Commonwealth Journal

November 27, 2013

Theatre program should remain a part of SCC

by Chris Harris
Commonwealth Journal

A word of advice to Somerset Community College: It’s tough running a college. I get that. There are crucial budget decisions that have to be made, and they aren’t always easy or fun. The arts are always a pretty easy scapegoat.
Whatever you do, leave the SCC Theatre program alone. Down the road, should such a dilemma arise, don’t give in. Don’t even think about giving the program the axe.
Because doing so would hurt the entire community much more than any good it would do for the school’s bottom line.
I’ll admit, I’m a little bit biased — I just wrapped up an SCC Community Theatre production. This past weekend, I acted in “Spoon River Anthology,” based on the work of Edgar Lee Masters — a collection of poems about life around the turn of the century (19th to 20th, not Y2K) in a rural Illinois community.
There are more than 200 characters, each of whom has died and gets to tell their story in the form of a poem, one that easily becomes a monologue translatable to the stage. 
SCC Theatre Program Director Steve Cleberg deftly wove together the interconnecting personal accounts to create set of cohesive stories that the audience could follow along. A creative use of music was also employed, with easily identifiable folk favorites, thanks to the show’s talented participants as well as local singer-songwriter duo Joe LaMay and Sherri Reese.
We performed for the public on Friday and Saturday. I know Friday was a sell-out; Saturday was close. It’s encouraging to know that the Pulaski Community knows about the gem they have in the SCC Theatre Program.
Because really, where else are you going to see legitimate stage drama (and comedy, of course) around here? Once a season — perhaps twice, if we’re lucky — the Lake Cumberland Performing Arts brings a traveling show to The Center for Rural Development. And it’s almost always good stuff, but so few and far-between. We have the Lake Cumberland Children’s Theatre, which is a wonderful avenue into the arts for younger people, and maybe some church-based groups who act. Anything more, and you’re going to have to drive at least to Danville, for that town’s consistently top-notch Pioneer Playhouse.
But here in Somerset? Really, it’s SCC carrying the torch. Under Cleberg’s direction over the last few decades, local audiences have been treated to some of the greats: “Godspell.” “Harvey.” “Arsenic and Old Lace.” “School for Scandal.” The list goes on and on. 
Cleberg’s own creation, “Radio Suspense Theatre,” has grown beyond the walls of Stoner Little Theatre on the SCC campus, where audiences enjoyed several installments of the slice of old-timey radio life over the years, and is now being staged by other groups around the country. SCC Theatre has made its mark not just locally, but beyond the borders of the Commonwealth.
SCC’s Digital Video Productions program has allowed the school to make both short and feature-length films, expanding the range of the student thespians. In recent years, the annual “Sketches!” collection of comic vignettes has become a crowd favorite, sort of the local answer to “Saturday Night Live.” 
Perhaps the best thing about SCC Theatre, however, is its Community Theatre, and the open embrace it offers to any budding acting talent in the greater Lake Cumberland area, not just those enrolled in the school.
For years, the plays have featured adults — many of them teachers, lawyers, professionals, your next-door neighbors — who have been bitten by the acting bug and want to participate. The mixture they form with the talented youth under Cleberg’s instruction is never anything less than perfect chemistry. It also provides an open door for students yet to enter college to take a close-up look at what the school offers.
In “Spoon River,” we had two high schoolers — one from Southwestern, one from Wayne County — and both of them blew me away. I was no less impressed by the familiar SCC Theatre vets or the current students, but I expected them to be good — but the fact that even the youngest among us delivered so powerfully is a testament to SCC Theatre’s reputation and the kind of person it attracts.
Also impressive were several adult newcomers, but it was their reasons for getting involved that spoke the loudest. I heard them talk about participating to “cross it off their bucket list” — people who had always wanted to know what it was like to get up on stage and perform but hadn’t worked up the courage to give it a shot until now.
SCC Theatre offered them that opportunity. It gives humble people with dreams the chance to live them out. I heard them talk about their experience as a sort of rush, an unfamiliar but exciting jolt of energy that can come only from standing under the spotlight in front of rows of theatre patrons. 
It’s nothing but good publicity for Somerset Community College. A place for learning becomes so much more when it can engage the entire community, a promise made in the school’s very name.
As for me, I did some stuff with the program back in high school, but hadn’t acted for about 15 years (save for a class or two at the school I attended out-of-state, and maybe the stray Vacation Bible School skit) until last spring’s production of “Sketches!”
Once I finished it, I knew I needed more. I had a craving that demanded to be fed. And when “Spoon River Anthology” came around, I jumped at the chance to be a part of it.
I loved the experience, and I loved being around my fellow cast members. Whether joking around in the green room or marveling at their abilities on stage, they made the time spent working on “Spoon River” an absolute blast. Witty, good-hearted, creative, one-of-a-kind people.
This needs to stay as it is. Things will change — they always do. Neither Cleberg nor Sherry Crabtree, Fine Arts Assistant at SCC, will be there forever. Right now, they’re kind of the pillars of the program. That may change somewhere down the line.
Whatever happens, don’t let it affect SCC Theatre’s existence. It needs to continue — for what it offers the community, both as an audience and as participants, as much as SCC’s own students. 
The play’s the thing — and this is a thing that matters.