Community Theater Thrives This Summer

by Anna Gaynor

The Irish playwright Oscar Wilde regarded theater as “the greatest of all art forms, the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being.” Nowhere is this sense of communion more evident than in the community theater. The Peoria area is home to the fourth-oldest company in the nation and boasts a long, storied history of community theater. This summer, watch the stage come alive in central Illinois!


Conklin’s Barn II Dinner Theatre
The month of July brings the farewell production of Forever Plaid at Conklin’s Barn II Dinner Theatre. The musical comedy tells the story of four high school friends trying to rectify their aspiring music careers from the afterlife. Nearly a dozen years after its initial premiere, the theater will present its final performances of the musical comedy from June 11th to July 19th.

For Marketing Director Pat Gaik, the play has had a long history at Conklin’s. “Plaid was first performed with this same cast in November/December of 1997 and then was held over twice a month on Thursday nights for nearly two years.” By her count, after this final season, Forever Plaid will have been performed more than 200 times at the theater.

Conklin’s Barn II Dinner Theatre
NOW SHOWING: Forever Plaid June 11-July 19
Unnecessary Farce
July 23-September 13
CONTACT: (309) 965-2545 or

Corn Stock Theatre
NOW SHOWING: Once Upon a Mattress July 10-18
Harvey July 31-August 8
Dames at Sea August 21-29
CONTACT: (309) 676-2196 or

Eastlight Theatre
NOW SHOWING: Rent August 7-15
CONTACT: 699-7469 or

Peoria Players Theatre
NOW SHOWING: Bye Bye Birdie August 6-9
CONTACT: 309) 688-4473 or

Next up for Conklin’s will be Unnecessary Farce, with performances from July 23rd to September 13th marking the comedy’s premiere in Illinois. It follows two police officers trying to uncover an embezzlement scheme involving the mayor and his accountant. The situation becomes more complicated when the mayor’s wife and the Scottish Mafia become involved.

The “Barn” has been home to the unique dinner theater since 1975, when founder Chaunce Conklin purchased the land including the round, domed building and put “the beef on the buffet line and the hams on the stage.” What had originally been a ring to show livestock became a dining area, and the hayloft was converted into a balcony. It was voted “Best Dinner Theatre” by readers of Illinois magazine and has been selected by as one of its “Local Secrets, Big Finds.”

Corn Stock Theatre
Corn Stock is Peoria’s only outdoor community theater-in-the-round, located in the rich greenery of Upper Bradley Park. Founded in 1954, the charter group of 70 members produced its first performance, Gigi, at Detweiller Park, before moving to its current home two years later.

The summer season is a busy one for Corn Stock staff and volunteers. From May to September, it produces five different shows, ranging from musical comedies to dramas. Each production is given a nine-day run, and performances take place under the theatre’s famous blue-green canvas tent. More than 100 volunteers contribute to the summer play season, donating their time and skills to make the productions possible.

On the heels of performances of The Producers and Rumors, the fun continues in July and August with three shows to round out the summer season. Directed by Corn Stock Manager Cindy Hoey, Once Upon a Mattress is a musical retelling of the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, The Princess and the Pea. For Hoey, the draw of the musical comes from its roots. “They’re our myths. The Greeks had their myths they built shows on, and fairy tales are our myths that we use,” she said. It will run from July 10th through the 18th.

Next up is Harvey, the Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy about Elwood P. Dowd and his imaginary friend, a six-foot-tall rabbit. Directed by Sean Howell, Harvey has been an audience favorite for years, and the beloved 1950 film adaptation, with Jimmy Stewart in the lead role, is considered one of the all-time greats. It will run from July 31st to August 8th.

The final play of Corn Stock’s 2009 summer season is Dames at Sea. Directed by Mike Reams, it will play under the tent from August 21st to 29th. It’s a production filled with nostalgia, according to Hoey. “It’s a fairly new title. It was written in the 1960s, but the style of it is the musicals of the 1930s—the tap dancing, chorus girl musicals.”

Eastlight Theatre
The story of Eastlight Theatre is indeed one of community collaboration. It was formed through a unique agreement among the City of East Peoria, the Fon du Lac Park District and East Peoria Community High School. These three entities joined together to further the quality of life in the area by offering first-rate family entertainment. Not only does Eastlight produce professional-quality productions, it also offers seminars, drama camps and workshops.

