Lewisville’s outdoor theater marks 10-year-milestone

by Mark Burger

This Friday, whenaudiences congregate at Shallowford Square in Lewisville for the WestSide Civic Theatre’s production of Oklahoma!, it will mark a milestonefor the theater and for the town of Lewisville. It’ll mark theopening of the theater’s 10th season, at an outdoor venue that hassince become known in the region for its grand-scale, family-friendlyproductions. The first show ever presented by the theater was Oklahoma!- and it made sense to bring it back to ring in the 10th birthday. JohnRushton, the theater’s artistic director, remembers well and tellsoften the story of how he and his new bride, Joy, happened to bestrolling around the grounds of Shallowford Square when, as clichémight have it, a light went on over their heads. AlthoughShallowford Square was a space often used for community events and liveperformances, no one had ever considered it as a possible stage venue -until then. That’s why, today, John and Joy Rushton are co-founders ofthe West Side Civic Theatre, with Joy also acting as the theater’smusical director. That the community embraced the concept -audiences at shows have numbered in the thousands – is not entirelysurprising to the Rushtons. "I know that sounds cocky," saysRushton, admitting, "There was a time when I wasn’t sure if we couldfund it." (Each show costs about $25,000 to produce.) But, he says, "there was always a really good community feel here, unlike any other place I’ve ever been." "Thereare places I’ve lived where maybe this wouldn’t work," says Rushtonwith a laugh, "but I don’t live in those places. I live here, and I’mvery grateful." It’s hardly a one- or two-person effort, asRushton is quick to thank the continued support of the town’s Parks,Recreation and Cultural Development Board, as well as town governmentand community support, for making this little dream – or not-so-little,if you’ve ever seen the performance space at Shallowford Square -become a reality. "We have been very lucky, there’s noquestion," Rushton says, pointing out that former mayor and currenttown council member Tom Lawson has been one of the theater’s bestfriends in high places. "When you bring people an idea – avision, and I know that sounds hokey – you wonder if people will see itthe same way," Rushton says. "Well, hokey or not, here we are!" TheRushtons have never wavered from the initial conception of the theateras "an all-inclusive community undertaking," Rushton notes. "We tend topick shows that appeal to all ages." Over the last 10 seasons,that list has included Into the Woods, Oliver!, The Sound of Music,Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Beauty and the Beast,Annie, Seussical and, if only by default the theater’s most"controversial" show, last summer’s production of Jesus Christ,Superstar. The theater has also instituted a successful summer campprogram for children, which runs from June 30 to July 18, and willculminate in a production of The King and I. Looking back on adecade that has included two children, a couple of dozen shows, a fewmovies (including the upcoming Eyeborgs) and the worst season in MiamiDolphins history (Rushton’s a fan), he muses with a smile: "It blows mymind. It feels like we’ve just begun. By that, I mean it still feelsfresh and new. Everybody brings as much enthusiasm and energy as theydid when we first started. Yet now we’ve got 10 years’ worth of greatmemories to go along with it." Most of those memories are happyones, but because Shallowford Square is an outdoor venue, weather hasalways been a factor. Even when it’s not, it is. A coupleseasons back, the troupe barely got through a couple of performances ofSeussical because of rain and lightning. Beauty and the Beast fared alittle better, but Rushton recalls the production of A Funny ThingHappened on the Way to the Forum that played just once. Forget aboutclosing on opening night; blame it on the rain. Ever theshowman, Rushton maintains it was still a great production – even ifonly for that one performance. The formula, jokes Rushton, is simple:"Rain in the middle of the week is okay. Rain on weekends is not." Giventhe scope of so many West Side Civic Theatre shows, Rushton has oftentapped the local community for actors ‘­- even if they themselves didn’thappen to recognize any acting potential. Among these undiscoveredthespians was Mark Walek (who recently celebrated his 50th birthday),who will be playing Ali in Oklahoma! Like many people, Walek’sacting aspirations generally extended to whatever movie he happened tobe watching and thinking, "That looks cool." But Walek had JohnRushton as a friend – and John Rushton wasn’t going to take no for ananswer when he asked if Walek would consider appearing in a show. Sincethen, Walek has bopped through an extensive stage stint that hasincluded a vivid turn as Pontius Pilate in last summer’s Jesus Christ,Superstar. "I got bitten by the bug," laughs Walek, now a veteran of more than 20 shows, "and I didn’t even know I was susceptible!" Therewas some talk of the theater producing a home-grown musical thisseason, and Rushton confirms this, but a decision was quickly reachedthat time was too tight for the 10th season. So, maybe for the 11th. "It’sa great story, and it didn’t make sense to rush it along," Rushtonsays. "We want to do it right. It’s a fun process. It’s not an easyone, but then, what worth doing is easy?"