The playbills are somewhat faded now, but the memories are not. The Middleburg Players are celebrating the past and the future with an open house on Valentine’s Day this year.
The beginning was humble, but not without some promise. There was a specific reason that the organization came into being. Courtney Kohler, the first president of the Middleburg Players remembers it well.
“Bill Costin called and asked if he and Jean could come over, so they did,” she recalled. “When they got here, he said, ‘I used to do directing in New York, and you know, I’d like to get something started here.’ This was in 1968, and I said, ‘Well, Bill, you know, there’s nothing to do here for teenagers.’ We had no tennis club, we had nothing, and if they didn’t ride in the summer, there really was nothing for them to do. I said that I thought that it would be great if we could do something to get teenagers involved. So that’s how we started. I said, ‘We need to have a club.’”
Kohler was the mother of teenaged Rick, so she knew the situation in the area pretty well. There were too many teenagers with too much time on their hands, and no real outlet for their energies when they weren’t in school. The Middleburg Players set out to rectify that with volunteers who were willing to contribute their time. Of course, there was no Internet nor social media in those days, so the organizers had to spread the word the old fashioned way … by mail.
“We must have sent out 600 postcards to Middleburg, Delaplane, Warrenton and everywhere in between that said, ‘If you’re interested, come to a meeting at the Middleburg Community Center,’” Kohler said. “We had the meeting on one evening, and we didn’t know who was going to show up. We didn’t know how it was going to end up.”
It ended up quite nicely, actually. There were plenty of potential actors, and the Players decided that the first show would be “Bell Are Ringing,” a play that originally opened on Broadway in 1956 that revolves around the life of an operator at an answering service in New York City whose boyfriend wants to use it as a bookie service. Considering the horsy reputation of the area, the selection seems spot-on in retrospect. The Middleburg rendition opened in July, 1969 to full audiences, standing ovations and excellent reviews in the local papers, including one from an anonymous writer who called himself, “A reluctant theater-goer,” but who goes on to write that the show was so good that if that standard continued in future productions, the Fauquier Times-Democrat might have to hire a theater critic. One couldn’t have asked for a better start, and while adults had the feature roles, one review mentioned that “the ages of the players ranged from 8-year-old Sandy Bryant to the teenage singers and dancers, and up to the ‘over-30’s’ who made up the rest of the cast of forty.”
Anyone who has ever acted before knows that a production can take weeks of rehearsals, which suited the Players objective of giving teenagers something to do. The first play required two months.
That initial success drew more and more interest in the Players and the plays. Over time, one might see the local undertaker in a show with a CIA agent, or the rector of the local church singing with a woman who had Broadway experience. It became a great way for new people in the region to meet and get to know local residents.
“I moved to Middleburg as a single girl in 1982, and I became involved in the Players,” stated Rita Rowand, who later became president of the organization. “It was a real introduction to the community, and I got to be friends with a lot of people.”
Theater lessons were learned as well. Fred Kohler had the male lead in “Bells Are Ringing.” He had scant acting experience before that show.
“Bill Costin did a nice job of directing,” he said. “He taught me a lot. I had done very little acting, and he worked with me. He always told me, and it’s true … when you’re on stage, and someone else is doing their lines, you’re not supposed to move. You just stay absolutely still. If you start moving, you distract the audience, and they won’t pay attention to the other character.”
The Players have changed, and the mission has evolved. Now there are more attractions in the area, but there still is an appeal to getting young people … and others … on stage in front of their friends and neighbors.
“My daughter Corinne and I got involved in the Players in 2004,” said Jeff Kleinman. “We did every summer production for the next ten years – either onstage or backstage. Without question the warm, terrific personalities of the Players helped nurture my daughter’s confidence, and made the summer something to really look forward to.”
The Players will celebrate their legacy with an Open House at the Emmanuel Episcopal Church parish house on February 14, starting at 2 pm.
“It will be a great chance celebrate and reminisce with the Middleburg Players,” said Elizabeth Rice, the current president of the Players. “We hope to be welcoming former players while looking for future talent and new potential players who will be willing to participate in our future shows.”
The Parish House is located at 105 South Washington Street in Middleburg. There is no fee for the open house.