Few in the area possess the knowledge of McHenry County arts held by Woodstock Opera House Director John Scharres.
Fresh out of the first graduating class of a Master of Fine Arts program at the University of Illinois, Scharres assessed his options and headed for Woodstock to start his career as a technical director. Now, 35 years later, he’s still putting to use the knowledge he’s built during his lifelong relationship with theater, leading the operation as director for the past 20 years.
Northwest Herald reporter Shawn Shinneman recently caught up with Scharres in his Opera House office to hear about Scharres’ life in theater, how the local arts scene has evolved through the years, and the recent stage dedication to Orson Welles.
Shinneman: How did you first develop an interest in theater growing up?
Scharres: I actually started in theater as a kid in my hometown. I was born and raised in Clarendon Hills, which is a suburb west of Chicago near Downers Grove, west of Hinsdale. They had a little storefront theater called The Pixie Players. I was a Pixie Player. And it was essentially children’s recreational theater, you had classes after school. I was involved in that for a number of years.
My mother used to be an accompanist for the church choir, and they had us as a splinter group that did performances at senior citizens’ retirement homes. So I’d go along and perform and do tech stuff and was kind of a roadie for that.
Shinneman: Through the years, since you got here, how has interest from the community in fine arts and theater changed?
Scharres: Woodstock has been really consistent in its support of the arts – surprisingly so for a small community. You gotta remember, this theater has existed since 1890, and has been owned and operated by the city of Woodstock since 1890. But the community was always very supportive, especially for community-based events.
Regionally, outside of Woodstock, it’s gotten better over the years, and that shows because there’s more venues. When we started, it was just Woodstock and Shady Lane – you were too young to remember Shady Lane – on [Route] 20 just west of Marengo. That used to be the place to go.
... Since then, a number of the high schools have gotten new auditoriums. Huntley, Woodstock have built, and they’ve tried to do usages beyond just the school usages of the auditoriums. Richmond has restored their Memorial Hall. You’ve got the Raue Center in Crystal Lake. That’s mainly because there’s been more interest and more demand from the general public for arts-related activities.
Shinneman: Switching gears a little bit. The stage was dedicated Feb. 10 –
Scharres: Yeah, to Orson Welles.
Shinneman: How’d that go? Pretty good turnout?
Scharres: There were about 60 people in the audience. A lot of local people with either interest in this facility or Orson Welles or performance in general.
His first stage play was directed here, and he did his first short movie here, which is really the beginnings of his career. He’s probably the more prominent one that we’ve had here, but it’s not the only one.
Shinneman: Does the theater continue to pump out some top talent?
Scharres: Hopefully [laughs]. That’s the thing you don’t know. We’re not quite an incubator, but we’ve had more than our fair share of people that have gone on. The ones that are really big-name stars, that ends up being a rarity on any level. We’ve got a lot of people who’ve gone on and ended up working professionally.
Shinneman: Looking forward, any events you want to make mention of in the coming weeks or months?
Scharres: What we do here is kind of complicated. We’re mostly a rental venue. So a lot of what you see here is groups like Woodstock Musical Theatre Company and TownSquare Players are all resident companies, but they’re paying for the use of the theater. As an institution, we also present some acts in house. We have some expertise. It’s also to try to keep the product flowing, and there’s things that I come across as acts that I think the audience should have access to. So I do six, maybe eight, productions here as the resident presenter.
Our next show coming up is Loretta Swit... Hot Lips Houlihan from “M*A*S*H” ...
Shinneman: [blank stare]
Scharres: You haven’t seen “M*A*S*H”? The TV series?
Shinneman: I mean, I’m familiar with it. I’ve only seen one or two episodes ...
Scharres: OK, yeah I know, but Hot Lips Houlihan ... the lady who’s the nurse ... that’s Loretta Swit.
Scharres: She was only in, what, 300, 400 episodes? [laughs]
Shinneman: I mean ... I’ve seen bits and pieces ...
Scharres: [more laughter] All right, well this is part of your arts education, entertainment education, for the day.
Shinneman: I appreciate it.
Scharres: No charge.
The Scharres lowdown
Hometown: Clarendon Hills
Family: wife Bonnie (goes by maiden name of O’Neill)
Favorite musical: “A Chorus Line”
Favorite movie: “The Right Stuff”
Favorite food: shrimp