St. James Theatre in Arlington Heights celebrates 50 years with 'Shrek the Musical'
The Rev. Bill Zavaski sits at the foot of a large stage in the St. James Parish Center's auditorium in Arlington Heights. He gazes up at the scene before him -- the huge sunflowers unfurling on either side of the stage, the thorny lair built of painted oversized books -- and recalls the St. James Theatre's early days, 50 years back.
"I wanted to keep the high school kids off the street, that's how it started," he said. "We were pretty primitive. We had a piano player and drums, that was it."
From those humble beginnings, St. James Theatre has grown to a troupe that's put on dozens of major productions featuring about 7,500 actors, technicians and artists performing for 100,000 audience members over the years.
It's now celebrating its 50th anniversary with a production of "Shrek the Musical," with performances at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday, July 18-20, and 2 p.m. Sunday, July 21.
Zavaski began the musical tradition with a production of "Bye, Bye Birdie." He had been in musicals when he was in school, and thought it might be a good way to build community among the teenagers in his parish.
He was ready to quit after that first year, but parishioners kept him from leaving.
"It has been the parishioners themselves who have made this a part of St. James," he said. "Over the years, I've built incredible relationships with people. If you really want people to feel a sense of community, give them a project to work on."
"Shrek" Director Kevin Wiczer acted in "The Wizard of Oz" in 1996 when he was just a kid. He said the community theater experience is more memorable than commercial theater.
"With this, people get to know each other. They bond more," he said. "They all support each other, so it's a much deeper experience."
The sense of community at St. James has remained constant throughout the years, Wiczer said. Still, he said, the theater isn't immune to broader trends.
"Theater everywhere, people are coming to it less and less, and it's sad," he said.
The Arlington Heights community has kept the St. James Theatre going. For some, the theater has become a family tradition.
Laurel Saflarski plays the fairy godmother in "Shrek," in what will be her 43rd show on the St. James stage. Saflarski grew up in the theater, starting with "Oliver" when she was in fifth grade. She's now 60.
"There's such a stable core to the shows because of the people," she said. "It's worked so well to have community involvement. Everyone feels this huge sense of community."
The performances taught her to be less self-centered -- that they're there to transform the audience's world for a little while, she said. And she credits the church's role in setting the mood.
"I think it's really important that we have that faith base," she said. "I mean, we do a prayer circle before our performances."
"Shrek" has a cast of 75. Zavaski, who has a walk-on role as a bishop, said it's one of the most beautiful shows the group has ever done. And in keeping with the mission of the theater's founding, the production includes its share of youngsters.
"I'm just amazed that it's kept up for 50 years," Zavaski said. "So that proves its value and worth."
Tickets for "Shrek The Musical" are available at www.stjamestheatre.org/purchase-tickets/. They cost is `$12 for the rear sections and $18 for the front. Performances are in the St. James Parish Center, 820 N. Arlington Heights Road, Arlington Heights.