Mary Burkett has never missed a show of the Paw Paw Village Players in the troupe’s nearly 45-year history. “It’s been a wonderful addition to the community,” she says. She should know — Burkett and her late husband, Charley, helped found the company in 1969.
The nonprofit community theater organization, which just staged To Kill a Mockingbird in October and is gearing up for a performance of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever Dec. 6-8, got its start as a drama course in the Paw Paw Community Schools adult education program that Charley Burkett was asked to teach. Mary Burkett says that when the first class got together, they said, “We don’t want to just study plays. We want to put plays on. We want to perform them.”
The group began staging shows in school auditoriums, and their first big musical production was The Music Man, in 1970. Charley and Mary played the lead roles of Professor Harold Hill and Marian the librarian, and two of their four children, James and Martha, were in the production as well. The cast also included current Village Players board member Roger Henderson and a young Jerry Mitchell, now a choreographer with multiple Tony Awards to his credit, including one for Kinky Boots earlier this year.
“When we did The Music Man, we did three nights in one weekend, and it was at the end of February and early March, and there was a big blizzard and people flocked in to see it anyway,” Burkett recalls.
After a few years as a program of the local school district, the Paw Paw Village Players became a separate entity and needed a new home. “When the Players broke off with the Community Schools organization, an active member was Diana Hawley, whose husband had just bought this old church which was for sale,” Burkett says, so the theater group had the use of the auditorium on the church’s second floor.
The former Baptist church on Michigan Avenue has been the Village Players’ home almost ever since. The building, now named the Village Playhouse, is home to the Charley and Mary Burkett Center for the Performing Arts (as the auditorium was renamed) and Fat Cat Books, a used bookstore on the main level.
Charley, who died in 2007, “directed something like 60 shows” in his career with the Players, according to his wife. He also starred in many productions, and “most always he built the scenery,” she says.
Mary Burkett also directed, performed in and provided musical direction for many shows and still serves on the organization’s board of directors. The 87-year-old is also the group’s unofficial historian. “I’ve saved all the programs, all the publicity and so forth — I’ve got a file cabinet full,” she says.
The Village Players typically stage five productions a year: a drama in the fall, a Christmastime children’s show, a one-act-play festival in the winter, a comedy in the spring and a musical in the summer. The list of plays and musicals the group has put on, including the ones it has repeated, seems endless. The productions have included many community-theater staples as well as little-known and even home-grown scripts. Mary Burkett created or co-created several revues, and the Players have presented various original works and adaptations written by her or other local playwrights, such as Steve Krefman’s Sometimes the Moon Shoots Back. It even produced an opera, Amahl and the Night Visitors, for four seasons.
“You find a lot of people in the community that have at some point had something to do with the Paw Paw Village Players,” says the group’s treasurer, Pat Henderson.
Some who got an early start in theater in Paw Paw have gone far, particularly Mitchell. “He’s our biggest star,” Burkett says, “but we’ve had some others who have had pretty good careers in theater too.” One is New York City-based composer and music director Brett Schrier, a 1999 Loy Norrix High School graduate.
The company’s One-Acts Festival has gained its own fame as well. The annual contest — the 16th of which will take place in February – attracts hundreds of script submissions. Eight to 10 plays are chosen for production, and four judges from the community rate the plays, with the three top-scoring playwrights winning small cash prizes. A similar festival featuring plays written for young performers is planned for next June.
But coming up sooner will be the Players’ production of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, which the company is staging for the third time. “It’s different. You know, it’s not your typical Christmas season musical,” says Burkett, noting that this is not unusual for the Village Players. “When you say ‘Christmas show,’ they’re frequently not traditional.”
Performances are set for 7 p.m. Dec. 6-7 and 3 p.m. Dec. 8. (Tickets purchased in advance are $10, or $7 for students and children. Tickets at the door are $12, or $8 for students and children.) “We have no assigned seats, but they are all good seats,” Henderson says.
Next summer, the Village Players will honor the memory of Charley Burkett and celebrate their 45th anniversary with a revival of The Music Man. It is sure to be another big production for the volunteer-run organization. “People do it for the love of it,” Burkett says.