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Ann Barber (L) and Wanda Renick (R) share a laugh in this publicity photo from the Grasse River Players 1992 production of "Mornings at Seven" in Canton.  Photo:  Grasse River Players
Ann Barber (L) and Wanda Renick (R) share a laugh in this publicity photo from the Grasse River Players 1992 production of "Mornings at Seven" in Canton. Photo: Grasse River Players

Grasse River Players stages 40 years of community theater, friendships

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It started in 1974 with a small group of theatre lovers in Canton wanting to build an outlet for creativity. This weekend, the Grasse River Players celebrates 40 years of producing a wide variety of theater, from radio plays, to musicals to original full length dramas. The community theater group's annual meeting is on Sunday (7 pm) at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Canton. Everyone is welcome.

Todd Moe sat down with two charter members of the Grasse River Players -- Wanda Renick and Carole Berard -- for their favorite local theatrical moments, and spoke with GRP board president, Elaine Kuracina, about plans for the future.

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Todd Moe
Morning Host and Producer

Todd Moe: Wanda and Carol, you’re two charter members of the group, right? What was going on? Were there a bunch of folks who really wanted to do theater, and there was nothing else around?

Carole Berard: Yes, we really wanted to do theater, so we all got together and we were sitting in Slyvia Angus' living room, maybe fifteen or twenty of us (there were quite a few). And you know, once you have a taste of the stage, you never lose it.

TM: What was the first show that you did? Do you remember that first performance?

Wanda Renick: Yeah, I do. It was "Don’t Drink the Water." Yes, it was Woody Allen. And it had in it people who are still involved…I think that over the years we have probably touched a thousand folks and brought them into the group. Maybe just a one-time thing, maybe not playing anything, but we borrowed something from them, the built something for us, they lent us something, they transported us… I mean we have really touched a lot of people.

It would be fun to, I don’t know, somehow have all those people we touched. Well, they must have enjoyed us. And we have performed, just about every place that you can possibly think of. Because we’ve never had a home. We’ve looked for one, you know we’ve had little feelings out there, and people have said, “Well, why don’t you go here,” and “Why don’t you try this…”

TM: And you reached out, you’ve had help over the years from some professionals?

WR:  Oh yes, John Larrance. He’s been a brick along with us since we ever started. I mean he had brought us lighting equipment, and you know he would help us with that.

Carole Berard directed "Kismet" for the Grasse River Players in 1987.  Photo: Grasse River Players
Carole Berard directed "Kismet" for the Grasse River Players in 1987. Photo: Grasse River Players
CB: Yeah, we were really lucky, when we started doing musicals. We were doing them at St. Lawrence University, at their Gulick Theater, because otherwise we wouldn’t have been able to do the grand productions that we were doing, and John was really helpful. And we got to use all of their equipment, their lighting equipment and the stage, and it was fantastic.

And "The Music Man" was our first big musical, and I directed it, and to this day, everybody reminds me of, “Carol, remember the Kraft cheese wagon that used to be in the Diary Princess Parade? The Wells Fargo Wagon that comes into town?” and I thought, “Well wouldn’t it be a great idea, we’ll have the Kraft wagon come in!” Well, the thing was so huge that it took up all of the space backstage. And I had no idea that people were so upset about this, but it looked great on stage. They had to back it in, oh it was too much for me.

WR: The thing I remember about "The Music Man," was the band who marched in, from the back, remember? They were wearing red uniforms, and they were castoffs from the University of Indiana’s band department. I will never forget that. It was very impressive.

CB: Oh, it certainly was.

TM: So they were authentic band uniforms?

CB: Oh yeah, and you know all of the kids, they had borrowed instruments, it was a cacophony.  But yeah, that was something.

TM: It’s interesting to me too, that in a rural area like this—and Wanda, you put together a history of the Grasse River Players, you’re working on it—but that you had people all over the place, lending a hand to build sets, store things in their barns, their garages.

CB: Yeah, we’ve also been in everybody’s barn!

GRP president Elaine Kuracina in a scene from last summer's production of "Picasso at the Lapine Agile".  Photo: Grasse River Players
GRP president Elaine Kuracina in a scene from last summer's production of "Picasso at the Lapine Agile". Photo: Grasse River Players
WR: Oh, oh I’ve left out the Goldie Barn, on this list of places where we’ve stored things. There was a barn called the Dean’s Barn, on Riverside Drive, remember that one? There was a chickenhouse, at the foot of Fairlane Drive…

TM: So, what has been the glue that has kept this together? There have been ups and downs. You’ve had some tough times as a theater group. Certainly, like lots of arts groups, money has always been a big factor, but you’ve stuck together for 40 years, what’s kept that?

