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STAGING HISTORY: Drama directors become playwrights with WWII show

October 17, 2012

Post & Mail photo / Christie Barkley: Cast members of the play, “Once Upon A Town,” rehearse a scene taking place during World War II. Pictured, from left, is Kyle Scher, Dan Yingst, Matt Swain and Kyle Weigold.


COLUMBIA CITY — An original play is set to be performed at Columbia City High School November 10-11. “It just so happens that this play has a military story line and we are performing it on Veteran’s Day,” said Drama Director Shane Barkley.
The two-act play, “Once Upon a Town,” takes place during both World War II and the War in Afghanistan. The show’s plot centers around a train depot in North Platte, Neb. During the world war, troop trains traveled across the country and stopped in North Platte for short breaks.
Women in the town decided to serve the soldiers food, coffee and other treats while they were on break. What began as a one-time thing, developed into a labor of love that served over six million soldiers spanning five years.
Although the Newell Rice Auditorium has staged popular Broadway shows such as “Beauty and The Beast,” “Les Miserables” and most recently, “The Miracle Worker,“ this year’s play is a piece written by Barkley, Assistant Director Keith Gilbert and with some input by CCHS graduate and theater major at Indiana State University, Rachael Rosfeld.
“This was a project Keith and I started about seven years ago. We ran out of steam and put it on the back burner,” said Barkley. “After finishing ‘The Miracle Worker’ we were trying to find a play we wanted to do. There really wasn’t any show that jumped out at me, and I suggested to Keith that we pull this project off the shelf and finish it.”
Actually, Barkley’s and Gilbert’s inspiration was reignited while working on the Super Bowl Half-Time show in February.
“The man in charge of the half-time show used the story of North Platte to tell how one group of volunteers can do amazing things. When he mentioned North Platte, Keith and I looked at each other and smiled, knowing how much we already knew about the story. That’s when we started talking about the show again.”
In just a few short months, Barkley and his team took what was once a shelved idea intended to be a musical and turned it into a play that not only tells a story of World War II, but weaves in a contemporary plot taking place during the War in Afghanistan.
“We didn’t tell anyone we wrote it,” Barkley said. “When we held auditions, the students all wanted to know what the show was about. It was hard to not slip up and tell them that this was our show. Actually, we didn’t tell them until after we had read through it at the first practice.”
The story of North Platte is a true one and author Bob Greene wrote about the train depot in his book, “Once Upon a Town.” With no war industry, the town of North Platte had no real way to contribute to the war effort in the 40s.
However, the women who pulled the canteen together created their own war industry and therefore impacted the lives of countless servicemen.
There was no government aid to fund the efforts of the town, materials and food was donated. President Roosevelt sent a $5 personal check to go toward the expense of the effort along with his gratitude for what the ladies were doing.
Barkley said the show is a chance for high school students to learn, outside of a history book, some of the real life stories of those living during World War II. “The story we wrote has some humor, a couple of romances that develop and some historical events that are acted out,” Barkley said. Such events include Roosevelt’s death and VE-Day.
The play’s cast is taking the story off the stage and into the halls with a topical project. The cast was divided up into small groups to research different facets of the 40s in order to display some sort of a presentation for ticket holders to see while milling about outside the auditorium. There is also a reception being planned for veterans after the matinee performance Nov. 11.
But just telling the story of North Platte wasn’t enough for the trio. Together, the group decided to tell the story of a modern day family dealing with one of their own who’s been deployed overseas. Barkley said having a contemporary spin makes the show unique and creates the potential for young and old to connect with the characters.
“There will be people in the audience that will remember their fathers being in World War II and there will probably be people who are sitting there with family members overseas right now,” said Barkley. “Either way, I think the show will be personal to anyone who comes to see it.”
Another new aspect of the show lies in the technical advances in the school’s auditorium. Over the summer, electrical upgrades were made to accommodate a theatrical lighting system that Barkley had donated from Electronic Theater Controls. With grant money given by the Whitley County Community Foundation, the auditorium’s lighting now matches the caliber of shows performed within its walls.
“Once Upon a Town” will be the first show staged under the new system. Gilbert, who acts as the show’s lighting technician said, “I am excited to use a system that will enhance what we are doing on stage. The new lighting fixtures will allow me to control the lights so that we can create clean pictures for the audience.
“We are anxious to see how this show affects people,” Barkley said. “I hope there are some tears in the audience simply because the kids have done that good of a job making the story real. But really I hope people are inspired by the story of North Platte.”
To learn more about the North Platte canteen, visit www.npcanteen.net. Tickets for the play, “Once Upon a Town,” go on sale today for $7. To purchase tickets, contact Shane Barkley at 633-1102 or e-mail shanebarkley@embarqmail.com.

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