Mighty longevity, mighty laughs

By: 
Jamie Hult, Staff writer

As part of its 35-year anniversary celebration, the Mighty Corson Art Players honored the leading ladies who have starred in the most performances: (from left) Rose Rhead (8 shows), Jolene Coulter Murren (8 shows), Alissa P. Thiele (9 shows), Carol Nelson (15 shows), Jan Johnson (8 shows), and accepting on behalf of the late Julane Sorenson, who led the ladies with 16 performances, her husband, David Sorenson, and daughter, Alon.  Jamie Hult/BV Journal

Bob Portice, Steve Farley and Bob Wright were among the actors honored at Mighty Corson Art Players' awards ceremony, open house and 35-year anniversary party Sunday. Wright led the number of performances for both men and women, with 21 shows between 1992 and 2012.  Jamie Hult/BV Journal
Corson Art Players celebrate 35 years
 
The theater in Corson Playhouse is so intimate, you can almost feel the sweat dripping off an actor’s brow from the front row. 
That cozy familiarity fills the community theater group that walks its stage and toils behind the scenes. It’s a feeling they’ve been sharing with audiences for 35 years. 
With 21 shows under his belt, Bob Wright has played everything from a waiter to a doctor to a literary agent. 
He recalls a lot of friendly pranks around the set in the earlier days. In one scene he played an IRS agent and drank tea.
“But instead of tea, what they handed me was spiked with a goodly amount of bourbon,” Wright said. 
True to his craft, he drank it without missing a beat.  
“The show must go on,” he said with a smile. 
Wright is modest about holding the record for starring in the most shows. 
“It’s a matter of longevity,” he said. “Not that I was that great or anything. But it was fun to do for a long time. Not too many people walked out on us.”
You might say the Mighty Corson Art Players put the “community” in “community theater.”
“For a long time MCAP has had a very loyal following as the Brandon area’s best kept secret,” said Brian starring a total of 653 cast members. 
Those numbers come from Martha Smith. She and Dee Gulson have been with the Art Players since the first meeting in 1982. 
“It’s been a wonderful 35 years. Not many community theaters last this long,” said Smith, who serves officially as treasurer and unofficially as historian and record-keeper.
“There would be no Mighty Corson Art Players without Martha and Dee. They are an invaluable beacon of institutional knowledge,” Schipper said. “There were some lean years and if it weren’t for their passion, we wouldn’t be here throwing a 35-year party.”
Gulson directed MCAP’s first play, “Deadwood Dick,” and Smith directed the second, “You Can’t Take It with You.” Both women served as board president, too.
Smith has remained behind the scenes these 35 years. Once upon a time she was cast in a small part of a production, but a horse accident curtailed her acting career. She didn’t mind. To Smith, the play’s the thing.
“Our greatest loyalty is to audiences. We’ve always tried to give them what they like and what they want – to be entertained,” she said. 
For the crowd that fills the Corson Playhouse year after year, that means family-friendly and curse-word-free. 
“We do primarily light comedy. People like to laugh,” Smith said. “A little innuendo is fine, but they like it clean.”
Bob Portice has starred in nine Mighty Corson productions. His son has done a few, too. 
“My son said when you did a show with dad, it was a different show every night,” said Portice, who was known to improv on occasion.
Gulson remembers directing the first show in 1982 and the vaudeville fundraiser that preceded it. Tickets were $1.50, and the audience sat on bales of hay. 
“’Deadwood Dick’ was a melodrama, so you could overact,” Gulson explained. “You didn’t have to have very talented actors – but we found out we did!”
That early stage had five doors, which made “Deadwood Dick” even more interesting. 
“Personally I laughed because I didn’t know which door they were going to come out of next,” Gulson said. 
Built in 1910, the Corson Playhouse was a hardware store, and then a creamery before the Corson Dramatic Group claimed it in 1925 and built the stage. Another group, the Pepperites, occupied the Corson Playhouse from 1932 to 1940. For the next 42 years the little white building was a community hall for local elections, school programs, dances and card parties. 
In 1982 Brandon newspaper editor Bud Jones led the charge for a new community theater group. They called themselves the Mighty Corson Art Players, a play on the popular Tonight Show segment “The Mighty Carson Art Players.”
They rented the community hall and set about restoring it to its former glory days. For two years they borrowed folding chairs from the fire department before buying 120 antique, wooden seats out of barn storage. 
“It’s so nice to have an old building to take care of. It’s old but it’s still current,” Smith said. “It has wonderful acoustics. You can hear as well in the back row as the front I think.”
Others have fond memories of the Corson Playhouse stage, too. 
“I’ve done shows in different places, but the best time I’ve had is on this stage,” Portice said. “This is the place to come. There’s so much support from these people and this community.”
In 2013 Bill Wagner bought at auction and donated the cushioned theater seats audiences sit on today. A row of six wooden chairs remain at the back of the theater. 
Smith attributes MCAP’s longevity to determination. 
“People have come and gone over the years and drifted away as they do,” Smith said. “We’ve been fortunate to find new people always coming and have the old standbys.”
Modern Woodman of America and Brandon Lumber have been consistent supporters and advertisers in play programs since MCAP’s beginning. MWA has helped raise money for remodels, too.
In 1991 they jacked up the playhouse and put in new basement walls. A new lobby, upstairs restrooms and a handicap ramp came in 2012, along with all-new windows, doors, siding and shingles. The new lobby garnered a lot of backing and enthusiasm, and MCAP enjoyed sold-out shows for a while.
MCAP has traditionally selected its plays through catalogs and word-of-mouth. In recent years there’s been a push for newer material a third show to its annual line-up. Tickets are on sale now for the classic farce “Boeing, Boeing,” which Schipper is directing, and this holiday season the Art Players will keep it light with “Every Christmas Story Ever Told (and Then Some).” A take-off on traditional Christmas shows told in a series of vignettes, “Every Christmas Story” is presented in a mash-up style in the same tone as last fall’s hit show “A Complete History of America (Abridged).”  
MCAP’s bylaws are short and sweet: to preserve the old community hall, to provide quality entertainment while showcasing local talent and to keep audiences laughing for years to come. 
On Sunday more than 50 cast, crew, audience members, family and friends from over MCAP’s 35 years gathered at the Corson Playhouse. Plaques (nicknamed the “Alice award” after a Pepperite named Alice) were presented to the six actors and the six actresses who had been in the most shows.
The late Julane Sorenson led the women, with 17 plays. Her husband, David, and daughter accepted. 
Sorenson also served as president 10 years and directed two MCAP productions. 
“She held us together many years and drew crowds because she was a fantastic actress,” Smith said. 
Alice awards were also presented to Carol Nelson, with 15 plays to her credit; Alissa P. Thiele, with nine performances, as well as seven stints as director; and three women who starred in eight plays each: Jan Johnson, Jolene Coulter Murren and Rose Rhead. 
Bob Wright led the leading men with 21 shows. He was followed by Dave Bakke, with 12 shows; Bob Portice, with nine; Steve Farley, with nine; Dave Oschner, with eight; and John Ring, also with eight. 
The Mighty Corson Art Players may soon be saying goodbye to perhaps their most loyal of “old standbys,” Martha Smith. She alluded at Sunday’s anniversary reunion that she may soon be stepping down from her duties. She keeps an upbeat outlook on MCAP’s future. 
“I hope we keep on keeping on an upward trajectory. You need young people with the energy and time,” Smith said. “We’re depending on these young folks to keep it going, and I know they’ll do a fine job.”
 
View more moments from MCAP's 35th anniversary in the Brandon Valley Journal's online photo gallery.

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