what allows me to be good at what I do.”
“I have tried to put the emphasis on how other people would view our productions,” Leonardelli said. “When I produce, I am the ‘other people.’”
“I look for something that I would buy a ticket to or would want to work on—something that has a benefit for the community. I ask whether the audience would love it and if it would sell tickets. Is this a show I want to see on the stage?”
Leonardelli said that just because a script may give one of the actors a chance to spread their wings doesn’t mean it will be a script that will sell to an audience.
To Leonardelli, the most important things are keeping the Masquers traditions going.
Those are the traditions she learned from the Touheys and everyone else who spread their sense of hospitality and friendship to her.
She loves the tradition, yet is willing to break with tradition to engage a new and younger generation in community theater, whether it be as participants or spectators.
Even Leonardelli knows that her time at the helm of The Masquers will have to come to an end. She is hoping that other committed members will soon step into that leadership role. After all, it’s only healthy for leadership in such an organization to be spread among many hands. To Leonardelli, that’s one of the ways of insuring the organization will remain fresh and vibrant.
No doubt, when that time comes, she will continue to take on administrative and other volunteer duties in various committee roles. You won’t likely find her under the stage lights, though.
Once upon the stage
She hasn’t forgotten her one brush with stage stardom, however. It came during the production of “Harvey” several years ago. The director asked Leonardelli to consider taking the part of the maid, during a show Luan was producing. “I politely informed her that I was the producer and not interested,” Leonardelli suggested.
The director wouldn’t relent and said that Luan would be perfect—besides it didn’t make sense to bring another actor in for one line in one scene.
“It eventually turned into more than one line and one scene, but basically I got to dust on stage and answer the door and telephone. I was also the invisible rabbit behind the scenes,” she said.
So much for glamour under the lights.
Miki Wise—Women of the Theater
Miki Wise—Women of the Theater
by Mike Mathes
You won’t find moss growing under Miki Wise’s feet, and that’s not just because she loves to dance.
Wise’s love for dance has turned into a love for performing and growing theater opportunities for others. When she isn’t auditioning, rehearsing or shining under the lights, you might find her working on a project for the Calumet County Community Theater group, or supporting Chilton’s Engler Center for the Performing arts.
She readily admits that her life rarely has a dull moment, even though she is always trying to find a way to say no and do less. Wise is fortunate to have the support of a family that understands her need to pursue these dreams.
“My husband was an actor in both New York and Los Angeles. He understands what it takes, and he has been supportive because I never got to do this type of thing,” Wise said.
She belonged to a dance company in Racine, her home town, but once moved to Chilton, those dance opportunities withered. For years, she has done a two-person road show with her husband, performing at libraries and schools. But, there was always more out there that lured her inner longings to be on the stage.
“Theater was a chance for me to perform dance. Theater became the avenue for that,” Wise said. “To me, performing is about the art and the creating. When I dance, I am an artist on stage.”
Art teacher by trade
An art teacher by trade, Wise’s current day job is entrenched at Kimberly High School. Prior to that, she taught art at the Kiel Middle School.
Yet, it’s dance and theater that have her attention in remaining hours of the day.
To her, creating a character or choreographic routine is just an extension of art. To make the stage presence work, Wise has to come up with the story line behind the character. She researches, goes through historical background of the show and starts to fill in the blanks in the character.
“You want to put your own twist on the character, to make it your own, not just doing it the way someone before you,” Wise said.
She looks at choreography the same way. Having choreographed many shows, she knows her job is to come up with ideas to shape the show. “It’s almost like being a sculptor,” she said. “I like sitting further back in the house, watching the dancers and making sure that the picture they are creating is what I want. The only difference between dance and painting is that people are the medium,” she said.
From ‘monotone’ to many leads
Wise has had a stage presence since she first got a job working in a Nigbor Furs fashion show.
Yet, one of her earliest memories of performing was being branded as a monotone singer in kindergarten. It wasn’t until she turned 27, when Wise made an important discovery.
Trying out for the lead dancer role in “A Chorus Line” she needed to be able to sing to earn the role. The director brought the keyboard over for that fateful test, and ‘voila’ Wise proved she could sing—opening her world to singing and playing lead roles ever since.
“My parents still marvel at the fact that I was the girl who couldn’t sing, yet I got to plan Anna in ‘The King and I,’” she said. “Teachers and parents sometimes don’t realize that the things they say to young children stick with them forever.”
Since then, Wise has become a prominent face in many plays offered by the Calumet County Community Theater and UW-Fox Valley Theater groups. This April, she just wrapped up a lead in “Dream Role” with the Menasha based group.
“It was truly an honor to be involved with that show. We had a huge cast and a lot of very talented people, with people from all over the Valley auditioning for the show,” Wise said.
