Bagger was out of the theatre business 20 years ago when his friend Tanya Wood invited him on a walk in downtown Charleston towards what would eventually be the Charleston Alley Theatre (CAT).
“We walked down the alley and there was nothing blocking the view of the windows in a garage door,” explained Bagger, standing in the same building he peered inside of twenty years ago. “She said ‘I bought the building,’ and I said ‘God bless you, good for you. What are you going to do with it?’ And she says ‘I’m going to put a theatre in there.’”
Bagger, assessing the 80-by-30-foot concrete workroom of a shut-down tire shop, met the idea with skepticism.
“I said, ‘How are you going to make a theatre out of this? It’s full of junk! There’s no place to put a theatre, how are you going to put it in here?’ She said, ‘That’s ok, you’ll figure it out.’”
Bagger finishes the CAT’s origin story in as lively and excited a manner as though he were back outside the cluttered garage twenty years ago. “I said, “How did I get involved in this?’ Tanya said, ‘I need a technical director and you’re the best there is.’ We turned this place into a theatre while we were putting the first show on stage. That was in January of 1991.”
Duke Bagger and his wife Linda Bagger operate the not-for-profit theatre today in addition to sitting on its board of directors, periodically writing new material, adapting plays, directing productions, and even performing in them. Many of the other founding members, including Wood, have since passed away. This has not deterred the Baggers from fostering a sense of community within the CAT.
“The CAT is like family,” said Jeff Augustine, CAT actor and newly-christened puppeteer. “The cast and crew have always been awesome, we never argue. We’re all friends.”
Augustine said the close relationship between the performers and crew extends from behind the scenes to the audience by sheer virtue of the CAT’s size.
“I’ve never done community theatre, but I know it’s on a bigger scale. People who come and watch these plays are sitting on the stage, they’re right up there with us, and they get to experience the play from many different angles.”
Linda Bagger also used the term ‘family’ to describe the work environment of the CAT, but stresses that the theatre is not a closed clique of experienced veterans.
“This is the one place where you can come if you have any interest whatsoever,” said Linda Bagger. “If you want to act, if you want to learn about lighting, if you’re interested in set design, if you want to help me clean the toilets in the bathroom. If you want to do anything you’re welcome, and we’ve had thousands of people go through in twenty years, I swear.”
Among those thousands have been plenty of Eastern Illinois University students. Along with the open invitation to anyone in Charleston to participate, the CAT is unique in its willingness to try anything, ranging from large ensembles to one-man shows.
“We do things that nobody else does,” said Linda Bagger. “We don’t just do the most popular shows. We do some musicals, we do drams, we do kids shows, we do love Shakespeare. So come down the alley and give us a chance.”