The stage directions prove quite simple: learn your lines, hit your marks and ham it up all you want.
Judi Bruning perishes the thought that anyone would walk into the Bird Cage Theater in Robinson, and expect the soliloquies of Shakespeare.
“You don’t have to be an actor,” she said. “You have to be willing to make a fool of yourself.”
Still, the annual Robinson melodrama can boast some staying power. Saturday’s opening night of “Classroom Calamity,” this year’s production, will mark the 51st year of the community event.
This run is all the more remarkable because the Brown County town has fewer than 250 residents and no ready pool of either actors or audience members.
What it lacks in population, Robinson makes up with townspeople game to stand before footlights — literally, the primary lighting source — and recite lines designed to elicit cheers and hisses.
“You can not overact. It’s a melodrama,” Dorothy BeDunnah, this year’s director, said. “The more you overact, the better it is.”
Part of the attraction, aside from the intended over-the-topness and wince-inducing dialogue, comes from seeing friends and neighbors outside their accustomed community roles.
Over the years, the villain might have been a health-care provider or an insurance agent or a farmer. The villainess might have been a life-long resident of the area who began piano lessons at age 5 and still plays for school and other functions.
This latter player would be Bruning, comically evil this year as Lotta DeVille. She remembers the first melodrama in 1968 and says she has missed only a couple of them in the five decades since.
“The characters were fun,” she recalled. “The villain was always loud and obnoxious. The hero was real corny.”
Corn is king, where this is concerned. Melodrama thrives on it.
The story goes that the late Bob Idol, whose picture hangs above the box office at the Bird Cage Theater, had been vacationing in Cripple Creek, Colorado, and attended a melodrama there.
Back in 1960s, the Robinson Lions Club sold brooms as a fundraiser. Bob and his wife, Marge, thought a play would be more lucrative and fun as a project.
With Mr. Idol as the original director, the melodramas blossomed, all with names like “A Golden Fleecing” and “A Widow’s Weary Way” and with characters called Mose Mooseface and Benny Goodboy.
Some of the scripts come from theatrical licensing agencies. The local melodrama crew has written several, including “Classroom Calamity,” which also had been produced in 2007.
“You can fit the parts around people you know that you have,” Bruning said of the self-written melodramas. “You can also divide the parts so the villain doesn’t have 300 lines and then some other person has one or two.”
Robinson honors the name of Dr. Charles Robinson, the first governor of Kansas after becoming a state in 1861. This prestige didn’t guarantee prosperity.
A railroad town on the St. Joseph & Grand Island line, the business portion of the community got destroyed in an 1882 fire, but townspeople rebuilt and the population stood at 492 in 1910.
Up and down the block from the Bird Cage, a converted movie house now owned by the community, the storefronts show little activity. The high school closed in the 1960s, the town’s students going to Hiawatha, about 10 miles to the northwest. The Lions Club membership barely numbers double digits.
“The club has gotten small,” BeDunnah said, noting that the compiling of actors for the melodrama differs from year to year. “Some years, people were ready for us to ask them. Some years, we have to beg.”
The melodrama does not continue merely by civic inertia. Crowds continue to come. Not like the early days, with every seat filled, but enough to make the considerable effort worthwhile.
So let the emoting begin, the overdone orations of a scoundrel and the mawkish purity of a heroine.
Save no room on the hearth for acting awards. Play to the back row with no apology.
This is melodrama.
Production dates are at 7 p.m. on Saturday, March 3, and a 2 p.m. Sunday matinee on March 4. Next week’s production dates are at 7 p.m. on Friday, March 9, and Saturday, March 10.
Call Judi Bruning at 785-544-7739 (Home) or 785-741-2282 (Cell) to make table reservations. The price for a table of four is $30.00, and a table of six is $45. General admission tickets can be purchased at the door for $5.