FREEPORT – As the Freeport Players launches a celebration of its 25th anniversary on Thursday, some in the Freeport Community Center audience will recall the first days of an organization that grew out of the town’s Bicentennial Committee.

Sheri Bunting is one of them. Bunting worked early on with the late Barbara Jacks, founder of what first was called Freeport Community Players. Bunting remembers that the Bicentennial Committee was working on the production of “Hold On, Molly!” a musical comedy by Hank Beebe based on the true story of Molly Finney, who had been saved by a local ship’s captain following her capture by Indians.

Jacks produced the play, which was staged at Pine Tree Academy. Half the proceeds went back to her, as Bunting recalls, and Jacks used the money to start the theater group that is today Freeport Players.

“‘Hold On, Molly’ was the seed of the Players,” Bunting said.

Bunting, past president and vice president of the Freeport Players board, said she is proud to have been associated with a community group celebrating a quarter century and looking forward to more.

“We’re still going strong,” she said. “A lot of good members, a lot of good volunteers, a lot of fun doing it.”

According to its website, Freeport Community Players was founded in 1989 “to encourage and promote the theater arts by the development of skills, education, and appreciation in all phases of theater arts for the community; to produce, stage, and present plays, workshops, musicals, music productions, readings, and other performances of a theatrical or civic nature; to present speakers, lecturers, demonstrations, and other programs that relate to theater arts; to do all things necessary, proper, and incidental to these educational and civic pursuits.”

The organization received seed money from the Freeport Community Education at its inception, but since that time has been financially self-sufficient. Funding, according to the group, comes primarily from production proceeds, including sponsorships, in-kind donations and ticket and program ad sales. Those sources are supplemented by private donations.

In 1990, when it was incorporated, Jacks produced “Heaven Can Wait” in the spring. The first musical the group did after that was “Li’l Abner.”

Freeport Community Players began producing three plays a year.

“Amahl and the Night Visitors,” an opera, became the Freeport Community Players’ annual fundraiser until “The WFCP Home Time Radio Hour” took over that role 10 years ago, Bunting said.

Following the debut performance at Pine Tree Academy, the Freeport Players used Freeport High School, and sometimes local churches, for productions until finding a permanent home at the Freeport Performing Arts Center, which adjoins the high school.

Among its varied productions since 1989 are “Carousel,” “Damn Yankees,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Lend Me a Tenor,” “The Sound of Music,” “Cabaret,” “Guys and Dolls,” “Steel Magnolias,” “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” “Man of La Mancha,” “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” “I Hate Hamlet” and “The Mikado.”

As for Bunting, she auditioned with Jacks for “Heaven Can Wait.”

“I had a little bit part in that,” she said. “I did stage managing, directing and anything that needed to be done. My children and my husband became involved, too. Barbara was a wonderful woman.”

At its annual meeting Thursday, which will launch the 25th anniversary, there will be a showcase to promote the new season, which will include a collaboration with Freeport Family Performing Arts for “The Wizard of Oz,” sometime in June.

“It will be a preview of coming attractions,” said Elizabeth Guffey, managing director and the only paid staffer with Freeport Players.

Guffey has been associated with Freeport Players since 1997, when she was a volunteer in the production of “Oliver.”

“From there, I pretty quickly became involved in a leadership level,” said Guffey, who has been president of the board and managing director since 2010.

Guffey, who lives in Pownal, presides over an organization with a modest operating budget of $36,000. Volunteers, obviously, make it work. But by 2010, she said, it was clear that the Players needed a paid staffer. Freeport Community Players remains the official name, but Freeport Players is more commonly used because the former is “a mouthful,” she said.

“I’m responsible for all day-to-day operations – billing, artistic director, recruiting of directors and designers and production of plays,” she said. “When we are running into the two weeks coming up to a play, it pretty much takes up my time.”

Challenges?

“Same as always,” Guffey said. “It’s becoming more and more difficult to get people to come out and see live theater, because there are so many options out there.”

Still, Freeport Players averages an audience of 80-100 for its larger productions, and is hoping for upward of 200 for “The Wizard of Oz,” Guffey said. Smaller plays bring in 50-60 people, she said.

“That’s not bad at all,” Guffey said. “I tell some of our members that 50-60 is pretty much a full house for some of the theaters around here.”

A CLOSER LOOK

The Freeport Players annual meeting and launching of its 25th season is Thursday, Jan. 16, at 6:30 p.m., at the Freeport Community Center, Depot Street. Following a potluck supper, with dessert provided, and brief business meeting, there will be a showcase to promote the new season. Members of the public interested in attending should call 865-2220 or visit www.fcponline.org.

Mike Estes and Jennifer Neal hold hands during the inaugural Freeport Community Players presentation, “Hold On, Molly,” in 1989.  Among the cast of the 1992 musical, “The Music Man” were, from left, front, Jennifer Neal and Randy Roy; and Kim Libby, back left.  John York and Davis Webster, from left, front, and Ethan Sprague and Eric Worthley, as they appeared in “Guys and Dolls,” in 2000.  A photograph of Freeport Community Players founder Barbara Jacks as it appeared on the cover of her Oct. 1, 2005, memorial service. 


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