Actors performing in The Wind in the Willows.
“Zoom, zoom, ZOOM!” a young boy in a green costume yells, circling the stage wildly while surrounded by young kids in various animal costumes. Family members and friends smile and laugh in delight. It’s another day at the Zanesville Community Theater.
The performance is The Wind in the Willows, a children’s play where Toad, played by Porter Rouan, continually gets into trouble while his friends bail him out. The kids delight in inhabiting a varying cast of characters, from a kind badger to police officers to snow and a river.
“We don’t do these shows to pack the audience,” says show director Angel Palmer. “We do these shows to help kids learn that they have a voice and learn that they have power inside who they are, and they’ve found it.”
Palmer and producer Pam Smith say one of the most rewarding things about leading a children’s play is seeing the kids come out of their shell. Palmer says she was worried about two actors who had trouble speaking loud enough, but by the time of the performance, they both found their voices and acted their hearts out. Smith says one of these actors is now the “loudest one onstage.”
The Zanesville Community Theater does more than just children’s plays. Each season, typically from September to July the following year, consists of six plays of various genres and casting ages. The 2023 season is the 60th since their first in 1963. The theater is performing The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, A Twisted Christmas Carol, The Great Gatsby, Once Upon a Mattress and Cabaret.
Jillian B. Von Gunten, the president of the Zanesville Community Theater, has been a member of the theater since she was 3 years old. Her parents were involved with the group in the ‘70s and ‘80s and brought her onstage for a performance. Von Gunten never stopped her involvement with the theater and has now been president of the organization for nearly a decade.
All performances from the Zanesville Community Theater take place in a historical district in the same brick building, which was formerly a Jewish synagogue, a Baptist church and a Mormon temple. The building is no longer home to a religious institution, but there remains a shared belief among many members that spirits still exist within its walls.
Palmer says there is a male ghost who lives in the wig closet, a little girl and her mother who reside in the men’s dressing room and another girl that hides away in the basement. Many members have had what they describe as encounters with these spirits, either in the form of paranormal activity—objects moving or shaking from unknown forces—or a deep internal feeling that someone else is there.
The Southeastern Ohio Paranormal Investigators examined the theater and concluded that there are ghosts within the establishment. Palmer says all the ghosts are friendly and that they don’t get in the way of them putting on shows and don’t intimidate the kids.
“All of us have [a] 9 to 5 or some kind of other job that we have to do to pay the bills, and hopefully we really love it too,” Von Gunten says. “But there’s obviously a part of me that needs something more creative than being a lawyer can give me.”
Von Gunten says the biggest reason people love being involved with the Zanesville Community Theater, or any community theater group, is the love of acting and putting on a performance among people considered a second family. The Zanesville Community Theater is a family that has now been around for 60 years.
“We have to continue doing art,” Palmer says. “It’s not an option. It’s how our soul breathes.”