She was involved in a lot of numbers and even got to sing a solo as Anita in ‘America’ from West Side Story.
Her lengthy list of credits includes key roles in productions like A Chorus Line (for the 3rd time), Rent, Hairspray, Chicago, Damn Yankees and more.
Bringing theater to the people
Yet, Wise’s connection to theater runs deeper than the stage lights would indicate.
When she and her family moved to Chilton 18 years ago, she had been doing theater in the Fox Valley and she missed it. Wise wanted to do something locally, but the old Chilton High School facilities just didn’t suit the purpose.
Then, the Engler Center for the Performing Arts arose as part of the new Chilton High School construction project, thanks to a generous donation from the Engler Family. Wise had a venue for her dream.
The Calumet County Community Theater group was beginning to feel a breath of life.
“I was really fortunate to be involved in the planning of the Engler Center, including the technical aspects,” Wise said. She still serves on a supportive group for the Center, as president of the Friends of the Chilton Performing Arts.
But, it was her dream of forming the CCCT that started to grow. It took two years from the start of planning until the first performance.
“I did a lot of research on forming a non-profit group, writing articles and lots of research and blood, sweat and tears. We ran newspaper ads, asked for interest and sought others to be involved,” Wise said. “When it was all said and done, six people showed up at my dining room table. Turns out they would be some of our first board members,” she said.
Wise would direct the first CCCT performance at the Engler Center. It would be “Music Man.”
The Calumet County Theater group isn’t the smallest theater troupe in the state. In terms of participation numbers, it probably ranks on the smaller end of middle. But, it is a group that Wise takes great pride in, as it has formed in the midst of long-standing theater companies in Manitowoc and Appleton.
To Wise, it has brought some of her most enjoyable moments in her theater career.
“When we did some of our first performances, and people found out I was the founder of CCCT and came up to say thank you, that was really special,” she said. “I realized that before that, we had nothing. Then, we were graced with performers and an audience, both full of joy. All the hard work was worth it.”
Wise would love to see a growth in appreciation for theater in Calumet County. “I would like to see people include theater as a normal recreational activity, just like they would plan to go see a baseball or football game,” she said.
She gets a little frustrated to hear people who come out to the theater saying they were not aware Calumet County had these kind of opportunties.
“I want to create a cultural appreciation for what we do in theater. I want to make it a habit for people to go to the theater,” Wise said.
“We are fortunate to have such a beautiful facility here in Chilton,” she said.
In addition to providing a cultural opportunity for spectators, Wise sees other opportunities streaming from the Calumet County Community Theater. “We have a lot of people in our area with a lot of talent who otherwise wouldn’t have an outlet for sharing their joy. Many who have moved in from outside the area have found us and taken advantage of the opportunities CCCT provides,” she said.
CCCT is still “her baby” as Wise calls it. That means sometimes she has to pull her wings in and fly closer to the ground, as she will be this summer when coordinating “Brigadoon” for the Calumet group.
“I have been flying pretty high lately, and I actually said no to two jobs this summer to just be able to do Brigadoon with CCCT,” she said.
Claran LaViolette—Women of the Theater
Claran LaViolette—Women of the Theater
by Mike Mathes
Claran LaViolette’s creations have seen far more stage time than she has.
As the costume mistress for Masquers, a Manitowoc-based theater group, LaViolette has helped shape theatrical images for many stage performances in the last 15 years.
For LaViolette, an early experience that fizzled didn’t hold her back. Despite doing some work for Masquers while she was employed by Goodwill in the 1980s, she dropped the notion of making theater costumes. She was simply not moved by the experience.
Many years later, in 1999, LaViolette was working with a woman who happened to be a stage manager for a Masquers show. “She was looking for someone to help with costuming for ‘Singing in the Rain’ and she encouraged me to come along and join the fun,” the costume designer said.
“I got involved and it turned out to be a wonderful experience. It opened me up to such a great group of people. We have become good friends and have so much fun together,” LaViolette said.
Her excitement for costume design was likely born out of a childhood love for dressing up at Halloween time. “My mom was a seamstress and she would make my costumes for Halloween. Dad helped, too. I always got to pick what I wanted to be,” she said. “And, I always liked everything about that.”
It wasn’t long before she was designing her own costumes. LaViolette recalls shaping a vampire costume in college from an old wedding dress picked up at St. Vincent de Paul. She dyed it black and added a long, draping cape and a big stand-up collar. “It was my first really great costume design,” she recalled with pride.
Ever since, she has been collecting things and making new costumes. What started as a personal hobby grew into an opportunity to make costumes for others, including the theater group.
While costuming is just one of the teams that comprises an overall Masquers production, LaViolette takes her part of the game seriously.
“I oversee the inventory of costumes and am in charge of pulling things out for shows, also determining what we need to acquire or make,” she said.
