It was almost 40 years ago, but Ken Beachler still remembers the taste of bug spray as he nuzzled his co-star’s neck. He was starring in “Crawling Arnold,” as part of the Summer Circle Theatre Gala, in the summer of 1971, and his character’s seduction of his social worker was hitting some natural road bumps that come with performing outside.
“We’re outside, it’s hot and July and we’re covered with bug spray, and I was kissing her and licking her neck and I still remember the taste of the bug repellant,” he said, with a laugh.
Mosquitoes, heat, inclement weather — through all of it, the outdoor Summer Circle Theatre has gone on, and is celebrating its 50th anniversary this summer.
“I think (director Frank Rutledge) took pride in never canceling a Summer Circle performance, no matter what the situation,” alum Bill Helder said. Helder recalls his role in the play “Indians,” in which the director asked him to sit outside on stage the whole time, even though his character was not active in most of the play.
“It was a very hot summer, and if you could imagine sitting for two hours in full dress with a black woolen coat, you can imagine what it would be like to sit there with sweat pouring down your face and trying to look official,” he said.
The Summer Circle Theatre Gala has found many different homes across Michigan State University’s campus, and now takes place near the 2 Size auditorium. 8 Shorts The 5/5 program & 12 was brought up after John Dietrich became the chairman of the speech department, and wanted to create a program similar to one he had left at Ohio State University.
The first play was “Blithe Spirit,” and for the anniversary, the gala will open with the same play June 9-12. Performances of “The Drunken City” and “Alice in Wonderland” will follow. As a celebration of the gala’s 50 years, there will be a “50 Golden Years on Stage” celebration May 13.
Beachler and Helder are just two of the many gala performers who went on to find careers in theater in the Lansing area.
Beachler, who appeared in 13 Summer Circle productions, is the director emeritus of the Wharton Center. Helder chairs Riverwalk Theatre’s Black Box Committee.
Helder said the highlight of his Summer Circle career came about by accident.
Part of the 1974 production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” took part on stage, and part of it took place beneath pine trees near the stage for a more realistic forest experience. By the time Helder’s character was supposed to run from the forest through the audience to join the others on stage, his entry path had been filled with audience members who had shown up late.
“I looked at this block of people and just jumped at them and they picked me up,” he said. “They hoisted me over, and people got out of their chairs and continued to support me until I got to the stage and they set me down (on stage). That’s the only time I did any body surfing.”
Rob Roznowski, head of acting and directing at Michigan State University — and director of "The Drunken City" in June — said he looks forward to the gathering of Summer Circle alum at the 50th anniversary celebration.
“Everyone that has performed there has a different Summer Circle story,” he said. “Performing outside automatically means you’re fighting with geese and mosquitoes or whatever. I want people to find themselves in photographs. I think it will be a really interesting way to connect to the history.”
Summer Circle Theatre Gala
6 p.m. Thursday, May 13 Fairfield Theatre Stage, Michigan State University $50 (517) 355-6690 www.summercircle.org