First Presbyterian Returns with Laughter Courtesy of Neil Simon
Updated: Aug 20, 2021
In addition to the usual challenges faced by arts organizations in the last 18 months, First Presbyterian Theater has had one additional one as they search for a new executive director following the long tenure of Thom Hofrichter. Replacing someone who had been so much the face of the theatre for decades is not an easy task, and doing so in the reality of a dark venue required a united vision from the board of directors. Serving as Production Manager, Rae Surface, with the support of Rev. Carrie Winebrenner, acting theater interim, is overseeing the beginning of a new season and the installation in the coming weeks of a successor to Hofrichter.
First up is God’s Favorite which hits the stage this Friday and will run two weekends. The play is written by Neil Simon, and how well known the show is depends on whom you ask.
“I moved into this production thinking it was one of his best-known plays,” said John Tolley, the show’s director. “I probably thought that because we had done the show years ago when I was with the theatre. But I’m coming to realize as I talk to people about this production that it’s not that well known.”
One of the people who is bringing this production to life is Rae Surface, whose skills are well known in the theatre community. Tony Belton, director of community engagement and communications at FPT, noted her contributions to not only this production but the entire slate of performances.
"She truly is the backbone of the FPT, and without her, there is no literal way we could be opening with the aggressive schedule we have," he said. "She’s definitely the MVP, and her design and technical skills are worth celebrating. Not only is she building the set, but she’s also juggling volunteers and last-minute crew changes with grace and patience. I literally don’t know how she’s doing it."
The show, based on the Book of Job, was chosen very purposely to kick off a season which First Presbyterian is calling their “Un-season” following a very long hiatus. With their production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in early 2020, the organization held one of the last full productions in a packed venue which no one at the time could have foreseen. Bringing productions back in a still uncertain time led to the choice of God’s Favorite.
“The choice to do this show was to lift everybody’s spirits,” Tolley said. “People will be delighted by the comedy, but it also has a spiritual message from the Book of Job. We’ve all had a hard couple of years, and I think this show is a good way to show the religious life of the church and the church’s social place in the community.”
“When we were planning the season, we discussed what our audiences needed coming back after a pandemic,” Winebrenner said. “We agreed that people needed to laugh. God’s Favorite is very funny.”
The 2021-22 season is front loaded, with three shows in three months. Following God’s Favorite will be two very different productions.
Rev. Carrie Winebrenner
“In September we’ll have The Wolves which will feature an all-female cast,” Winebrenner said. “There’s one adult, a soccer mom, and the rest of the cast are high schoolers. It really shows the reality of what kids are doing because you hear the conversations they’re having, what’s happening in their lives, what happens when a newbie comes onto the team. There are some F-bombs because that’s what they’re really saying. And it’s a very unusual show in that you don’t have the blocking you usually do because there are live soccer balls moving around. The cast is all female as is the crew because we want to lift up the female voice.”
In October The Bad Seed hits the First Presbyterian stage, directed by Kirby Volz. After that, there’s a pause in the season while the theatre is being used by Fort Wayne Youtheatre.
“We decided to take some time off because of our collaboration with Youtheatre,” Winebrenner said. “They have their holiday show here, and in the past we’ve tried to run a show at the same time. But this year we decided to let them have the space so they can have as many performances as they want because we want to support them, not compete with them.”
In February the season resumes with Sylvia, a certain draw for the city’s many dog lovers, with a complementary gallery show featuring dogs as well. In their search for a new director, First Presbyterian is seeking to more fluidly address all aspects of their artistic vision, matching programming in their gallery and theatre while bringing in fresh perspectives to their other artistic missions. With a new executive/artistic director expected to be announced in the coming weeks, Winebrenner said there’s a blank spot at the end of their season.
“We decided to leave the fifth spot open so that if the new person comes in and wants to do something before the next season, he or she will be able to stage something yet this season. We wanted to have a built-in slot for them to fill.”
But before all of that, Winebrenner said that she’s happy for audiences to enjoy some laughter. And director Tolley is certain they’ll find it with God’s Favorite.
“I am just really blessed with this cast,” he said. “The cast is absolutely superb and delightful. They’re really enjoying each other and enjoying creating this together. It’s been a super enjoyable experience, and I think it’ll be really fun for folks.”
Those planning to attend performances of God's Favorite are asked to bring new socks and underwear to donate, allowing First Presbyterian to pass them along to children who are facing a new school year of uncertainty. Donations will allow children in need have some very basic items as they face a new year of school in a very challenging time.