Arc Light Productions goes where others won’t, celebrates 15 years with its annual madrigal dinner.
Fifteen years ago, Jeff Driscoll and Rachel Roderick started Arc Light Productions with $20 and a pitch to the Illini Bluffs School Board in Glasford.
This season, their madrigal singers performed as part of the Illinois Music Education Conference, and two youth audition and acting workshops were held. Their summer youth shows casted more than 50 young actors, and the summer musical saw Coyote Creek Golf Club become the Kit Kat Klub for Cabaret. The season’s final performances happen Dec. 16-18, when the same venue will transform into the candle-lit Grand Hall of a Renaissance-era castle for a madrigal dinner.
That’s a full plate for a theater group that doesn’t have its own building.
In 2007, while still in college, Driscoll and Roderick gained access to the Illini Bluffs High School theater to run a summer show. They established Arc Light Productions as a nonprofit. Over the years it grew, causing the group to seek storage space first in empty buildings and then through a partnership with the Hollis Park District.
“We are sometimes a little homeless,” Driscoll admits.
The summer shows still run in the high school theater, but Arc Light works with local business owners for space during the rest of the year. Driscoll said a building fund has been established. They just haven’t found the right place yet.
Ask Driscoll about the need for community theater in the small communities ringing Peoria—specifically in this case Bartonville, Hanna City, Glasford and Farmington—and he smiles. “I think the whole appeal of community theater is that we like the idea of doing theater in the spaces and communities that impacted us so much,” he said. “And then from that, we realized this is actually filling a hole.”
“I’ve done a lot of theater in a lot of different places, and I’ve taught theater in a lot of different spaces. This is the most supportive community theater that I have encountered thus far in my life,” added madrigal singer Julie Peters. “I think that Arc Light has definitely provided something that is not available in the community otherwise.”
Driscoll understands the sense of belonging that theater can offer. Part of the reason he and Roderick established the theater after graduating from Illini Bluffs High School was to reconnect with friends. He’s watched adults who moved away use Arc Light shows to return to the communities they once left. As a teacher at Monroe Elementary School in Bartonville, he also has witnessed theater’s enormous benefit for local children.
“From the teacher’s side, I see the confidence they bring back into the classroom. Being more outgoing. Taking on leadership roles. I know that is partially coming from being in theater and having that responsibility in a show. They bring those skills with them into everything that they do.”
The Arc Light Board’s desire to serve the whole community is part of why the annual madrigal dinner began.
A madrigal dinner is a dramatic recreation of parties hosted by Renaissance-era nobles during the 12 days of Christmas. Guests enjoy feasting, laughter, music, lavish costumes and drama. Several local high schools host winter madrigals, but Arc Light has one of the only adult madrigal groups in the area.
Between 2011 and 2013, Arc Light held performances of It’s a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street. They wanted to start a Christmas tradition that actors and audiences could enjoy. Audiences loved the December offerings, but cast members had trouble committing to the intensive rehearsals during a busy season.
“Somehow, we hit on the idea that we’re in a madrigal-heavy area between Illini Bluffs and Limestone,” Driscoll said. “You’ve got all these people that do madrigals when they’re in high school. They love it, and then they don’t have anywhere to perform after they get out of high school.”
Driscoll and longtime Arc Light contributor Bethany Herink wrote a script for a limited number of actors with a separate set of singers. This meant rehearsals could be divided into small groups until just before the show.
Elisabeth Pluth says that kind of consideration is why she auditioned this year. “I’ve had a hard time finding a group that I can fit into because I teach in the evenings,” she said. “For me, this is a blessing. I get to sing, where I don’t normally get to participate in theater and things just because of my work schedule.”
Since the beginning, Arc Light has routinely sold out its Friday and Saturday evening performances and often the Sunday matinee. Shows include an elementary school children’s choir and a blended junior high and high school group that sings carols tableside while courses are served. During dinner, attendees listen to the adult singing group and catch up with the Jester, the Wench, and Clora the maid.
“It’s kind of like a soap opera,” Driscoll said. “The music’s different every year. The singers are different every year. But we have this core group of actors who are kind of a recurring theme. Every year it’s like we see what crazy adventures the Wench gets up to. I think it’s just really fun.”
There’s also something magic about each performance, said madrigal veteran Brittney Hollingsworth. “There’s always this slower song. The bar gets raised every year with talent, so when you hit that knockout slow song, I always tear up.”
Board member and singer Conner Flier agrees. “We do classic choral music, and we use some really awesome harmonies,” she said. “To be a part of that experience and have theatrics with it too is just a really cool thing.”
To learn more about Arc Light, visit www.arclightpro.com/.