Edie Baran is the Executive Director of the Beloit Janesville Symphony Orchestra, Community Theater Director/Actress/Educator, and Co-Founder of Spotlight on Kids.
Where were you born?
I was actually born in Germany to German parents. We immigrated to Chicago when I was very young, so I just tell people I’m from Chicago.
What brought you to Rock County?
One of those personal stories about a guy, but that’s a whole other story. I think I was just ready for a change. It was around 1978, and I thought I’d come up here for about a year, but it’s been the longest year of my life!
What did you do when you came here?
I hadn’t gone to college yet, but started working for Forbes Meagher Music in the mall, which is no longer there.
In Chicago I had sold pianos, and I played well enough to sell them. It was interesting, because I had come up here in the summer and my friend took me to the Rock County Fair. Having lived in the inner-city and didn’t know what a fair was. I was blown away, here were all these animals, and the smells!
There was a Forbes Maher trailer Keyboard Caboose. A woman was playing one of those electronic organs, and I thought that was a pretty odd thing to see at a fair. But, by the next summer, I was the one at the fair on the caboose selling electronic organs!
They sent me to about ten different fairs during the summer, which was a great way to see Wisconsin! It was amazing what we sold. And now, I live right across the street from the Rock County Fair, so I’ve come full circle.
How did you become involved in local theater?
When I lived in Chicago, I had been involved in theater groups and worked as a professional mime for a while, which cracks people up because I talk so much! So, when I came here, I looked at the theater world, and there wasn’t a lot here. Janesville Little Theater was established, really one of the only groups around, and Janesville Presents did all the big concerts. The Beloit Janesville Symphony was here, of course.
Gary Lenox and Pat Thom had started the group, Stage One, which was just getting off the ground at U-Rock. So, I did a show with them and met a lot of people. Then, I started doing work with Stage One at U-Rock, where I pretty much acted and did some behind the scenes work. That was my beginning with the art world here.
Then, in the mid-eighties, I decided to go to college and attended UW Madison to study Theater and Education. When I did my student teaching, I had decided that I would not become a high school drama teacher. I ended up getting a job at U-Rock in 1989-90. For a few years, I was the theater manager and worked with Mark Weinberg, the theater professor there. I did technical work, and really fell in love with lighting.
How did you start Spotlight on Kids?
At U-Rock, we put on a children’s show written by Ken Lonnquist. It was the first show in Rock County where we bussed in kids to the theater. We had adults performing and it was wonderful. Stage One was not that interested in creating a kids’ group, so that’s when I started Spotlight on Kids.
It was the early nineties, and I had no idea if we would last more than one summer. Then, in 1993, I did my favorite musical, “The Wizard of Oz”. We literally turned people away at the door! This was when the theater at U-Rock was about the only theater around, outside of the high schools. We were very lucky that we got to be in residence there. Mark Weinberg was very good about having my shows compliment his throughout the season. We also had a studio at the Olde Towne Mall. We had a lot of educational programs down there.
What I did with Spotlight on Kids was kind of revolutionary for this area. It wasn’t adults performing for kids, it was kids performing for kids. During the summer, we always did a multigenerational show where the parents, grandparents, everyone could get involved. But, during the school year, we did programs at the schools or where kids could be bussed to the theater. Those were kids performing for kids. That changes everything.
I was always careful about the content of the shows. I wanted shows of substance. Once we did a wonderful program called “Doors” about a kid dealing with divorce. Who isn’t dealing with divorce on some level? Maybe it isn’t your own parents, but it might be your best friend’s parents who are going through it. Theater is an outlet or people. You can talk about your own life through the characters. We had a show called “Step on a Crack” which was about step-parents.
We also wrote a lot of our own material. Laurie Mitchell and Fran Peyer were very instrumental in the early days. Fran and I workshopped our own musical based on “Princess and the Pea” all about being sensitive to bullying and such.
A lot of people were hired while I was there, professional actors and directors. I had people from APT to come in and do workshops. Everything was so education focused. We were also active in the community. I remember businesses having ribbon cuttings and our kids would sing. We were involved in a lot of things. We started the Halloween Walk at Rotary Gardens. They were so supportive of us!
We researched ghost stories from around the world, stories no one had heard of, and we had a mix of adults and kids doing the stories. We did the real history of witches, who they were, healers, doctors, midwives, etc. We made it entertaining, yet as educational as possible.
One day I got this idea. Here we are, the City of Parks … so for two summers, we had Tuesdays in the Parks with Spotlight on Kids! We went to all the neighborhood parks, those little parks where you have to walk between two houses to get into them, we went to Rockport Park and Palmer Park, and Camden’s outdoor stage. People would come with their picnic baskets and the kids would tell stories.
