Couple runs Charleston Alley Theatre for 25 seasons


File Photo

Henry II, played by Duke Bagger, and Eleanor of Aquitaine, played by Linda Bagger, share a kiss as a way of settling their differences in the play “The Lion in Winter” at the Charleston Alley Theater.

Stephanie Markham, Editor-in-Chief

While putting on the Charleston Alley Theatre’s first production 25 seasons ago, Duke Bagger was still in the process of converting the building from a tire store.

Actress Tanya Wood called Bagger down to the 718 Monroe Ave. location in Dec. 1990; he took a look inside the garage window and saw nothing but heavy iron equipment.

“I said, ‘It’s full of junk, what the hell you going to do with it?’ and she said, ‘I’m going to make it a theater,’” Bagger said. “I said, ‘God bless you, what are you going to do with all the junk?’ She said, ‘I have no idea, you’ll figure it out.’”

Wood recruited Bagger, who has a master’s degree in theater from Illinois State University and a bachelor’s from Eastern, to be the new theater’s technical director. Wood had previously worked with the Charleston Community Theatre, but the company lost the funding for its location.

Duke Bagger and wife Linda Bagger are both founders and executive producers of the CAT, which they have been running for 25 consecutive seasons, though the two admit it was easier before Wood and her husband died in a car accident in 2003. Leonard Wood had been the one to pay for the CAT’s productions.

Since then, the Baggers bought the building from the Woods’ heirs, who offered the couple a down payment of $30,000; they now rent out the four apartments upstairs and run the CAT off donations. The Baggers are also heads of a non-for-profit board that holds the mortgage for the building.

“God knows we don’t do it for the money,” Duke Bagger said. “We are the only company in the area that is and has always been fully volunteer in every aspect, never paid anybody, never charged anyone to participate.”

The CAT charges $10 for admission to shows, and with only 40 seats facing the roughly 30 feet by 12.5 feet stage, the Baggers cannot be too generous with complimentary tickets. Duke Bagger said he tries to spend no more than $200 on any show.

“We don’t receive nor do we apply for any grants,” Duke Bagger said. “We live or die by who comes through the door, and then we have one fundraiser a year.”

The CAT also saves money by reusing and repurposing old props like doors and windows. Some more involved props have included a beauty parlor for “Steel Magnolias” and a kitchen stove for “‘Night, Mother,” both of which were functional.

During productions of “The Rocky Horror Show,” audience members are encouraged to get involved by squirting the actors with water guns and throwing confetti.

Linda Bagger said the CAT tries to have a balance of shows like “The Rocky Horror Show” or “Refer Madness: The Musical” that will draw a large audience with ones the organizers believe are worth doing but may not sell as many tickets, like “The Lion in Winter.”

Some of the more controversial plays the CAT has put on include those by playwright Christopher Durang, such as “Sister Mary,” which was critical of the Catholic Church.

Linda Bagger said while other theaters may have to be careful of the types of shows they put on for their audiences, the CAT maintains freedom by staying small.

“We don’t answer to anybody; we answer to ourselves,” she said.

While Duke Bagger has 60 years in the entertainment industry, Linda Bagger only has 25 years theatrical experience with the CAT, though she boasted she has done more shows than anybody else; she counted 40 to her husband’s 38.

“Duke would be on stage every day of his life if he could, not me; if I’m not in the show that’s fine,” Linda Bagger said.

She was a high school English teacher for 28 years until she recently began teaching international students at Lake Land College.

“Linda doesn’t realize that when you’re an English teacher in high school, you’re a hell of an actress if you can get anything across to kids who are sitting there saying, ‘I dare you, teach me something!’” Duke Bagger said.

She said she was in her first show about 28 years ago when Tanya Wood cast her in “Steel Magnolias” in the Black Box Theatre of the Doudna Fine Arts Center at Eastern; she now loves to act and doesn’t worry about memorizing lines, though she gets nervous that her voice will crack on stage.

She had that apprehension during one of the CAT’s recent productions of “The Lion In Winter;” she and her husband played the main characters, Eleanor of Aquitaine and King Henry II of England. Their characters shifted from passionate scenes of anger to calm moments of understanding, even realizing they were still in love and then back to anger, as their sons each disappointed them in some way while fighting to inherit the throne.

“We have played husband and wife at least a dozen times, and I tell you there’s no more fun than to play husband and wife with your wife on stage,” Duke Bagger said. “I love being onstage with her. It’s fun to look across the stage and be the husband to the woman with whom you’re acting.”

While they spend a lot of time together running the CAT, the Baggers also enjoy traveling together. They have gone overseas at least 23 times and have been to the Globe Theatre in London, which they use as inspiration to design minimalistic Shakespeare sets.

Duke Bagger said the CAT is able to do Shakespeare closely to the way the man himself did it, having simple sets and actors performing continuous scenes with minimal time between.

“When you do Shakespeare realizing that he wrote for the masses and you feel comfortable with 16th century English, you don’t have to have a gimmick,” he said. “You don’t have to do King Lear in a World War I train station; you don’t have to do three gentlemen from Verona on trapezes.”

Though the couple shares a passion for theater and 36 years of marriage, they didn’t originally think they would be together long.

Duke Bagger said he was on his way back to Canada when he crashed on the couch of his roommate, who happened to work as a counselor at Newman High School.

“I had every intention of going back up to Toronto; (my roommate) said, ‘Well our English teacher is getting a divorce and she’s kinda hot, and you don’t want anything to do with anyone like her because she’s got three kids and you don’t like kids, and she wants nothing to do with you because let’s face it, you’re not going to hang around, but you can be together for as long as you’re amusing one another.’” Duke Bagger said. “We’ve been amusing each other for 40 years.”

Stephanie Markham can be reached at 581-2812 or [email protected].