August 16, 2023 at 7:00 a.m.
Bringing the Drama: Actor's Studio Celebrates a Decade of Laughter (... and Tears)
Much can happen over the course of a decade and for local theatre-goers, those changes have been measured in laughter and tears as gathering for the best in on-stage live productions has become synonymous with WILLow LeaVes of Hope.
Spearheading the dawn of the local theatre scene in Hope was the Actor's Studio of Hope. And this year it is celebrating a decade of comedy and tragedy.
“At first, it took a bit, but I am quite a promoter,” says Naomi Fleetwood-Pyle, founder of the current Actor's Studio on Stage, formerly Actor’s Studio of Hope. “We started building up steam and – it took us about one year to get the word out – now we usually sell out 99.9 percent of our shows.”
Without the evolving synergetic relationship between the Actor’s Studio and WILLow of LeaVes of Hope, today’s local theatre scene would likely not exist in its current incarnation.
“They had a couple of years under their belt before they got with us,” says Vickie Tedder, co-owner of WILLow LeaVes of Hope, where the group made its debut around about 2013.
If summed up in a single word, Tedder says “passion” is the reason the ladies at WILLow LeaVes said “Yes!” to the group’s desire to pursue its ambition locally.
“I am so thankful that we gave them a place to do something that they are passionate about,” Tedder says. “We had people wanting to be onstage and they had no place to do it.”
Pyle admits one of the greatest challenges of heading up a theatrical group is keeping actors. Admittedly, she periodically holds open auditions, but Pyle quickly found that maintaining a circle of actors and actresses who she could call on reduced the stress tenfold.
Like other groups, the Actor’s Studio has learned to rely on precasting, Pyle says.
“A lot of the shows are precast just because we know the people,” Pyle says. “I think the biggest challenge is maintaining the actors and keeping them onboard. Some move on to new things, so we keep pulling in new people.”
Initially founded by Hope resident Pete Law, who is now a member of the Screen Actor’s Guild, in collaboration with Naomi Fleetwood-Pyle, the Actor’s Studio of Hope has consistently brought a perfectly blended mixture of drama, suspense, laughter and tears to the WILLow LeaVes’ stage for a decade.
Actor's Studio presents "A Hee Haw Show" in March 2022. Photo credit: Naomi Fleetwood-Pyle
When the group formed, Pyle and Law wanted to identify it with Hope, Pyle says. Hence, the Actor’s Studio of Hope was born. The pair envisioned the group as one that would offer those of like mind the chance to also gather for events outside of formal performances, including workshops, Pyle says.
As the Actor’s Studio continued its tenure in Hope, it wasn’t too long before word of the group’s performances garnered more and more attention and soon sold-out shows became commonplace.
“The first year, we did the Christmas Variety show and it was a smashing success,” Pyle recalls. “[Following that] WILLow LeaVes said they wanted one every year.”
Since 2013, the group has brought more than four dozen productions to the WILLow LeaVes stage and gathered more than 30 local theatre enthusiasts from set designers to actors and sound technicians offering them an outlet to not only pursue, but hone and showcase their talents.
Local actress Falicia Whited says since she joined the group in 2019 her experience has been a whirlwind.
“It has checked things off my bucket list,” she says. “My whole life, even before theatre was ever an option for me, was to play Shelby in Steel Magnolias.”
Whited says her experience has certainly been amazing and has helped boost her confidence to explore theatrical avenues she hadn’t entertained before or thought were even possible.
And that includes fostering new relationships.
“It’s given me connections, some of my best friends I’ve ever had or will have come to me through the theatre,” Whited says. “I kind of feel like a big kid again. When I was little, I loved to play dress up and pretend and I get to do that in my down time. It gives you a break from adulting and I love it.”
In addition to broadening its offerings, the Actor’s Studio has also made a concerted effort to bring in a diverse audience. And its efforts have been enormously rewarded as audiences frequently range from children and young adults up to those 80 years young. But that diversity isn’t relegated just to the audience as some recent productions have proudly boasted the debut of local child actors and seniors, too.
Pyle doesn’t believe the group’s success would have been possible without WILLow LeaVes, she says. However, patience and perseverance do pay off.
“Our major demographic is starting to change, and they are appreciating entertainment,” Pyle says. “And I love to entertain, so it is a win-win.”
Jessica Deckard and Naomi Fleetwood-Pyle rehearse a scene on the WILLow LeaVes Stage in Hope in 2022. Photo credit: Naomi Fleetwood-Pyle
Adding to the group’s repertoire of successes is the upcoming “Music Through the Years” – opening this weekend – that sold out shortly after it was announced. The two-night, two-hour long event will chronicle iconic artists and music from the 1950s through the 80s and feature covers of tunes by artists who helped define the decades.
Similar to her past approach with shows of this type, 74-year-old Pyle says she will assume the role of an emcee, of sorts, in addition to performing. Offering context and commentary prior to the launch of each decade’s performances, Pyle says the most challenging part about pulling the show together was gathering the musical options for her talented cast to choose from for their given tastes and preferences.
From the decade of rock as defined by the unforgettable hip gyrations of the late King of Rock-n-Roll and the British invasion of the 1960s to the advent of the culture of peace and love defined by the tunes of the 1970s that ushered in the decade of 80s decadence, the show will offer a little something for everyone, Pyle says.
The show’s cast of just over one-half dozen performers will offer an array of songs that will certainly strike a chord with the audience, Pyle says. Whether it be the rhythmic, easy-going opening of “Proud Mary” that builds to bring high-energy that will get audience members rockin’ in their seats or the sultry, soulful sound of Etta James’ “At Last” to “You’ve Got a Friend” by James Taylor, Pyle says she’s shares the casts’ excitement for opening night.
As the Actor’s Studio continues to build its portfolio of productions, it recently changed its name to Actor’s Studio on Stage to reflect its growing presence on stages outside of Hope, Pyle says, as it and many of its members have gone on to debut in local and regional productions, including “Stumblewood,” which premiered at the Boggstown Cabaret in Boggstown, Ind., earlier this year.
When asked what her hopes and plans are for not only the future of the Actor’s Studio, but for her own theatrical ambitions, Pyle says she has no plans of stopping anytime soon.
“I truly enjoy it,” she says. “I say to people in the audience, ‘You couldn’t be having more fun out there than I am having up here onstage.’ I love making people laugh and entertaining them. There’s nothing I wouldn’t do to entertain. I have no limits on the insane things I do.”