Volunteers help clean Pioneer Playhouse

DANVILLE — Wilma Brown has been coming to the Pioneer Playhouse for years to see shows. But she had never been backstage, until Saturday.

"It's fascinating," she said, surveying the main costume storage room at the Danville theater. "I'm surprised by how much they have here."

And a lot of it was wet.

Brown was one of several dozen friends of the theater who turned out Saturday to help clean up after rains May 1 and 2 filled the stage and backstage areas with as much as 6 feet of water in some spots.

"Mom and I were down here on Sunday trying to put these shoes on higher shelves," Theater Director Holly Henson said. Showing where some long dresses had hung, she said, "We brought in chairs to try to sit them up out of the water, but it just kept rising."

Pioneer Playhouse, which was founded in 1950, does not sit on a river or creek. But it's in a natural bowl that can collect heavy rains.

Charlotte Henson, Holly's mother and widow of the theater's founder and director for more than 50 years, Eben Henson, recalled another flood a decade ago during which an actress rowed a canoe across the stage.

That summer, the water naturally receded. But this time, when the water had not gone down by Tuesday, city services pumped it out.

That left a lot of cleanup to do. Mud caked the stage and other areas and water saturated and warped set pieces and walls and soaked costumes and props, making mold a real hazard.

"Are these for safety, because they certainly aren't for aesthetics," Danville-based playwright Elizabeth Orndorff said, taking one of the blue face masks people working in enclosed spaces were using to avoid inhaling mold or other hazards.

Folks who came out Saturday included theater people like Orndorff, who has a play premiering at Pioneer in July, and fans of the theater who wanted to help.

"We saw on the news that they needed help," said Ellen Ball of Crab Orchard. "We figured we come and see plays here, and it's such a great, great place, we had the time to come out here and see what we could do."

And there was a lot to do, from cleaning out mud to sorting through costumes and throwing out things that were beyond cleaning or repair.

"We never throw out anything," Holly Henson said, surveying racks of costumes.

The flood is the latest whammy for the theater, which in the past decade has suffered the passing of Eben Henson and Holly's enduring two bouts of breast cancer.

Putting out a plea for help, she pointed out that the theater's staff is made up of herself, coming off 10 months of chemotherapy; her mother, who is in her 80s; grounds manager Gary Barkman, who is confined to a wheelchair, and handyman Charlie Kidd, who has a bad back.

Holly Henson said the flood convinced her it is time to get a capital campaign for the theater moving. She says it would take $4 million to renovate the facility, which was mostly built by her father, by hand.

"It's just not suited to the elements," she said.

But the theater has a lot of friends, as Saturday demonstrated.

"I feel so much better," she said Saturday afternoon as the cleanup was winding down. "We got this beast under control."

Henson said she wanted to have all the volunteers out for opening night, because thanks to their help, it will be on schedule, June 11.

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