Arc Light Productions

Arc Light Productions was formed in Glasford in 2007 by Jeff Driscoll and Rachel Waters as a means to promote theater and the performing arts in the local community. Its first production of Robin Hood featured a cast of 36 and drew about 200 audience members each night. Last year, Arc Light produced a stage version of Get Smart.

This summer, the group will stage two productions in the Illini Bluffs High School Theater. From July 23rd to 25th, it will present Once in a Lifetime, a story which follows three actors as they try to make it big in Hollywood. On July 23rd, the production company will present Mother Goosed, a story about what happens in Fairytale Land when the characters refuse to follow their determined storylines. This is the first production of Arc Light, Jr., a theater experience geared for children under 12.

For more information, call (309) 231-9270 or visit

Eastlight’s August production of the award-winning Broadway musical Rent is sure to please local theater buffs. “Rent is an icon in American musical theatre,” said Eastlight Executive Director Kathy Chitwood. Of course, as soon as it was available—we were going to do it. Our audiences are going to love it!”

Chip Joyce, a veteran of shows at Corn Stock, Eastlight and Peoria Players, will direct the show. “Eastlight’s production of Rent will seek to be a faithful incarnation of the high-energy, iconic show that everyone knows and loves,” he said. “Several national tours of Rent have appeared in town through the years, but this will be the first time in which ‘locals’ take on the roles of the musical’s struggling young bohemians. It will be a marvelous showcase for some of central Illinois’ finest talent!”

Loosely based on the opera La Bohéme, Rent tells the story of a group of New Yorkers living a “bohemian” lifestyle, while dealing with problems like poverty and AIDS. “Its music and themes of dealing with life, love, loss and passion easily withstand the test of time,” added Joyce. “If you are hesitant to check it out, be aware that it is not a typical musical! If you like love stories and love rock concerts, you will love Rent.”

Peoria Players Theatre
Though its season ended in May—and the coming season won’t begin until September—we would be remiss if we did not mention Peoria Players Theatre. At 90 years young, it is the oldest continuously running community theater in the state of Illinois and the fourth-oldest in the nation. The Players’ Summer Youth Theatre production of Bye Bye Birdie will run August 6th through 9th, and their 91st season begins this fall, with South Pacific in September and Lend me a Tenor in October.

Through many obstacles, in good times and bad, Peoria Players has never gone “dark.” But with increased production costs, stiff competition for the entertainment dollar and the current recession eating away at pocketbooks, Peoria Players Theatre faces a financial crisis. Despite recent cost-cutting efforts, it has become increasingly difficult to survive on ticket sales alone. But you can help: visit and click on “Patron Donations” to lend a hand to this venerable institution.

Peoria Theater
So it’s not live theater, per se, but the latest addition to the Peoria entertainment scene is no ordinary movie house either. Forgoing the latest blockbusters, Peoria Theater offers central Illinoisans an opportunity to watch hard-to-find, independent, and even some local films.

Situated in Landmark Plaza, Peoria Theater is dedicated to showcasing award-winning independent films that often go overlooked by the larger theaters, such as foreign films and documentaries. General Manager Luke McCann says the reasoning behind the new theater is simple. “The owners of the Landmark building wanted to bring something to Peoria and to the area that was new, upscale, and would attract a mature, intelligent audience.”

“Have you ever noticed around Oscar season that many of the movies are up for awards?” asks McCann. “Those are the types of movies we play year-round.” One of these films is Tom McPhee’s An American Opera: The Greatest Pet Rescue Ever!, a multi-award-winning documentary that follows the tremendous rescue efforts to save the pets left behind during Hurricane Katrina, which played at Peoria Theater in late June.

A great deal of work goes into selecting films for the theater, as McCann researches other independent theaters and checks on release dates. “I don’t want to play anything too old, or that you can get on video,” he explained. “Then I consider whether the film would ‘play in Peoria.’”

In many ways, Peoria Theater is not your conventional cinemaplex. Moviegoers can purchase beer, wine and spirits, and the theater will begin monthly theme parties in July. It offers nontraditional rental space for birthdays, office parties and other events. The theater recently hosted the premiere of a local filmmaker’s western, and on July 19th, it will host a muscular dystrophy benefit featuring the work of several local filmmakers.

According to McCann, Peoria Theater is bringing a caliber of entertainment to town that is very different from what moviegoers are used to. “We are bringing something new to the area; it’s time for Peorians to embrace different things, even if it’s just entertainment. Challenge yourself—don’t just be force-fed what mainstream America is feeding you.”

For upcoming shows and times, call (309) 202-2278 or visit a&s