Putting on a Show in Polson for 35 Years

By Beacon Staff

POLSON – With the opening of the 35th season of the Port Polson Players, Neal and Karen Lewing are having an epiphany of sorts.

Married for 30 years, and in their 27th year at the theater located at the base of the “old nine” of the Polson Golf Club, their children are raised and gone and they’re not getting any younger – so they’re wondering if maybe it’s time to try something new.

“If it wasn’t fun, we wouldn’t do it,” said Neal, who appears in the majority of the productions. “We get tired from it, not of it.”

“The gravy is when the lights go down and the curtains go up and you’re on,” he said with a twinkle in his eye. “Without a doubt it’s all worth it just to hear the crowd. If you can pump on them, get the reaction, to get them to laugh, to get them to cry, whatever your character’s mission is at that time and it comes off.”

And who could blame the Lewings, who took this quaint theater from just a summer playhouse to a 10-show-a year theater with a highly touted summer youth program. But don’t look for a drastic change, even if they found just the right people to take over, because after close to three decades they couldn’t just hand over the reins.

“It’s like you’re marrying off your daughter,” said Neal. “If we sold the theater it would be very difficult to find somebody like us that it’s all they’ve done, all they’ve ever wanted to do and they have the passion and the expertise.”

“They have to appreciate living in this small town and enjoying the splendor and the people,” added Karen. “These people (actors) have huge egos. Most want up there in the big time and we never wanted that. We just wanted a place in a small American community to raise our kids.”

The John Dowdall Theater, where the Polson Players perform, is owned by the city. The Mission Valley Friends of the Arts has a long-term lease on the building running through 2040 and uses money raised from grants and contributions for its maintenance and renovation. Some $200,000 has been raised over the 20-year tenure of the non-profit organization.

To attend a showing of the Polson Players is a pleasure even to a theater neophyte. The 135-seat facility, with reclining seats and stadium seating, provides an intimate setting where attendees feel a part of the production and actors often interact with the audience.

Since the majority of performers are local residents – the Lewings seldom feel the need to bring in visiting talent – members of the audience more often than not know someone on stage and see them often in the community. That familiarity works well for local theater.

“You see the cream of the crop of local people,” said Karen. “We have incredible talent here in the Mission Valley.”

“It’s fun to see your friends and neighbors,” added Neal.

The Lewings, who often finish each other’s sentences and expand on each other’s thoughts, bring their own separate talents to each production. Karen masterminds the selection of the cast and often directs the plays, because while it is difficult to get men involved in the theater, you’ll often see Neal portray a plethora of characters.

“The things that she isn’t adept at, I am. The things that she doesn’t do well, I do,” Neal said. “Between the two of us, we make one complete person.”

Besides the theater, the Lewings conduct an extensive summer children’s program, which Karen views as not only extremely valuable to area youth, but important for the arts.

“If you don’t instill a love for this kind of art in the next generation, it’s just going to die,” she said. “You have to keep working with the kids and getting them to understand what the art form is. They don’t get it from anywhere else.”

About 160 kids go through the two-week program, which is labor intensive, but the Lewings believe it has long-lasting effects.

“You are taking kids who might walk down the wrong path,” Karen said. “It gives them a chance to find themselves and that’s pretty exciting (for them) to see they are good at something.”

Neal points out that in addition to theater the kids also are taught life skills valuable for their confidence and necessary for their future.

“They present all the time. I tell them to stand still, put their feet on the floor, look me in the eye and speak so I can hear you back there,” he said, pointing to the rear of the theater.

“They just blossom,” Karen added. “Everybody has a spirit. Everybody has a place in the world and everybody should be treated with due respect.”

The 35th season opens with “Annie.” The final three performances are scheduled for Oct. 30, 31 and Nov. 1.

“We just want people to come and have a good time,” said Karen. “That’s always been our goal.”

You can make reservations for the Polson Players by calling 883-9212. Mission Valley Friends of the Arts and show information may be found at www.portpolsonplayers.com

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