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The Artistic Community Theatre of Pekin plants itself in a permanent location for the first time in 20 years

ACT of Pekin building
Artistic Community Theatre of Pekin Facebook page
President of the ACT of Pekin Tara Williams (left) and Treasurer Nona Buster in front of the theatre's new location in Pekin.

After 20 years of moving between temporary locations, The Artistic Community Theatre of Pekin (ACT) has finally secured a permanent home.

The theater's new building will be located in downtown Pekin at 407 Court Street. Nona Buster, treasurer of the ACT, purchased the property with her husband late last year. She says while she’s relieved the theater will finally have a location to grow and flourish, the journey there was not easy.

“You can’t really have a season because you don’t know where you are going to be able to be next. It’s been a group effort actually to keep us going all this time … It’s so hard to keep the word out there, keep us out there,” Buster said.
After years of moving around, Buster began to realize that the theater would not survive much longer without their own building.

“And so I started looking … for something that would work. We decided we wanted to be in Pekin, but it took several years to find the right place,” said Buster.

The organization originated in Bartonville in the early 80s under the name of Campus Community Theatre, performing at what was formerly the Bartonville state hospital. Once the hospital was sold to the city of Bartonville, the group moved into Pekin and began performing in the pavilion owned by the Pekin Park District. Though they were able to stay there for a few years, the park district eventually decided to remodel the pavilion, leaving the ACT without a space once more.

Nona Buster, Treasurer of the ACT of Pekin
Jody Holtz
Nona Buster, treasurer of the ACT of Pekin.

From there the group tried to secure any performance location they could find, from a shoe store in the former Pekin mall, to libraries, churches, and restaurants, until they finally planted on Court street. The building will need to undergo renovations to make it a suitable performance space, however Buster says the ACT already has big plans underway.

“We’ll probably be … starting out with light murder mysteries, one-act comedies, that kind of thing. We also have plans for maybe a comedy night where amateur comedians can come in and apply their trade, practice on an audience. We’d like to do a playwright weekend … we’ll do children’s theater, acting classes, makeup. We have plans for all of that,” Buster said.

While there isn’t a set opening date, Buster says she hopes they will be ready to open the space come fall. However, she acknowledges that may be wishful thinking, as the property still needs more work done on the inside in order to convert it into a proper theater.

“We’re putting in a bar area where we can have snacks and drinks. We’re hoping to get a liquor license for maybe beer and wine. The back room is nice and big, we're building a backstage and a stage. It’s not huge, it's bigger than it looks on the outside, but we can seat 50 people … we are not doing theater seating. We are doing tables and chairs so that we can move things around and keep people apart if we need to,” said Buster.

The pandemic has hit all arts organizations, but especially theaters since it’s been almost impossible to have large indoor gatherings. Thus, the ACT is planning and organizing with COVID in mind, and is preparing for whatever pivoting they might have to do in the future. This sort of planning is a luxury the organization hasn’t had in over 20 years.

“Now, in our own building, we’ll be able to put together a season, two weekends of shows. We don’t have to file 200 people in for one performance to get the money to go on,” Buster said.

The benefits of the new location don’t end at finally being able to produce a full season of shows. The building’s prime location in downtown Pekin is going to not only be helpful in integrating the ACT back into the community, but Buster says it will also bring in more traffic to surrounding business as well.

“We would be open up to all the events that happen on Court Street and want to be a part of that. The downtown businesses are very happy that we’re coming in because it’ll bring more business for everyone ... I think Pekin is more than ready for more art forms.”

While Buster anticipates the business side of things to run smoothly, the impact the theater will have on its community members is priceless.

“It will be absolutely wonderful. Learning theater and getting self confidence, learning how to speak publicly, how to represent yourself — there’s richness and interest and support of the arts in our daily lives that benefits everyone more than just the drudgery of moving one foot in front of the other. I believe that and I think that a lot of people believe that, and so that’s kind of our main concern to enrich everyone’s lives,” Buster explains.

The Artistic Community Theatre of Pekin’s first organizational meeting since the shut down in 2020 will be this Thursday, March 3, at 7 p.m. at 407 Court Street. All are welcome to attend as the theater sets its sights on rebuilding the ACT from the ground up and planning their season.

For more information on the ACT of Pekin, visit its Facebook page.

Jody Holtz is WCBU's assistant development director, assistant program director, host of WCBU's newsmagazine All Things Peoria and producer of WCBU’s arts and culture podcast Out and About.