Original article published in the Mower County Independent, Thursday, December 1, 2022. Reprinted with permission and gratitude.
By Gretchen Mensink Lovejoy
It’s been “curtains” for BCT for half a century, and the incredulity of its lifespan is in what happens in the opening and closing.
“If someone had told me that it would be alive and well in 50 years, I wouldn’t have believed it!” declared longtime Spring Valley resident Debi Neville, now of Rochester.
As she was upon BCT’s 40th anniversary a decade ago, Neville was incredulous that the theatre company she founded while just three years out of high school was still in existence, producing plays throughout the year that engage people of all ages and interests who may not necessarily have a future on New York City’s Broadway but are certainly willing to act out boldly on Spring Valley’s Broadway.
At that time, she said, “I can’t believe it. Never in my wildest dreams did I think it would not only still be around this long, but it’s flourishing. I am so proud of the people who made it happen. It is an incredible group on the board, and the talent from the area is wonderful, dedicated, giving.” And she felt, and likely still does—as BCT finishes its 50th anniversary year by presenting, in cooperation with the Spring Valley Chamber of Commerce, its 17th annual Christmas on Historic Broadway town celebration this weekend, Saturday, Dec. 3 –that people might be surprised that a little town like Spring Valley has a long history of community theatre, that “it’s the longest self-supporting community theatre in a town of this size in Minnesota,” operating on ticket sales and donations, sans subsidies from the City or other organizations.
“It has been a major part of my life and that of our family. It is so rewarding to hear from past cast and crew and learn what it has meant to them. It is very rewarding to learn that many are involved in theatre and performance in some way in their present lives.”
She has explained, “BCT was formed in the summer of 1972, and our first performance was in the old movie theatre downtown. Joe Mlinar allowed us to perform on the old vaudeville stage–I wish it was still there– and our first ticket price was 50 cents.” She recounted that she started the company simply because “I loved theatre!” She continued,
“The only thing before BCT was the junior and senior class play at school, and perhaps a one-act competition. I had been bitten by the ‘theatre bug’ when my older sister was in high school plays, and I read her lines with her. Then I did theatre in high school and college and wanted to be a theatre major but dropped out to get married and move back to Spring Valley. I needed it, and I thought others might enjoy it as well.”
Because there was no theatre company to join when Neville returned to Spring Valley, she “just asked for a few donations, got $150, bought scripts, and away we went.”
The infant Brave Community Theatre took on “Roaring Twenties Scrapbook” as its first production, sporting a cast of 15 women to fill the roles, “so we cast women in the men’s roles, sort of a reversal of the ancient Greeks.” The dressing room was parked behind the old State Theatre, formerly located in what is now  one of Spring Valley’s fitness centers, and it was a mad dash out of the motor home to be onstage on time.
True to form, the company traveled…just around Spring Valley’s performance neighborhood – including the high school, old elementary school on South Broadway, parks and even Forestville – and it evolved from an idea with some direction to a non-profit organization with a board of directors, meaning that it had become “an established theatre able to do large and small shows, draw people from the area to perform, do original works and bring people in from a tri-state area or more.”
BCT has produced at least 80- 100 shows and “helped or sponsored about a dozen more.” Neville cited that “Annie” or “Fiddler on the Roof” may have had the largest casts and most elaborate costuming and sets, and she suspects that the smallest show may have been “A View From Up Here,” a Christmas show that she wrote for one of the first Christmas on Historic Broadway celebrations that BCT co-hosted.
“Some of the most memorable for me are ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ because it is the only show I, my children, husband and mother were in, ‘Robber Bridegroom,’ ‘Annie,’ ‘Night of January 16,’ ‘The Remarkable Mr. Pennypacker,’ ‘Blithe Spirit,’ ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ Hello, Dolly!,’ ‘Plaza Suite,’ ‘Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,’ ‘Tied to the Tracks,’ ‘Sweet Charity,’ ‘Ten Nights in a Barroom,’…so many fun ones, a big variety of silly, sad and serious.” The board chose to reprise “Paint Your Wagon” as its 40th anniversary show “because it had been over 30 years since I directed it, it holds the record for the largest audience, it’s a terrific show, funny, has super songs, and is not done over and over by other theatre companies.” She added, “Also, we chose it because Laurie Helmers said she would direct it, and it takes a strong cast and director. I also think the size of our undertakings, like the big musicals – ‘Paint Your Wagon’ being a perfect example – is also rather astounding. Whether you are a ‘theatre person’ or not, it is quite an achievement.”
She continued, “BCT has also produced a number of original scripts. Many were written by me, but others have approached BCT about an original piece, and we are open to doing that, taking a chance. It is a rare theatre that can do that. In the past, we have taken the show on the road, performed dinner theatres – also a rarity – and done a variety show. The choice of shows has been met, for the most part, with enthusiasm. But seeing friends and family onstage is the big draw. Not much compares with the talent and humor and drama which is presented…it amazes people over and over. Big thrill for all of us to get compliments and the look of wonder and astonishment or hear the applause and laughter.”
BCT’s founder credits family participation as one of the keys to its survival and thriving, sharing that the list of families acting or providing technical support is “just huge,” and “with each show, the group becomes a family in itself.” In 2012, she cited, “There are people I worked with 40 years ago who still stay in touch…it’s awesome.” She stated that “the number of people who have performed onstage for BCT and have continued in some manner, shape or form in theatre…it is overwhelming… and the families that are now seeing third generations on stage…are my personal reward.” “We have more people volunteering for all roles and jobs, and a fact BCT is proud of is that we have given new, inexperienced people the opportunity to act or direct. Many continue on that road…some have gone on to make their living in theatre or a related activity. An important fact is that people have performed with BCT or volunteered in another way and have gone on to get degrees in theatre. Several have started community theatres in other areas, and people have become a professional in some aspect of theatre, like Todd Copeman, Gary Johnson, Jennifer Carlson, Mary Lindsay, and more.”
