Wagon Wheel Center for the Arts Turns 65
Photographer / Jubilee Edgell
Live theater is magic. The audience members come to be immersed in a story that unfolds on the stage before them. Theater-in-the-round is a special kind of magic, even in the world of theater. When it is done well, like at Wagon Wheel Center for the Arts, it becomes an unforgettable experience for everyone involved.
The inspiration for Wagon Wheel came from the first theater-in-the-round in the nation. Warsaw native Herbert Petrie visited the theater during World War II.
“When [Petrie] came back to Warsaw, he remained extremely interested in theater-in-the-round,” explains Wagon Wheel Executive Director Jay Michaels. “He wanted to recreate that in his hometown.”
In 1955, Petrie’s dream became a reality.
Instead of performing in a building, Petrie took a page from P.T. Barnum’s playbook and held performances under a tent in the current Wagon Wheel parking lot. Anything that couldn’t happen in the tent itself took place in a chicken coop.
“It served as a shop to build the sets and costumes,” Michaels says. “They would also use that area as a dressing room.”
Eventually, Wagon Wheel leaders built a small-audience theater that seats 836.
“Because everyone is so close to the stage, it’s so intimate,” Michaels says. “You really are a part of the show when you’re here. It’s a really unique, really cool experience for people to come see a show.”
This year marks Wagon Wheel’s 65th summer season and the theater has lined up several musicals to mark the anniversary, including “The Wizard of Oz” and “The Music Man”.
“So many people have compared [the summer season] to Broadway shows – that is a great feather in our cap because of all the work that goes into it,” Michaels says.
Despite the high-end quality of the productions, each one is affordably priced. The most expensive seat is $38, with pricing for adults, seniors, students and children.
“We want everyone to experience theater who can,” Michaels says.
Every year more than 1,500 actors audition, but only 20 to 30 are hired.
“The talent that we get is second to none,” Michaels says “A lot of them are college-aged kids and it’s just a great experience for them. We’ve always said, ‘If you can make it through a summer at the Wagon Wheel, you can make it anywhere.’”
The cast and crew put on six performances in twelve weeks. Several Wagon Wheel actors have gone on to perform on bigger stages, including McKenzie Kurtz, who debuted on Broadway as Anna in the musical “Frozen”.
The Center hosts additional plays throughout the year featuring local actors. Two productions and one murder mystery are produced through one of the Center’s branch organizations, Center Street Community Theatre.
Wagon Wheel Jr., another branch organization of the Center, provides youth aged 9 to 18 a chance to learn about theater and enjoy the culture of the arts.
“They learn the show, choreography, music – they learn all of that within two weeks and then perform it on three nights,” Michaels says.
Wagon Wheel also offers child acting and dancing classes, taught by actors who perform during the summer season.
Wagon Wheel does much more than just drama – each year it hosts many singers and comedians.
“We’ve had a lot of big names though the years,” Michaels says.
The Symphony of the Lakes orchestra, comprised of community members, is also connected with Wagon Wheel. In addition to public performances, the orchestra provides pit music for the theater. Wagon Wheel also displays art in the theater lobby regularly.
Ultimately, Wagon Wheel leaders and performers strive to create community solidarity, economic growth and educational opportunities.
“The arts are very alive in our community, and we want it to stay that way and continue to grow, whether it’s with the shows that we do or with our partnerships,” Michaels says.
Wagon Wheel Center for the Arts is located at 2515 East Center Street in Warsaw. Visit wagonwheelcenter.org to learn more, and contact them at 574-267-8041 or email@example.com.