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Posted: August 25, 2012 4:01 p.m.

Burgess: Social Circle Theater - our cultural icon

Yesterday, my husband and I attended a performance at the Social Circle Dinner Theater of "Quilters," a musical with lyrics and music by Molly Newman and Barbara Damashek. The play is based on the book "The Quilters: Woman and Domestic Art" by Patricia Cooper and Norma Bradley and had a brief run on Broadway in 1984. The play portrays the important role of quilting in the lives of pioneer women as they confronted and endured the harsh realities of the frontier. The quality of the talent and professionalism in this production was absolutely incredible, rivaling Broadway productions my husband and I have seen. That brought to mind another journey we took about 12 years ago which led to the birth of the Social Circle Theater.

At that time, several of us in Social Circle were interested in establishing a dinner theater and we met several times at the former Simply the Best restaurant to begin planning for our maiden production. None of us had any experience in acting, stagecraft or other important aspects of the theater. Melanie Jackson, a charter member of our group and owner of the restaurant, knew how to cook - and that was about it.

Fortunately, about the same time, Mr. Bob Standridge, owner of the Standridge Color Corporation here in Social Circle, had been impressed with "Swamp Gravy," a community-based type of play produced in Colquitt. "Swamp Gravy" is an award winning "official folk Life Play of Georgia" which presents stories of universal appeal about life and death, the family, and the community (swampgravy.com). When Mr. Standridge learned about our fledgling group, he offered to build a theater if we would perform a folk play here. And, since none of us had seen this type of play, he arranged bus transportation for us to visit Colquitt and see a performance. I was on that bus, and as far as I'm concerned, that bus is figuratively still moving along in the lives of those people who get on and off in their own journeys toward personal growth and development.

The first and only performance of our charter group was presented in June 2000. "A Social Celebration" was a real fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants affair. Under the direction of volunteer Judy Davis, a retired Social Circle school teacher who had directed school plays, members of our group frantically wrote skits based on historic happenings in Social Circle at the turn of the century, borrowed costumes and props, practiced our lines, and did our very best.

We performed in a barely finished theater, with an improvised sound system, to a packed audience on a stormy night.

Although our play was well received, we lacked the resources needed to stage a repeat performance or to launch a new play, and when Mr. Standridge offered to take over direction of the theater, we readily agreed. According to his daughter Beth Wells, one of his primary motives was to preserve the history of our town.

Beth Wells' involvement in the theater is one example of tremendous personal growth and achievement. By her own admission, she had very little knowledge of theater before coming on board as producer of the community-based production, "A Well of Stories," in 2001. She subsequently produced and acted in numerous plays and is now a seasoned theater director who heads up what I consider as one of Social Circle's greatest assets.

Ms. Wells gives a lot of praise and credit to the first writer/director/choreographer for the theater, Joey Fargar.

Mr. Fargar had extensive theater experience and served as an on-site learning experience for our actors and theater staff. He made initial contact with the Miller County Arts Council, i.e. Swamp Gravy, staff for advice and consultation. MCAC was not only receptive; they also sent their stage director to assist our theater staff for several weeks in preparing to open their first play.

According to Ms. Wells, Fargar was also instrumental in nurturing local talent in playwriting and choreography. One local writer who benefited greatly from this nurturing was Sue Lee, a talented writer who climbed on our figurative bus in about 2002 and has never left. Ms. Lee had retired from Standridge Color Corp. to concentrate totally on writing. She joined the cast as an actor in 2002 and then began writing skits. After Mr. Fargar went on a leave of absence, Ms. Lee took on a dual role of writer/director. She and Ms. Wells have become a collaborative team in the staging and directing many productions. She is now awaiting the publishing of her first novel.

Ms. Patsy Eggers provides another example of personal growth and development through involvement with the theater. A retired nurse, Ms. Eggers began her journey as a costume designer for the 2001 production. Since then, she has designed and created costumes for almost all the major shows, and she also performs. In fact, she received a standing ovation for her leading role in "Quilters" when she sang solo. After the performance, I whispered, "Patsy, I didn't know you could sing." She whispered back, "I didn't either!" That speaks volumes about how her involvement brought forth a talent Ms. Eggers didn't even know she possessed.

Theater manager Tera Duval illustrates another of example of someone who has grown with the job and whose administrative support and representation of the theater has greatly contributed to its strong presence in the community.

The Social Circle Theater offers many opportunities for children, young people and their parents to develop acting skills and participate as a family in a loving and supportive atmosphere. For the annual "Stories from the Well" productions, where everyone is invited to participate, entire families have joined the cast. If there aren't enough parts, new ones are written to allow maximum participation, and the theater maintains a stash of turn of the century clothing to accommodate all sizes and shapes. Some productions, presented periodically during the year such as "Quilters" and "Cotton Patch Gospel," do require auditions due to a limited cast.

Three groups for children and young adults have been formed to keep their interest and participation alive. The Well Diggers, for ages 16-23 years, are led by staffer Maria Taylor; the middle school Jr. Well Diggers leaders are Ashley Flores and Sara Williams; and Gina Hay Bryan works with the elementary school "Rising Stars." Each group performs one play and a combined Christmas production every year. This year, "Beauty and the Beast" was a Well Diggers production. Through participating in these groups, members learn the value of a work ethic and working as a team, an appreciation of history, patience and tolerance and all those virtues that will serve them well later in life. The groups also perform at nursing homes, our Annual Friendship Festival, Standridge Color Corporation, and other venues. (Visit SocialCircleGaBHT.com for a current brochure.)

Ms. Wells maintains that adherence to high standards enhances the sense of personal achievement for everyone involved in the theater. There is also a strong adherence to Christian values which reflects her deep religious convictions. Ms. Wells believes that following God's teachings has led to the theater's success. And I, for one, have no argument to make about that.

Madeline Burgess is an active volunteer in Social Circle and the wife of former Mayor Jim Burgess.

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