August 2008

May River Theatre Company: A Community Treasure

Author: Teresa Fitzgibbons

Have you ever wanted to take to the stage and belt out a ballad, deliver a dramatic soliloquy, or ham it up with a little slapstick? Thanks to Ed and Jodie Dupuis, the lights of Broadway are shining upon Bluffton. The couple founded the May River Theatre Company—the area’s only amateur theatre—and gave Lowcountry performers a venue to showcase their talents.

“We’ve gotten so much support from the town and community as a whole,” said Ed. “This year we’re celebrating our seventh season and 25th show.”

Their success is not surprising considering the Dupuis’ backgrounds in both theatre and business. Jodie trained as a dancer in New York with Ballet Russe and with Eugene Loring at The American School of Dance in Los Angeles. As a teen, she performed on a television show in her native Houston; by 19 she was in New York, where success came quickly. She was one of only four dancers selected from a pool of over a thousand after auditioning for her first show.

“The first show I got was the Broadway touring company of Can-Can” Jodie recalled. “And I went from that job to the next; I felt pretty good about it.” For the next several years, Jodie performed both on and off Broadway and toured nationally with shows such as Damn Yankees and Pajama Game.

It was while touring with Pajama Game that Jodie met Ed, then a college student who went on to a successful career in building materials sales and marketing. The two have been married 50 years and have two sons. Though Jodie put her professional career on hold while raising the couple’s sons and moving frequently for Ed’s career, she remained active in local and regional theatres. At one point, while living on Skidaway Island in the 1970s, she was the first choreographer for the Hilton Head Playhouse, later Dunnagan’s Alley. She also formed her own company called J. Dupuis and Company which toured dinner theatres in Florida. Jodie was involved in children’s theatre and finding talent for beauty queens. One point of personal pride was her role as artistic director for Visual Effects, a deaf performing company based out of Athens, Georgia.

The artistic side of the May River Theatre Company is obviously Jodie’s arena, while Ed’s business acumen has given the company something very unusual for an amateur arts organization—financial stability.

“We don’t have an endowment or people underwriting our shows,” explained Ed. “We’ve had a couple of grants from the town and some contributions, but mainly we rely on ticket sales and advertising. Every show we’ve performed has sold between 1,200-1,800 tickets. Fortunately, we’ve been able to operate primarily in the black.”

“Ed Dupuis is the businessperson every arts association needs,” said Bluffton artist and former town council member, Jacob Preston. “And Jodie is incredible at putting shows together and tailoring them for the local audience.”

Such shows encompass everything from family-friendly musicals such as Wizard of Oz, Music Man, and Once Upon a Mattress to classic comedies and dramas such as Cabaret, Can-Can, Jekyll and Hyde, and Sly Fox. The theatre has also staged more obscure shows and original productions. The first show, Thank You Mr. Loesser, was written by Jodie. A few of the Dupuis’ favorites include Li’l Abner, Nunsense, Sweet Charity, 70 Girls 70, and Smokey Joe’s Café. “I’m endlessly impressed,” said Preston. “May River Theatre Company’s shows compare favorably with equity performances, where production and ticket costs are much higher.”

For years Bluffton had boasted a thriving arts community, and while the area has several professional theatres, opportunities for amateur actors were few and far between. After retiring to Moss Creek in 2000, Ed and Jodie decided to do something about the lack of amateur venues. “I literally got up one morning and said ‘Why don’t we start our own theatre?’ And we did,” said Ed. “It was like baking a cake from scratch with no recipe. We just tried to do what seemed logical, what seemed fair, and what seemed right.”

After incorporating as a not-for-profit, the Dupuis had to find a place to perform. They saw the potential in Bluffton’s Ulmer Auditorium, a former middle school auditorium. The Town of Bluffton had the foresight to see the potential in the May River Theatre Company. An arrangement was agreed upon: in exchange for use of the theatre, any profits generated over and above operating expenses would go toward improving the auditorium. “We’re so fortunate to have had the support of the Town of Bluffton,” said Ed. “Between theatre cash flow, contributions, and grants from the Town, we’ve been able to put about $150,000 into Ulmer Auditorium.”

The Ulmer Auditorium has since undergone a transformation with over 200 new seats, new flooring and carpet, improved HVAC, an expanded backstage area, painting, a new stage curtain, and a $12,000 sound system. The Town of Bluffton reaps the benefits too as the auditorium is still used as a community facility.