LaViolette surrendered an important confession, “I love to shop. That really helps. I’ve been collecting costumes for 40 years, and the collection has become extensive.”
Some of the costumes are housed in the Masquers collection at the Coach House (official clubhouse of the Masquers) while others may be in separate locations.
LaViolette and the Masquers costume group also makes the costume collection available for rent by other groups to help keep their costs reasonable.
Occasional rare request
Most costuming needs are basic, and can involve re-using materials or making new designs with ease.
However, occasionally, a show comes along that tries even the most tested costume designer.
LaViolette recalled a need for the play “The Producers” several years ago. One of the characters had to wear a dress that embodied the Chrysler Building. “It was in the script. We couldn’t fudge it,” she said. “We called rental places all over the country, and we would have paid enough to rent that costume to eat up our budget for the whole show.”
What else could she do?
LaViolette and her team went to work. “I am lucky to have some very good seamstresses. These ladies spent 16 hours at my house making this dress,” she said. “We made the
costume for about $75 worth of materials rather than spending more than $300 to rent it.”
LaViolette says there is no better feeling than sitting up in the balcony on opening night and watching people’s reactions to the imagery she has helped to create.
“Just seeing the crowd react to the final product, and how they enjoy it is a great reward,” she said.
Times can be harrowing for a costume mistress too. “Something always rips or breaks. You have to be ready all the time for emergencies,” LaViolette said.
Of course, there are last-minute harrowing deadlines to meet. LaViolette recalls an experience about five years ago, struggling with costumes and a crown for Pharaoh in the production of “Aida.”
“We had 30 people in the cast and many of them had six costume changes. We were still sewing during tech week,” she noted.
“I had to get the crown to fit and stay put so it wouldn’t fall off. Luckily, we had it right in time for a Wednesday dress rehearsal.
LaViolette said the work of a costume mistress never ends. Between Masquers shows, summer church theater shows and Halloween costumes, she is always creating something.
For LaViolette the excitement of producing something creative is matched by the social benefits of belonging to the theater group.
“It’s definitely a great social thing as well as being a creative thing,” she said. “We get to work with great people.”
“We are all part of the troupe no matter what our role. We are all Masquers. Whether its putting up posters, fund raising, or putting together costumes, we are part of the show. You get to be part of something bigger than yourself,” she said.
“Granted, there can be drama. It’s theater after all. But in the end, everyone’s working to the same cause, and we do a beautiful job of it.”
For LaViolette, the lure of costuming will always be a connection to theater. But she admits she has taken on stage roles on occasion. “Most of the time it’s some sort of character actress—a crazy old woman part,” she said.
Though it helps the show go on, LaViolette would cast those acting roles aside to be remembered for what she does best—putting others in costumes that make great theater.
Rachel Elizabeth Thuermer—Women of the Theater
Rachel Elizabeth Thuermer—Women of the Theater
by Mike Mathes
Spreading the Joy to Young People
Rachel Elizabeth Thuermer traces her theater career to age four.
She had no clue she was opening herself up to the theater by serving as a member of the Stonewall Brigade Civil War re-enactment group.
It was just something her family did.
Then, in her high school years, that early indirect connection to the theater began to blossom.
“I felt like I didn’t belong anywhere,” she said. “I found a home and friends in the high school theater program. That truly planted the seeds of love for theater in me,” Thuermer said.
“It was there I found out for the first time that theater can make a difference. It can save a person by giving them a place to belong,” she added.
At Wisconsin Lutheran College, Thuermer found further evidence for that theory. She connected with a college theater professor who had the same vision for what theater could mean for people.
It was at Wisconsin Lutheran College where Thuermer became involved in the creation of the campus’ theater program.
Not only did she help found the college theater program, it was there she founded her own theater group, called Dare to Dream. After graduation, she helped for three years to form a developmental theater program for inner city, first-generation college prospects called Pathways to College.
Thuermer was acting on her belief that theater can be a catalyst for life development.
A family move to Manitowoc prompted her to bring her theater dreams north along the Lakeshore where Dare To Dream took on a new life form.
Serving the Lakeshore
Today, Dare to Dream Theater is a non-profit theater company serving schools and families in Manitowoc and the surrounding counties.
Dare to Dream Theater enlightens families with quality affordable theater education, opportunities to perform together, and uplifting and thought-provoking glimpses into history, culture, and social issues through productions based on award winning and popular literature. At Dare to Dream people from all ages and backgrounds have a chance to make a difference together and benefit from life skills learned through theater.
Dare to Dream’s home is located on North 10th Street in Manitowoc, in a former church building.
It’s the location for most of the Dare to Dream rehearsals and performances, although the troupe has worked at other locations. For Thuermer, Dare to Dream is a wake-eat-sleep-breathe journey 24 hours a day and seven days a week as necessary.
