Theatre History: The Barne Theatre

The Barn Theatre in Augusta is the oldest resident summer stock theater in Michigan. Founded as the Village Players in Richland in 1946 by Jack and Betty Ebert Ragotzy, The Barn Theatre, Inc. was incorporated in 1949 when the Ragotzys began renting the converted barn in Augusta, which they later purchased in 1954. Jack, a World War II Army Air Force veteran and graduate of Kalamazoo College, worked on and off-Broadway as well as in television and films. For 50 years Jack and Betty, herself an actress, ran The Barn Theatre. Today it stands as the only equity summer stock theatre in the state, drawing nearly 50,000 patrons annually during its 16-week season, some from as far away as Chicago and Detroit. Betty passed away in 1995, but at age 81, Jack remains active at The Barn Theatre, acting as advisor and appearing onstage before every performance to give a brief introduction.

Barn Theatre Promotes Family Values While Making Dreams Come True

There isn't a man alive who doesn't dream. Some are fortunate to see their dreams come true; many, however, fall short. While Brendan Ragotzy may not have seen his childhood dream come true, perhaps more importantly he has helped countless others make their own dreams come true.

Brendan premiered in 1963, adopted and named for Brendan Behan, one of Ireland's best-known and most beloved modern political writers and playwrights who wrote: "I only write plays when I'm short of a couple of bob. I don't give a damn for art. I'm only in it for the money." Behan would die a year later in 1964, but at the time of Brendan Ragotzy's birth, The Barn was presenting Behan's The Hostage, the story of an English soldier held hostage by the IRA in a Dublin brothel, and of his romance with a young Irish girl who befriends him. Three years later, Brendan appeared in his first production at the Barn Theatre as one of the workhouse boys in Oliver!

Fast forward 40 years, and Brendan, now producer, recalls growing up with The Barn Theatre as his only sibling.

"My first love was baseball," he says. "My childhood idol was Rod Carew—the consummate hitter. I played in a Town and Country baseball league that was sponsored by the YMCA, and played summer ball well into my teens. I was a catcher in high school, and many of the colleges I looked at wanted me to play football, but I didn't relish the idea of being hit by guys who were twice my size. U of M accepted me, but I enrolled at Western instead to pursue my baseball career, but only sat on the bench. After the coach told me my prospects for playing the next year were no better, and since no major league teams were scouting me, I enrolled at KVCC."

After spending a year at Kalamazoo Valley Community College, Brendan realized he had a large number of college credits but had yet to declare a major. He still wasn't certain that he wanted to pursue a career in theatre, but when Dusty Reeds, the associate producer for The Barn at that time and who worked at San Jose State University during the winter, suggested that he should check out San Jose State, Brendan complied. It was at San Jose State that Brendan decided to major in theatre arts and where he met future wife Penelope Issichopoulos (Alex) in a costume class. Brendan and Penelope remember their first meeting differently.

"I thought she was pretty cute," says Brendan with a wink.

"We were both on the rebound," recalls Penelope, smiling.

"I was persistent," he interjects.

"Neither one of us was ready for anything serious," says Penelope, "but Dusty fixed us up anyway. We'd both just gotten out of ridiculous relationships and our first meeting was like, 'hi-hi.' But we both adored Dusty, so of course we wanted to do what she wanted. There were no sparks. And then we had a couple classes together, and he was ignoring me and I couldn't have that!"

Penelope attended Oak Grove High School in San Jose, the same high school former Lions head coach Marty Mornhinweg attended.

"I rarely watched the games," she groans, "But I almost always checked the score."

While Mornhinweg was setting three Northern California and 19 school records as a quarterback under coach Mike Holmgren (yes, that Mike Holmgren) on his way to being named Northern California Player of the Year and first-team All-State in his senior year, Penelope was involved in more traditional high school activities.

"I was a cheerleader and involved in gymnastics," she says. "I was in choirs in church. I was even homecoming queen my senior year," she adds with a laugh. "That was the year that personality counted!"

Penelope's first role in high school didn't come until her senior year, when she appeared in Calamity Jane.

"My dad was from Athens and was a concert pianist," states Penelope, "and my mom was a violinist, so there was never any lack of support in my wanting to pursue a career in theatre.

