A young mother who works in insurance, Rockefeller Chapel’s caroler, the president of an independent opera company, and an actor who is paid by the CPD to attack their officers (for training purposes): all gather on the stage of the second floor of University Church to rehearse for their upcoming show, The Musical of Musicals. These are the Hyde Park Community Players, a diverse group of Hyde Park residents of all different ages and backgrounds who share a love of performance and community.
“I was just the idiot who went around Hyde Park posting flyers saying, ‘Hyde Park needs a community theater, do you agree?’” says the troupe’s founder, Paul Baker. A University of Chicago graduate student turned homeschool teacher for his daughters, Baker was inspired to create the theater group by the love of acting that he shared with his youngest daughter, Rachel. After he first posted flyers around the neighborhood five years ago, Baker was surprised to see half a dozen community members attend the first meeting, enthusiastic and impatient to begin planning their first show. In the last five years, the group has steadily grown in ambition and size. The group of roughly forty has tackled Shakespeare, Stoppard, and now a full-length musical—The Musical of Musicals, with full choreography, five acts, and musical accompaniment.
Though it has only existed for five years, and it has no permanent performance space or steady source of funding, the theater group has thrived and expanded, fueled by a strong loyalty and Baker’s tireless work and dedication.
Baker explains, “Part of what allowed me to put so much into the players was that I was unemployed at the time. And very much hand to mouth. Eventually that started to become impossible.” Baker now works at Powell’s and has a less intense role in the Players—the group is now self-sufficient enough to not rely wholly on its founder.
The raw energy of the Players stems in large part from its acceptance of all who approach them. In each conversation with the Players, it is clear that what keeps the group alive and flourishing is the friendship and warmth of the members and the freedom to create without a sense of competition or pressure. Baker is adamant that “this is a community that serves a lot of different kinds of people. If we decided that we wanted to do a professional kind of theater, a lot of those people would not be able to participate. And that would be a shame.”
A large number of members in the group decided to join because they acted in high school and missed it, or sought community, or had never tried acting before and craved the experience. Baker describes the all-inclusive nature of the group and the focus on each member’s personal experience rather than the financial success of the shows as true to the origins of the art. “If we go back to the roots of drama, it’s always this kind of thing,” he says. “It’s a community expressing itself by getting together and pretending to be someone else with other people, in that same larger community, watching them.”
Though Shonte Wesson, an internal customer service agent for an insurance company, works two jobs and has a young child, she still found time to star in the Players’ production of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia. On her decision to join the group she says, “I was very passionate about acting as a child, and I just sort of gave it up to be an adult.” Though her life is full of responsibilities, she appreciates the Players’ warmth, understanding, and care for its performers.
“It’s very inclusive, and that’s why I love being here; they’re tolerant of her,” she says, gesturing to her four-year-old daughter skipping around and laughing by the props closet, wearing a bubblegum pink outfit.
Two of the most dedicated members of the group are Michele and Dan Heinz. Michele joined the players after seeing a flyer calling for actors posted on a mailbox. Remembering, she says, “I thought, ‘Hey, that seems like a great way to meet people, make friends.’ I did theater in high school. I was kind of always on the outskirts, the bit roles and stuff like that, but liked the camaraderie.” After her first performance, her husband decided to join as well, despite their impending move to Baltimore for Dan’s new tenure track position, and the two were cast together in Picasso at the Lapin Agile. “So we moved there,” Heinz recounts with a laugh, “and we just missed the Players so much that we came back. It’s a good group, it’s home for us.”
Clark Webber has been in four of the group’s productions. An actor who has had bit roles in TV shows based in Chicago, he is also involved in training CPD officers in a program that simulates interaction and confrontation with citizens with mental health problems. Webber enjoys being a part of the players: “It’s one of the better groups I’ve done. There’s no divas here.”
A full set of characters, the members that comprise the theater group repeatedly described the sense of community they experienced, the belonging they found, and the bond formed by creating a product together. Says Heinz, “Doesn’t matter who has a PhD or who just got out of high school, and for a lot of people you never really know. It’s just about what you do on stage. I wanted that.”