The bottom line is to provide as many opportunities for young people as possible.
“We like to say that we meet children where they are. We help them learn to grow and flourish. Dare to Dream helps them learn life skills by developing stage skills,” Thuermer said.
Most of Dare to Dream’s productions are cast with young people. Some casts involve 14 and under age groups. Some have 18 and under casts. Some casts may include a handful of adults.
Approximately 60 young people are engaged in every production.
Though based in Manitowoc, Dare to Dream participants may come from as far away as Green Bay, Milwaukee, Sheboygan or other areas.
“We are always open to working with new people, but we do have an important participation requirement,” Thuermer said.
“The parent of the child needs to be involved in some way. We try to match parent contributions with their skills. But, everyone can sell an ad or help build a set,” she said.
“It’s so critical to our success. When the parent and child are both involved in building toward the same thing, it builds important bonds between the parent and child. It’s not a drop-off site. Hosting children without parental involvement would leave them heartbroken,” Thuermer added.
Joint school venture
Recently, Dare to Dream began a partnership with the Howards Grove School District. Some of the cast members in last year’s production of “Shrek” noted that they wanted more drama opportunities in their school.
“This spurred conversations with decision makers at Howards Grove. We agreed to start a partnership and build a drama program,” Thuermer said. “This is really our first effort of this nature. It’s a really new role for our theater company.”
Though performances may be hosted in Manitowoc, some performance experiences are also extended out to area schools and libraries.
Last fall, Dare to Dream sought to tour area libraries with part of its “Dora” production.
In the past five years, the Dare to Dream Theater group has also taken small groups of young performers to Atlanta to participate in the Junior Theater Festival. Dare to Dream Theater is pleased to announce the opportunity to perform at the National Performing Arts Festival at Walt Disney World February 19-23, 2015! Dare to Dream will be performing a 20 minute selection from its Spring, Summer, or Summer Camp Musical!
Directing gives wider view
In order to run Dare to Dream Theater, Thuermer has had to put her desire to perform on the back burner. The business demands that she serve as the director. She has adapted, though.
“I used to think I needed the performing. But, I am finding that when you get to be the vision of the show, it’s a lot like being the artist who opens the container of paint and puts the paint to work,” she noted.
“Being a director is like painting with people. Everyone comes with their own skills, art and colors and as a director you get to mix them together,” Thuermer mused. “As an actor you know your lines, but as the director, you put yourself into everything that happens on the stage.”
For now, Thuermer takes joy in providing opportunity for numbers of children, and also for literally creating something from nothing.
“We are looking to grow and improve our support network, and we rely on volunteers,” she said.
But the bottom line, like it is for so many other theater people is that Thuermer loves her work.
“That’s why I do this, because I love it. I don’t think I could live without it,” she said.
Part of operating a theater troupe for young people is fundraising, something Thuermer admits is not one of her strengths. “I am not very good at asking people for money. But we occasionally have volunteers who really make a difference in that way,” she said.
One means of supporting Dare to Dream stems from a superb costume effort. “We have an amazing costume designer in Amanda Johnson from Howards Grove. We are able to rent out some of the costumes to help pay the bills for the theater,” Thuermer said.
If you would like to register as a volunteer, suggest additional locations, or receive more information, contact Rachel Elizabeth Thuermer at email@example.com.
Susan Rabideau—Women of the Theater
by Mike Mathes
Dreams of Streisand lead to teaching others
Susan Rabideau loved the theater at an early age. She can remember being a “theater person” when she was just five years old.
It’s no wonder that her career has evolved into one that teaches an appreciation of theater to others.
Rabideau, who holds a Master of Fine Arts in Directing, serves as an associate professor of Theater and Communications at the University of Wisconsin-Fox Valley. She has served in that capacity for the past 12 years.
In her role, Rabideau also experiences the joys and challenges of running the university’s theater program. She also takes part in local community theater programs in the summer months.
From Rabideau’s perspective, theater is about creating community. “We bring students and community members together. Many times it can be people who are truly square pegs fitting into round holes. Yet, they are so accepting of each other. They essentially create their own family,” she said.
“We have had many occasions where we have people who have been saved from the brink come together. They give up their free time to create art together, and its a pretty cool thing,” Rabideau said.
To her the biggest factor in building a theater community is the acceptance factor. “We emphasize the fact that everyone is welcome,” she said.
Team building capacity
The arts have a tremendous capacity for team building and creativity, both of which are highly valued in the workplace.
Planning, preparation and presentation of a theater production carries with it many hours behind the scenes. “That work is so important, and we all have to support each other. You can’t just have a group of actors who want to work weekends, but aren’t willing to build sets,” she said.
That amount of work also requires an intense planning effort, one which usually beings a year in advance of a show for Rabideau.
“It’s important for us to work very long range for our productions,” she added.
