When people think of Illinois Central College, it’s usually in terms of a low-cost, high-quality, two-year education. But ICC’s Theatre Department has been coming to the fore lately, gaining a reputation for constructing seasons that feature an intriguing mix of both familiar and slightly edgy productions.

Entertainment and Education

The ICC Theatre program has been around as long as the institution has-since 1976, said Performing Arts Center Assistant Manager Dana Rademaker. "The first several plays were staged off campus at sites in the community, but within two years, the college had completed the first phase of building, which included a Lecture/ Recital Hall, seating 185. In 1979, the college opened the 500-seat Performing Arts Center for theatre, dance, and music concerts. The PAC also has a studio theatre/dance rehearsal room, with flexible seating for about 100."

Four years ago, the theatre program went from three shows per season with single weekend runs to four shows per season with two-week runs. Two of the shows are performed in the larger auditorium, and two are performed in the studio space, he said.

Typically, directors of the productions try to pick a theatre season that offers both comedy and drama, according to Assistant Professor Robin Berkley. "My choice of show is driven by many factors: student needs, available talent, time of year the show is slotted for, budget, available support in the technical areas, and audience appeal."

The ICC Theatre program recognizes it has a mission to educate as well as entertain, Berkley said. "Directors at ICC sometimes choose good plays that are less well known than the plays presented by community theatre groups. This gives audiences a chance to broaden their theatre experience, as our program serves to complement and extend the opportunities for actors and audiences in the Peoria area. ICC has produced several original scripts and has brought professional actors, directors, and playwrights to the college as part of the Ruth S. Holmes Artist-in-Residence program."

Of course, the theatre education component is a crucial element in ICC’s Theatre Department. They can take courses in acting, directing, technical theatre, scene design, and stage make-up, Berkley said. "It’s important at a community college to offer a wide variety of classes to the general population. A community college gives students a unique opportunity to explore various interests and subjects-theatre being one of them"

Students with more than a passing interest in the subject can also complete an associate of arts degree as a theatre major at ICC. "Theatre majors can graduate without taking all the theatre classes, but it will have a serious impact on how they’re placed in the theatre program at their transfer school. Students can declare a theatre major, and we provide the same classes offered to freshman and sophomores at a four-year institution, as well as some additional classes featuring special topics. The classes in theatre are Illinois Articulation Initiative approved, meaning they’ll transfer to other Illinois colleges," Berkley said.

Students don’t need to be theatre majors to take theatre courses or to audition for theatre productions, however. The ICC theatre program allows non-student community actors to audition and act in the plays it produces, Berkley said. "While we hold the training of our students a top priority here at ICC, we happily open our auditions to the community. We tend to have a younger group of students, so we’re always looking to cast some older actors, and it’s a great opportunity for our students to perhaps work with actors who have some experience behind them."

An Innovative Season

This season begins September 26 to October 5 with the Berkley-directed The Illusion, a hilarious and irreverent French fable reinvented by Tony Kushner, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches and Part Two: Perestroika, both of which also received the Tony Award for Best Play. "Kushner adapted French dramatist Pierre Corneille’s L’Illusion Comique in 1990. Corneille had a long association with Parisian theatre, and from 1606 to 1684, wrote more than 30 comedies and tragedies. He wrote L’Illusion Comique in 1636, and the following year, the production of his most celebrated play, the tragicomic Le Cid, marked the beginning of resurgence in French drama," Berkley said.

Kushner is responsible for the intricate layering found in The Illusion. "Beneath its broadly comic surface lies an indictment of the human condition," she said. "Kushner laments not who we choose to be, but what we can’t help being. Love is suspect in all its forms: between parents and children and sweethearts. But all is not lost, of course, and no comic vehicle would be complete without redemption. ’The art of illusion is the art of love,’ the magician declares. ’And the art of love is the blood-red heart of the world.’"

Berkley said the story centers on the rich lawyer, Pridamant, who seeks out the magician, Alacandre, who’s been likened to Prospero in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. "Pridamant wants to learn what’s become of his estranged son. Through a series of illusions, the magician shows the lawyer what his son has being doing for the last 15 years. Sorcery, love, wild youth, and visions of what might or might not be-this is a dazzling and dark new classical comedy that has all of the ingredients for a mystical journey of the human heart. There’s a theatrical twist at the end that holds a surprise for both the father and the audience."

