RailRonn Toebaas isn't one to boast about his accomplishments - nor is he one to get on his soapbox about his artistic philosophy. Yet underneath a larger-than-life presence, there exists a thoughtful wisdom and a great devotion for creating that's contagious.
"I think the passion that I have for the arts has been vital in giving me focus and direction in life," the 72-year-old said during an interview in his home nestled near a hill in Galena, Ill.
For more than 45 years, Toebaas' beloved muse has been the theater.
As an actor and director, he has embraced productions numbering in the hundreds, ranging from dramas to comedies and from musicals to light opera.
Respected and admired by fellow actors, directors and community members, Toebaas has embraced theatrical successes with his integrity intact.
"It never was about creating for money," he said. "I always was drawn to what would be greater creative challenges."
A path set early
A native of Evanston, Ill., Toebaas began his sojourn the way many aspiring thespians do - in the seats.
"When I was 4, my baby sitter used to take me to the movies," he said. "By the time I was 6 or 7, I often was going to see just as many local plays."
Toebaas became serious about theater in high school, where he received leading roles in productions, as well as top ratings at competitions.
He was a theater major at the University of Wisconsin-Madison - where he met his wife and theatrical collaborator, Alice - before transferring and graduating from Loyola University, in Chicago. But, according to Toebaas, that hardly made him a finished product.
"I came out of college the way many theater majors do - thinking I really knew how to act but realizing that I didn't know a thing," Toebaas said, laughing.
Eager to hone his craft, he began studying at the Ted Liss Actors Studio, a prestigious and intensive training ground founded by the Chicago North Shore acting and directing icon.
Liss - well-known for his appearance in feature films and voice overs - coached several actors who moved on to prominent careers in theater, television and film.
"It was a place for budding actors to develop very fast," Toebaas said.
He began acting in Chicago. One production he auditioned for was led by Pat Terry, who would become a lifelong friend, eventually relocating to a neighboring home in Galena with her husband, Joe.
"Ronn was an immediate standout," Terry said. "He was cooperative and genuinely helpful. And, he sang so well. He was always for the art and was very positive."
The two also acted with one another in a few productions. But before long, Toebaas realized something.
"Good actors were a dime a dozen in Chicago," he said. "Good directors, on the other hand, weren't always."
Toebaas decided to try his hand at coaching actors from his North Shore turf, founding The Actor's Forum. It later evolved as a company known as The Actor's Ensemble. During this time, Toebaas became a drama teacher at Chicago St. Scholastica Academy, a private, Roman Catholic, Benedictine, all-girls high school.
The opportunity would further foster his true calling as a director.
"Because it was an all-girls school, I would bring in male actors I had been coaching for some of the productions at the school," Toebaas said.
'The grand pooh-bah
of the North Shore theater scene'
For the next nine years, Toebaas would continue teaching and making a name for himself on Chicago's North Shore Theater Scene as an acting coach and director.
American playwright Sarah Ruhl, two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist and Tony Award nominee whose mother was directed by Toebaas in Chicago, dubbed him, "the grand pooh-bah of the North Shore theater scene."
All the while, Toebaas remained dedicated to passing on his knowledge and love of theater.
"I would be coaching actors, directing other productions and then would come home and grade papers until 2 in the morning," Toebaas said. "I look back now and think, 'How did I do all of that?' But when you're young and foolish, you can get away with that."
His wife, Alice, frequently worked by his side as a costumer.
"Her mistake was marrying a director," Toebaas joked. "I was directing an Elizabethan play called 'White and Red.' Alice asked, 'What are you going to do for costumes?' I had no budget. So, Alice took it upon herself to design and sew them. That was her first time costuming, and of course, they were wonderful. She always used to say that if she could draw a costume, she could sew it because she'd have a pattern."
And, while the couple worked frequently with one another, they supported each other's budding theatrical interests.
"We would work together, but we also worked apart," Toebaas said. "There were shows I directed with other costumers, and she was asked to costume productions that I was not directing. So, she became a respected artist that was recognized in her own right."
What Alice lacked in formal training, she made up for in her attention to detail, her knack for historical accuracy and her passion for history and research, as well as the couple's shared Norwegian roots.
