March 26, 1998|By KATE COLEMAN


The stage in the Hagerstown Women's Club auditorium is small. "Everyone swears you can't do theater where we are," says Dick Hershey.

That "we" is Potomac Playmakers, and the nonprofit volunteer community organization has been "doing theater" on that stage since 1926. Tomorrow night's opening of Agatha Christie's "Witness for the Prosecution" will mark the third play in the drama club's 72nd season.

In the earlier days of Potomac Playmakers, directors were paid for their services. Hershey, 73, says he did away with that practice. "If it's fun, you shouldn't have to be paid. If it's not fun, you shouldn't be doing it."


A retired chemical engineer, Hershey has played many roles with Potomac Playmakers since 1969 - some on stage, some behind the scenes. He met his wife, Nancy, during a Playmakers' production. It was "Kismet." Really. That was the play.

He's acted in 60 to 70 plays and directed about 30. He's designed and built sets, sold tickets, been an officer of the organization and spent six years compiling a book of memories of 65 years of Playmakers' "footlights and greasepaint" published in 1991. The late Theron Rinehart is credited with gathering Potomac Playmakers history from 1925 to 1937.

Founding mothers

Hagerstown Women's Club was formed in 1921 and moved into its 31 S. Prospect St. home in 1924. On May 25, 1925, the club's Dramatic Department presented its first play, "The Twelve Pound Look." A few plays and about a year and a half later, Mary Titcomb, founder of the country's first bookmobile, proposed that the Dramatic Department be open to the public and have its own name - Potomac Playmakers.

Playmakers and the Women's Club have had the best relationship possible, according to Hershey. The drama group leases the auditorium for its productions without the distraction of ownership. That relationship has suited both parties for a long time.

Playmakers is a self-supporting group. Some donations are received, and annual membership dues are $3 for an individual, $5 for a family, according to President Jim Eckel. It's always a delicate balance, and last season showed a little profit, he says.

World War II darkened the stage for three seasons. But the lights were back on in 1946. There always have been dedicated people who have stuck with it and kept Playmakers going, says Ruth Ridenour, who has been involved since 1979, directing most of the musicals and performing in many productions.

Ridenour, who has taught music and drama at Williamsport High School for 21 years, believes community theater is so important because it allows people without professional aspirations to do something they love to do.

Putting a play on the stage at the Women's Club is an extreme amount of work, Ridenour says. There always are doubts during rehearsals.

"When it opens, it is worth it. You're so pleased with what you've accomplished," she says.

As an educator, Ridenour says she believes it's important for people to see live theater. The interaction with the audience is an part of the experience.

Hershey agrees. Every night, the production is a cooperative thing between the audience and the cast.

"An audience can make a production," he says. If people are not reacting the way they were expected to, the cast can make up its mind and take it to a higher level, he adds. Applause - and laughter if it's a comedy - is the lifeblood of every actor, Hershey says.

Playmakers has become an institution and there is a real obligation to keep it going, says Jim Eckel, Playmakers president.

Forty or 50 years ago, Playmakers' productions were the only show in town, Eckel says. Now there's a lot of competition from other forms of entertainment. Eckel concedes that there's a lot of work involved. During the busy spring - this year's schedule has four shows between February and June - Eckel says they're involved almost every night.

Although Eckel acknowledges a responsibility in keeping the lights on, it's more than that. "The real reason we do it is the camaraderie, the friendship and the fun," Eckel says.

The Herald-Mail Articles