One show, the production of “Tarzan” required a pre-production period of nearly two years.
Blending the workload
Blending a 4-4 teaching load with the community theater responsibilities can be harrowing at times.
Rabideau says it requires great organizational skills and admits she is somewhat of a “freak” when it comes to organization.
“I love my lists. I also plan to work an hour a week on each show in the pre-production phase. I actually set a timer,” she said.
Lists are critical. She has one 80-point checklist for any show that she starts checking off early in the process.
“You have to do that, because every show gets overwhelming during tech week. You have to have so many pieces in place prior to that,” she said.
Dream of the spotlight
Rabideau began to focus on her organization skills right after college. “There was a time when I dreamed I would be the next Barbra Streisand and take my career to Broadway,” she said. “But after college I realized I didn’t have the skill sets to allow that to occur.”
She found her penchant for organization, realizing that she has a rare combination of being half business-brained and half creative-brained.
Rabideau came to the realization that directing and producing theater is really a small business operation. Her path directed her back to business classes, where she enriched those ingrained organization skills.
“I have been very fortunate that people have realized the value of the rare combination of organization and creativity,” she said. “And I hope I have been able to draw on that to make our theater productions successful.”
A lot of work involved
For Rabideau, the early lure of the stage has boiled down to the realization that theater involves a lot of work, a lot of which isn’t very glamorous.
“There is not a job I haven’t done. People have seen me sweeping stages,” she said.
Her greatest sense of accomplishment, though comes from yielding her ego to overall success of the production.
“On opening night, if I have done my job well, nobody thinks about me. They just think about how all those people came together to make this art,” she said.
“If it’s a good show, that feeling really mushrooms.”
The other thing that brings a sense of accomplishment to the educator is the opportunity to see people coming into their own and growing their sense of self worth as part of a theater production.
In fact, Rabideau encourages everyone to consider an opportunity to be enriched through theater.
People are enriched through watching, but the enrichment is even greater when participating.
“My advice to people is that they should jump off the cliff and put themselves out there to get involved. Audition or call someone to offer your talents. I have never met a theater artist that has turned down help,” she said.
“Tell yourself you want to try this. It could be a spectacular failure, but nine times out of ten you are going to find a new home,” she noted.
Rabideau can’t emphasize enough the cultural value of theater art in our society. “We are losing social interaction, and it would be a sad world without that. Theatrical events have a community feel to them. It’s actually a time where we turn off text messaging and we may even speak to the person next to us,” she said.
Located on Midway Road in Menasha, UW-Fox Valley boasts a relatively new, 14.7 million communication arts facility—one with a marvelous footprint for theater. A schedule of upcoming theater opportunities and performances can be found on the university’s website— http://www.uwfox.uwc.edu/cac/theaterevents.html.
It’s a great place to check out the schedule, and it even includes opportunities to “jump off the cliff” by auditioning or signing up to volunteer.
Though starring under the spotlights may once have motivated Rabideau, she has found her niche educator/organizer in building communities, teaching appreciation for the theater and helping others realize their dreams.
“I truly have my dream. I do what I love and I get a paycheck at the end of the week. It’s really cool,” she said.
Women of the Theater
by Mike Mathes
Broadway might be located half a continent away in the real world, but for local women, the opportunity to be a part of the theater might linger just around the corner. Whether they are attracted by the bright lights of the stage, or prefer to do their work behind the scenes, women have turned their talents and interests into wonderful theatrical opportunities. Those opportunities may be for their own gain, but many times, there is an altruistic aim of bringing an appreciation of the theater to others. Whether they find their joy in creating costumes, performing a dance routine, acting their favorite role, directing, teaching, or simply volunteering for the many mundane tasks that bring theater to life, the women associated with theater in Eastern Wisconsin are doing their part to build cultural appreciation. Their rewards are personal. They are often as simple as fulfilling a childhood dream. Some see the theater as an opportunity to flex their wings and soar in the creative arts. For others, the rewards are even simpler yet. They seek a place to belong. They search for friendship. They long to be part of something bigger than themselves. We share six profiles of area women whose involvement in theater has brought great joy to their lives. They are a mere representation of the larger group of women who love to express themselves through theater.
Bringing Light into places of despair
By Mike Mathes
In a world filled with darkness, a young Kiel native has answered the call to be a beacon of light. Rachel Mathes graduated from Kiel High School in 2007, like many of her classmates, with an eye on college, and a profession beyond. What started out to be a pathway into the graphic design profession and an avocation for fastpitch softball was only the first step on a faith journey that would lead her around the globe. The travels would be marked by an effort to bring hope and comfort to some of the world's poorest and most needy people. Yet to turn 25, Mathes has made five worldwide mission trips, and serves currently in an inner city outreach center in Milwaukee. Her objective is simple. She feels called to bring the light of Christ to others who need that ray of hope. Mathes' first mission trip came during her sophomore year at Concordia University of Wisconsin, where she was immersed in softball, pitching in relief for the Falcons while studying graphic design. She felt God's call, and it wasn't an easy one to accept. Softball would have to be put aside to make her first journey to India. Mathes discussed her plans with her coach, then came home to inform her family of her decision. Instead of pursuing her role on the college softball team, she was now a member of the Jesus team, heading for a faraway land. "Jesus put the desire in my heart to go to India, before I even understood my relationship with him as my Lord and Savior," Mathes said.
