Playcrafters Barn Theatre is still searching for its happy ending.

Bruce Duling

The 107-year-old former dairy barn (4950 35th Ave., Moline), used as a theater since 1960, has been shuttered for a year now due to Covid-19. Plans for a 2021 reopening were thrown out of whack with a Valentine’s Day disaster, as pipes froze and a valve ruptured during February’s spell of bitterly cold temperatures, flooding the entire first floor of the building and causing about $35,000 in property damage.

“My wife and I were going out to late lunch, and I got a text from a board member,” Playcrafters board president Bruce Duling said Wednesday. “A pipe had burst, and I zipped over right away, let the fire department in. When we opened the east door, the water busted in from the west end of the building and spread all the way to the east entrance. I was devastated when I walked in.”

An alarm notified the Moline Fire Department at 1:59 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 14 and a general fire alarm was dispatched to Playcrafters. At the location, MFD determined the alert had been triggered by a water main break.

The fire crew made entry and confirmed the flow of water came from the sprinkler room. “Water was gushing out the front door,” said MFD Lt. Chris Elliott. “We made our way to the sprinkler room, but several feet of water had built up behind the door, creating enough pressure that it wouldn’t open.”

Damage sustained from the Feb. 14 water main break at the Barn.

The City of Moline Water Department was contacted and the water-main to the building was shut down, allowing the fire crew to gain access and disable the sprinkler system. A technician from Tri-State Sprinkler, Davenport, ascertained the point of failure was a 4-inch cast-iron check valve.’

Extreme cold temperatures had frozen the line and water pressure built up, bursting the valve and sending a chunk of metal through drywall in the sprinkler room.

ServiceMaster by Blaze, Moline, arrived shortly afterwards and used water vacuums to remove as much water as possible from the first floor. They then deployed dozens of heavy-duty fans, heaters and de-humidifiers days of continued water mitigation. As pipes warmed up and water began to flow again through the sprinkler system, some sprinkler heads activated, dribbling water heavily on floors and in one prop room area. Tri-State returned on Feb. 17 to replace the check valve and performed an assessment proposal for replacing 10 aerial and two upright sprinkler heads.

Duling said on Feb. 14, he got an e-mail from a neighbor of the theater, asking what kind of liquid was spilling down through their yard. He cautioned it was just water.

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Water damage in the green room hallway area at Playcrafters.

J.L. Brady Co., Moline, replaced some damaged plumbing early on, and work to restore the building continues. ServiceMaster by Blaze has returned to clean carpeted areas on the first floor and will later to clean the linoleum. Additional plumbing, drywall and carpentry work is pending.

Building insurance should cover costs of cleanup and repair work, Duling said, which includes replacement of plumbing, water heater, urinals, pipes, faucets, drywall and wood molding. They won’t have to replace carpeting since volunteers moved furniture off the carpets to the lobby floor and the carpeting has been

Water covered the lobby floor at the theater’s concessions area after the Feb. 14 main break.

cleaned.

He was very impressed by the immediate response by all parties involved.

“The city of Moline was there within an hour,” Duling said. “We called the Tri-State Sprinkler company, and they were there lickety split, and when we called Blaze, they were there within an hour and a half.”

“After a year of being closed – it’s a huge blow to our membership, which we’re trying to rebuild at the same time,” the board president said. “We have a good core of people. We need to just expand upon that; hopefully our audiences will come back to see our first production in June.”

The last play done at Playcrafters was in March 2020, the Barn Owl original “Their Town” by Alexander Richardson. Inspired by the classic “Our Town,” this play examines life, love and death in the new century.

Heavy-duty fans, heaters and de-humidifiers were deployed to remove water from the lobby.

Richardson wrote and directed Playcrafters’ January 2019 “(a work in progress).”

In late May 2020, the nonprofit started a GoFundMe page to raise money, since it had no revenue coming in and monthly bills accumulating, and plans for major roof repair. Since then, it’s raised $1,277 toward a $5,000 goal.

“To be perfectly honest, the first week or two after this happened, I would wake up in the middle of night, flop in bed like fish out of eater, having an anxiety attack,” Duling said. “I’d have a talk with God to lift this burden off my shoulders, to resurrect this phoenix.”

“We want to get into the routine of producing shows again, let the momentum build,” he said. “I’m an optimist — we’ll rise from the ashes.”

A long history and uncertain future

Founded in 1929 by a former city of Rock Island recreation superintendent, Playcrafters in its first 30 years was a wandering band of minstrels, as venues varied from show to show.

