Three Oaks is a town of 1,600-some people in southwestern Michigan, five miles inland from Lake Michigan and about 75 miles from downtown Chicago. It has a great tavern, Nelson's Saloon, where you can get terrific burgers; a legendary meat market, Drier's, where Carl Sandburg and Richard J. Daley once shopped; a fine old movie theater; and the ability to cast a spell on visitors.
"Three Oaks is a magical place," says writer Blue Balliett, who lives in Hyde Park.
She first discovered it more than a decade ago, when she and her husband, Bill Klein, were guests at a friend's nearby summer home. She wandered the town and was bewitched. Later she and her husband rented a room (there are no hotels or motels in Three Oaks but dozens close by), did some walking and researching and used the town as the setting for "The Danger Box," one of her many best-selling novels for children (and adults), the latest being "Hold Fast."
The town has most recently inspired three men to create Three Oaks Theater Festival.
Tim Evans became the executive director of Skokie's Northlight Theatre in 2007 after spending many years with Steppenwolf Theatre, where he created and produced the theater's Traffic series, and started — with Gary Sinise, Terry Kinney and Jeff Perry — Steppenwolf Films, which develops and produces movie and television projects.
Marc Grapey is one of the city's best and busiest actors and has been for more than two decades. He was a co-founder and three-time artistic director of Famous Door Theatre and has appeared in such plays as "The Iceman Cometh," "Race," "Griller," "Funny Girl," "Richard III" and "The Taming of the Shrew." He has been on Broadway with Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick in "The Odd Couple." He's made movies and been in TV shows.
John Stoops started his career with The Second City and has been an actor, producer and director. He also put his degree from Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management to good use, becoming a vice president at Leo Burnett, the Chicago-based marketing/advertising giant.
"The energy is there, we got the tools and perhaps the wisdom," says Evans. "But instead of being a bunch of college kids heading to Chicago to open a storefront theater, we're three middle-aged guys heading to Michigan to start a theater festival. Go figure."
The inaugural season begins with "The Selfish Giant" by Blair Thomas & Co. on July 6, to be followed by the Mary-Arrchie Theatre Company's production of Tennessee Williams' "The Glass Menagerie" (July 20), the TurnAround Theatre's production of "The Faith Healer" by Brian Friel (July 27) and a world premiere featuring the band Poi Dog Pondering, "Complicated," on Aug. 3. (threeoaksfestival.com).
I have known and admired Evans and Grapey for a very long time. I don't know Stoops, but he appears to be the guy who helped pull the trio together. "This team was born with John meeting with Tim and them bringing me into the fold," says Grapey. "For a few years Tim and I have been talking about the idea of starting a summer performance venue, but it wasn't until John came into the picture that the idea started to take shape."
Says Evans: "Once we were sure we could work together, we quickly raised some money from The Pokagon Fund — a Michigan foundation that supports social services and the arts in the area — took some meetings with the Acorn boys and here we are."
By "Acorn boys" he means David Fink and Kim Clark, who in 2001 opened their Acorn Theater (acorntheater.com) in a former corset and buggy whip factory in Three Oaks. They have spent the ensuing years filling it with creative and adventurous programming, featuring many nationally known acts and local talents of all stripes and styles.
"I have seen many shows at the Acorn and known Kim for a long time," says Grapey. "They are great guys with a great space.
"We selected the plays based on our respect and admiration for the companies and artists involved. The shows were all hits in Chicago. As for 'Complicated,' well, Poi Dog Pondering is a beloved Chicago band. They've played several sold-out shows at the Acorn. And I am married to the director."
That wife/director would be Brigid Murphy, the actor/impresario/writer most known for her "Milly's Orchid Show." "Complicated" was conceived by Murphy, inspired by the band's album "Pomegranate."
"It's a beautiful allegorical tale of one woman's complicated journey to happiness," says Evans, feeling pretty optimistic on the eve of the festival's first show.
"There are a ton of artists and arts supporters in this area," he says. "This is a great opportunity for Chicago theater to reach around the lake, extend its prestige."
Says Grapey: "The interest and support has been terrific. This is the first year of what we hope becomes a big-time theater festival. I'm talking Williamstown, Stratford. I know we are dreaming big here, but those festivals all had first years too."
Talking theater in the wake of the death of Bernie Sahlins, who helped start The Second City more than half a century ago, compelled Evans to say, "Bernie's always been an inspiration to us. His advice was always 'Do the work, enjoy the results and work some more.' We all knew him and like to think that he's on our shoulders, inspiring us to create something good and honest."