ARROW ROCK — Each year, Quin Gresham sifts through approximately 12,000 applications from across the country, all from actors and actresses hoping to land a weeks-long gig in a quaint Missouri River town that harbors a population of just 56.
Gresham, who has served as creative director of the Lyceum Theat re for 14 years, faces a monumental task in finding the perfect performers to fill each role in the highly anticipated productions staged by the theater.
Over the theater’s 57-year history, it has developed a superior nationwide reputation. Add in the romantic setting and the warm reception actors receive, and actors are clamoring to escape New York and other urban centers for the chance to spend a few weeks each summer performing on the theater’s stage.
Gresham says the performers go through a visceral transformation as they make the journey out to Arrow Rock and then spend the next few weeks rehearsing and getting to know the area.
After flying into Kansas City, the actors ride a MO-X shuttle to Boonville, and are ushered into a van for the final leg to Arrow Rock.
There is a sort of initial rural panic that sets in, explained Gresham, as visitors realize the cellphone service is spotty and the bandwidth of the internet is limited.
“And as they drive deeper and deeper into the cornfields, you can sort of see this apprehensive look on their faces, like ‘What have I gotten myself into? There’s no way there’s a theater out here.’”
As time passes, however, Gresham said outsiders inevitably fall in love with the town, the community and the appreciative audiences.
Gresham says that 99 percent of performers that travel to Arrow Rock will leave saying they’ve had a working vacation or therapeutic escape from the urban rat race.
“People feel very cared for and appreciated while they’re here,” Gresham said, “which is hard to experience in a larger urban market. They fall in love with Arrow Rock and they fall in love with the people they meet here.”
“One of the threads in between all of those departments and people is somehow that we get really good human beings to work here too, so it’s not so much that they have so much to give on stage or off stage, but that they’re just really good people,” Gresham said.
Shoes are lined up in the dressing room Shoes are lined up in the dressing room on Oct. 6 at the Lyceum Theater in Arrow Rock, Missouri. The theater’s most recent show, “Beehive,” ran from Sept. 16 to Sept. 24.
The audition and selection process is a daunting challenge for Gresham and the Lyceum staff.
After screening the applications, the most significant part of the audition process takes place during an annual journey to New York City. There, Gresham begins the lengthy process, holed up in a room he describes as no bigger than a classroom, for nine hours a day as he watches nearly 500 performers give it their all.
One week is usually dedicated to the initial auditions, explained Gresham, and the following week is for callbacks. After the callback process, the final performers are then chosen.
Lyceum’s company manager and casting associate, Paula Danner, who is responsible for scheduling auditions and collecting and preparing audition materials, is alongside him throughout the entire process.
This year, Gresham estimated 500 applications just for the lead role in Mary Poppins.
For ensemble spots in musicals, performers auditioning must learn and perform a dance number, then, if chosen, they move on to the singing portion of the audition.
For principal roles, the process shifts to prioritize a different skillset. Contestants sing first, and sometimes read a scene from the play. Then callbacks begin, where Gresham says performers are allotted more individual time to go through selected scenes from the show, in addition to possibly a new set of music numbers to perform.
A prop used to represent the Seal of the President of the United States hangs on the wall A prop used to represent the Seal of the President of the United States hangs on the wall at Lyceum Theatre in Arrow Rock. The theater makes most of its signage and decorations for shows.
“That’s, one, to see if they can get a little bit closer to what our idea of that character is, but also, two, to see if they are malleable as actors and willing to to do something other than what they practiced in their apartment before they came in to audition,” Gresham said.
The first three shows at Lyceum tend to be musicals, Gresham said, which usually feature the same core group of people, such as the chorus, from show to show, although the principles may change.
Gresham said the designated director for a particular production will often accompany him to the auditions to give feedback. He noted that sometimes the director for a show can’t always be present during auditions, because some of them live in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Chicago or Minneapolis.
For the casting of the role of Belle in “Beauty and the Beast,” Gresham said he and the panel saw around 60 auditions in three- minute increments.
Once selected, performers travel to Lyceum to rehearse for a week prior to the production, then perform for audiences at a series of shows over two weeks. However, the time performers spend in Arrow Rock can often vary, said Doug Crews, newly elected president of the Lyceum Theatre board of directors, because some performers are chosen for more than one production.
“We really attract a wonderful caliber of performers, actors and actresses,” Crews said.
Crews said the theater is unique because it is in a small town of just 56, and was renovated from a small church to a 416-seat theater.
PHOTO GALLERY: Lyceum Theater Each year, thousands of applications flood the creative director of the 57-year-old Lyceum Theatre from performers from all over the country. Quin Gresham, the theater's creative director is responsible for sifting through them all.
The theater prides itself on being a producing house, constructing everything from scenery, costumes, lighting and even sound entirely in house, as opposed to theaters such as the Missouri Theatre, which is exclusively a presenting house.
Gresham said one of the bonuses of bringing performers together for summer performances at the Lyceum is watching the actors connect and form lasting relationships.
“Just this morning I was having my coffee and getting ready for work, and just scrolling through (social media) seeing what people were up to — and all these people that had not met before the summer, are ya know, posting all these adventures that they’re continuing to have in New York together.”
Gresham said it’s a powerful thing for him to see this sort of bond between former cast members, because of how much he loves the theater and the work they do there.
“There’s this feeling of family,” Gresham said, “that I don’t think every theater can claim necessarily, but we really see it in a very tangible way. People become necessary to one another, based on the relationships they form here.”
“I can’t tell you how many life-long romances have begun at Arrow Rock.”