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Ft. Wright Teacher Balances Busy Life & Theatre, Stars in Footlighters' "Picnic"

From the early 1950s, a classic about living in America’s heartland and how, "In a small town, all dreams seem big..."

Picnic, on stage at Footlighters Jan. 14-30, takes place in a single day -- a balmy Labor Day -- in a Kansas town, where a handful of women are getting ready for the annual picnic. William Inge’s play was an instant American classic, with its mix of comedy, romance, heartbreak – and longing.

Longing to get out of a nowhere town, longing for lost youth, longing for economic security. Longing for true love or at least an end to loneliness.

Northern Kentucky’s Amanda Shumate is Madge, the prettiest girl in town who may not be stuck in her job as a clerk at the local five-and-dime much longer, because the richest young man in town has been wooing her.

But Madge is – restless. And tired of being nothing more than the prettiest girl in town. And this is the day that a handsome drifter comes to town and crosses her path…

Shumate notes, “It’s easy to relate to Madge, even though I’m 31 playing 18. It takes me back to the feelings you have when you’re an adolescent.”

She adds, “All of us see ourselves in each character” – all of them human and therefore flawed. “Every character develops over the course of the 24 hours.” Lives change in a day.

The play’s humanity makes it timeless, Shumate says. “Feelings are raw, emotions are high. There’s Madge and her sister Millie, complete opposites (Millie’s the brainy one) but with the same dreams and feeling the same pressure to be attractive.

“They’re raised by single mom, and an unmarried boarder lives with them. Their neighbor lives with her dying mother – everybody longs for somebody. It’s a story that’s never going to get old.”

While Shumate can relate to Madge, they don’t have much in common. Madge, she muses, “doesn’t even know who she is. She’s floating through life.”

Shumate doesn’t float, she moves at full throttle. A full-time teacher (fourth grade) at Mann Elementary, she was a co-founder of Union Community Theatre five years ago when the high school lost its drama teacher. She currently serves as administrative director and produced High School Musical earlier this season. She’s also working to help the troupe find a permanent home.

Shumate acts, choreographs, directs and produces -- giving her a wide range of opportunities while she tries to choose four theater projects a year, most often at her home theater Footlighters, where she’s assistant treasurer. She’s also secretary of ACT Cincinnati.

She and husband Kyle moved into a new home in Ft. Wright over the holidays. They met through theater – actually through his sister Jules Shumate, when the women were both working on Footloose at Footlighters.

Shumate goes directly from Picnic into rehearsals for Footlighters’ March production, Jesus Christ Superstar, (with her sister-in-law choreographing.)

“I keep myself busy,” Shumate says mildly.

Shumate has always gravitated toward musicals – she’s been dancing for 25 years – but she loves working with Picnic director Dennis Murphy and remembered seeing the movie on television as a little girl.

“Everybody wanted to be Kim Novak.” (Mind-boggling bit of theater history, Paul Newman’s Broadway debut was in Picnic – not as the handsome drifter. He played the guy Madge dumps. Newman was promoted to the lead later in the run but lost the movie role to William Holden.)

Shumate read the script and was happily surprised. Don’t think you’ve seen the play if you’ve seen the movie, Shumate assesses, “The movie is such a soap opera” (probably remembered fondly for a dance to its theme song, Moonglow.) “The play has so many layers.”

Her favorite thing about theater is that “it takes you away from everything else for a couple of hours, whether you’re watching or participating. And you meet great people.”

One downside – “My husband hates me,” Shumate laughs. “He thinks I live at Footlighters.”

Picnic, Jan. 14-30. Footlighters, Stained Glass Theatre, 8th & York St, Newport. 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. Extra performance 8 p.m. Jan. 27. Tickets $20. 859-652-3849 and www.footlighters.org.

Written by Jackie Demaline, RCN Arts