This past June, Woodbury Community Theatre (WCT) took on its largest undertaking: the epic tale Les Miserables, which broke attendance records, drawing more than 5,100 theater goers. “All the stars aligned in that show—our ability to build sets with our Merrill Community Arts Center facilities, pull from 40 years of costumes with an experienced costumer crew, use our sophisticated online ticket sales system and draw from a wealth of talent, both onstage and behind the scenes,” says Michelle Witte, operations director and producer of the show.
As the nonprofit volunteer organization celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, here’s a look back at the beginning, where WCT is now and what lies ahead for the future.
A Humble Past
Back in 1975, three locals residents—Gloria Dale, Marjorie Wetz and Sharon Wivell—had a vision to draw together the acting talent in Woodbury and present a live theater performance. The Woodbury Players, a small group sponsored by the Royal Oaks Elementary School PTA, performed a musical comedy, Heavens to Betsy, as a PTA fundraiser. It played for one evening to a standing- room-only audience.
The next year, 1976, the Woodbury Players presented Sing Out Sweet Land for three evenings in the newly opened Woodbury High School auditorium. “That was a major undertaking with a huge cast; funding was provided by the cast and crew,” says Dale, who as PTA vice president was in charge of fundraising. “The Brides Beautiful store in Highland Park would donate wedding and bridesmaid dresses that didn’t sell, and we’d remake them into costumes. I still spot some of those costumes onstage in current WCT shows, which is really fun.”
Interest continued to grow and in 1978, the group became the Community Theatre Guild of Woodbury, an incorporated nonprofit. In the 1980s, the theatre group offered student and adult workshops and melodramas, and continued with quality productions under the reign of Marjorie Wetz, who served as principal director. Wetz passed away in 1990, but her legacy lived on as the organization, renamed Woodbury Community Theatre, continued its growth.
Local resident Tom Monn has appeared onstage in 33 WCT productions, beginning with 1981’s Sugar; you may have seen him as Snoopy in last summer’s You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown. “Two of my favorite roles are Snoopy and the Scarecrow in 2012’s The Wizard of Oz,” says Monn, who calls many stages home, including Theatre in the Round Players, Lakeshore Players, the Phipps Center for the Arts and New Richmond’s Old Gem. “I’m a firm believer that there is something for everybody in theater. Besides the actors, there’s the musicians, costumers, light and sound crews, set builders and painters and the people who sell tickets and do promotion. It takes all types of people to put each show together.”
A Permanent Home
As the school population grew in Woodbury in the late 1990s, WCT had to find a new home beyond Woodbury High School; performances were held at Five Oaks Church, Woodbury Baptist Church, Crosswinds School and Eagle Valley Golf Course. “The need to find a permanent home was really becoming paramount and various initiatives to fund an arts center in Woodbury were not moving forward,” Witte says.
Finally in 2005, a collaborative formed around the construction of East Ridge High School and the opportunity for WCT’s future growth was born. WCT is now an integral part of Merrill Community Arts Center (MCAC), named after major funding benefactor, longtime resident Dorothy Merrill, who provided more than $2 million to build a home for the local arts. That donation, along with the support of South Washington County Schools and the city of Woodbury, led to the opening of MCAC’s East Ridge campus for arts performances (the 925-seat Loft Stage and 120-seat Black Box Theatre) and the Rivertown campus for rehearsals, visual arts shows, office space, set building/storage, costumes and props.
The performance venues have changed over the years, but the volunteer spirit remains with residents like Jerry and Winnie Williams. Back in 1992, the newly married couple had just moved to town and was looking for something to be involved with. “We signed up for a ‘movement in musical theater’ class taught by longtime WCT choreographer DeAnne Sherman,” Winnie says. “We volunteered to help backstage with The Pajama Game. They learned that Jerry had been an undergraduate [music] major and that we both sang and played piano; we were recruited to help with future shows. We’ve been involved ever since, as have our daughters, Leah and Marta.”
Jerry Williams shared his keyboard skills for Company (1998), Oliver! (1999) and holiday shows in 2000 and 2001, which led to music directing, starting with Annie (2002). He moved into the conductor’s spot for A Christmas Carol (2014), “a warmup for the ‘big one,’ Les Miserables,” he says. “Since music is not my day job, I love being able to be immersed in the mounting of a show, but not consumed by it 24/7, year-round.”
Winnie Williams’ involvement has been mostly backstage: organizing props, creating programs and chairing the board of directors. “I eventually got involved in creating the WCT website; my role today is all sorts of technical support,” she says.
A Bright Future
What’s on the horizon for WCT as it celebrates its 40th anniversary with a special October 24 event? “We’re exploding with demand and that’s a great thing,” Witte says. “We’re now doing up to six shows a year and also using the Black Box to be simpler with what we do, to maximize our mission to provide accessible, affordable arts in our community. We’ll continue to grow our pool of volunteers by offering a more formal recruitment and training program, getting even more people involved with WCT in the years to come.”
Woodbury Community Theatre Show History
• 1975 Heavens to Betsy
• 1976 Sing Out Sweet Land
• 1977 Golden River
• 1978 Oh Susanna
• 1979 Anything Goes
• 1980 Calamity Jane/Egad, The Woman in White
• 1981 Sugar/The Labors of Love
• 1982 See How They Run/Busybody
• 1983 Kiss Me Kate/Teen I/A Thousand Clowns
• 1984 Can Can
• 1985 Damn Yankees/Teen II, The Competition
• 1986 The Fantasticks/Dragon Tale
• 1987 How to Succeed in Business/The Odd Couple
• 1988 Oklahoma/Teen III/When the Chips are Down
• 1989 You Can’t Take it with You
• 1990 My Fair Lady
• 1991 Fiddler on the Roof/Charlotte’s Web/Let’s Remember
• 1992 The Music Man/Trial of Goldilocks
• 1993 The Pajama Game/The Lion, Witch & the Wardrobe
• 1994 Godspell/The Red Shoes/Our Town
• 1995 Mame/Anne of Green Gables
• 1996 Brigadoon/Little Women
• 1997 Meet Me in St. Louis/Stuart Little
• 1998 Company/Tom Sawyer/Hansel & Gretel
• 1999 Oliver/A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court
• 2000 Me & My Girl/Barefoot in the Park/Old Fashioned Christmas/Hansel & Gretel
• 2001 Snoopy/An Old Fashioned Christmas/Showtime on the Showboat
• 2002 She Loves Me/Annie/The Magic of Christmas
• 2003 Secret Garden/Holiday Magic/Godspell
• 2004 Annie Get Your Gun/Evening of Gilbert & Sullivan
• 2005 Tribute to Gilbert & Sullivan/Holiday Joy
• 2006 The King & I/Amahl & the Night Visitor
• 2007 Charlotte’s Web/Sing We Now of Christmas
• 2008 Grand Night for Singing/Amahl & the Night Visitor
• 2009 Best of Gilbert & Sullivan/Narnia/A Traditional Holiday Celebration
• 2010 Mame/Christmas Sing Along
• 2011 Cheaper by the Dozen/A Christmas Carol
• 2012 Stars on Broadway I/The Wizard of Oz/Into the Woods
• 2013 Stars on Broadway II/Nunsense/Music Man/Putting It Together/Madeline’s Christmas/Sleigh Ride – A Christmas Spectacular
• 2014 Madeline’s Christmas/Glimpses of the Moon/Drowsy Chaperone/Bye Bye Birdie/The Hollow/A Christmas Carol
• 2015 Pippi Longstocking/Importance of Being Earnest/Les Miserables/You're a Good Man Charlie Brown