Working through Bethania Kids Making the decision to join the India mission team was only the first step. A simple matter of raising the money to support the journey-a tidy sum of $2,500 had to be raised by her and every other member of the India team-was the next hurdle. Fundraising events and support from friends, family and fellow believers helped achieve the necessary financial goal. As is often the case, the mission teams received financial support from others, but more important is the prayer support for their effort. The mission team traveled as a group based out of St. John's Lutheran Church in West Bend. That congregation had supported Bethania Kids in Southern India with prior mission ventures. Through the Bethania presence, the traveling messengers would ground themselves in a relatively established presence in India. Christianity is a significantly minority religion in the country. But, the Bethania Kids homes are results of Christian efforts to help the disadvantaged-young boys and girls who might not otherwise be supported in Indian culture. The young mission traveler recalled the exhaustion of the long flight halfway across the globe. Exhaustion would soon be replaced by the desire to interact with the children they had traveled to see. As a team member Mathes helped organize songs, skits and told stories about Jesus in her relatively low key role. "We had 19 people on our team that first mission trip, and that was a huge team. I would never take that many again," she said. The group visited children's homes starting out in Chennai and moving on to Kodaikannal. Mathes remembers getting off the bus to lines of children ushering them into their buildings screaming and shouting with joy. "We were there to serve them, and they were blessing us so richly-literally treating us like royalty. I couldn't help but thinking, 'I am no one, why are you so excited to see me.'" What she learned in the background and the safety net of the large group would pave the way for her next role-team leader. That would come on her third trip to India, where she had to take responsibility for planning and carrying out the entire team effort.
Learn to just love them Mathes said one of the earliest and easiest things to comprehend is that the people on mission are simply there to share God's love for those they visit. "It's amazing how they just love you-they just need you to be there to reinforce their faith," she said. Sometimes it mean playing games, laughing together, drawing silly pictures or stumbling through language obstacles. For Mathes, the added gift of playing the guitar and singing helped her connect even more with the young people. "It didn't take long to notice each of the children. Their clothes were heavily worn. Many were not wearing shoes. Yet they were still so happy," she said. "You are amazed that they can be this happy while you can only imagine what they have gone through in their lives." Visits involved singing, dancing and skits with translators. The guests would perform, and the children would share bits of their culture in return. Together, they ventured into the universal language of prayer. "We prayed with and over each child. We spread out blessing them," Mathes noted, indicating the process that would be repeated at each location. Of course, one of the intentions of the trip was also to bring supplies directly to the homes-items like blankets, vitamins, water purification systems, sweatshirts and other necessities were hauled along, making sure the good would actually reach their intended destinations.
Religious challenges Serving as a Christian mission person in a distant land brings its set of challenges. In India, for example, Christianity is accepted as a minority religion in the south, where some freedom to choose religions exists. Some parts of the country practice a hybrid theology, combining Catholicism with tenets of Hinduism, offering mixed blessings to the Christian faith. Moving north, however, Christian beliefs are not part of the culture, and are frowned upon. For the mission team, it's all about trying to find the right time to portray the message of Christianity. The travelers felt at ease witnessing to people in the market while surrounded by Indian friends and translators. However, on a second trip to India, Mathes and fellow team members encountered a driver who became offended when the group played some of their worship music on a CD. "He got pretty mad at us and came close to pulling the car over and leaving us out in the middle of nowhere," she said.
Mission misconceptions Mathes said she learned early among her four trips to India that Americans, in particular, often have the wrong idea about the role of mission teams. Too often, they see themselves as fixers. "We think we are there trying to help them, to give them something or to do something for them. Worse yet, we think we have to tell them how to live and whatever comes along with that," she said. "You can't go in somewhere-a place where you have no idea of what's happening-and decide what's best for someone else. You have to build the relationship. You have no clue of what's happening before you have been there," she said. "If a person can realize the value of just being there and just loving one other person in a way that they are seen as the presence of the Lord, that's what really speaks to my heart," she said.
