Life-defining tradition of community theatre remains strong

Buffie Main sat in the dimly lit seating area of the Vermillion High School Performing Arts Center Thursday evening, July 5, watching 11-year-old Briseis Schnack perfect her lines and her singing as Annie for the upcoming production of the Broadway musical of the same name.

The stage of the Vemillion High School Performing Arts Center is filled with young people as they rehearse a song from the Broadway musical "Annie," which will be offered by the Vermillion Community Theatre this weekend. (Photo by David Lias)

The memories came flooding back, Buffie said. "I'm trying not to mouth the lines as they are being spoken," she said, as the actors took a short break.

Buffie Main, who played Annie 29 years ago, took advantage of the opportunity to watch the troupe of young actors and actresses, including Vermillion's "latest" Annie, Briseis Schnack, rehearse for this weekend's production of the Broadway musical. (Photo by David Lias)

Twenty-nine years ago this summer, as a 10-year-old, Buffie herself appeared on stage in a Vermillion community production of "Annie."

The 1983 performance was held in the Warren M. Lee Fine Arts Center on the University of South Dakota campus.

"I am back in town visiting, and my mom mentioned that the VCT is doing "Annie," and Jen (Dickenson) is directing, and I used to direct Jen a bit," Buffie said. "I thought it would be fun to come enjoy a rehearsal."

Buffie, daughter of Frank and Mary Main, is a Vermillion native, and a 1991 graduate of Vermillion High School. She left the community after high school to continue her education. She returned to Vermillion in 2001 to work on her master's degree at the University of South Dakota.

"When I was here, I directed Jen in some community theatre," she said. "I directed 'Christmas Carol' and 'Godspell,' and I think Jen was in both of those."

Today, Buffie is putting her graduate degree in public administration to good use, serving as a health care administrator in Boise, ID. She also serves as an artistic director for a theatre company in Boise.

At about the time that Buffie graduated from VHS, community theatre began a decline in Vermillion. It returned to its robust self approximately 10 years ago, thanks to a dedicated group of volunteers who have made sure the show always goes on here.

"I think it's fantastic," she said.

Buffie believes she was 4 or 5 years old when she received her first taste of Vermillion community theatre, appearing in "The King and I."

"The first play that I ever saw was 'Oliver,' which was presented by that same (local) group," she said. "There was a big cast … really intergenerational. After my mom and dad took me to 'Oliver,' they would not have been able to keep me away (from participating). I was drawn to it, and have been my entire life. I've been mesmerized by the theatre.

"I joke with people that I was raised in a church basement, and backstage," Buffie said. "The arts are so important, because they gave me the facilitation skills that I have today. And back in the day, I don't know how they (the Vermillion theatre participants) did it, but it was really an intergenerational group of people. They had a ball; they had so much fun, and so they modeled that.

"They modeled how to have fun in a really healthy way. It was such an amazing learning environment, and I found myself totally immersed in this cultural experience as a 10-year-old, and I didn't even know it," she said.

Briseis Schnack, who will take the stage as Annie in next weekend's performance of the musical, is having a somewhat similar encounter, judging by her assessment of her experiences during this whirlwind summer.

She enjoys the fact that she is one of approximately 40 youth involved in this summer's musical. Briseis also appreciates having the chance to work with grown-ups from her home community.

A plus is many of those adults have years of experience being involved with Vermillion Community Theatre.

"I think with adults, the experience of being in a play is you work harder," Briseis said. "With kids, it's a lot of work, but you also have fun and you're able to talk and everything.

"There is a difference being in a play with adults than in being in one with just kids. With adults, you want to be able to learn more, because they're older than you and they know about things better that they can teach you. When you're together with a lot of kids, you're all learning it together, so it's not hard," she said.

Buffie said that even today, when she returns home to Vermillion, she is still referred to by some community members as "Annie."

"I think that playing that role certainly defined my path," she said. "Believe me, it completely shaped everything."

Last year, the Vermillion Community Theatre presented "My Fair Lady," which unfortunately offered few roles for young people. To make up for that shortcoming, it also sponsored the production of "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," to give local youth some summer stage experience.

The stage in the VHS Performing Arts Center will be filled with local youth once again next weekend, participating in the production of "Annie."

"It really defines Vermillion as a community that invests in its kids," Buffie said. "If I think of all of the casts I was in during the past 30 years, and where in the world all of those people are, I think that their base skills in how they understand community and how they communicate happened through community theatre. It's pretty extraordinary.

"I work in the arts, and in health care, and you find ways to blend aspects of your life together, but I couldn't do the job that I do without my arts experience," she said. "What's so cool about Vermillion Community Theatre is they continue to emphasize that it is a family and community endeavor."

Most valuable to Buffie was how community theatre in Vermillion brought people of all ages together.

"That blend of generations – it teaches you so much. It's different from being in an all-kid production. It raises the level of professionalism and experience, because you're learning from the adults around you," Buffie said. "It teaches young people how to talk to adults and learn from adults at such a young age."

This summer's Vermillion Community Theatre production of "Annie" will be held Friday, July 20, Saturday, July 21 and Monday, July 23 at 7 p.m. along with a matinee on Sunday, July 22 at 2:30 p.m. All performances will be at the Vermillion High School Performing Arts Center.

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