Anne Landenberger and the Rock River Players

A community theater in an art-friendly village
By Joyce Marcel
Special to the Brattleboro Reformer

WILLIAMSVILLE >> Annie Landenberger happily describes herself as a “theater junkie.” She wrote — or rather rewrote — her first play, “Peter Pan,” when she was only in the third grade.

“I couldn’t decide if I wanted to be Wendy or Captain Hook,” she said.

Obviously, community theater came easily to her.

“My mother did community theater and I was smitten at a young age,” she said. “I’ve been putting on plays all my life. People come together, the work is hard and real, the synergy is collective creativity and the product is joyful.”

Landenberger has a B.A. in theater and English and an MA in drama. For the past 20 years she has been on the faculty of Leland and Gray High School, teaching English and producing/directing of something like 65 shows — dramas, musicals and cabarets — for the Leland and Gray Players.

Also, for the past two years she has been helping midwife the birth of the Rock River Players in her home town of Williamsville. This new community theatre group — which has already attracted a large number of volunteers and much media attention puts on plays in Williamsville Hall, an old discontinued grange hall owned by the town of Newfane.

“This is something that folks in the village here have hoped for a long time.” Landenberger said. “We all want the hall to be used, to be lively, to be a center of energy and art.”

In 2015, when Landenberger put the word out that she wanted to start a theater company in Williamsville — “I did a lot of bush-shaking,” she said — more than 40 people showed up — people from as near as Williamsville and as far away as Western Massachusetts.

“I found lots of interest in doing theatre at the Williamsville Hall,” Landenberger said. “I guess I’m known in the valley for theatre work at Leland and Gray and so my name might have carried the Good Housekeeping seal. Many of the first folks involved were people who’ve had connections at Leland and Gray and at other schools in the district. The director of the current show, ‘On Golden Pond,’ teaches at Wardsboro; her husband was in our production of ‘Our Town’ and teaches at Windham Elementary. We’ve had a full range of participation — from a couple of Leland & Gray seventh graders to 86-year-old Bill Lincoln, who was my boss as principal of Leland & Gray for five years. This area is laced with connections. You send out some sparks; word travels and voila! — you can start something rich and wonderful.”

The group’s first production, last August, was Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town.” The company sold out all four performances and was on its way.

In May of 2016, it did George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s “You Can’t Take It with You.”

“It was a blast,” Landenberger said. “It’s one of the funniest shows of all time. Four full houses again.”

The players just closed Ernest Thompson’s “On Golden Pond,” with a cast of seven and a production staff of 15. Shirley Lauro’s “A Piece of My Heart,” about six women who served in Vietnam, is next; auditions begin on Sept. 8 and the play will open in October.

Williamsville Hall is not weatherized, which makes it unsuitable for winter productions — it’s hard to hammer a set together when you’re wearing woolen gloves — although last year they did offer a reading of “Inherit the Wind.”

But because Landenberger doesn’t want to see the theatrical energy she has tapped into dissipate during the cold weather, she is seeking grant money to winterize the hall. And she is also looking for another, temporary, venue — possibly the South Newfane School House.

“I’m looking at it for a winter production — probably a revue or cabaret,” Landenberger said. “Once the hall is winterized, we’ll do all four productions there. Also in the plans is the possibility of doing some ‘workshopping’ of shows which are still in the writing stage, and figuring out a way to do a musical comedy. We’re open to anything.”

In early September, the play selection team will hear directors’ proposals for the spring and simmer 2017 productions.

“The theme of this year is ‘strong women,'” Landenberger said. “We’ll schedule open-to-all play readings on the calendar between the main productions.”

As with most community theater groups, you can be a star one day and prop person the next.

“We’ll never be a closed club,” Landenberger said. “We’ll never pre-cast. If you want to be involved in the show, I’ll make you a part of the show. There’s talent everywhere, and it’s really people who make this thing work. Opening night of “On Golden Pond,’ we were all cleaning the bathrooms.”

Art generates art, as they say, and the name of the theater group has overtones of another of Williamsville’s signature events the Rock River Artists Tour.

“This is an art-friendly community,” Landenberger said. “It makes people feel, ‘Maybe I can do a concert season here.’ Or, ‘Maybe we should have a theater group.’ It’s a pretty cool place to live.”