Brendan and Penelope were married in 1988 and now have three children: Luke, the oldest at 8, and Calli, age 5, have already performed in Oliver and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. The youngest, Jake, age 3, has yet to appear onstage, but not for lack of wanting.

"I don't know if I trust him yet," says Brendan, "not to wander off into the audience during a performance."

In addition to acting at The Barn during the summer, Penelope is the apprentice coordinator during the winter months. Her duties include updating applications and placing ads in summer theatre directories.

"As we receive applications," she explains, "I conduct interviews to determine their ambitions, whether they're equity or want to be equity, and their availability for an entire season. I also take care of all the paperwork."

Because of the intensity and long hours expected of the apprentices, a typical profile is someone who is majoring in theatre or broadcasting or film.

But Penelope also finds time to sing commercial jingles for Jim Cummings, who owns a recording studio in Climax.

"Living in this area has been a dream come true," she says. "It's like a microcosm of the real world."

And how did a southern California gal take to Michigan?

"I absolutely love it here," says Penelope. "I like having weather. California has no weather. Spring and summer is all there really is. And besides that, I get to live two miles from work and work as a professional actress."

Brendan directed his first Barn production in 1989: Hair. He recalls that many of the apprentices at The Barn that year were still in diapers when the Tony nominee for best musical first hit Broadway in 1969.

"I ran a spotlight for the 1973 production of Hair, says Brendan, "and it was different. Not that directing the show in 1989 was difficult. But I found educating the cast on life in the 1960s, a time of social awareness, brotherly love, and drugs, challenging. But the show was dynamite. That company, which included Scott Burkell, was probably one of the most talented we've ever had here."

Hair is one of three shows that over the years have literally financially saved The Barn Theatre. "While I like to do less well-known shows from time to time," says Brendan, "like Kiss of the Spider Woman and Chess, we depend on the big musicals and comedies for our livelihood."

Of the top three grossing shows at The Barn, Rocky Horror Show has been performed five times in the 1990s.

"Fiddler on the Roof," he says with a laugh, "paid for our air conditioning back in the 1970s. And Hair built us the bar."

Brendan doesn't believe in subsidized theatre. "We get no government grants, and function solely on what we take in at the box office, and that's nearly unheard of in this business."

A big difference in equity theatre today as to the way it was when Jack started The Barn is the availability of the shows patrons want to see.

"We did a survey a few years ago," explains Brendan, "and of course many of the shows we got requests for are shows we can't get, like Cats, because of a pecking order. First is Broadway, then the national tours (union or non-union), before it finally makes it to the regional and state levels. I've wanted to do Les Miserables for quite some time, but it's just not yet available to us."

Brendan says that a tour within a 150-mile radius of The Barn can also tie up availability of a production. "If our season ends in September, even a one-nighter in October means we can't do that show for 18 months."

A national tour can either help or hinder the success of any given show Brendan may choose. A rave review elsewhere will help drive ticket sales, while a negative review often results in an empty house.

"I wanted to do Tommy for a long time," says Brendan. But the summer before we did it a tour came through Battle Creek, and it effectively ruined our Battle Creek trade because people heard it wasn't a very good show."

Brendan also doesn't think Broadway does a good job supporting their product, nor does he believe that theatre goers will go to shows they don't know.

"It used to be," he says, "that recording artists would record Broadway tunes all the time, and so hearing them on the radio would help promote a show. But you don't have that anymore. "The Producers is the biggest Tony award winning show—ever. But I don't think, once it leaves New York, that it's going to do the great business they envision because theatregoers don't know the show. I know of the show, but I don't know any tunes, and I don't think Broadway is going to do a good job promoting it beyond Broadway. And that hurts us because it limits us.

"Stephen Sondheim's Sweeny Todd did very well for us, partly because of Sondheim's name, but mostly because we had Tom Wopat and Barb Marineau in the lead roles, while up in Muskegon it bombed with George Hearn playing Sweeny, and Hearn played the role on Broadway."

Brendan also believes that many baby boomers prefer the revivals of the feel good shows they grew up with as opposed to the cutting edge stuff.

Over the years, Brendan has functioned at the Barn as assistant stage manager, stage manager, actor, director and assistant producer.

