Starring local talent: Bay Tree Council for the Performing Arts gives community chance to get in on the act
FRANKLIN LIVING MAY/JUNE 2018 — In April the Bay Tree Council for the Performing Arts wrapped its 22nd season of quality community theatre in Red Bay – and countless numbers of people given the chance to express themselves on stage.
An average cast for the BTCPA is 11 actors and actresses, who begin rehearsals a month or so before opening night. Frequently among their ranks are repeat participants, who find their outlet in the community theatre – like board vice-chairman Joey Allen, who first took a stab at the stage to have something to do with his son. Chase, who was in seventh grade at the time, had recently gotten cut from the basketball team; so to beat the heartbreak and have something to do between football and baseball seasons, father and son took the stage.
“He had that personality, and I was going to try to bring it out of him,” said Allen. Without a drama program at Red Bay High School, the Allens turned to the BTCPA. “We decided to do a play, and both of us loved it. It was a lot of fun. He was 13 at the time, and he had the lead role. He had a lot put on him for his first time on stage, but he did really good with it.”
The father-son pair has done several productions together since then, and Allen, who works in sales for Wood Sales Company in Golden, Miss., said the BTCPA provides an unparalleled opportunity for adults and teens alike to express themselves creatively.
“If you talk to any of the teenagers we’re using in the BTCPA, they love it. That’s the only outlet these kids have, unless you go to Muscle Shoals,” Allen said. “It’s a great environment for them to get that opportunity. Without it, those kids at Red Bay would not have that opportunity.”
More than 20 years of BTCPA theatre means more than 60 productions, as the council has always held to its traditional three-performance season: in November, February and April. Returning BTPCA actor, director and board chairman Scotty Kennedy said the BTCPA always welcomes newcomers and usually has at least one first-time performer in each show. The BTCPA attracts budding talent from across Franklin County, the Shoals area and Mississippi – like Mississippi native Emily Edmonson, who first ascended to the Weatherford Centre Stage in 2014.
In her debut BTCPA performance she was cast in a play with then-boyfriend, now-husband Dustin. They played an on-stage couple for the production. “I remember it being really awkward – even though we were dating – because we had to fall out in the floor and make out,” Edmonson said. “It was an awkward first show with him.” To add to the embarrassment, “my grandmother was in the audience. She thought it was hilarious.”
Despite the discomfort of onstage smooching, Edmonson had – like so many others who perform with BTCPA – found her niche. “I felt like I belonged,” Edmonson said. “They were so easy to get along with. It’s such a tight-knit group, but everybody is so friendly and welcoming. You never feel like you don’t belong.”
A veteran of small-town theatre, Edmonson began her community acting career as a child, previously performing in community youth theatre in Tupelo and dinner theatre at Itawamba Community College in 2008-2009.
“I just love playing other characters and entertaining people,” said the 28-year-old speech pathologist. “It really opened me up. I was shy, but then I really got involved in theatre … It’s really fun to push my limits and see what I am capable of.”
Edmonson said she also appreciates the opportunity to meet new people and cultivate friendships – a sentiment Allen shares.
“I enjoy the camaraderie, getting to know the people you’re working with,” Allen said. “We have a lot of fun on stage. We have a lot of fun when the crowds are good, and the crowds are usually always good.”
By and large, catering to their audiences is what drives each BTCPA cast. Most of the shows have a humorous tone, and with each show, participants try to bring a little more joy into the world. “Before every performance, we circle around in prayer. In that prayer we usually say we hope to bring laughter to someone who needs it in the crowd. Maybe it will lighten their day, or they can enjoy themselves for a period of time,” Allen said. “Almost every show is sold out, and there’s a reason for that. People have a good time and enjoy themselves.”
Allen and son Chase, a junior this year, have performed together, but the rest of the Allen family has been involved in other capacities, as well. Wife Mary Ellen, district manager for CB&S Bank, is always there to support them on stage and is often helping her husband and son run lines. “She loves it. She’s not interested in doing it – I’ve tried to get her involved, but she says it’s not for her,” Allen said. “But she loves getting to know the people who are involved with us. We always get together for cast parties during the performance, and she’s enjoyed getting to know them. It’s a lot of fun.”
A lot of fun – but also a lot of work.
“It wears her out during play practice because I use her at home when we’re going through lines. She knows the play better even than some of the other people on stage, helping me and Chase memorize lines. She knows it word for word,” Allen said. “It’s a lot of work – six weeks of practices, memorizing your lines and then trying to remember them when you get on stage … If you’re in a scene with somebody and they forget a line, you just have to jump in and help them and move on. It’s a lot of work, but it’s very rewarding.”
Allen’s other son, Chandler, who is now a student on the baseball team at Blue Mountain College, has also been involved in the BTPCA – though not in the spotlight. “My older son has no interest in it. He has worked backstage some and helped move props and different things. He’d rather be behind the scenes,” Allen said.
BTCPA board members Dustin, who is employed at Tiffin Motorhomes, and Emily Edmonson married in November 2015 and performed in their first show together as a married couple, “Dearly Beloved,” in February 2016. This year in April Emily performed in her first BTCPA show that didn’t also feature her husband among the cast – he took the season off to care for their 13-month-old, Paul.
In April’s “Southern Hospitality,” Edmonson reprised her role of Twink Futrelle, a character she first portrayed in the show “Dearly Beloved.” “(Twink is) hilarious, but she’s definitely dramatic,” she said. “She’s been trying to get married for 16 years, and she’s finally almost getting married in this one. She wants to do whatever it takes.”
Allen’s most recent character was Twink’s intended, Deputy John Curtis Buntner, a role he has also portrayed in previous Futrelle Sisters stories. “He’s always having a good time, always into something. This is the second time I have played this character,” he said.
Already a fan of acting as well as being a spectator, Edmonson tried her hand at a third aspect of community theatre in February 2018, directing BTCPA’s “One Toe in the Grave.” “It gave me a whole new respect for directors,” she said. “It is so much more responsibility than just being in it; it blew my mind.”
Edmonson and Allen both urged people to consider auditioning for a BTCPA performance to join the cast of a future show.
“Just because you’ve never done a play before doesn’t mean you can’t be a part of one,” Edmonson said.
“Come try out. Come be a part of it,” Allen agreed. “It’s really great for Franklin County and the City of Red Bay, and I think you get the same experience there that you are going to get traveling to Huntsville or Memphis, looking for that theatre environment.
“Once someone gets involved,” Allen added, “they are kind of hooked. It’s addictive.”
To stay up-to-date on everything the council has going on, visit the group’s Facebook page or website, www.baytreecouncil.com, or call 256-356-9829.
Story by Alison James / Photos by Cortney Green