CB: Well, we’ve never been static. We’ve done all different kinds of productions. We’ve done reader’s theater, we’ve done, musicals, dramas, comedies... and you know, anytime anyone wants to have some sort of entertainment, we’re willing to do it. And that brings in people. If they don’t want to be on stage, and they don’t want to learn lines, well, they can do reader’s theater. And we used to do, here at the radio station, well it used to be a different building, we did radio theather.

TM: Favorite shows?

CB: We’ll I’ve mentioned to you before, "The Secret Affairs of Mildred Wild," I think  that was the craziest thing I have never directed. We had a gorilla, on stage. We borrowed a gorilla suit from this costume place over in Canada. We had to build a fake cement block wall for the gorilla to come through. It was about a wife who had these fantasies, and she read movie magazines. So we had movie magazines plastered all over the walls, and Wanda made her debut in a black, slinky, silk slip.

WR: Two weeks before the performance because the person taking the part had been transferred in her job. I had been doing publicity for that show and Carol called up in desperation saying  “she’s moved, what am I going to do?” and I called all over the North Country that I could think of, and nobody could think of anybody who would step in. And I finally, in desperation and sheer silliness said “You want me to do it?” And Carol said “Yes!”

CB: The highlight of the show I think was the dance line that we did. I mean, I think maybe one or two people out of the whole group could actually dance but they did a tap dance to “Animal Crackers in my Soup.” I bought- that was when Pearl’s Department Store was still here and they had these little children’s clear plastic umbrellas with Disney characters on, and they walked back and forth and you know, did their tap routine. It brought down the house every night.

TM: I want to move kind of into what’s happening today with the Grasse River players. And Elaine Kuracina, you’re the president of the theater group’s board right now and you’ve also acted and directed and worked backstage and even written a play that will be performed later this year. What do you do to keep this group going now for you know another 40 years?

EC: Well like Carol says, we don’t want to stay static, we invite everyone. People have no experience or people that have theater degrees and just want to use it in the community. We are just open to everybody coming. As a matter of fact, we are having our annual open meeting this Sunday, 7 o’clock at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Canton.

Brian Hauser is going to be our guest speaker. He’s a Clarkson film professor. He’ll be speaking about film acting, film directing, theater acting, theater directing. So we are really excited he’s going to be our guest speaker, and we invited everybody to come- free admission, 7 o’clock. And the other exciting thing, the next chapter for Grasse River Players is our Colton relationship- the Sunday Rock Legacy.

We along with the Colton Museum and the Colton-Pierrepont Central School have developed this wonderful collaboration. Every year we choose a theme that the three of us enjoy. This year its one-room schoolhouses- so we’re going to be doing, on June 20at the Zion Episcopal Church in Canton, school day cabaret which is a group of songs and stories from one-room schoolhouse days.

And then our grand finale for the season with the Sunday Rock Legacy is the Tony Award Winning musical “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” directed by Kimberly Bush and a cast of wonderful, talented people. That’s going to be at the Colton school. This collaboration brings out a whole new level of community cooperation and collaboration and it's just exciting community stuff.

TM: So you moved here about 15 years ago…

EC: Yeah, 1998.

TM: Sixteen years ago, and you have a background in theater so that led you to the Grasse River Players. You were probably seeking out a theater.

EC: Oh yeah, I was seeking. Yes indeed, I thought “Well, we’re coming up here and what am I going to do with my theater interests and I found the Grasse River Players. I saw that ad in the paper “Auditions for Charlie’s Aunt” and I was there.

TM: And you’re still here.

EC: I’m still here and I’m so grateful- I’ve done some wonderful things with the Grasse River Players. They have allowed me to grow, to direct, to write, and to do all these things I’ve always dreamed about doing and I am very grateful to the Grasse River Players. I’m so glad they’re here. And again, we just encourage anyone who's interested in creating to come. We love all this collaboration.

At the school day cabaret, Bill Smith who is a very famous Adirondack storyteller will be our guest storyteller for the evening and Carol will be reading and I know Wanda will be coming. So we’ve got some wonderful people involved with that. But I wanted to give Bill Smith a thanks because he’s coming in and doing some stories for us, it’s great.

TM: And even if you’ve never been on stage, this is the sort of group if you want to stick your toe in theater…

WR: I have helped more beginning actors figure out which is stage right, stage left, open-up, you’re blocking yourself.

TM: The basics.

CB: Yeah, the basics of, you know, just knowledge about theater.   

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