Listening for the Voice Following her year as team leader, Mathes heard the call to return to India yet a fourth time. This time would be different. Instead of joining up with a team, Mathes and a roomate, Marcy Kelto, were called to make the trip on their own. Traveling to familiar Bethania settings and being called to venture into the non-believing north of India, this trip would be different. Imagine being conflicted by hearing the call, yet being in a position where finances would be a huge issue. "I had graduated from Concordia and was making minimum wage as a day care facilitator at a Lutheran church. I lived in Grafton, then moved to Milwaukee. Big parts of my car had broken down two months earlier, sapping my savings. If I took this trip, I would be basically homeless upon my return to the Milwaukee area. I had no money to pay for my trip," she said. "We had some people together praying for the trip. All I could remember was thinking how I needed $3,000 by the end of the week in order to make this journey," she said. By 10 p.m. the group finished praying and was ready to depart, when someone noticed an envelope left at the entrance. In crayon, Rachel's name was scribbled on the envelope. To her surprise, when she opened it, the envelope contained an anonymous cashier's check for $3,000-the exact amount needed to cover the journey. Her friend Marcy received a refund check from a grant in the mail the next day, and it was obvious Jesus had answered their prayers. It was on this fourth journey, Mathes said, that she began to understand fully why God calls disciples to the nations. "It's not to make us feel good or say things about the cool places we have been. It's to demonstrate God's love for them," she said. It can mean showing acceptance for disabled children in a culture where they are outcasts. It can mean helping women find their faith and sense of self-worth in a society where they have been abused or rejected. "We get to laugh, sing, talk and share with them. We get to pray together. We get to dream with God about their possibilities," she said. "We get to tell kids without earthly fathers that they still have a Father who cares for them. "It's amazing to see the difference even one person can make and delivering God's message of love to the people," Mathes noted.
In a dark place On her fourth trip, the mission called for Mathes and Kelto to journey to the north, to a place where a Christian mission was just taking a toehold in the midst of a strong Hindu tradition. The American visitors felt the voice of God calling them to visit a major Hindu temple and pray. While that may not seem like a daunting task on surface, it was a place where Christians weren't allowed. As they explained their request to visit this place to a local Christian pastor, he silenced them.They were in a restaurant, fearing others would hear of their plans. Later at the hotel, he advised, "Don't do this, it's really unsafe. But, if you want, I will try to get you there." Take them he did in his car, despite Marcy feeling ill the whole trip. They were able to get past the first checkpoint into the shrine but were halted as they passed the second guard, who charged the car yelling furiously. Apparently the pastor had the name of Jesus written on the windshield of his car. A second, younger man came over, explaining that the province practices freedom of religion, so it was okay to pass, provided the name was covered up with newsprint. Together the duo prayer walked around the shrine, noting the solemn looks on the faces of those who came to wait their turn to enter the temple. "We didn't preach or start a riot," Rachel said. "We didn't see three thousand converts. We only did what God asked us to do and prayed for this place." Adults and children alike at the shrine bore solemn looks on their faces, almost as if they were about to die. Yet, while the two women walked they encountered one young girl who couldn't stop looking at them. "She was beaming. She could not take her eyes off us. She was seeing something different than everyone else on that mountain," Mathes noted.
Diverted to Africa Mathes was locked in the throes of planning her fifth trip to India and a return to the children she loved working with. But things changed dramatically. "I had plans and had sent in my deposit to go, but God stopped me. The ministry planning the trip was shutting things down, and I could not go alone," she said. Attending a Burn 24-7 event, Mathes said a friend communicated that Rachel would be going to Africa, not India-something learned in prayer. After prayerful consideration, and some scurrying to circumnavigate last minute deadlines, Africa was the destination indeed. "I didn't have much time to decide, but prayer helped us understand we were being called to go to the Congo," she said. That's Congo, as in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a central African nation torn by warring rebel factions, and decimated by disease, famine and abject poverty. No place on earth has a higher incidence of rape or sexual violence. The DRC is not the sort of place a woman would seek on her travel agenda. In recent wars, genocide was practiced as Rwandese and Congolese battled for control of the country and its limited resources. "I was well aware of the dangers," Mathes said. "We had visited with some of the ministry people connected with the trip and we were well aware we might be going into the bush." After a lot of praying, Mathes and those she would be journeying with were buoyed by their faith. They had to trust that God would protect and keep them safe as they were venturing on this important mission to support Christians in the backcountry of one of the world's darkest places. "All of us on the team felt at peace with the mission because we were going to see the friends who had been called to ministry in this place," she said. Loving, gracious people Halfway around the globe, in the midst of this strife, Mathes and her fellow travelers took stock in the hearts of the people they encountered. "The people in the Congo are the most loving and gracious people I have ever met. They were hospitable and wanted to take us in. And, this was in places where the country was so war torn that their natural love and hospitality has been beaten down. It's sad to see that people so willing to give are being stolen from and abused," she said. It was in this place where the mission team struggled to find words and answers. "Where is God?" "That's a common question for the Congolese to ask. They tell us, 'You come and talk about God and we believe in Jesus. It's so hard to keep believing when we don't see him bringing peace,'" Mathes noted. She admitted feeling uneasy-having never experienced the level of pain and the trauma associated with the plight of the Congolese. In the end, it's most important that the visitors leave the message of hope that God still cares about these people. "We are there to let them know that someone came to care about them, to care about the hurting in their nation and to care about the injustices. Our presence brings the Light to their darkness," she said.
