Natural talent: Love of theater, helping others inspires performances on farmland in rural Woodstock
By JAMI KUNZER email@example.com
This is a place where children arrive dressed as Greek gods and goddesses, carrying fake swords and shields, wearing flower headdresses.
It’s a place where they can both be themselves and anything they can possibly imagine, where they go places without really leaving.
They’re told things such as, “Go get your staff, and start walking and talking like an old woman” or to adjust their togas. They’re told, “Every word you say should be strong.”
“Louder,” instructs Lisa Waichunas as she stands at the edge of a stage in the middle of an old Quonset hut in rural Woodstock.
Based on the design of buildings created during World War I, the arched, steel-walled Quonset huts often held latrines and barracks.
Behind a farmhouse on a winding country road, mosquito-repellent candles burning, this hut has become a place where creativity is encouraged and comedic and classic shows fill the surrounding farmfields with laughter and drama. This is Theatre on the Green.
And a cast of 14 students of Waichunas’ are rehearsing for their next production, “Persephone,” which runs June 12-15 at the Theatre on the Green Hut, 15314 S. Patrick Road, Woodstock.
Twelve-year-old Kaleb Staunton of McHenry is dressed as the Olympian god Hermes, and having trouble not tripping on his toga.
“Hike that up,” Waichunas tells him.
Staunton has worked with Waichunas since he was 5 years old.
“My mom was, like, wanting me to get into something because I didn’t really have any friends when I was little,” he says. “She signed me up, and I stuck with it.”
Here, everyone’s friends, he says, waving to someone arriving with dark black circles painted around her eyes.
“It always works out,” Staunton says of the various casts that have come and gone. “It’s always pretty cool.”
Signs don’t point the way to Theatre on the Green. Located behind an old farmhouse at the end of a gravel drive, it doesn’t have a marquee or really anything to identify it.
But for the past eight years or so, theater lovers have found it.
Waichunas created Theatre on the Green when she moved to the Woodstock farmhouse to care for her late father. She had spent a couple of decades in Chicago studying acting at the Ted Liss Studio and appeared in numerous theatrical productions.
She studied Shakespeare at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London and acted on the television series “Early Edition” and in numerous roles in industrial training films in Chicago and Milwaukee.
Back in Woodstock, she couldn’t travel to theater, so she created her own.
The theater company’s first year in 2006, she pitched a 30-by-45-foot tent in the front yard of the farmhouse and put on a show with a group of young students. Family and friends gathered, sitting on the green grass to watch the show.
“Theatre on the Green was born,” she says.
“When it comes to theater, you have to love it,” she says. “I just love theater, love working with kids. They overwhelm me with their talents and creativity.”
Putting on at least two productions a year in the fall and spring, Waichunas occasionally still uses the tent. For shows that require a darker atmosphere, the Quonset hut is put to use. Once a storage building at the farmhouse, the hut has required plenty of clearing out over the years.
“We’re still cleaning it out,” Waichunas says as she looks around the building. Tables filled with theater props and old backdrops line the walls, a wooden stage in the middle.
Earning a certificate in elementary education and a Master of Arts in teaching, Waichunas doesn’t make any profit for the program. With the students’ help in picking charities, the money raised from the productions goes to others in need.
“Persephone” will benefIt TLS Veterans, which operates a shelter for homeless veterans in Hebron.
“‘Homeless’ is a terrible word,” said Waichunas, whose father was a World War II veteran. “When you combine it with ‘homeless veterans,’ to me, that’s abominable.”
Students in Theatre on the Green, ages 6 and older, can take various levels of classes ranging in size from 2 to 22. At the end of the class, students put on a show, becoming involved in every aspect from writing and directing to performing.
Students often write their own one-act comedies, such as the recent “Play of Life,” based on the game of Life. The cast became the board pieces, landing on spots on the board and acting out the game.
“The kids can be as involved as they want to be,” Waichunas said.
For “Persephone,” 15-year-old Teagan Anderson is both the assistant director and the character Demeter, the Greek goddess of harvest.
As Anderson tells it, the play is about a battle between Hades, the Greek god of the underworld, and Demeter over her daughter, Persephone, also the daughter of Zeus.
“I love the hands-on, how we can help with everything, rather than someone just telling us where to be,” said Anderson of McHenry. “I like that we all have an opinion in the story.”
Theater has so many facets, and Waichunas finds the ideal spots for each student, Anderson’s mother, Tina, said as she snapped pictures at a recent rehearsal. Her 13-year-old daughter, Claire, also joined the cast this year.
“We found Lisa, and I loved her energy,” Tina Anderson said. “You have kids that are athletes and kids that are artists and kids that love theater. ... There are so many other things besides acting these kids are learning.”
See the show
WHEN: June 12-15
WHERE: Theatre on the Green Hut, 15314 St. Patrick Road, Woodstock.
COST & INFO: Presented by Theatre on the Green Company of Young Actors. Preview: 7:30 p.m. June 12. Performance schedule: 7:30 p.m. June 13-14 and 2 p.m. June 15 (fathers free on Father's Day). The theater has a capacity of about 100 people. Donations requested: $10 adults, $7 senior and students, free for veterans, military personnel and children age 5 and younger. Proceeds benefit TLS Veterans. Gift basket and 50/50 raffles at all performances. Information: 815-354-7435 or www.theatreonthegreen.com.