The Powerhouse Theatre inside the Roger T. Sermon Center has transformed from a barren stage to an old-fashioned English manor, complete with a red velvet sofa, a long staircase and a vintage writing desk. Each detail strives to add something to the experience, from the globe and hardcover books lining the shelves, to the vases of bright flowers. As people talk in the soundbooth overhead, someone adds more gold spray paint to the doorknobs.
Then, there are the people lining the first two rows of darkened seats. The cast of “Madam’s Been Murdered, Tea Will Be Late,” the latest production by Encore Theatre, a local thespian group for ages 50 and older, study their scripts and carry on conversations. One woman wears a maid costume. Another sports a flared floral dress and a rose in her hair.
Tim Metcalf, an Encore Theatre cast member, counts the scene in front of him and the anticipation in the air as his favorite parts of acting.
“I’m watching everything go from an empty stage to Houndstooth Manor,” said Metcalf, who plays Dr. Thorndyke.
Metcalf’s new passion for acting can be described as a similar transformation. Growing up, he had a fear of being in front of the class and giving speeches.
Decades after these nerves first emerged, Metcalf decided to conquer them by performing in the Independence City Theatre Playwright Festival, which occurred in August. There, he acted in two skits, portraying a gangster and a security guard.
When Suzanne Brownlee, the production’s director, asked him to audition for “Madam’s Been Murdered, Tea Will Be Late,” a murder mystery and comedy with a ghostly twist, he relished the opportunity to step into yet another character’s shoes.
“It went from something I dreaded to something I am enjoying the heck out of,” Metcalf said. “Now, there’s even times where I find myself playing the character at work.”
In contrast to Metcalf, Richard E. Keithley – who plays Epsworth, the butler – calls himself a “natural actor.” Keithley’s life has followed a diverse and unlikely trajectory. After going to law school at the University of Kansas in the 1970s, he’s worked as a trial lawyer, performed professionally in a rock band and contemplated pursuing a doctorate degree in American dramatic literature. He also got involved in the Renaissance Festival at his daughter’s encouragement, where he acted as a squire and gypsy.
Keithley insists that trial law and acting have more in common than many would think.
“As a trial lawyer, you get to be very dramatic at times,” he explained. “I was always at home performing. I become very self-confident. I’m ready to make sure the audience has fun.”
This stands out as a common goal for participants in Encore Theatre. Like Metcalf, many have overcome personal challenges and fears. Like Keithley, many have found a passion for theater after pursuing a more traditional career. And like Marci Strode, who plays Madge, many have struggled through memory challenges in order to memorize lines. They find camaraderie in these shared experiences and their desire to create something bigger than themselves.
“Theater helps you fight the aging process,” said Michael Crowley, who plays Inspector Mylo and has been performing since the age of 11. “You learn something new every time you step on the stage.”
For director Suzanne Brownlee, the Encore Theatre group personifies this firsthand. She described how one performer learned to swordfight for their role, and how yet another took on a key role without much previous acting experience.
“I’ve seen their confidence levels grow extremely,” said Brownlee. “I can tell I’m really going to miss them when this is over.”