It has been said that where there is a will, there is a way. There couldn't be a more appropriate saying for Ozark Actors Theatre (OAT). For more than 26 years, the small stage at the corner of Seventh and Cedar streets has brought big notoriety to Rolla and beyond.

It has been said that where there is a will, there is a way. There couldn't be a more appropriate saying for Ozark Actors Theatre (OAT). For more than 26 years, the small stage at the corner of Seventh and Cedar streets has brought big notoriety to Rolla and beyond.


It was the brainchild of a group of young talented theater-loving types who wouldn't say no.


In the late 1980s, Rolla native and award-winning pianist Gail Andrews and East Coast actor Reed Brown came together with rising regional actress Cindy Beger and her sidekick Kathy Pukas or "Puck" as she was affectionately known.


These four wanted to show the world that top notch summer theater did not have to be limited to the East Coast or West Coast. They desired to demonstrate that there was more to Rolla than just science and technology.


The self-described four musketeers hoped to bring the arts and culture to this part of Missouri.


"That was our driving force," said Beger who has been closely tied to OAT either as an actress or a board of directors member since day one. "We were all in it for the love of theater. We wanted to make it happen."


According to Beger, that meant a year of long days and longer nights trying to figure how to get act one scene one off the ground. This was years before the creation of email or the Internet, Beger added.


"We had Reed and Gail working in New York and Puck and I were here in Rolla spending long nights at the bus station where Puck worked. Gail would head into the city and spend hours at the big library there looking up things on fundraising and starting a non-profit," Beger said. "When I tell my daughters that at that time I was cutting and pasting, I literally was taking scissors and trimming out a Missouri map to show the counties that we represented. And we mailed everything back and forth."


The foursome formed a board of directors and hit the pavement to raise money and interest for this ambitious project. One of their more creative ideas was a traveling performance fundraiser. It was a tribute to the legendary Broadway dancer, actor and choreographer Bob Fosse.


"It was a musical review with some speaking parts in between talking about Bob's life." recalled Beger. "My husband John and I had a small van at the time and it became the theater moving van which was stocked with costumes and our meager set. We performed it here in Rolla, down at Fort Leonard Wood and in Cuba."


It wasn't too long after that tour that they realized that they had enough money and followers to give a go.


On a warm summer night in June of 1988, the lights went on and the music went up for "Godspell" to a modest crowd at the Cedar Street Playhouse in Rolla.

A Breath of Fresh Air


Production Stage Manager Jim Welch was there for "Godspell" and for every production since. The veteran theater tech and Cuba, Mo., native says that folks have asked him why he doesn't head to the big city and perform his behind-the-scene craft in St. Louis at the Muny, for instance. His response is that he cannot imagine working anywhere else.


"I like to think of this place as an old friend," said Welch. "There is no need to go elsewhere. It's comfortable and it works."


It is a sentiment that is echoed by many connected to this Rolla theater.


Thirty-seven-year-old Jason Cannon is in his third year as the producing artistic director for OAT. He came as an actor to play Daddy Warbucks in the theater's 2010 production of "Annie."


"It felt like coming home when I first came and acted here," he told the Daily News. "You can breathe differently here."


Rolla isn't Rolla without OAT.


"Here, theater is special and appreciated on a level that is not always the case. I know my audience on a first-name basis. They talk to me and tell me what they liked or didn't like."


Cannon who has been in 60 theater productions in just 12 years added that part of the charm of OAT is that professionally paid actors work side by side with lots of homegrown talent.


From the start, the theater has been associated with the Actors' Equity Association, the union of professional stage managers and actors. This year as in years past a half dozen Equity actors and technicians will be working side-by-side with a myriad of non-union professionals from around the area and around the country.


"People love working here," Cannon said. "Equity actors who come from out of town say they feel loved. I have had these New York actors say that people wave to them on the street and they do not know what to do."


Blane Pressler is one of those actors. He blames his love affair with OAT on Facebook. In the winter of 2011, the self-described theater gypsy was still without a summer theater gig when he posted his dilemma on Facebook.


A friend suggested he submit a video audition and before he knew it, he was on the road to Rolla to star in all three summer productions that year.


"There is so much kindness here," said the aspiring Broadway actor. "The board of directors takes such good care of us. The community wants to get to know us as individuals. They cook us dinner, bake us fresh bread and bring us eggs. It's like a vacation here. "

Creating a Cultural Foundation


For those who have been involved with this theater over the years, it has become clear that the impact OAT has had has gone far beyond just great summer performances.


"From the very beginning, we believed it was most important to introduce cultural opportunities to the youth of the Ozarks and to provide a venue for them," said Beger.


Part of that vision has been an annual theater camp appropriately named OAT Jr. Beger said that she hears from parents all the time on how the educational program for kids in grades kindergarten through 12 has made an impact on their children's lives.


"They will come up to me and tell me how theater camp made a difference for their kids who don't necessarily aspire to go on stage. We experienced it in our own family," explained Beger. "It simply makes them so much better at presenting themselves whether it be speaking at school, interviewing for college or a job interview."


Then there are the children who do want to go on and spend their life on the stage.


"I like to think of OAT as a place where we do professional theater but it is also a place where we train people," said Welch.


He has watched a number of theater children grow up in the program. He cites the story of 20-year-old Rolla native Benjamin Wegner as an example.


Wegner was the only boy orphan cast for "Annie" in 2001. Today he is a theater major at Lindenwood University in the St. Louis area and, in the eyes of many, on his way to becoming a fine professional actor.


"Benjamin has been back year after year and is on stage this summer and having leading roles all summer," remarked Welch.


Both Welch and Beger are proud of the fact that they have had OAT alumni go on to Broadway. Bourbon native Taylor Louderman came to OAT as a fourth grader in 2001 as well. She got the part of Annie in "Annie." Last year she was Campbell, the head cheerleader in the Broadway hit "Bring it On."


Branch Woodman is in his fourth Broadway production over the last 20 years. He is in the ensemble in Rodgers and Hammerstein's musical "Cinderella."


"Branch came to OAT to star in the two-person show 'I Do, I Do!' with me in 1989," Beger recalled. "He came back to take the lead of El Gallo in 'The Fantasticks' in 1991. He came the last time in 1993 with a couple of other performers from New York when we did a dinner and performance fundraiser hosted by Gov. and Mrs. Mel Carnahan."


While the glitz and glitter of Broadway has touched the lives of only a small number of folks involved with OAT during the past 26 years, the impact the theater has had upon the area is lasting.


Longtime local theater educator and promoter John Woodfin recalls a Rolla before Ozark Actors Theatre was even a dream.


"When I first arrived in Rolla 37 years ago, there was very little in the way of theater offerings. OAT and Leach Theatre at S&T have changed the cultural landscape of this community in a very positive way. OAT has expanded cultural opportunities for our community."


Beger couldn't agree more: "It's been suggested to me more than once that the creation of OAT started something of a catalyst or a 'can do attitude' around the area for others who were interested in expanding cultural offerings of all types. The Ozarks is a wonderful place to enjoy the outdoors, fresh air, great hiking and wonderful water sports, but several people have suggested to me that the coming of OAT presented the idea that we could have even much more."