Extended worship While in the bush, Mathes and others with her conducted a "burn" or extended worship time, with guitar, praise singing and prayer leading the way. Working with a ministry that had been active in the Congo, the team reached out to local pastors to bring them together for worship and prayer. "It was amazing to worship with the Congolese. They worship like no one I have seen. We danced and sang praise to the Lord all night long," she said. "We taught them how to be intimate with God during worship and worked with 30 pastors in the process," she said. During the midst of the burn, completely exhausted at 3 a.m., it was Mathes' turn to lead worship for two hours. She remembers the joy-filled 12X16 room jammed with 40 people-mostly pastors. The group soon wore itself out and some stretched out to sleep on the floor. One of the Congolese played the drum while two others from the American mission team remained awake. "We just keep singing out the goodness and hope of Jesus," she said. One of the pastors, whom she thought was sleeping, had remained awake to tearfully greet her at 5:30 a.m. on the way back to the house she was staying. "He started to cry," she said. "He told me, 'You all mean so much to me and to God that I wanted to give of myself to bless you.'" Mathes said the pastor told her he was moved to see her awake at 4 and 5 a.m. singing God's goodness over his country. "One of the pastors that was reluctant to do anything of this sort said they would do this on a regular basis, and he would organize it-he was that moved by God's presence," she noted. To her it was evidence that mission work isn't about changing people. It's about serving as God's presence in their midst. "The seeds you plant are the seeds that will grow," she said. "It's incredible to know that something changed in their hearts. They wanted to continue what God started while we were there."
Experiencing freedom On her journeys, Mathes has seen the changes that can occur among believers of the faith. In India, a country where women are very oppressed, especially in poorer areas of the country, she felt her presence made a great statement. "The mere fact that we were women in these countries demonstrated to the women there that we are valuable as people. We got to speak that value and self-worth into women's lives," she noted. She recalls meeting an Indian woman on her first visit. As she was leaving the village, the woman asked the mission traveler to pray for her. Later, Mathes found out the woman was being abused by her husband, who didn't like the fact that she had turned to Christianity. On her last trip there, the woman came up to Mathes and spoke to her in English, explaining the she had been freed from the abusive relationship. "It's scary to go to some of these places as a woman, but to see how we impacted so many of the women we encountered makes it all worth it," she said.
Meeting life in the pit Mathes, who serves back home in Wisconsin as director of worship and creative services for Adullam Outreach Center on Milwaukee's northwest side, acknowledges that her life is far from normal. She lives and works in a community where she is a minority, surrounded by all the challenges that poverty, unemployment and mistrust foster. Yet, she knows, it's the life she is called to in her relationship with God. People live in fear of racial mistrust and divisions because walls need to be broken down. The hardest part of that "inner-city" ministry is getting to break down the walls that exist in the cultural divide. "I want to get to know the people-their needs, their dreams, what moves and shapes them. But we continually run into walls. The racial divisions are a two-way street. It's difficult to help others, or become their friend when they push us away," she said. Much of that comes from cultural differences, but also fear. "Many of the people in the neighborhood are fearful that we may hurt them as others have in the past," she said. "Because we are different we get a lot of suspicious looks. Others may think we are cops or spies, instead of someone truly reaching out to help." So, the focus for Mathes boils down to her job within the ministry-creating an atmosphere through worship and prayer where people can feel safe, not judged nor rejected. "We want them to experience the radical freedom through Jesus to feel loved and cared for," she said. "I often ask myself why would God send a white girl who doesn't know anything about the people here, who never grew up in Milwaukee, who was raised next to a cornfield and throw her into the middle of this chaos. But, a huge part of why I am here is the same reason I have traveled to other dark places-If I can even bring hope to one person, to see one child loved, to see one life transformed-then I have fulfilled my purpose," she said. "It's a circle. When one person is touched by God, it doesn't stop with that person. It touches another and another, and so on.....," Mathes added. "My lifestyle is not normal. That's the best part about it. I get the opportunity to see lives change, not because of who I am, but because of how good God is," she said. "Jesus wants to meet people in their despair, in the crap and in the pit of life," she said. "That's why I am called to go to the darkest places....to war zones and places without much of a future. Even in my own country, in a place where I can speak the language there's a different pit to attend to," she said. "As long as someone needs the hope and needs to know that Jesus is good, that's where I'll be."