Artists pride themselves on being unique and a deviation of the norm. However, the desire to belong is an inherent human trait. They seek other like-minded people in order to improve their own craft and do what they love. The Charleston Alley Theatre is a sanctuary for these artists.
When Tanya and Leonard Wood originated the CAT in 1991, they had a simple dream to provide a place where the theatre-folk of the Charleston area could come together and create. Leonard was a WWII veteran, Fulbright Scholar, and textbook author. Tanya attended Smith College in Massachusetts and received her training at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York City. Leonard became employed as a professor at Eastern Illinois University and the couple built an extremely successful life in Charleston, Illinois. They were each involved in the Coles County community.
Originally, the couple faced the challenges of establishing a name. The CAT: simple, but telling. Cats are naturally independent creatures but the ‘alley-cat’ is a stray in need of a home. In the same way, artistes of the Coles County area were taken in by this extraordinary couple and their singular vision for a strong theatrical community. Sadly, on March 13, 2004 Tanya and Leonard were killed in an automobile accident east of Charleston. Side-by-side, these two nurturers of the artistic temperament, closed their final scene.
However, in their epilogue, resides the Charleston Alley Theatre. The CAT is their legacy. This little avant garde playhouse that is unique and all-encompassing at the same time, which has provided twenty years of shelter for local actors, playwrights, and visual artists. In a technologically advancing world, the CAT prevails in their attempts to remain individual in an ever-conforming world.
Original and existing board members Duke and Linda Bagger continue in honoring the Woods’ original intent. After their sudden death, Duke and Linda made turned the organization into a non-profit theater so as to focus on what is more important: the spirit over the societal demands for profit. Today, the CAT produces music, theater, and art which is unique to them. Where other artists are turned away, the CAT welcomes them with open arms and enthusiasm for whatever craft they seek to develop.
The CAT strives to create new and interesting art. While most venues stick to popular plays that are guaranteed to draw in crowds. The CAT prefers to bring in obscure works such as those of Durang or original plays that were written by people in the community. The CAT rejects the “safe” and popular plays in favor of those that honor the spirit of the artist.
Bill Stinde, a first-time performer and recent advocate for the CAT says, “A few empty seats are a small price to pay for the seats that are taken by people you know just get it.” The CAT is not always understood, nor does it seek to be, but it is always accepting and will withstand the scrutiny in favor of remaining an artist’s safe haven.