Connie Kiviniemi-Baylor. Submitted photo
Connie Kiviniemi-Baylor. Submitted photo

Since 2013, Hope’s live theatre scene has toddled from uncertain infancy to become a thriving entertainment draw for thousands of local and regional residents.

When “Love Letters” opened for a one-night event at the former Strawberry Fields Mercantile on the town square in 2013, Pete Law had no idea where it would lead.

Well, he may have had an inkling.

Set to lamplight and without the aid of microphones, Law and his cast were delighted with the crowd of 70 people who turned out to see the play.

“We really didn’t promote it that much,” the Hope resident reflects. “So, I was really amazed that we got that many.”

The excitement had little time to fade before David Webster offered “Letters of Forgiveness,” a play based on the book “Forgiveness” by local author Rena Dillman. Prior to opening night, Law needed a stand-in for a last minute cancellation, so he asked Naomi Fleetwood-Pyle if she would help out.

She didn’t hesitate and said, “Sure.”

When the show’s final curtain closed, a crowd of 300 had come out to get a taste of Hope’s local theatre. Turns out, they would want more.

“Since then we have grown together and put on so many productions,” Pyle says. “It is amazing.”

Following the successful runs of a few more shows, Law founded the Actors’ Studio of Hope.

“To me, the group was started in February 2013, but we didn’t officially have a name until 2016,” Law says.

The seasoned actor and Hope resident says he was always told that no one would ever come to see a play in Hope. Law’s frustration with a lack of local acting opportunities helped fuel his desire to bring live theatre to Hope and launch a theatre group.

Prior to testing the local waters for interest, Law says he consistently traveled to participate in acting classes, workshops and plays in surrounding areas, including Seymour and Brownstown and as far away as Chicago and Los Angeles.

“I thought, ‘I want to start doing plays for the sake of the art of acting,’” Law says. “I was amazed that I was able to get a company of actors together to put some shows together.”

When WILLow LeaVes of Hope opened in 2015, the idea was floated of offering a dinner theatre and Actors’ Studio of Hope was up for the challenge.
It seemed like a great opportunity for collaboration that would be beneficial venture for everyone involved, including the town of Hope.

Vicki Tedder, co-owner of WILLow LeaVes, says the partnership has certainly been amazing.

“We took it slow and now we have something about every eight weeks on the stage,” Tedder says. “That was always the goal to always have something rotating.”

The team of Law and Pyle, with the help of a dedicated group of more than one dozen actors, has brought dozens of plays to the WILLow LeaVes’ stage and entertained literally thousands for nearly five years now.

And the group, who holds open auditions from time to time, has no plans of dimming the lights anytime soon.

“It’s great to bring live theatre to Hope,” Law says. “No one would have imagined that we could actually have a theatre group in Hope that has done more plays in the last eight years than any of the surrounding areas. And now we have other groups wanting the space as well.”

During the summer of 2018, Columbus resident Connie Kiviniemi-Baylor launched her Passion for Acting Theatre Company.

Its genesis was an unexpected request from her daughter, Kat, who wanted to perform “The Miracle Worker,” a play adaptation of the story of Helen Keller. She asked Baylor she would direct the play.

“At the time, I said I didn’t know if I had the tools in my wheelhouse,” Baylor says. “I wasn’t sure if I was a director or not.”

The Columbus resident took the plunge and it paid off.

Baylor says she was so pleased with the performances and it was such fun that she knew she had to do it again.

When another break in the entertainment schedule at WILLow LeaVes opened up a few months later Baylor’s theatre company returned to offer “Anne of Green Gables.” Since then, the group has consistently offered shows a few times a year.

“One of the reasons I named the group the Passion for Acting Theatre Company is because I truly have a passion for acting,” Baylor says. “I feel like

God has given me some natural ability to do that. I love entertaining people.”

Baylor says she is constantly amazed when talking with people that more aren’t aware of the shows being offered at WILLow LeaVes.

“I think most people in Hope do not realize the gem they have at WILLow LeaVes,” Baylor says. “People need the arts, they need music, painting and live theatre. It speaks to your soul, I think.”

Over the years, Pyle says she is always pleasantly surprised at audiences’ responses. And regular attendees come from miles around, she adds.

“It is amazing that small town Hope, Indiana can draw people from Greensburg, Shelbyville, Madison, and Indianapolis to name a few,” she says.

As Law looks forward to portraying the King of Rock and Roll in the upcoming, “Elvis Has Left the Building,” put on by the Actors’ Studio, he is mindful of what it has taken to get here and why he and fellow actors continue to do what they do.

“We are a draw in Hope,” Law says. “We draw people in. That was the point when we initially did the first play it was a way to bring people to Hope.”

The actors’ excitement is not lost on Tedder who acknowledges their tremendous passion for what they do. And, even though acting isn’t their full-time careers, it is a fun outlet for creative energy, she says.

“To have people come out to support them it is a blessing,” Tedder says. “We just like to be versatile and give people another reason to come to Hope and keep Hope alive.”