Lewisville’s outdoor theater marks 10-year-milestone

by Mark Burger

This Friday, when audiences congregate at Shallowford Square in Lewisville for the West Side Civic Theatre’s production of Oklahoma!, it will mark a milestone for the theater and for the town of Lewisville.

It’ll mark the opening of the theater’s 10th season, at an outdoor venue that has since become known in the region for its grand-scale, family-friendly productions. The first show ever presented by the theater was Oklahoma! – and it made sense to bring it back to ring in the 10th birthday.

John Rushton, the theater’s artistic director, remembers well and tells often the story of how he and his new bride, Joy, happened to be strolling around the grounds of Shallowford Square when, as cliché might have it, a light went on over their heads.

Although Shallowford Square was a space often used for community events and live performances, no one had ever considered it as a possible stage venue – until then. That’s why, today, John and Joy Rushton are co-founders of the West Side Civic Theatre, with Joy also acting as the theater’s musical director.

That the community embraced the concept – audiences at shows have numbered in the thousands – is not entirely surprising to the Rushtons.

“I know that sounds cocky,” says Rushton, admitting, “There was a time when I wasn’t sure if we could fund 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.”

“There are places I’ve lived where maybe this wouldn’t work,” says Rushton with a laugh, “but I don’t live in those places. I live here, and I’m very grateful.”

It’s hardly a one- or two-person effort, as Rushton is quick to thank the continued support of the town’s Parks, Recreation and Cultural Development Board, as well as town government and 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 no question,” Rushton says, pointing out that former mayor and current town council member Tom Lawson has been one of the theater’s best friends in high places.

“When you bring people an idea – a vision, and I know that sounds hokey – you wonder if people will see it the same way,” Rushton says. “Well, hokey or not, here we are!”

The Rushtons have never wavered from the initial conception of the theater as “an all-inclusive community undertaking,” Rushton notes. “We tend to pick 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 camp program for children, which runs from June 30 to July 18, and will culminate in a production of The King and I.

Looking back on a decade that has included two children, a couple of dozen shows, a few movies (including the upcoming Eyeborgs) and the worst season in Miami Dolphins history (Rushton’s a fan), he muses with a smile: “It blows my mind. It feels like we’ve just begun. By that, I mean it still feels fresh and new. Everybody brings as much enthusiasm and energy as they did when we first started. Yet now we’ve got 10 years’ worth of great memories to go along with it.”

Most of those memories are happy ones, but because Shallowford Square is an outdoor venue, weather has always been a factor. Even when it’s not, it is.

A couple seasons back, the troupe barely got through a couple of performances of Seussical because of rain and lightning. Beauty and the Beast fared a little better, but Rushton recalls the production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum that played just once. Forget about closing on opening night; blame it on the rain.

Ever the showman, Rushton maintains it was still a great production – even if only for that one performance. The formula, jokes Rushton, is simple: “Rain in the middle of the week is okay. Rain on weekends is not.”

Given the scope of so many West Side Civic Theatre shows, Rushton has often tapped the local community for actors ­- even if they themselves didn’t happen to recognize any acting potential. Among these undiscovered thespians was Mark Walek (who recently celebrated his 50th birthday), who will be playing Ali in Oklahoma!

Like many people, Walek’s acting aspirations generally extended to whatever movie he happened to be watching and thinking, “That looks cool.”

But Walek had John Rushton as a friend – and John Rushton wasn’t going to take no for an answer when he asked if Walek would consider appearing in a show. Since then, Walek has bopped through an extensive stage stint that has included 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!”

There was some talk of the theater producing a home-grown musical this season, and Rushton confirms this, but a decision was quickly reached that time was too tight for the 10th season. So, maybe for the 11th.

“It’s a great story, and it didn’t make sense to rush it along,” Rushton says. “We want to do it right. It’s a fun process. It’s not an easy one, but then, what worth doing is easy?”