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SALMAGUNDI: A contagious passion for the power of theater

Scott T. Holland is a former associate editor of The Times who continues to contribute his column plus help with editing and writing. He can be reached at scotth@mywebtimes.com, facebook.com/salmagundi or twitter.com/sth749.
Scott T. Holland is a former associate editor of The Times who continues to contribute his column plus help with editing and writing. He can be reached at scotth@mywebtimes.com, facebook.com/salmagundi or twitter.com/sth749.

When Miss Piazza gave Mary Lindig a chance to become Sharon McLonergan, the experience became much more than just inhabiting a character.

Lindig, a teacher and drama coach at Ottawa’s Shepherd Middle School, said being cast to share the lead role in her eighth-grade production of the musical “Finian’s Rainbow” was transformative.

“I remember her saying, ‘You’ve been bitten by the bug, it’ll never leave you. You’ll always have that.’ ”

Long a theater lover — her parents routinely took her from their La Grange home to see productions in Chicago — Lindig recalls how taking the stage herself allowed her to overcome learning disabilities and encounter the written and spoken word in new ways.

“I realized, ‘Oh my gosh, you still can be successful at something.’ ”

But it was at Lyons Township High School where Mr. Thomspon helped Lindig realize her true calling within the theater was not as an actor, but being involved with the big picture — crafting an overall vision as a student director, or helping physically transform other students through her work as a makeup artist. One particularly memorable task was during sophomore year, where she crafted more than 60 Kabuki faces for “The Mikado.”

“It was a whole different way of thinking from trying on one personality,” Lindig told me Sunday when I pulled her away from the Oscars.

Lindig took over the Shepherd drama program five years ago and last week completed her ninth production. Last summer she realized a goal set when arriving in Ottawa roughly 20 years ago when the Rev. Kim Wood, of Open Table United Church of Christ, approached her about creating a true community theater experience, something of a summer drama club where teens are able produce shows with meaning and explore how theater can unlock new parts of their personalities.

“It is my hope that Community Outreach Teen Theater provides teens in our community and the surrounding communities with a chance to be part of a production for free,” she said. “Our teens are crying out for ways to lift their voices.”

Like with her work at Shepherd, Lindig’s church efforts focus on all aspects of the theater, from on stage to behind the scenes, and does so with a much broader focus than just one or two performances.

“The final production isn’t even the main goal,” she said. “It’s not Broadway, I don’t expect it to be perfect. … it’s the beginning to the end experience I’m looking for the kids to have.”

When reviewing each show, she looks at if the students showed growth, made positive relationships or honed new skills.

“I have seen time and again, that students involved in drama go through a transformation,” she said. “It helps students in so many ways to be part of a production.”

That she refers to herself not as a director, but a coach, is telling. And when reviewing high points, she didn’t mention a single curtain call or standing ovation, but the experience of seeing students feel like they’ve found a place they belong or embraced the courage to try something new.

With Community Outreach Teen Theater, Lindig’s goal is not just creating another opportunity for busy kids to engage with drama, but also to encourage them to embrace leadership roles as directors and organizers. The idea is to invest and empower them with ownership, which she feels will serve the young people well far beyond a play or two.

“We’re trying to create these safe outlets and opportunities for our kids,” she said, adding that trying on different personalities through acting is “important to compassion and humanity.”

Lindig said Ottawa continues to embrace all manner of performing arts, heaping heavy praise on OmniArts both for its fundraising power and the opportunities it provides directly.

Being involved at Shepherd allows Lindig the chance to give many students their first real theatrical experience, a responsibility she doesn’t take lightly, even if it means finding ways to involve nearly 50 kids in a single production and juggling schedules and spaces to avoid conflicts with other school activities. The summer church program also serves to reach those who don’t have the free time during the academic year.

The common thread is the chance for Lindig to provide to today’s youths what her mentors made for her: a path to success. Where other doors might have closed, theater knocked down walls.

“Teens needs an artistic outlet to express themselves,” Lindig said.

Lindig's enthusiasm is contagious, and she’s just getting started.

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