Next up is Le Bourgeois Avant-Garde by the late American playwright Charles Ludlum, which runs November 14 to 23. This farce, directed by ICC Professor Doug Day, is adapted from the French comedy Le Bourgeois Gentleman by Moliere. "It’s the story of a grocery store owner who wants to be up on the latest thing and in the process is duped by ’artistes.’ If it’s new, it’s got to be good. Ludlum ran a theatre company in New York City’s Greenwich Village, The Ridiculous Theatre Company, which was known for its outrageous good humor," Day said.

The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde begins the new year, with performances February 20 to 29. A witty play by one of England’s sharpest wits, The Importance of Being Earnest, which Day also directs, continues to delight audiences with its clever satire of Victorian society. "Two proper young British gentlemen defy the restraints of social engagements, fashion, manners, and a domineering aunt in order to engage the affections of two delightful young ladies," he explained. "Mistaken identities complicate the love matches as both young men pretend to be named Ernest. The play explores Shakespeare’s question, ’What’s in a name?’"

The season wraps up with Cherry Docs, a drama by David Gow, which runs April 16 to 25. Directed by Berkley, the play was written in 1998 by Gow, a 15-year veteran of the theatre and performing arts. "He studied performance at Concordia University and holds a master of fine arts in playwriting from York University, and his plays have been produced in theatres around the world. Cherry Docs is currently in feature film production."

Berkley said Cherry Docs is a moving portrait of the angels and demons in our own backyards. "It follows Mike, a neo-Nazi skinhead on trial for murder, and defended by a Jewish legal aid lawyer. In this explosive play, Gow explores the nature of hate. Danny, a lawyer who prides himself on his liberal tolerance, must come to terms with the feelings Mike unearths in him. And Mike’s life is suddenly in the hands of a man he wishes were dead. As both men reluctantly agree to work together, they realize more than their beliefs are on the line. In this confrontation, their very lives hang in the balance."

Such a pairing of polar opposites easily makes for passionate drama, but Gow skillfully transcends the obvious cliches and crafts an engaging dialectic of ideas, she said. "Though each side fights to win, each is affected by the other. Danny begins to worry about the limits of his own tolerance, while Mike begins to see the responsibility he has to find a constructive response to the hatred in himself and society. Gow drew inspiration from the Bible’s Book of Daniel, and the biblical resonance of their names-Michael, the fallen angel who’s later released by Satan, and Daniel, the interpreter of dreams who survives the lions’ den-is clearly intentional."

Indeed, Berkley said, the play is structured in seven short acts entitled "days," beginning with winter solstice and moving on to the harvest day as the characters move simultaneously towards their ultimate redemption. "But beyond the spiritual poetry of this play, it succeeds mainly because of its disarming frankness. This play speaks convincingly not only in portraying the hatred that infects some people in our society, but in also addressing the problem of how we might deal constructively with this hatred in order to build a better future. Cherry Docs asks the simple but harrowing question: Can we eliminate hate?"

A Unique Theatre Program

Just because ICC is smaller than many theatre departments doesn’t mean students get a less comprehensive experience. In fact, Berkley said, it’s just the opposite. "Students at ICC have the ability to get personal attention and work closely with the faculty. Students aren’t spending those very formative early college years in a department of 300 majors, but in a department of 30 majors. This is significantly less threatening to a young college student. It also allows a greater opportunity to get the experience they need in production-be it on stage or back stage. In theatre, you learn by doing-in class and in production."

She said one goal for the department is to continue to increase its outreach to local high schools. "Also, I’d like to grow the department in terms of the number of students enrolled as theatre majors, both in acting and technical areas. I would like for the teachers and students at local high schools to know ICC offers full scholarships to theatre majors. Students are selected for these through competitive auditions in the spring for the fall semester."

Students who opt to get their start at ICC are in good company-and have an excellent foundation upon which to build a career, Day said. "In comparison to students who start at a four-year college, students who get an associate degree from ICC have been tracked and shown to do as well or better when they transfer to four-year colleges or universities. Past ICC Theatre program graduates have gone on to Columbia College, North Carolina School of the Arts, Illinois State University, the University of Illinois, and Western Illinois University, among other university theatre programs. One alumni has won an Emmy Award for make-up; another has done lighting for Elton John, Barbra Streisand, and other big-name performers; and several alumni are working as professional theatre technicians."

Whether you’re looking for an evening of entertainment or a two-year educational opportunity, the ICC Theatre Department is a good place to start. AA!