Neville acknowledged that even as BCT had flourished, it faced challenges that in turn forced its creative growth, such as “space – we began at the movie theatre on Broadway, and we’ve been at the grade school, high school, community center, the old Legion, performed in the park and such, and also, some shows, we have had a heck of a time getting enough cast members – particularly males, and had to change shows, rewrite, or been really creative. Sometimes we have struggled to engage musicians, but we have been so blessed to have strong musical talent who are generous with their support…not usual for the arts. Money has been an issue, but we’ve made it through.” Money is certainly always a worry, even though actors and directors are unpaid. “I’ve written grants through the years to help us. The Southeastern Minnesota Arts Council (SEMAC) has been a source for the grants, and in fact, we received one for ‘Wizard of Oz.’ There have been a couple businesses we have turned to many times, too, and they have aided us. But by and large, we subsist on ticket sales and hope it covers expenses. Sometimes we have had volunteers put up their own money for the next show.”
Nearly every single BCT show has gone on, even in the face of no spare change, rain, blizzard or temporarily blinded lead actresses–as was the young lady portraying “Annie” in the namesake play. However, the global COVID pandemic caused the company to cancel its planned 2020 production of “The Wizard of Oz,” but that simply made way for the classic story to be produced this year as an Ag Days anniversary show. “We cancelled ‘The Wizard of Oz’ and other performances, as did everybody, but we’re no worse for the wear.”
Board members who helped BCT resume production and mark its 50th anniversary included Neville as president, Jeff Thauwald , who “has been on the board forever…and still serves as a major force behind BCT” and who made the best “Cowardly Lion,” Megan Hammon, Rob Johnson, Amanda Geer and Julie Mlinar, “and we always have a drama club student – this year’s was Josie Sanford…the addition of a Kingsland Drama Club member has been a terrific asset because fresh ideas and energy and the involvement of younger people was much needed.”
She noted that past board members include Thauwald, Carol Gross, Maria (Kujawa) Klingsheim, Linda Niemeyer, Sharanne Calabrese, her late husband Andrew “Pat” Neville, Rita Hartert, Suzie Stier Hansen, Sarah Kohn, Jack Blink and Novella Meisner. “Our strong board of directors takes things in stride. They have dedication to the purpose of BCT…all are dedicated to bringing the community another fine year of productions. Our 50th anniversary is a testament to the dedication and talent we have been able to maintain. Sometimes I’m not sure the community still knows what to think of us – many people shake their heads and wonder, ‘How do you do that?’ meaning they are amazed that we can pull off what we do…they come to see us, volunteer for ticket-taking, sewing, painting, singing, tech support and more. There were many people and obstacles that initially presented roadblocks, but we stayed persistent and proved we could do it. I also want to say that we had a couple board members who served tirelessly for 40 years – Carol Gross, who is still our historian, and Rita Hartert, who still wrangles volunteers… and Jeffrey Thauwald. My gosh, what a labor of love!”
BCT has, through lending props, advice, set pieces, equipment and costumes to the school district, returned the favors that the community has contributed because the company attempts to foster “community coordination and cooperation,” and as she pointed out several years ago, presenting a stage show draws visitors to Spring Valley and the surrounding area, providing economic opportunities for local restaurant owners, gas stations that employ local residents, and even results in an occasional overnight motel stay, “showcasing our community. Most recently, BCT’s thespians took part in the Spring Valley Chamber of Commerce’s annual meeting, during which Thauwald announced, “We’re going to be acting out what some of the local businesses do, and you as our audience have to guess the names of the businesses.”
Perhaps, as the founder, one of the hardest lessons Neville learned was how to let go of BCT and let the shows go on without her direction after she and Pat moved to Rochester in 2000. “For 25 years at least, I did most of the directing, and I always hesitated to ask people to help with costumes, publicity, et cetera, so I did a lot. My own shortsightedness! When we moved to Rochester 22 years ago, I didn’t know how BCT would fare and hoped for the best. You know what? It’s better than ever! It’s grown and expanded and spread its wings to include a great many more talented volunteers in all aspects. I look forward to it continuing growing by having more people involved! We’re on social media–we have a website and Facebook and an e-mail address, or I get calls since I’m listed as a contact person, and I get calls now and then asking, ‘What’s next?’ People can contact us via those, let someone know that is involved, and they will forward to the board.”
Several years ago, Neville established that her wish for her theatre company is a simple one, even after taking the initiative to pursue her ambitions, start that tiny stage company to make Spring Valley the town of under 3,000 in which over 1,000 people in 50 years have either donned tights and sung a solo or built a barroom for the Fandango Girls to can-can in. “It is a proven fact that the quality of life is increased substantially by the arts, and I know that is true of BCT. People remark about looking forward to the next production. They want their children involved…it makes for a better life. I hope it goes on long after my voice is but an echo. My dream would be that it serves the area for many, many years to come…so when the lights are off and the curtain is closed, I remember the show and the applause, of course, but it’s the individuals and their accomplishments that are the best for me. BCT is about people, and that’s why we are celebrating 40 years!”
And upon the half-century anniversary of the very same theatre company, she concurred with her past statements, saying, “BCT is something Spring Valley should be very proud of. Its quality, longevity, self-sustaining performing arts is outstanding. It draws people from miles around, including all ages, all talents, and does so with pride. A true treasure that is here because of and for the pleasure of participants and audiences.”
Courtesy of the Mower County Independent, 135 E Main St. LeRoy, MN 55951, (507)-324-5325