Hartford Players enthusiastically entertain community and surrounds
By Sheryl Popp
For over 20 years, the Hartford Players have been happily staging plays in Hartford, providing a creative outlet for talented area residents, and giving back to the community through scholarships. They are currently in the middle of a dinner theater production called "Wake me When I'm Dead," to benefit the Schauer Center. Murder mystery dinner shows are tremendous fun, and I thought it would also be fun to learn more about the company in general. I visited with the troupe's current president, Fred Wittenberger, to learn more.
Although not a founding member himself, Fred had the company's genesis story ready. "Jim Mohr and Jerry Becker, two Hartford attorneys, were attending a play," said Fred. "Mohr turned to Becker and said 'Hartford should have a community theater.' They put the idea into action pretty quickly, and by recruiting friends and family, they were able to stage A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum that summer." That was 1988. They must have had fun and a decent turnout, because the next summer they were back with Music Man - and have not missed a year since. For most of their history, the players performed at Hartford High School. When the Schauer Center opened in 2001, The Hartford Players became one of its resident groups. "When the community began looking for a spot for an arts center, some of our members were even contacted to help search for a location," said Fred. "Once it was built, they still had some undeveloped space and some of our members volunteered to help construct the backstage area and build dressing rooms."
The Hartford Players were conceived as an acting company that would provide a venue for adult community members. While the occasional role might call for a child or teen, plays with mature casts are generally chosen. They have a board of directors with nine members, who are also the corps group of actors and directors. "Most of what I do now as president," explained Fred, "is read plays. Lots of them." Once he or another board member finds a piece they think is a good fit, it's taken to the board for a vote. There are open auditions for all plays. People come from all over the area to try out for parts, many from other local community theater groups. The company stages two plays a year. "The first, scheduled in March generally, is usually a comedy," said Fred. "I like comedies, and I'm convinced they sell better. The July play is a musical, which will have a bigger cast. Since we've been at the Schauer Center, we've also done a benefit show for them every other year."
Fred began acting with the group after college. A local guy, he enjoyed acting in high school and continued at St. Norbert College before majoring in business. (Fred is the third generation owner of Wittenberger Bus Service in Hartford.) At the time, the company was performing Arsenic and Old Lace and one of the leads broke a limb. The director filled in for him, another actor filled in for the director, and a smaller part opened in the play. Fred was asked to perform it. That, as they say, was that. "I had been on stage a lot after Arsenic," he said. "Then, we decided to do a benefit performance for the Chandelier Ballroom after the rotary club took it over. It was going to be cocktail theater show. I had an idea for a small, four-person play. And, I had an idea of who to cast as the main couple. So, the board liked it and I ended up directing it. That was in November of 2001, and since then, I've done a lot more directing. I like it, I like choosing a piece and working with it." There are on-line resources to find plays, I learned, and I can see why choosing and reading is the most time consuming part of Fred's involvement. I briefly looked at one service he mentioned. You could find plays in a variety of ways, but a quick alpha check offered me 66 plays beginning with "O," and 105 that started with the letter "W." Whew. Once a play is chosen, Fred will block it and then schedule auditions, about four months in advance of the play. "That's because I like to get the play cast and get the actors their books. I like them to be able to come to the first rehearsal fairly well prepared. People know that when I direct, rehearsals won't run much past 9pm because I have to get up at 4:30," he laughed.
The Hartford Players are a non-profit organization, with a strong commitment to community. "We try to keep our prices affordable, and we like to make enough to fund our scholarship program," explained Fred. "Although we're a resident company at the Schauer, we still have to pay rent for performances. We have operational costs and licensing costs. We do five performances of a given show, and that may cost us $10,000. Ticket sales cover that, and we give out two to four $1,500 scholarships each year." Applications for the scholarships are available on the Hartford Players website. Applicants must be from the area, and be interested in a degree in any of the arts.
Their current play, the dinner mystery, was a bit of a trailblazer for the company. The Pikes Peak lounge on the second floor of the Schauer is now open, and offers a casual atmosphere for cabaret-style events. "They asked us to do a dinner show in Pikes Peak as a fundraiser," said Fred. "So they set up the event catering and we chose a play that coincided with St. Patrick's Day." Although this play doesn't wind up until March 13, Fred is really excited about the next production, an adult version of Grease for their summer musical. "Sue Gilbertson found the play and will direct," said Fred. "Auditions begin May 11 and we're looking for a 50-ish cast. The concept is that the characters are at a high school reunion and sort of relive events." Fred says that one thought he'd like to get across is that the Hartford Players are really a fun group of people to work with. With that in mind, consider volunteering for technical crew (always needed), if you don't want to act or sing on stage. To learn more, and to contact the group, go to www.hartfordplayersltd.com. All ticket sales for the Hartford Players are handled through the Schauer Center.
Fred provided the following recipe from his wife, Betsy, also an actor. He says it is very easy to make, and popular.
8 oz. corned beef, cut into small pieces
1 16 oz. can sauerkraut, drained and rinsed
8 oz. grated Swiss cheese
1 cup thousand island dressing
Mix all ingredients together and pour into small casserole dish. Cover and bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes. Serve with rye chips.