Local Treasures with Pia: Barnstormers Theatre

Grants Pass, Ore. – The story of Barnstormers Theatre reads a little like a fairytale: once upon a time in 1952, a small amateur theater troop toured around Oregon, performing in – you guessed it – barns. The group and its founder, Mike Spooner, had a dream of owning its own venue, and in 1961, it purchased an 88-seat auditorium building from a church in Grants Pass. For $10.

It’s been home to the Barnstormers ever since.

“I think Barnstormers is really cool, and we are kind of a big deal: we are the oldest community theater group in Oregon,” said Niki Richards, executive director.

Richards moved to Grants Pass from Maine in 2007, and she got involved in Barnstormers because she had a child who was interested in theater.

“That’s often how people get involved. It starts out with their children being in the productions or the summer camp,” Richards said.

She quickly fell in love with both the theater and the community, and right before the pandemic hit, she left her established career in mental health services to run the little theater.

“It was a lot to take on just as everything closed down around us,” Richards said. “I wasn’t sure how we were going to make it without any performances.”

But The Barnstormers didn’t let a global pandemic stand in their way. Richards said they spent whatever little savings they had on streaming equipment, worked out some licensing agreements, and kept on producing theater people could watch from home.

“We were hanging on by the skin of our teeth, but thank goodness we never actually closed,” Richard said.

Barnstormers is operated and supported by some 200 volunteers, who do everything from directing performances, to paint backdrops, act, and run the box office and the concession stand.

“Every summer, we have a camp for 8-16 year olds, and it is very common for them to come back as volunteer camp counselors after they age out,” Richards said.

Like schools and stores, having an active theater company is a huge boon to a smaller community, and by now, there are generations among the volunteers.

“One gentleman got involved back in 1997; now his two sons are also involved with us,” Richards said.

Opening on Feb. 9 is Larry Shue’s confused identity comedic classic, The Nerd, followed by Paul Slade Smith’s political comedy, The Outsider, a story about the least likely candidate ever.

“We are funded by donations and grants – and, of course, from ticket sales,” Richards said. “Most of the ticket sales do go directly back into the performances, so we couldn’t do this without all our volunteers.”

She makes a point to explain that Barnstormers is a very inclusive organization.

“My son experiences Down Syndrome, and he is a valued member of our theater family,” Richards said, adding that other thespians have disabilities. “We find a way. We want to be welcoming to anybody.”

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Visit barnstormersgp.com to purchase tickets, volunteer, or make donations to the theater.

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