To provide quality entertainment, which respectfully engages, enlightens and uplifts, to our rural community, at a price the families in our area can afford, as well as expose the young people of the area to unique performance experiences.
Productions include members of our local community and trained professionals from the Pittsburgh area. The policy of inclusion adds to the ambiance of our rural community theatre and fosters an understanding and appreciation of the craft of bringing stories to life.
Making theatre needs everyone to accept that they are dependent on everyone else. We bring the cherished works of the world theatre repertoire to the public eye; however, our primary focus is to develop a repertoire of original plays written by local playwrights and poets that celebrate the history of the folk in Pennsylvania.
Freeport Theatre Festival was founded in 1989 by Rennick and Marushka Steele and is based in the rural Allegheny Valley; an area where steel was king not so long ago. The palpable depression of the area in 1989 inspired the Steele's to found the theatre as a means to serve the valley's communities with plays chosen to lift spirits and entertain, as well as provide an outlet for the area youth to get involved in a different kind of "team" effort.
Rennick and Marushka are products of the Off-Off Broadway Alliance of the 1970's, in New York City. Rennick trained at the Circle in the Square with Nichos Psachorapolis and with Warren Robertson. He was a founding member of Theatre of the Evening Light. Rennick Steele is a member of the Dramatist's Guild and a graduate of Ohio State University and UCLA Graduate School of Education. Marushka is a graduate of The American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City. She studied with Max Fisher and Charles Nelson Reilly and is a founding member of Academy Arts Theatre Company (AATC). Marushka is a graduate of Chatham College and the University of Toronto, Graduate Centre for the Study of Drama.
A gravel floor, folding chairs, a stark, black stage without curtains and the stage manager calling the show from a table in the back of the house were what the first audience members saw in 1989. Tents behind the theatre served as dressing rooms. A stroll behind the theatre before a performance would find the play's characters pacing the open hillside, reciting lines and adjusting costumes.
Today, the gravel floor has been cemented and raked; upholstered (comfortable) theatre seats have replaced the folding chairs. The stage manager now calls the plays from a raised crow's nest, a self-contained balcony, if you will, and the actors now enjoy the privacy of a spacious dressing room, thanks to the generosity of the Rockwell Foundation. Actors still roam the hillside warming up their voices or seeking a still moment before performances. A new parking lot adjacent to the theatre provides a much safer parking space for our patrons.
By the same token, the stage is still rather bare -- flats have been built and are reconfigured as required by the story being told; admittedly, the better to encourage the imagination of the audience and return the stage to the actor and to the dramatist. Rosaline MacLennan writes a review of Eleemosynary for the Butler Eagle:
"What is impressive about Rennick Steele's staging is that Blessing's play is enhanced by bare stage, a few benches and chairs, in a summer barn theatre ... As stage lights flash the mind forward and back through past and present, the interplay between a grandmother, a mother and her daughter explores who we are and what we mean to each other."
During the early years, Freeport Theatre Festival produced many of the plays by Neil Simon. Over time, the popularity of Neil Simon has been eclipsed by the overwhelming popularity of the historical drama. The first historical offering was The Beloved Woman (1995), an historical pageant documenting the life of Nanye-Hi (Nancy Ward), the last Beloved Woman of the Cherokee Nation, spanning seventy years (1752-1822). Rennick Steele, the playwright, is a member of the Cherokee Nation; and The Beloved Woman is a testament of his mother's family. Although not set in Pennsylvania, the story of Nancy Ward enlightened the local community to the truth of the Cherokee's close-knit family and tribe and their great spiritual strength in the face of overwhelming odds against their survival. The play attracted "Indians" from all over the state of Pennsylvania. The play sold out! Our audience sent us a loud message: "Bring to life more stories from our American History."
Spirit of the Revolution (1997); Massey Harbison (1998, 1999, 2004); Washington and the Ohio Country (2000); Braddock (2003); Seizing of the Point (2004); Follow the Northern Star (2006); and Battle of Kittanning (2007) soon followed the success of The Beloved Woman.
Of course, Freeport Theatre Festival is quite aware that man cannot live on history alone. Therefore, we have included poetry readings, music recitals featuring emerging young artists of the region, and one-man shows such as Autumn Sonata, Love Letters, An Evening with Mark Twain and The Gospel According the Mark.
An example of Freeport Theatre's "dessert" menu was the inauguration of our new art gallery space-cum-storage area, made possible by a generous grant from the Rockwell Foundation. Zarah Blair, print-maker and writer, was our featured inaugural artist, who presented prints inspired by the production of Braddock, which is set in the American colonies of the eighteenth century. Many local artists have enriched the theatre experience for our audience members: Dave Harbison, Sam Andrews, Larry Smail, Ellen Hines and the students of Scenic Artist and Educator, Carol Salyers.
Today, Freeport Theatre Festival continues to serve "main courses" and "desserts" while building, in little steps, a comfortable and ever improving theatre home for the community, hither and yon.