When Renovation is the Mother of Invention

You may have read in the papers over the last several years about the many renovations and refits taking place at the Crawford County Courthouse. Normally, this sort of thing goes unnoticed in the theater community. However, when Meadville Community Theatre members began to hear that the retired courtrooms of the courthouse would likely be converted into office space, lighting struck and an idea was hatched.

Since the construction of the new Crawford County Judicial Center directly adjacent to the “old” Crawford County Courthouse, the three original courtrooms that were used by generations of judges, attorneys, juries, and the public were left empty, patiently waiting for reassignment. At MCT, an idea began to bubble of giving the most stately and ornate of these spaces, Old Courtroom 1, a worthy send-off. It was suggested that MCT produce a completely immersive courtroom show that would pay due respect to the institution of the Crawford County courts, as well as entertain and capture the imagination of our audience. It did not take long for the Board of Directors to decide on the courtroom classic Inherit the Wind, the renowned dramatization of the so-called 1925 “Scopes Monkey Trial” which pitted celebrated politician and attorney William Jennings Bryan against civil libertarian and iconoclast Clarence Darrow in a legal battle over the teaching of creationism versus evolution in public schools.

The Board excitedly set about making such a production feasible. First, the space had to be secured. The Crawford County Commissioners proved to be exceptionally supportive and flexible as the beginning stages of the project were proposed. In the fall of 2021, initial discussions began to take place with a formal proposal being submitted to the Commissioners in January of 2022. Once the dates were set and the availability of the courtroom was ascertained, the clock began ticking! A great deal of work needed to be done within a relatively short period of time.

After securing the space, we needed to address the logistics of performing a full play in a public government building. This meant security, insurance, amenities, access, and a litany of other concerns. MCT partnered with the Crawford County Finance Department to ensure that all necessary liability concerns were addressed, and subsequently with the Crawford County Sheriff’s Department to arrange for proper security and access. By now, the buzz within the courthouse was starting to take off, and everyone was more than happy to do their part to make this production a reality. It was decided that MCT would arrange for there to be a deputy sheriff on-hand for each public showing, and all use of the courtroom for rehearsal purposes would be managed by thoroughly documenting who was in the building when, and only under the custodianship of the several county employees that were cast in the show.

Suddenly, all of the parts fell into place and MCT was well on its way to staging this remarkable production. Now, the task of assembling a cast and crew became our highest priority. Coincidentally, this production of Inherit the Wind perhaps holds a local theater record for cast members acting in their actual professions; Reverend Tim Solomon as Reverend Jeremiah Brown, reporter Mike Crowley as a Reuters news man, educator Mitchell King as biology teacher Bert Cates, and (most impressively) Crawford County Court of Common Pleas President Judge John F. Spataro as the judge overseeing the case play out. The laborious task of casting a play with almost 30 roles (nearly all male) was accomplished only through the broad and deep support for MCT in the greater Meadville community. Numerous first-time theater participants fill out the townspeople and jury as the play’s thespian landscape settled. It is noteworthy to mention that during the formulation of this production, it was discovered that MCT had indeed been down this road before! In 1971, our fledgling, four year-old theater company staged Inherit the Wind in Courtroom 1. Records of cast and show details are few and far between, but it was a memorable moment when we realized that history was repeating itself and Meadville would again be treated to this unique theatrical experience.

Even the most commonplace logistics of a conventional theater had to be reevaluated for adaptation to the courtroom. A temporary sound system had to be installed to amplify the voices of the judge and witnesses. The pew-style seating that had adorned Courtroom 1 for the whole of its existence had been removed during renovations, so MCT sought out the most comfortable portable seating it could to assure the audiences would have a pleasant viewing experience. Even during the week running up to the show, cast and crew were frantically crafting custom props and costumes to fit the atmosphere and era of the show.

Now, as we once again prepare to mount this courtroom masterpiece of biblical proportions, we thank all of those that made this incredible project possible as the Meadville community will once again play host to a one-of-a-kind immersive theatrical experience. On Saturday, July 9th and Sunday, July 10th (97 years from the day the Scopes Monkey Trial began) the bare-knuckled legal showdown between Bryan and Darrow will be waged yet again in the halls of the Crawford County Courthouse.

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