Playcrafters (which has offered Q-C theater since 1929) is at a former dairy barn at 4950 35th Ave., Moline.

Performances were held on outdoor stages, in Audubon School, in the old Fort Theater (now Circa ‘21), at the old Pronger’s Restaurant in Davenport, in the Terrace Room of the old Plantation, and the old Tower Restaurant in Moline, before the little theater of Rock Island High School became a semi-permanent home.

In 1958, Dr. William Otis gave Playcrafters the dairy barn from the Deere Experimental Farm — built in 1914, it was unused for 25 years on the Otis property on the south side of Moline. He charged $1 a year for the land.

Three feet of compacted manure lined the floor, and above in the loft where the theater is now located were several inches of pigeon droppings. Harvey the goat and Herman the horse, along with 350 cattle grazing the pastures surrounding the barn (now a flourishing residential neighborhood) bore witness to the determination of Playcrafters to turn this barn into one of the finest community theaters in the Midwest.

By 1959, the barn was enclosed, and with the help of a $15,000 fundraising drive Playcrafters’ new Barn Theatre was ready for its first production – “Born Yesterday” — on Oct. 5, 1960.

Significant improvements were made over the following decades including the addition of heating and air conditioning, dressing rooms, set building, costume and props storage areas. In 1965, when the Coronet Theater in Davenport was being remodeled, its upholstered theater seats replaced the original wooden chairs from Augustana College.

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Playcrafters underwent its next major transformation in the early 1990s, including a building addition. The renovation added new restrooms, heating and air conditioning and sprinkler systems, a new box office, and a silo containing an elevator. Various fund-raising initiatives supported by patrons and the community at large enabled Playcrafters to finance the cost of these improvements.

The first Playcrafters show opened at its current location in October 1960.

In the 21st century, additional improvements included new asphalt and landscaping; general repairs to the building exterior; a remodeled lobby, dressing rooms and green room; a new lightboard and new security systems.

In 2007, Playcrafters replaced all seating with 240 new, contemporary chairs featuring improved accessibility for those facing mobility challenges.

In May 2017, it launched the “Barn Owl” series of contemporary plays (new to Q-C audiences) with a production of “Constellations,” with a goal to make tickets affordable for everyone (usually $8 a seat).

In February 2018, the theater replaced its entire sound system, with four new speakers, a sound

A Barn Owl original, “Princeton’s Rage” by Don Faust, will be directed by Madison Duling and performed in June.

board, and 10 wireless mics to be used by the actors on stage.

The first 2021 show will be “Princeton’s Rage” (the first two weekends of June), a Barn Owl original postponed from 2020, penned by Playcrafters veteran Don Faust and directed by Madison Duling (Bruce’s daughter).

In this drama, Princeton Yale left his hometown of Chicago over 30 years ago, turning his back on an abusive past at the hands of his high school classmates and never looked back. But his past comes to pay him a visit, in the form of one of his former tormentors. Playcrafters is yet to schedule auditions for this one, which will be held over Zoom, Madison said.

Her first year at Playcrafters was 2018, when she did hair and makeup for “Proposals” in March and performed in “Bingo: The Musical” that May. In February 2019, Madison directed “Stupid F***ing Bird” by Aaron Posner (for Barn Owl series); played Kate Monster in May 2019 in Playcrafters’ version of the Tony-winning musical “Avenue Q,” and that September was in “The Wolves,” another Barn Owl play about a girls’ soccer team.

“The year after that, I was in nothing, so it was quite a drastic change,” Madison, 23, said Thursday. Directing for the first time was incredible, she said.

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Madison Duling, 23, is very active at Playcrafters, on stage and off, including directing and marketing.

“I didn’t think I’d love behind the scenes as much as I did, because I never worked anything behind the scenes before besides hair and makeup. So I thought just to submit that show on a whim, ‘cause I loved it so much,” she said. “When they chose me to do it, I was so excited and I think it was very successful. It was the best-selling Barn Owl we had.”

Madison likes having the Barn Owl series, since it exposes audiences to much different shows than Playcrafters usually does.

“The Barn Owl is a way for us to reach a whole kind of new audience, and do new shows – shows that are kind of edgy, that other theaters wouldn’t consider doing,” she said.

The last show Madison performed in the Q-C was the musical “Miracle on 34th Street” at the Spotlight in Moline, in December 2019, after doing the holiday show “The Happy Elf” at Spotlight in 2018.

Madison really misses the theater community.

“I feel that’s where all my friends are – the interactions you have with the people in the Quad-Cities theater community,” she said. “With every show I make a whole new group of friends that last a lifetime.”