The May River Theatre Company gives back to the community in other ways as well. Two years ago, Ed and Jodie began “donating” the final dress rehearsal to a local charity. They allow the charity to print and sell tickets at their own price and keep whatever revenue is earned.

“The most rewarding thing over and above the satisfaction we get personally by staying involved with the arts and business is that this is our contribution to the community,” said Ed.

It’s a contribution that the community appreciates, and it shows. This season the May River Theatre Company is celebrating seven years of entertaining the Lowcountry. Their next show, their 25th, is Sugar. The season will continue with The Musicians of Bremen, by islander Al Balkin, being performed around the holidays. The season will close with?? I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change?? in February.

“Successful communities have neighborhood pride, strong community development, a creative sense of expression, and a commitment to stewardship of the place,” said Bluffton Mayor Hank Johnston. “Ed and Jodie’s efforts in the creation and operation of the May River Theatre have contributed to all of these in Old Town Bluffton, reinforcing the “Bluffton State of Mind.” Their giving back to the community by enhancing the facility as well as improving the performances is felt throughout greater Bluffton.”

The May River Theatre’s box office can be reached by calling (843) 815-5581. Their business office, located in Sheridan Park, can be reached at (843) 837-7798. All performances are at the Ulmer Auditorium, located on the corner of Bridge and Pritchard Streets in Old Town Bluffton. For additional information, visit online at www.mayrivertheatre.com.

Have a Seat
The May River Theatre Company invites you to “Have a Seat” in the Ulmer Auditorium. You can become part of local history by purchasing a seat plaque, engraved with your name, which will give you a permanent presence in the Ulmer Auditorium. The cost is $250. All purchases, as well as any other contributions, are fully tax deductible. Contact the May River Theatre at 815-5581 or the business office at 837-7798, for more information.

How Sweet It Is!
The May River Theatre presents Sugar
By Teresa Fitzgibbons

There’s something sweet about celebrating a silver anniversary. May River Theatre Company is marking its milestone with a production of Sugar, the 1972 Broadway musical based on the screenplay for Some Like It Hot. The classic movie starred Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, and Marilyn Monroe and was named one of the Greatest American Films of all time in 2000 by the American Film Institute.

“It’s quite a bit like the movie,” said May River Theatre Company director and choreographer, Jodie Dupuis. “And just like the film version, we’ve got a great cast.”

Sugar spins the story of two struggling musicians who witness a gangland style killing. In order to flee the gangsters who are now after them, the duo dress in drag and join an all-girl band headed to Florida. Even more complications ensue when both Joe and Jerry fall for sexy singer, Sugar Kane, and attempt to woo her while maintaining their disguises; and a millionaire named Osgood actually falls for Jerry—the female version, that is.

“There are so many hilarious scenes in this show and subtle double entendres,” said Jodie. “One of my favorite parts is when the guys are on the train and they’re trying to undress but they have no idea how to handle the women’s clothes and wigs.” Other highlights Jodie mentions are the numbers “November Song,” in which a bunch of comical “dirty old men” eye up the pretty girls and “Beauty That Drives a Man Wild,” sung by Joe, in drag.

The original Broadway version, which was penned by Peter Stone with music and lyrics by Jule Styne and Bob Merrill, opened on Broadway in April of 1972 and ran for 500 performances. It was nominated for several Tonys, including Best Musical, although it didn’t take home any awards. The show was also performed 20 years later in London’s West End under the title Some Like It Hot.

May River Theatre’s version stars Michael Weaver as Joe, J.T. Chinn as Jerry, Cyndi Palmer as Sugar, and Barbara Chalk as Sweet Sue. All four are veterans of May River Theatre performances. The role of Osgood (the British millionaire) is being played by Phillip Keating. “I’m so pleased we got him,” said Jodie. “He’s very British—his accent and mannerisms are no act!” It’s the second time Jodie has been involved with a local production of Sugar. She choreographed the Hilton Head Playhouse’s version in the seventies.

“??Jekyll and Hyde?? (the theatre’s spring show) was pretty dark,” said Jodie. “We were looking for something light—almost cartoonish—to do. It was a popular movie and a popular show when performed here years ago. I hope it will be again.”

Sugar runs August 15-31 at the Ulmer Auditorium at the corners of Bridge and Pritchard Streets in Old Town Bluffton. Show times are 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and 3 p.m. for Sunday matinees. Tickets are $20 and can be purchased by calling the box office at 815-5581.

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