Los Angeles team
Oct. 27, 2022
It takes a village of volunteers to put on a show at the Depot Theater
DODGE CITY, Kan. — At the Depot Theater here, a small army of volunteers was preparing to put on a show. It was the evening of Sept. 6 at one of the few dinner theaters hanging on in the country, and in a few days the curtain would rise on their production of “Steel Magnolias,” the beloved play about women’s friendships and resilience made famous by the movie starring Julia Roberts, Sally Field, and Dolly Parton.
“I love ‘Steel Magnolias.’ Have you seen the movie?” asked Gayla Rodenbur, who stars as Clairee, in the purple skirt suit she wears for the play’s opening scene. It’s always been Rodenbur’s dream to star in this play, and her adult children are planning on traveling to Kansas to see her in it. She’s thrilled that a place for the performing arts endures: “We’re kind of in a desert for that kind of stuff.”
Everywhere you looked on stage, and behind the scenes, there were volunteers who have kept this theater going for decades. There’s Clark Burgert, who’s grown up with the theater, and his mom, Susie, who took the time to put together real photos of Clark as a baby and of her late brother — a diabetic, like a character in the play — that an actor could unfurl onstage.
Gayla Kirmer spent a year and a half during the height of the pandemic organizing the theater’s basement. And Allison Weil can tick off the theater’s seven (she says friendly) ghosts and was happy to take you to the chair from the production of “Beauty and the Beast” that they like to hang around.
Janett Erives is a relative newcomer to the theater. She’s a hairstylist for this show and a cosmetology student thrilled about getting the chance to expand her portfolio. “It’s an amazing experience for me,” she said, “because I get to work with, like, all different types of hair. We’ve got straight hair, we’ve got curly hair. I love it.”
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Dodge City is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year and is perhaps best known for its Wild West roots featuring Old West characters like Wyatt Earp. Today it’s still dotted with that history, but the modern-day city has vastly diversified thanks to a thriving Hispanic community. There’s evidence of the changes all over town: the fruteria and paletería and mecanico and countless restaurants, catering to a high-Latino population drawn in by the jobs in the area.
The job of making sure the Depot Theater is relevant to audiences of today fell to artistic director Jon Montgomery (in the fall he left for a new job). As he watched the rehearsal play out on stage on this day, he was still euphoric after a recent production of “In the Heights,” Lin Manuel-Miranda’s play set in the largely Dominican Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City. About 70 percent of the audience for that show were first-time attendees.
The cost of a “Steel Magnolias” ticket was $55, and Montgomery knows that’s steep for an area where the median household income is approximately $50,000 a year. But inflation keeps getting higher, so it’s the bare minimum they can charge and still continue to operate.
“We’re making it,” Montgomery said. “We hope to make it for a long time.”
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