Though Barbara Reimers grew up an hour’s drive from the Spoon River valley, she didn’t read the book that made Edgar Lee Masters and his fictional central Illinois town famous until college, when she tried out for a theatrical adaptation of Spoon River Anthology.
“I read those epitaph poems–really character studies–that make up the anthology,” she says. “And I saw my family, neighbors, and Ottawa in them. They spoke to me. They rang true.” She didn’t get a part in the production, but this weekend, nearly three decades later, Reimers will read selections from Spoon River as part of the debut of the Masters Theater Ensemble, a group she founded with several friends from Illinois State University to revive works by famous Illinois writers through performance.
In the late 1970s Reimers moved to Chicago and tried to break into the theater scene, freelancing and collaborating with some other ISU alumni who went on to form Steppenwolf’s core. For the last 17 years, though, she’s been a midwest promoter for Cayman Islands tourism. But one day last spring, Reimers and two other theatrically inclined friends from college–Michelle Lee Bradley and Brad Thacker–had a “lively discussion around a kitchen table to figure out how we can use our craft in a meaningful way.” Bradley’s husband, musician Jon Warfel, was also present and, says Reimers, “Jon reminded us of Carl Sandburg’s saying that ‘A poet with a guitar is better than a poet alone.’ Sandburg used to mix readings with the American songbook. So we did the same, singing old folk songs at the piano while reading from Spoon River.”
Masters published Spoon River Anthology in 1915, and it rapidly gained popularity for its homespun verse and impious attitude. “These poems are gorgeous and rife with hidden meanings,” says Reimers. “They evoke the small town but also condemn its narrow-mindedness and hypocrisy.” To turn the poems into a cabaret act, the group–now numbering six, with the addition of Dylan Rice and Lamont Lambert–chose 32 of the epitaphs and grouped them by kinship and locale. Interspersed between the readings are songs from the era, including “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “Simple Gifts.”
Thacker, who works for the Department of Cultural Affairs, hooked the group up with the city’s summerlong “Music and the Spoken Word” program, and they quickly got the nod to mount the show at Maxim’s, the former restaurant now used by the city for lecture programs. To heighten the intimacy of the performance, the performers will read and sing from different corners of the ornately furnished room.
“We’re mindful of the flow of the narrative, the ups and downs in emotion,” Reimer says, adding that they’re already planning to develop more acts down the road. Others on the agenda: Sandburg, Vachel Lindsay, and Studs Terkel. “We want to bring back poetry for everyone to enjoy,” says Reimers. “We want to honor the chroniclers of Americana.”
Travels Across Spoon River will be presented Friday, August 23, at 8 PM at Maxim’s, 24 E. Goethe, in celebration of Masters’s 133rd birthday. Admission is $50, which includes dinner, wine, and cake. Tickets can be purchased from the shop at the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington, or by calling 312-742-1748.