The latter would bring the couple westward by the mid-1970s.
There and back again
The Toebasses had traveled through Galena several times during weekend getaways from Chicago.
"We fell in love with the area," Toebaas said. "It has historical charm."
In 1975, with an apartment in the Chicago, the two decided to purchase an old miner's cottage in Galena as a second home, eventually relocating to the area permanently.
In 1986, the couple joined forces with another theatrical couple from the area - Carole Sullivan and Jan Lavacek, who were introduced to the Toebaas' by Terry - and founded Galena Main Street Players Theater Company.
"The four of us made a good team," Toebaas said. "There was Alice, who was a wonderful costumer; Carole, who had great business sense and who was a good director, actress and musician; Jan, who was a good technician; and me, who directed and loved set-dressing and props. Between all of us, we were able to represent all of the pillars of theater."
Sullivan and Lavacek agreed.
"If I was directing, he was acting, and if he was directing, I was acting," Sullivan said. "As a director, Ronn is able to communicate what he wants without making the actor into anyone else. That can be challenging when directing."
"We all wanted to do the best we could possibly do, which made it very easy when working with each other," Lavacek added. "We all were on the same page to create quality theater."
In its earliest days before mounting larger productions including dramas, comedies and musicals, Main Street Players was run as a small-scale, paid, professional theater company. It specialized in performing original works inspired by Galena's history. It was something that Toebaas found especially appealing.
"I have a fascination with plays that have a historical setting," he said. "I think that's a theme that runs through all of the work that I am drawn to produce - a love of history."
In the early 1990s, they purchased another home in Downer's Grove, Ill., but kept their Galena cottage.
For the next nine years, Toebaas served as the artistic and managing director for the Theatre of Western Springs, which staged five large-scale shows each performance season, spanning two performance spaces.
"We did an avant-garde piece, a Christmas show, children's theater," Toebaas said. "It was a great challenge, but it was a scheduling nightmare. There would often be three plays being rehearsed, mounted and performed all at the same time. I would need to do all of the research for all five plays in one summer. It really burned me out."
Toebaas said he refueled his creative juices by attending a respected Shakespearean theater company in Canada.
"That would get me excited about doing theater again," he said.
But by 2004, he and Alice were ready to call northwest Illinois home for good. They sold their home in Downer's Grove, as well as their miner's cottage, and purchased a new home in Galena. Alice began working as a curator for the Galena History Museum. And in 2006, Toebaas began researching, writing, producing and directing the Galena Cemetery Walk, which benefited the museum. It also was published as a book, "Voices from the Grave," and still is performed each year, depicting historic figures buried in Greenwood Cemetery.
"There are such amazing stories to be found in the legacy and the residents of Galena," Toebaas said.
Sullivan said she believes the cemetery walks are among Toebaas' most significant contribution to the arts in the area.
"He's made them very, very meaningful," she said.
"He's like our local Orson Welles," Terry added. "He acts, directs, produces, writes, researches ... It's hard to measure. There are so many different things he's done."
Alice succumbed to a long and courageous battle with cancer in 2011. She and Toebaas had been married for 46 years.
"We met in anthropology class at UW-Madison," Toebaas said. "She used to say she was studying her man. And, I was studying my woman. Obviously, we both passed the course."
Though a difficult transition, Toebaas keeps her memory alive.
"There was a period of time that I wasn't sure where I was going after that," he said.
But Toebaas' passion for the arts seemed to carefully guide his way.
This month, his love of history and knack for auction-hunting launched him into another career as an antiques dealer on Galena's Main Street. He also returned to collaborating with Main Street Players, directing Michigan-based actress and friend RoseAnne Shansky in her signature role as Emily Dickinson in the one-women play, "The Belle of Amherst," at the DeSoto House Hotel, in Galena.
His future goals include reviving theater in the town.
"Each fall, I hope to be able to produce quality, professional productions locally, whether I am bringing in actors from Chicago or working with local talent," Toebaas said. "Theater is something that is missing in Galena. And, of course, we lack a good performance space. But it's something I would like to contribute. I think it's important to have the arts in the community. And, I think Galena can be a theater town."
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