The Freeport Theatre Festival celebrates 30 years
Inside this former machinery barn the magic of theater unfolds.
The Freeport Festival Theatre has been presenting summer shows in this space in the Allegheny- Kiski Valley for three decades.
It’s the mission of actors and married couple Rennick and Marushka Steele.
The theater, nestled on the Steele Farm in Allegheny Township, opens its 30th season on July 12 with “Cauldron of Steel.” The historical drama written and directed by Rennick Steele, tells the tale of immigrants coming to America via Ellis Island. They make the journey to work in the new steel mill in Vandergrift, a “worker’s paradise” conceived and built by George McMurtry.
There are obstacles to reaching “paradise,” however.
The performance reflects the willingness of people to sacrifice everything in search of a better life for their families, says Marushka Steele. “Cauldron” pays homage to those immigrants.
Show time is 7 p.m. on July 12-14, 19-21 and 26-28. Before each production will be a pre-show “Festa d’Italiana” at 6:30 p.m., with special guest, accordionist Joe Lege.
Marushka Steele says they’ve been able to sustain this acting passion for so long because the theater welcomes people from different walks of life and brings them together for a perfect performance.
Her husband agrees. “The theater is a locomotive,” he says. “You either get in it or get run over by it.”
They put together plays in a “fast and furious,” manner, Rennick Steele says. He’s written 21 himself. Over this time, they’ve done 70 plays in 30 years. They rehearse several hours in the evening for only a few weeks.
“We are electricians in a way,” Marushka says. “We illuminate depth and richness of the human condition on stage.”
This arena allows actors and actresses to be someone else. They can play a part where they die on stage and then be resurrected. The stage is the only place you can die on earth and come back to life, Rennick Steele says.
A dedicated couple
The pair started Freeport Theatre Festival 30 years ago. The couple’s love of the arts is showcased in this summer barn theater. They thrive on being able to providing interesting shows, performances where guests are not only entertained but also learn about history and heritage.
When they aren’t rehearsing and planning a show, they raise sheep on the 80-acre farm. Their logo contains two sheep which represent the drama faces. “We are a little crazy and a little goofy to have lasted this long,” Rennick Steele says.
Both are professional New York actors. They met in New York City as drama students part of the off-off- Broadway Alliance, an organization of off-Broadway producers, general managers, venue owners, press agents and marketing personnel dedicated to promoting and supporting off-Broadway theater, according to its website.
Rennick Steele will do a part if he’s needed. His wife is more focused on producing and directing, these days.
They strive to present family-oriented plays. “Seeing history in four dimensions is exciting,” Marushka says. “People are yearning for times that were more simple.”
They don’t use vulgar language and say the plays are historic fiction, based on fact. “Some of the names have been changed to protect the innocent, and the guilty,” Rennick Steele says.
As an actress or actor you have to believe in your part, Marushka Steele says. “I am acting all the time,” she says. “I am dramatic. All the world’s a stage. We hope to inspire people to want to attend other theater productions, and we also hope to develop an interest from other actors and actresses to be part of our shows.”
What was once a machinery barn has become the theater, which has space for an audience of 100. It’s come a long way from folding chairs and gravel floors to a smooth walking surface and seating with cushions. They’ve installed a new roof that absorbs most of the sounds from the rain.
There are ceiling fans and a restroom — no more port-a-potties. Rennick Steele says “inch by inch” they’ve improved the facility. It’s intimate enough that actors and actresses don’t have to use microphones. They use the aisles to create an interactive experience and have receiving lines after shows so guests can meet the actors.
One of the performers
Actor James Neal has been part of the productions for 15 years. He says he’s learned a lot from the Steeles. They’ve taught me if you have a problem with a line you keep moving forward.
“I’ve been part of these plays for so long because I can never say no to them,” said Neal of Ford City. “I am not an actor by trade. I am a retired pastor.”
He says he likes that the plays teach about history as well as the non-traditional setting — “in an old barn on a farm.”
On the playbill
In August, the Freeport Theatre Festival will present “Arsenic & Old Lace,” written by Joseph Kesselring, directed by Thomas Abbott, and featuring Bonnie Cahill and Lisa Camerlo, accomplished comediennes, as the “altruistic” sisters who are intent on vanquishing loneliness with their elixir of home made elderberry wine laced with arsenic, strychnine, and “just a pinch” of cyanide, Marushka Steele says.
The show is at 7 p.m. Aug. 9-11, 16-18, 23-25. Pre-show festivities begin at 6:30 p.m. with an Elderberry Social.
Tickets are $15 for general admission, $12 for seniors and military and $10 for students. There is free parking and it’s handicapped accessible. The Freeport Theatre Festival is located at the Steele Farm in Allegheny Township, 2 miles southeast of Freeport, off Route 356.
Details: 724-295-1934 or Facebook
JoAnne Klimovich Harrop is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact JoAnne at 412-320-7889, [email protected] or via Twitter .