Theatre season features varied offerings, return to New Mexico

PLAINVIEW – The fall semester is only a week old at Wayland Baptist University, but Dr. Marti Runnels and his crew in the theatre department are already deep in the throes of a new season.

Their first show comes around in just under a month, then three more follow closely behind. In addition, the department is gearing up for the second year of the Sacramento Mountain Theatre Collaborative in Ruidoso, N.M., meaning additional recruiting and planning as well.

It’s enough to wear out even the sturdiest of souls. But for Runnels, who has been director of theatre at Wayland for more than a decade, it’s just another year.

The season kicks off for theatre patrons on Sept. 28 with the dinner theatre production of The Exact Center of the Universe. A comedy by Joan Vail Thorne, the show features a controlling woman who involves herself in the lives of everyone around her. Drama ensues when Vada Love Powell, the lead character, gets involved in her son’s marriage and tries to run the show like all other events.

“Vada is someone that everyone knows but no one wants to be around,” Runnels said. “The thing about this show – like all good comedies – is that it’s not just a ‘yuck’ a minute. There’s some meat to this as well.”

The dinner theatre production leading the season represents a departure from the usual season schedule which has the production closing out the season and the lead show featuring the short plays directed by students. Runnels said the changes made sense after consideration.

“One of the challenges with Shorts is that it’s part of the directing class assignment,” he explained. “When it’s at the very front of the season, the students are directing without really having much of the class yet.”

“We thought it would be good for our new students if their first theatre experiences were in our hands and more traditional. Then the Shorts can be more of an experience for directing class students who really want to do it.”

Exact Center of the Universe will be featured Sept. 28-30, with the dinner catered by Johnny Carino’s served at 7 p.m. and the show beginning at 8 p.m. each of those nights. Dessert is served after the production for dinner patrons.

The second play of the season will be Terra Nova, a drama by Ted Tally performed Nov. 10, 11, 16, 17 and 18 at 8 p.m. The play is based on a true story of the early explorations to reach the South Pole. Specifically, this piece is based on letters and diaries of the men who made these journeys, Captain Robert Scott and Roald Amundsen.

Set in 1913, the play is one Runnels said he was instantly drawn to once he read the script several years ago.

“I’ve seen parts of this play done in One-Act Play competitions and festivals for many years but never in a full-length version. When I read the script I knew someday I’d want to direct it,” he said. “Tally is one of our greatest playwrights and this is one of his greatest. It’s very cleverly written and very moving.”

Runnels said the historical aspect of the play comes alive in the writing and he hopes people who may not pick up a history book to read about the South Pole explorations will enjoy this more dramatic rendition of the events. An afterglow session with discussion and dessert will follow the show for those interested.

The musical The Spitfire Grill will be the first spring show and the homecoming production, performing Feb. 22-24 and March 2-3 at 8 p.m. Written by James Valcq and Fred Alley, the musical is based on the 1996 movie of the same name by Lee David Zlotoff.

The play involves a young woman paroled from jail who comes to a small town in Wisconsin to start a new life, going to work at Hannah’s Spitfire Grill. The restaurant is for sale but there are no takers, so Hannah holds a raffle. Entrants must complete an essay on why they want the grill, and the best essay wins. Soon, mail begins arriving and things start hopping.

Aside from the raffle plot, Runnels said there are other subplots occurring in the play and some “small-townisms” that make for interesting drama.

“Essentially this is a story about redemption, and I love redemption stories, when something looks like it won’t work out and then everything does in the end,” Runnels said. “People will really enjoy this music. No matter how much I loved the movie I wouldn’t do this (play) if the music was bad.”

The production represents a collaboration with Jeff Kensmoe, assistant professor of vocal studies who joined the fine arts faculty last year as director of the new musical theatre program. Unlike past years where musical productions meant double the load for Runnels, Spitfire Grill will involve Kensmoe handling the music and vocal end of the production while Runnels focuses on the theatrical aspects such as lines, blocking and staging.

The piece will also be Wayland’s entry into the Christian University Theatre Festival in early March, and WBU will perform their piece on March 5. The university will once again host the event, which brings in other regional universities to present their work and share feedback time to hone their skills.

The department will close the season with Shorts, a collection of short plays directed, acted and crewed by theatre students, performing April 19-21 at 8 p.m. Plays will be chosen by the student directors at a later date.

On top of the usual season work, Runnels is already working on the planning and recruiting for the Ruidoso theatre collaborative. At the close of the June production of Art at the Spencer Theater, the facility welcomed the university back for another year at least and the department plans to grow the program.

“We hit a home run, there’s no question about that. Everything from the town’s welcome to the Spencer Theater went perfectly,” he said. “We would have like to have more high school students, but it will continue to grow.”

Runnels said he’ll pick the production to be performed at the Spencer in the spring after the high school students are chosen, and plans are for a show that will involve those younger students as well as some current WBU students and graduate students in theatre who are WBU stage veterans.

Season tickets are $40 for individuals and $75 for couples, which includes the dinner theatre and the three other regular-season shows. Tickets to the Spencer Theatre production are an additional $25 per person.

To make reservations for season tickets, contact the box office at 291-1089. Season tickets are available through the first show.