Theatre. It is an expression, therefore it is art. It can be Outside of Ordinary, therefore it exists right here in Champaign County. Did you know that the University of Illinois has hosted the Annual Illinois High School Theatre Festival for the past 42 years, bringing in over 4500 students from 160 different schools this last weekend alone? Theatre is here, whether you’ve discovered it or not. One of the great theatre companies in town, is the Celebration Company, whose performances grace the stage of the Station Theatre in Urbana, Illinois. This old passenger rail station has been home to the Celebration Company for over 40 years, bringing laughter, tears, and excitement to our community. It is here, where you can see their latest upcoming production, Hand to God, a play written by Robert Askins, that includes a Satan possessed puppet and has been nominated for 5 Tony Awards, including Best Play. This upcoming performance caught Cody Dees, our Community Relations Manager’s attention, so he decided to chat with Director, Mikel Matthews, Jr. and give you all the inside scoop.
C: Can you give a little personal background about yourself?
M: I teach High School theatre and English. I've been directing at the Station since 2009. I perform improvisational comedy and stand up here in town. I'm a graduate of Illinois State University, where I started the Improv Mafia, which has been going strong for 18 years.
C: Why is it important to have a theatre company, such as the Celebration Company, in town?
M: I got involved at the Station because they don't accept the idea that community theatre has to be compromised. We care about the kinds of theatre we do and take it seriously. The Celebration Company brings edgy, new shows along with shows picked because they'll delight a wide variety of audiences without sacrificing artistic principals. We're held to a bar and every time I do a show here, I've got the ghosts of some amazing performances and productions I've seen to live up to. There's a consistent level of quality that is unmatched in the area.
C: Why did you choose theatre as your medium of expression?
M: I enjoy it for a lot of reasons but the deadlines honestly help. To bring together a group of people and pour your passion and time into work that you believe is going to touch an audience beyond the parking lot is what I live for. There are other art forms I love, but it's easy to get behind and get little done. I owe something to the theatre. To the audience. To the cast and crew. We know when the show is going up and there's a special feeling when you feel it come alive in front of an audience for the first time. Those are the best moments of my year.
C: What do smaller, independent theatre companies bring to the table compared to large theatre companies you could find in neighboring cities like Chicago?
M: While larger theatre companies have more money to throw at productions, you can find the passion and the talent at all levels. There's amazing work being done in storefront theaters without the kind of equipment that makes a show run smoothly. I've seen miracles happen at very small budgets on our stage and the limitations of particular spaces offer the kinds of challenges that some wonderful creativity can spring from. We won't have the spectacle you might find at a larger theatre, but spectacle doesn't cover a bad script or bad acting or bad decisions. Amazing theatre is sometimes very simple. Sometimes it's amazingly complex. All of that isn't a scratch on the heart, energy, and talent poured into a production.
C: Can you give a little premise about your upcoming production, Hand to God?
M: “Hand to God” is about a puppet ministry class in a church basement in West Texas. The woman teaching it lost her husband six months ago and her son's puppet (or her son) is possessed by Satan. It's hysterically funny, rather adult, and earns something powerful, emotionally, by the end of it.
C: Do you have a particular scene you are most excited about in your upcoming production, without giving too much away?
M: Not only would it give too much away, I'm not sure you can print what I'd say was what I'm most excited about. Every time we've done it, I've laughed till I cried.
C: If there was one thing you wish your audience members knew about the behind the scenes work, what would that be?
M: That we'd love for them to be a part of it. There are plenty of people who are involved and amazingly valuable to a show who don't come from the kinds of backgrounds one might think of traditionally as Theatre. It's never too late to get involved and all kinds of talents are needed to make good shows.
There you have it folks. You don’t have to travel to a major metropolitan area for theatre. There’s a company in town with more passion and excitement than you’ll know what to do with. Reserve your seats to attend the Celebration Company’s latest performance, Hand to God, opening at the Station Theatre on January 19th at 7:00 p.m.
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