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Chicago talents start new Three Oaks Theatre Festival in Michigan

Chicago areactors Si Osborne LiMortensen Brad Armacost reprise their roles 'Faith Hailer' for show Three Oaks Festival Theatre Three Oaks

Chicago area actors Si Osborne, Lia Mortensen and Brad Armacost reprise their roles in "Faith Hailer" for a show at the Three Oaks Festival Theatre in Three Oaks, Mich.

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Three Oaks Theatre Festival

Acorn Theatre, 107 Generations Drive, Three Oaks, Mich.

(269) 756-3879; www.threeoaksfestival.com

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Updated: July 10, 2013 12:32PM



As executive director of Skokie’s Northlight Theatre, Tim Evans is no stranger to the Herculean artistic and economic task that is mounting a successful theatrical season.

Nor is Chicagoan John Stoops, who trained extensively at Second City and spent most of his professional career in advertising. But neither man seems daunted by the prospect of starting a theater from scratch with the Three Oaks Theatre Festival, debuting this summer at the 250-seat Acorn Theatre in the heart of Michigan’s Harbor Country, a roughly 90-minute drive from Chicago.

Three Oaks is a unique animal in the world of fledgling theaters in that it’s not the project of starry-eyed, newly minted college theater grads dreaming of becoming the next Steppenwolf.

With veteran Chicago actor Marc Grapey [who stepped in as Oscar Madison in Northlight’s “Odd Couple” last fall when George Wendt was hospitalized], Evans and Stoops have put together a season that will put a spotlight on some of the most respected, critically acclaimed and entertaining artists in the region.

The season began July 6 with a production of “The Selfish Giant,” featuring two Chicago theater icons — puppet theater master Blair Thomas and singer-songwriter Michael Smith in a staging of the Oscar Wilde classic. Original puppets and music tell the story of a grumpy old giant who forbids the children in his village from playing in his beautiful garden.

On July 20, Three Oaks hosts the extraordinary production of “The Glass Menagerie” that opened at Chicago’s Mary-Arrchie Theatre earlier this year. On July 27, Evanston actor Brad Armacost will star, with Si Osborne and Evanston native Lia Mortensen, in a remount of TurnAround Theatre’s equally powerful staging of “Faith Healer.” And on Aug. 3, Brigid Murphy (known for her legendary performances in the 1990s as the title character in “Millie’s Wild Orchid Show”) will direct the world premiere of “Complicated,” a hybrid musical/drama/rock concert featuring the music and lyrics of indie rockers Poi Dog Pondering.

“When we sat down to talk about this, one of the big priorities was that we wanted to bring absolutely, inarguably top notch theater to the area. It would be easy to do a few staged readings, or bring some improv comedy up there, but we wanted to aim for something bigger — full productions, costumes, sets, everything,” says Evans, an Evanston resident.

“Everything” in this case, involves finding housing and transportation for every actor and designer involved with the productions, coming up with a support team of marketers, set-builders, box office staffers, ushers and — in the case of “The Glass Menagerie” — finding a ton of glass objects for the set. And oh yes, finding the resources to pay for all of the above.

“We probably should have started maybe a year ago,” Evans adds. “Instead, we started last winter. We were lucky — the shows fell into place and once that happened, we knew we had a festival. Now it’s just a question of getting everybody there and getting the shows on their feet. And getting an audience.”

Stoops and Evans aren’t divulging how much of a budget the Three Oaks Festival has, other than to point out that (as is the case with most theaters), ticket revenues amount to less than a quarter of it. The Three Oaks community — a popular resort area with Chicago-area residents in the summer and home to an enclave of artists year round — has been incredibly supportive, says Stoops. (A local recycling firm is delivering all that glass.)

“People have been raising their hands and volunteering their time to a degree that is incredibly gratifying,” says Stoops, “I have to say, the Three Oaks business community has really stepped up to the plate. It indicates to us that there’s a depth of dedication, that people really want this to work in a sustained way.”

Armacost is more than happy to return to playwright Brian Friel’s “Faith Healer,” which was first staged in Chicago (with the same three actors) almost 20 years ago.

“Six months after we closed this show 20 years ago, we were saying we wanted to do it again,” says Armacost of Friel’s mesmerizing tale of a country faith healer who meets with tragedy after he is unable to help a Welsh cripple. “It’s still a delight to say those delicious words. With most plays, you finish them and boom, you’re on to something else. Not this one; I’m thrilled at the prospect of being able to do it again.”

Catey Sullivan is a local free-lance writer.



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