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After Dark


Racine’s ‘edgier’ community theater has been going strong for 20 years

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Published:

Story by Elizabeth Snyder

Stop me if you’ve heard this one ...

Four guys and two gals walk into a bar. The bartender asks “What’ll ya have?” and, 20 years later, they’re still producing plays together.

That’s the short version of the story of Racine’s Over Our Head Players, which started in 1992 with shows at George’s Tavern.

They did “as many as three shows or as few as one” during those early years, according to Rich Smith. The group now produces five regular season shows and one or two bonus productions each year, and the annual Snowdance 10-Minute Comedy Festival has become a hot ticket each January and February.

Smith is one of the theater troupe’s six founding members, along with John Adams, Ron Schulz, Diane Carlson, Wendy Schulz and Kevin Hlavka.

All six are still with Over Our Head Players, and Smith, Adams and Ron Schulz sat down in the Sixth Street Theatre — the troupe’s home since 1999 — to talk with Prime Magazine.

The early years

Smith, Adams and Ron Schulz knew each other from ComedySportz in Racine, and “we found a play we wanted to do called ‘Bathroom Humor’,” Smith says. “We took the money from that show and put it into the next show. And that’s how this whole thing started.”

The shows were staged in a back room at George’s, where, Schulz recalls, “we used a pool table as our prop table.”

All three are Racine County natives, and all three have day jobs, though Schulz refers to his work with Over Our Head Players “as a second job we’re volunteering for. You can easily put in 30-40 hours a week.”

Starting a theater group

To get a community theater company going, Smith suggests these six steps:

1) Pick a name. “Over Our Head Players” was the name picked out of a hat that contained several suggestions from the founding members. The name alludes to the feeling that we were in over our head, having spent a few hundred bucks already,” Smith says.

2) Decide to keep doing shows. “We knew we had something here we didn’t want to die,” Schulz says.

3) Incorporate the group.

4) Get nonprofit status. “That was a huge — and very painful — step,” Smith recalls with a laugh. “You have to go through so much B.S. and paperwork that one lawyer told us eight out of 10 community theater groups who apply for nonprofit status go out of existence before getting it.”

5) Get a good lawyer.

6) Develop a good board of directors.

To that list, we could add a seventh suggestion: Get serious.

“Our board of directors started out as a social gathering,” Schulz says, until, Adams adds, “we had to treat this more like a business. We had a pivotal point early on where we asked each other ‘are we going to get serious about this?’ It made us stronger and gave us a goal.”

Comedy tonight!

Over Our Head Players has always focused on producing comedies because “that’s our strength and what we built our audience on,” Smith says. “We do throw a drama in now and then. And we mix it up with the comedies, too.”

There are “dark comedies, smart comedies, fun comedies and bad comedies,” Schulz adds.

Over Our Head Players’ shows tend to be edgier than those done by other community theaters, Smith says.

And audience reaction to those shows can be strong.

“We went through a period, early on, where we got some guff about language or subject matter,” Smith says, recalling one play dealing with child abuse. “We’re honest about the language involved, but some of these shows can turn some heads. Still, Racine and Kenosha both have strong support for theater.”

Adams believes “we dragged our audience along with us through these shows. Some of the folks who first saw us setting up shows at George’s Tavern are still subscribers.”

Schulz chuckles when recalling that early audiences “were made up of our family and friends. I used to look out from the stage and know everyone in the audience personally. It’s nice to look out now and not actually know everyone. Now I recognize them as season subscribers.”

Smith adds that “it’s only community theater until it offends someone — then it’s art!”

The theater

Over Our Head Players produces its shows in a storefront theater on Sixth Street in downtown Racine. The intimate space surprises people the first time they walk inside, Smith says. “They walk in here and kind of exclaim ‘oh!’ and think it’s so cute.”

The group picks shows that work well in the small space. “We’ve done shows in other places — Memorial Hall and Festival Hall — but people like our space the best. It’s an intimate theater that works for us,” Schulz says.

Unexpected benefits

Smith says he’s been surprised “by all the good things that have happened in the past 20 years with Over Our Head Players.”

“We’ve had slow but steady growth each year, selling more tickets than the year before. Good things come out of good energy,” he says, adding, “So many nice people have come through here, and so many good friendships have been formed. Maybe that’s what’s supposed to happen.”

For his part, Schulz says he’s “most surprised that we’re still here. If you had asked me 20 years ago if we’d last that long, I would have said no, but in hindsight, it doesn’t surprise me.” He marvels at all the “marriages, divorces and babies” we’ve seen in the group over the past two decades.

The group was started, Adams says, “for yuks, but now it’s become a real part of the community. What we get out of it has changed.”

Volunteers

While the actors are the most visible part of Over Our Head Players, the group is made up of volunteers in a variety of roles.

“Diane Carlson, one of our founding members, is a brilliant stage manager, director and costume person,” Smith says. “She has a strong love for theater but doesn’t want to act.”

Adams says the group’s strength is its volunteers. “We keep adding new faces all the time, which is so important. We have new volunteers and new audience members.”

Adams, Smith and Schulz have all acted in multiple productions, and Schulz also does all the group’s graphics and design work.

There are three paid positions — managing artistic director (Smith), box office manager and technical director — and all the rest are volunteers. Over the course of a year, about 150 people will volunteer with the group.

“Technical people — stage managers, sound designers — are the toughest to get,” Smith says. “When we find them, we hold onto them and treat them extra nice.”

(If you wonder if finding actors is more difficult, Schulz offers the old saying: “Actors are just talking props.”)

The future

For the troupe’s next 20 years, Smith “would love to see us continue to have a solid focus on being a presence in downtown Racine. The area businesses and restaurants are glad we’re here.”

“Twenty years from now, I’d love to walk in here and find a bigger, better theater where we can come in and watch someone else do a show.”

Adams says he’d love to “leave a legacy that can continue on after we’re all gone.”

And, as part of that legacy, his daughter, Addison, 13, is already planning to join the theater troupe when she’s older.