It's been a decade since the Lee's Summit area has had its own community theater. A new company, called Summit Theatre Group, marks its debut with Bus Stop, the William Inge play set in a snowed-in roadhouse diner.
The group's taking an inventive approach with the play and will be performing it in the dining room of a Lee's Summit cafe.
William Inge, who grew up in Independence, Kansas and taught at the University of Kansas, liked to set his plays close to his roots. Prior to the beginning of his play Bus Stop, for example, his heroine had been working in a seedy Kansas City bar. The action of the play, though, is in a bus station diner that's become a refuge from a blizzard somewhere between Kansas City and Montana. Summit Theatre Group is launching its new company with one of Inge's most beloved plays, says the show's director, Ben Martin.
Dining by Design
"The reason we decided on Bus Stop is we wanted to do a show about Midwestern people," says Martin, who also heads up the STG's Board of Directors. "It's about town, it's about community, it's about our area and about real folks. Once we realized we could use Neighborhood Cafe, that sealed the deal."
What Martin means by using the Neighborhood Cafe is that the play is being staged inside of the downtown Lee's Summit restaurant, where the story will take place among the booths and tables, a refrigerator advertising "Pies from scratch" and a neon "Cafe" sign. Neighborhood Cafe owner Tony Olson says it's not an idea he would have ever come up with, but it's generating some local buzz.
"He came to us and said here's the play we want to do, here's the setting, and as he started brainstorming and kicking around ideas, we thought the idea of dinner theater and the whole event would be a great idea," Olson says. "It's been so much fun. We've heard such good reaction from people in the community. There's been a lot of excitement, mostly about getting theater back in the community, but it's a good tie-in and a lot of our loyal customers are looking forward to it and help them get this launched."
The Lay of the Land
The cafe itself is divided into two large rooms, and while dinner service wraps in one, the audience for the show will gather in the other. From the stage left playing area, director Ben Martin describes how the action will unfold.
"So we're standing here looking at the stage right now, and the counter's here right in front of you," he says. "The two tables in front of you are the two tables for the bus stop, and there's a bench over there that is part of the action as described by Inge. And there's a bench over here, stage left, that's described by Inge as well"
Upon observation that there are several booths around the perimeter, Martin adds, "And three tables of eight. It could seat fifty or so if we really wanted to squeeze them in but we'll make it forty-eight."
Also noted is that the show's assistant stage manager is sitting a couple feet from the cafe table the actors will be using. "That's going to be the front row, so literally, we'll have people sitting here at the end of the booth and there will be an actor three or four inches from them a number of times during the show."
The tension in the play revolves around Bo, a Montana cowboy played by Jon Pierson, and his aggressive wooing of Cherie, a struggling singer of dubious virtue played by Jennifer Davis. Both actors say they're looking forward to performing a play not on a traditional stage with the audience in the dark but literally a couple feet from them:
"My immediate reaction was 'Oh my gosh, they're going to be right there,'" Pierson says prior to rehearsal. "We're going to get immediate feedback and it's going to be awesome - intimate and awesome."
Jennifer Davis adds, " I'm excited about it. In college, we would do black box theater where you had people right there in front of you, just a few feet, so I'm comfortable with it. We're going to be out in the audience, walking down the aisles. I think they're really going to enjoy it and feel like they're part of the show."
While the structure employs a style of environmental theater, the spirit of dinner theater is also present. The Neighborhood Cafe will be serving favorites like meat loaf and spaghetti before the show and, at the second intermission, a slice of that pie.
The Summit Theatre Group's Bus Stop plays Lee's Summit's Neighborhood Cafe on Southeast 3rd Street March 22-24 and 29-31 and April 1st (with possible performances March 25 – 26).