We did Oliver in 2004, when JPAC first opened. We were one of the first theater groups to use the stage. It was so exciting to see JPAC become this beautiful, incredible performing space!
I left SOK in late 2006. They’re still around and have since become a community theater.
Tell me about some of your other community theater work.
I started doing after school programs in a lot of the elementary schools. The Janesville Foundation jumped on board and created a Community Connections grant for quite a few years. This was sometime in the 1990’s. They would pair someone with a teacher in the schools to do an arts program or other type of program. They would often call me in to work with the kids. It was wonderful, so thanks to the Janesville Foundation for that!
We kept our school program at UW Rock County where kids were bussed in. We did “The Velveteen Rabbit” one year. I had three casts of kids and we did 3 shows a day. Over 5,000 kids saw that one show! Thank God that I had three casts, because it was during flu seasons and kids kept getting sick, and I kept having to pull kids from the other casts to cover for them.
In the summer of 1999, Rotary Gardens hired me to produce and direct “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. “The Grumpies”, the old guys who volunteer at the gardens, built a stage and we had Shakespeare, live in the park. The following summer, in the year 2000, we did “A Comedy of Errors”. That show needed identical twins, and I happened to still have Alex and Nathan Burkart here in town, so that was awesome getting them.
But, it was so labor intensive for the gardens, so we had to back off. People came from all over to see this! We had people coming up from Chicago. I remember talking to one guy in the audience who had come up from Chicago and he said, “You have to do this every year! In Chicago, it’s way more expensive. AND I got to park my car right here and walk up!” We had an outdoor brunch and a tour through the gardens. They were blown away by the beautiful setting. I’d personally love to bring that back, Shakespeare in the gardens, so I need to talk to the new director there.
I did a show called “Quilters” for the Rock County Historical Society, which was performed at JPAC. It’s a musical based on true stories of women who settled the prairie, who went through such a difficult life. Our set was like roughed out beams of a barn, and the women wore period costumes. We also had a historical exhibit to go along with the show. I had the best group of women in it, including Cameron Pickering, who was wonderful. They started every song and scene with a quilt square. The Rock County Quilter’s Guild made them. We all learned to quilt, too, and I can barely sew anything! That particular quilt we raffled away after the show.
The show that I’m most proud of, which was also for RCHS, was a play called “Working”, which was a musical based on Studs Terkel’s book. When I did this show, I changed the script and added personal stories of General Motors workers. We did Doris Thom’s story, the first woman who worked on the GM line, also Neil Dupree’s story on being a pastor, and Ron Brown, community actor and director, did his own story on being a bread delivery man. A teen actor collected and wrote stories of teenagers working. Around that time, GM had closed, and this girl wrote about her friend’s dad who had to find work down in Texas. We had a grant from the Wisconsin Humanities Council, which helped us to have a traveling exhibit. Again, it was more than entertaining, because it was so educational.
Two winters ago, I did a program on Alzheimer’s Disease at JPAC, using stories of local folks suffering from the disease. Some of the people actually told their own stories on the stage, otherwise, I had actors portray them.
These kinds of shows are my favorite because they’re meaningful to me.
Tell me about your work with the Beloit Janesville Symphony Orchestra.
Currently, I’m the Executive Director of BJSO. Basically, that means I help move music stands into the truck and pass out programs.
I had known about BJSO, and had attended their concerts and supported them. But then, it seemed like they weren’t doing a lot. I had known Rob Tomaro, their Musical Director, for a long time. He asked me if I would come on board. They had gone through a rough time for a year or so. At the time I was working part-time in the schools doing arts integration, but figured I could do that, as well. So, that’s how I got involved.
At first, I didn’t know what the heck I was doing. Producing a concert is so different than producing a musical. I thought it was the same skill set … but there was a lot to learn. It was fascinating and I fell in love with it. I really did!
When I started recruiting people to come back, they were hesitant. They weren’t sure if we were really going to stay. But I said, “YES, we’re back and we’re STAYING!” On one level, it felt like we were starting all over again. Rob Tomaro is a wonderful Musical Director. I really respect his work with the symphony.
Our mission for the first year was to get the symphony up and running again, book performances, to get the orchestra back. The musicians play all over the place, in Madison, Rockford or Milwaukee. I’d say there is a significant number from the Rock County area, but sometimes we bring someone up from Chicago, or hire a pianist if we can’t find someone.
We had a really good first season. And now we’re in full swing with our second season. We’re calling it, “Keep the Music Alive”. We’re also getting some of our sponsors and donors back. It’s taking time, because people weren’t sure how long we’d stick around. Well, we are sticking around, so please come back to the symphony!
