Noel Coward’s song “I’ve Been to a Marvelous Party” refers to a wild night on the town filled with fun and more than a wee bit of scandalous behavior. It makes the whole affair sound effortless and easy. One drifts into the party almost by accident and then enjoys the spontaneity of the debauchery that awaits. While the fun and scandal are true of most decent parties, the effortless nature of any event is in the eye of the booze-soaked invitee and not the dozens of planners, chefs, and entertainers who make it possible. Similarly, theatre is also a game of “effort telephone” for all the many factors that mount a production, and the kid in the third row watching all the magic rarely understands the effort involved in entertaining him or her. Theatre costs dollars, and any established company spends just as much time soliciting donations as it does perfecting its artistry. The same can be said of the Celebration Company at The Station Theatre in Urbana. The 41-year-old organization has two major fundraising events per season, a Summer Benefit (capitalized for its swankiness) and a winter mailing campaign. It’s largely through these two fund-raising efforts that the company maintains its train depot facility and finances the upcoming season of productions.
For those behind the scenes, the Summer Benefit is a beast. Planning for the event begins in mid-April, after the company’s selection committee has chosen the summer season. After reviewing the schedule, the committee determines which show will be the “benefit show” (in this year’s case, the delightfully incongruous Evil Dead: The Musical), and a lovely garden party is set for a Saturday afternoon and evening in June. On this date, donors are wined and dined at the home of Celebration Company artistic director Rick Orr and then spirited off to the theatre for a lovely evening of drama and dessert with a bit of bubbly at intermission. (As I write this, having just awakened aching from the effort of last night’s benefit celebration, I can assure you this event is far from effortless, but nonetheless loads of fun.)
After the show and dates are chosen, committees are formed to make an afternoon of elegance before an evening of entertainment. Food needs prepared or secured from generous sponsors; entertainment needs to be lined up; and tables and linens and gardening cleanup all need to happen before the a single guest arrives. As an attendee last year, I drank my wine and ate the lovely summer menu of salads and finger foods with nary a thought for the effort happening behind the curtain. This year, I was at Ground Zero as an event committee member, food and location prep volunteer, and a behind-the-scenes server. For the entire week prior to the event, members of the company spend nights doing prep work. On both Wednesday and Friday evening, a group of devoted company members convened for a chopping party, chopping and dicing and preparing ingredients for the menu, an assembly line of food prep that would make any restaurant owner proud.
Armed with cutlery and theatre stories of shows gone by, Debbie Richardson, Shawna Smith, Martha Mills, Yen Vi Ho, Barbara Ridenour, Sarah Heier, and myself whipped up a feast of fresh veggies, entrees, and breads, while Dan Mann, Thom Miller, Joi Hoffsommer, Kay Holley, Stephanie Swearingen, and Mary Kick worked in other locations to make the magic happen. All of these individuals volunteered their services to continue providing the C-U area with outstanding community theatre, specifically by providing theatre patrons with chicken salad, vegetables, and lots of desserts.
The entire week prior to the Summer Benefit event is spent prepping for it, and committee chair Sarah Heier worked closely with Rick Orr and other board members to secure donations from local businesses to make the event a success. Area businesses showing their support of the arts include: Strawberry Fields, Milo’s Restaurant, Café Zojo, Art Mart, Michael’s Catering, Jodi Prosser, the Toffee Lady, Schnucks in Urbana, Sun Singer Wine and Spirits, Blue Moon Farm, Prairie Fruits Farm, and Piccadilly Beverages, all of whom contribute goods and services.
Finally, the day of the event begins at noon with last minute location prep and then the setting up of tables and linens, arrangement of flowers, and errands to the various businesses to collect the donated items. This year’s event was fortunate to enjoy a cool afternoon and evening, but was also menaced by showers and storms flirting with the area. So all were alerted to both an indoor and outdoor option, and with crossed-fingers we watched the storms clear out and the sun kiss the beautifully landscaped lawn only an hour or so prior to the first guest’s arrival. A carpet of deep green lawn and white flowers surrounded the summery attendees as white and red wine flowed and a delightful array of summery menu items were served to the generous patrons of the theatre.
The attendees were treated to music performed by Alex Zelck, Stephanie Swearingen, and Chris Abbot, and though an occasional raindrop did hit the crowd, the event and the spirits of all present were never dampened. Inside, we filled and refilled serving trays, washed and dried dishes, and then did the whole thing again as over a hundred attendees partied unaware.
The evening concluded for the benefactors with a delightful performance of Evil Dead: The Musical and an intermission of various desserts and refreshments. After all the guests went to the theatre, of course, the volunteers began the task of cleaning up and enjoyed an exhausted toast to a job well done as another successful benefit concluded. Another party over, another summer season underway, and hopefully another year of generous contributions to not just the Station, but also all of Champaign-Urbana’s bounty of arts institutions.