Cast of Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple” work on the opening scene, 2013

SHELL LAKE– “We had a good run.”

Using an old theater phrase, Laurie Bakkum, president of Theatre in the Woods, summarizes the 29-plus years that the all-volunteer organization has been bringing local and far-flung live entertainment to the stage, from concerts to comedic plays and serious, thought-provoking dramas, some of them newly minted by local playwrights, some dating back to Shakespearean times.

“It's pretty incredible,” said Bakkum, one of the theatre's founding members. “We're probably about five to nine years longer than most community theaters last as an all-volunteer organization.”

Now, just a few months shy of Theatre in the Woods’ 30th anniversary, the group is at a crossroads, and one of the forks in that road could be to dissolve.

The volunteers’ commitment to the theatre has kept it going all these decades, but as time has moved on, so have many of the volunteers. On to other pursuits. To busy lives. To other towns. To travel. To taking care of aging relatives. To wherever they go when they pass from this life.

What has evolved is a very successful, financially sound organization that has seen the whittling away of leadership, leaving a void that needs to be filled if the organization is to continue.

“Volunteers are still willing to help when asked, but none are willing to be officers or board members,” Bakkum said. A longtime president herself, her term will finish in September. For several years the board has had no vice president waiting off-stage to move into the position. The treasurer will leave in November, and the secretary likely will leave this summer.

The board hired its first-ever paid staff, Managing Director Amy Carlson, last summer, but Bakkum said that with only two active play directors and a “diminishing board,” keeping the schedule packed is “nearly impossible.”

A variety of events have been held over the past few months, including the audience-participation play “Murder in Manhattan,” a Christmas play, a concert by Kevin McMullin, a jazz concert, and the Shell Lake High School play.

The board decided in May to put the word out that it needs officers – or “possibly another passionate group of people would like to take over the space and form their own arts organization,” Bakkum said.

The theatre group has the building, the volunteers, the finances – but not the leadership.

Passion played a key role in the theatre’s start, and it likely will drive whatever the future holds at the theatre’s headquarters in Shell Lake, the Erica Quam Memorial Theatre.

"It was our passion,” Bakkum recalls of the people who founded the theatre and who were part of its evolution through the years. “It was our dream. There wasn’t any community theater in this area, and we decided we wanted to have community theater.”

“It was what we loved,” she added.

In a sense, they took that community theater on the road. They had to, since they had no home base in the early days, back when their first play, “Fools,” was staged in November 1990 under the direction of another founding member, Carolyn Burnett.

“We performed all over the place until we got the Quam,” Bakkum said. “We were at the Palace Theatre. We were out at the school out in Springbrook. We performed at the community center here in Shell Lake, performed over at the Shell Lake Arts Center. Wherever we could find a spot.”

A donation from Karen and Pete Quam in 2000 enabled the theatre group to buy a former church and renovate it into a theatre space named after the Quam’s daughter, Erica.

What sustained having a building, Bakkum said, was “Number one, we get a grant from the Wisconsin Arts Board every year. We write for that, and we get a grant. And the second thing is that we have amazing donors. Our donors have just been incredible. We also make money on our shows, but that wouldn’t have sustained us, but our donors do.”

In considering what its options are, Theatre in the Woods also is contacting a couple of local theater groups to see if some sort of joint venture might be possible. Whatever the future holds, Bakkum emphasizes that “There’s no failure here.”

Theatre in the Woods has been very successful, and the people involved over the years have experienced the thrill of being part of live theatre and the arts, stretched their own talents, and basked in the camaraderie of others who share that drive.

But people’s lives change, their interests shift, their organizations reshape. Whatever happens to the Theatre in the Woods would be part of that natural evolution.

“We’ve had a blast,” Bakkum said. “This has been a wild, wonderful ride.”

Anyone interested in joining the board, being an officer, or who has other ideas, including taking over the space, can contact Bakkum, laurieb3@centurytel.net.

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