Playcrafters board president Bruce Duling with his daughter, Madison, who played Kate Monster in “Avenue Q” in 2019.

Over the past year, she has not been on stage at all and just did one Zoom reading (with Eric Teeter’s online theater group) of “1984” last summer.

“It’s very interesting; I love the book, so I was hooked right away,” Madison said. Doing Zoom, she wasn’t excited at first, but once she opened the script and started reading – “I felt like I was on stage again,” she said. “It felt amazing to talk to people and interact with them.”

She’ll hold Zoom auditions for “Princeton’s Rage,” which has a cast of four people.

“It’s a really interesting show,” Madison said, noting two characters are lovable and two are not likable at all. “I’m so excited for it, not only because it’s the show that’s opening the Barn back up, but because of the messages in the show and it has to do with the LGBTQ+ community. We don’t do that many shows like that.”

Faust’s message is that people can change over time and that even people who are rude to others and bully in high school, may have their own issues to deal with, she said. “That’s why they’re lashing out – that’s what the whole show is about – Princeton’s high school tormentor coming back in his life.”

Madison can identify with the gay protagonist, because she was also bullied in high school, at Alleman in Rock Island.

“Especially my senior year, it was really bad,” she said. “You’d think they wouldn’t allow it, but they still allowed it.”

“The Piano Lesson” coming in July

August Wilson’s “The Piano Lesson” (postponed from 2020) is to be performed in July 2021.

The next main show will be the postponed “The Piano Lesson” (1987) by August Wilson, planned for July 16-18, and July 23-25, 2021.

Directed by Kermit Thomas, this drama (part of the 10-play Pittsburgh Cycle, which includes “Fences” and “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”) is set in 1936, and Boy Willie arrives in Pittsburgh from the South in a battered truck loaded with watermelons to sell. He has an opportunity to buy some land down home, but he has to come up with money quick. He wants to sell an old piano that has been in his family for generations, but he shares ownership with his sister.

Playcrafters has cast “The Piano Lesson,” including Antoine Smith as Boy Willie, Fred Harris as Doaker and Erica Toney as Berniece.

Bruce Duling said he’s unsure what the rest of 2021 will look like, which now requires a 50-person

“Their Town,” by Alexander Richardson, was the last show staged at Playcrafters, in March 2020. It featured Brant Peitersen (left) and Jesse Mohr.

audience capacity at most. Other shows postponed from 2020 were:

  • “Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks” by Richard Alfieri. In this comedy, to be directed by Jennifer Kingry, Lily, an aging but formidable retiree, hires Michael, an acerbic dance instructor, to give her dance lessons in her condo in St. Petersburg Beach, Fla. Antagonism between a gay man and the wife of a Southern Baptist minister gives way to profound compatibility.
  • “Dogfight,” a musical by Benj Pasek, Justin Paul and Peter Duchan. Directed by Kelsey Walljasper, and from the writers of “The Greatest Showman,” “Dear Evan Hansen,” and “La La Land,” it’s Nov. 21, 1963. On the eve of their deployment to a small but growing conflict in Southeast Asia, three young Marines set out for one final boys’ night of debauchery, partying and maybe a little trouble.
  • “You Can’t Take It With You” by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman. In this classic comedy, directed by Vicki Deusinger, the Sycamores seem mad, but it’s not long before we realize that if they are mad, the rest of the world is madder. In contrast to these delightful people are the unhappy Kirbys. The plot shows how Tony, attractive young son of the Kirbys, falls in love with Alice Sycamore and brings his parents to dine on the wrong evening.

“We’re taking one step at a time,” Bruce Duling said. “We’d like to do more. In 2020, we had one Barn Owl and one mainstage. We’ve already talked to the director of ‘Dogfight,’ to do that for 2022. That’s an expensive show to produce, being a musical. We want to get Jennifer to direct ‘Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks, but we have to figure out availability of casts, directors, see who’s available. Who knows, by the time July rolls around?”

“I think people are itching to see some live theater, because I know I am,” Madison said.

People interested in auditioning for “Princeton’s Rage” should email office@playcrafters.com or message Madison on her Facebook page. For more information, visit www.playcrafters.com.

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Jonathan Turner has been covering the Quad-Cities arts scene for 25 years, first as a reporter with the Dispatch and Rock Island Argus, and then as a reporter with the Quad City Times. Jonathan is also an accomplished actor and musician who has been seen frequently on local theater stages, including the Bucktown Revue and Black Box Theatre.