We just had our Holiday Pops. We had David Bitter from Theatre Unlimited, Inc. narrate “The Night Before Christmas”. Santa was there, too! I actually got a Facebook message from Santa while I was at a coffee shop, asking if we wanted him to come out.
BJSO is currently working with Theatre Unlimited, Inc. on a concert presentation of a musical for our 2018-19 Season. We’ll announce that sometime soon.
All the local media have been SO supportive of us … The Beloit Daily News, The Stateline News, The Gazette, The Messenger, the radio stations, they’ve been so supportive of the arts and BJSO.
I think it’s incredible that Rock County has a symphony orchestra! Sometimes we take for granted what we have in our own backyard. It’s absolutely amazing. It’s a gem in our backyard. We need to hang on to them!
Do you plan to continue performing in theater?
Yes! I have both feet in the education arts world and the symphony world. It’s so fun!
Recently, I was in JPAC’s new five-person improvisational comedy troupe. It was hilarious! We had no clue what this would be like, but we crowded ninety-two people in the gallery space, which is, for that space, huge. People loved it, the audience seemed to really enjoy it!
What’s your next project?
I’m going to Florida! That’s my personal project.
As a volunteer, I work with the Diversity Action Team and we just got done with the Martin Luther King program at Blackhawk Tech. We don’t have anything in the works right now, but I have some ideas that I’d like to pull together.
We’ll continue our JPAC improv group. When do we stop playing? I see it in middle school, where kids don’t have to take the arts anymore. I think art classes should be mandatory all through high school. I think we should give adults a chance to play. Once I did a teacher’s workshop at conference time called, “Caution, Adults at Play!” I’d love to do something like that, maybe at JPAC, for adults.
What changes have you seen in the arts community over the years?
I’ve seen this area grow in the arts, especially in opportunities for kids. It’s amazing. When I look back, at one time, UW Rock County was the cultural center. But, it wasn’t centrally located. Once JPAC opened, that really changed the whole arts scene.
Right after I formed Spotlight on Kids, Jim Tropp formed Theatre Unlimited. So, we jumped from having only Janesville Little Theater, to having several theater companies! When Diane Pillard was at UW Rock County, she connected with the director of Rotary Gardens to start the Halloween Walk, so the idea of doing the arts out in the community also grew. Our community also went from only one dance studio to three or four different groups here today!
When we started Spotlight on Kids, the schools were so supportive of our productions! Our group was different than other children’s theater groups because a lot of them are adult actors, but we had kids performing for kids. And I remember when JPAC opened, they started some children’s programming, which was wonderful. JPAC started fall and spring programming for children in the area.
Do you have some advice for theater groups in the area?
We shoot ourselves in the foot when we don’t cooperate on theater productions. We need to work together more. When I was writing grants, I found that when I collaborated with other groups on a project, we would receive better grants.
It only helps to collaborate. Nathan Burkart, Executive Director at JPAC, is very big on collaborating. During this Local Talent Month, he has brought together three groups; Theatre Unlimited, Inc., Stage One, and Janesville Little Theater. They’re all coming together to perform their One Acts at JPAC. It’s just wonderful!
If you could play any role, what would it be?
There is a wonderful play that was written around the rise of fascism in Germany called “The Madwoman of Chaillot”. It’s a poetic satire by French dramatist Jean Giraudoux. I would want to be the Madwoman!
There’s also a more-well known play called “The Laramie Project” It is a play by Moisés Kaufman about the 1998 murder of University of Wyoming gay student, Matthew Shepard, in Laramie, Wyoming. I’d love to audition for a role in that.
If you could direct any show, what would it be?
There’s a one-act play written by American playwright, Margaret Edson, called “Wit”. It deals with a woman who is dying of stage four ovarian cancer. I’d love to direct that.
What is it about the Rock County area that keeps you here?
Being in this community gave me the opportunity to do the things I did. When I first came here, I was just different. I’d come from a big city, I’d had a lot of experience in the performing arts. But, the people of Rock County were very receptive to my ideas, which was great! I could not have started and grown Spotlight on Kids in Chicago the way I did here. People were so incredibly supportive.
When you become involved, you just start becoming a part of the community. I have found Rock County to be very open. They’ve embraced me and my crazy programming that I’ve done through the years. It’s easy to become a part of this community.
To the people who badmouth Janesville, I say, “Get out there!” Volunteer. There are so many organizations to volunteer for; HealthNet, ECHO, a million arts organizations. If you don’t feel that you’re a part of this community, it’s your own fault.
“We shoot ourselves in the foot when we don’t cooperate on theater productions. We need to work together more.” ~ Edie Baran