As assistant producer, Brendan may direct only one or two shows each season because he thinks it's important to expose the apprentices to a variety of directors and directing styles. "Some directors are very laid back, while others can be very overbearing," he says. "I think it's important for an actor to be able to work under both types."

During the winter months Brendan attends the Ohio Theatre Alliance where he recruits/auditions between 30 and 35 apprentices to go along with The Barn's 12-18 equity contracts for the coming season.

"They get about two minutes onstage for their audition," he says, "and from that and their paperwork I'll decide whether I want to arrange a callback."

Sometimes the more talented people can't make it to a callback. If Brendan is lucky, they'll already know about The Barn and want to come to the callback.

"Funny thing is," he explains, "we're probably better known at the national level then we are in our own backyard."

One of Brendan's biggest competitors is amusement parks, where an actor can make good money and have his or her lodging paid for.

"There's money to be made in amusement parks," he says, "but it won't get you very far in this business. This business is about building a resume in reputable situations. In other words, it's not what you do it's where you do it. You can do all the leads for a theatre, but it means little if no one's ever heard of that theatre."

While many theatres choose their season a year in advance, Brendan usually doesn't choose his until after he's recruited his apprentices, choosing his shows based on his talent pool instead of trying to cast for specific shows.

And what can an apprentice expect during a season at The Barn?

"I don't promise anyone anything," says Brendan. "I tell them if they want to do good theatre, they'll work hard side-by-side with other talented people, and get a chance to do lead roles."

If hired, a Barnie can expect to work up to 16 hours a day six days a week. The experience earns them points toward membership in Actors Equity, the union for actors and stage managers.

In addition to rehearsals and performances, a Barnie's typical day may be comprised of building scenery, working in the box office, the publicity office, the costume shop, or on the grounds. Before the curtain rises, dressed in costume and in character, they direct patrons where to park, while after performances they serve drinks in the Rehearsal Shed Bar. And when a production's run is over, they break down the sets.

"Nobody's above anything, as long as the job gets done," says Brendan.

The percentage of Barnies who go on to greater success is enviable. Brendan boasts that a Barnie has appeared on Broadway every year since 1965, and recalls that 25 Barnies appeared on Broadway stages at one time. "I don't know any other equity theatre whose alums have had the success that ours have had," he boasts.

Jennifer Garner (Alias), Dana Delaney (China Beach), Kim Zimmer (Guiding Light), Marin Mazzie (Broadway), Robert Newman (Guiding Light), Becky Ann Baker (Freaks and Geeks), Adrienne Barbeau (Maude) and Tom Wopat are just a few of the names who have apprenticed at The Barn Theatre.

Penelope has worked with Wopat several times at The Barn since 1988, most recently in Annie Get Your Gun last season.

"Tom has been like a brother to me and to Brendan," she says. "He's such a nice man… he's just very personable and charming and talented."

Brendan recalls attending high school in L.A. with Melissa Gilbert.

"Years later she approached me about doing a show Bo Brinkman, her husband at that time, had written—Bay House. We got a lot of publicity for that show because a few weeks earlier Michael Landon had succumbed to cancer and Melissa had appeared at the Emmy Awards ceremony. Entertainment Tonight had interviewed her and she mentioned her appearance here. We had to extend the run another week because of the amount of publicity she generated. But after all was said and done we got a lot of hate mail over that one because here we had America's sweetheart, Laura Ingalls, spouting all kinds of profanity. People just couldn't differentiate the role she played on our stage from Laura Ingalls."

When asked if he'd change anything about his life, Brendan says, no. He grew up playing baseball and his theatrical training at San Jose State enabled him to meet his wife. He has three kids and is producer of the oldest, perhaps most prestigious equity theatres in the state of Michigan.

"We work hard," he says, "not only during the summer months, but during the winter, too, performing maintenance on our facilities, attending auditions, and getting ready for the upcoming season, but we're doing what we want to do, being creative, and we're giving something back to the community. That's what it's all about."

"I've had people tell me they've been coming here for 42 years," pipes in Penelope, "and now they're bringing their kids. That's what The Barn is all about. Family. The Barn is about family."

And making other people's dreams come true.