Logan County History: Mad River Theater Works History


By: Jeff Hooper, Founder of Mad River Theater Works

Mad River Theater Works was founded in 1978 in Yellow Springs, Ohio, by Jeff Hooper. Originally called ‘Little Miami Theater Works,’ the mission of the company was to create and tour plays based on the history and culture of rural Ohio. The name rooted the work in a specific place and emphasized that original ‘works’ took precedence over physical theater. Jeff set about collecting the stories of older people in the area about what it was like to grow up on farms and in small towns in the early 20th century. He discovered a wonderful memoir by a retired farmer from Greene County named Ed Bradfute and, after interviewing Ed and his wife Grace, created the company’s first production, ‘Whistlestop’ which was presented at Yellow Springs Center Stage in February 1979 with a small group of volunteer actors.

The company moved to London, Ohio, that spring when it received a large government employment grant, and six full-time researchers/performers were added. For the next two years, Little Miami appeared at county fairs, Grange halls, and Farm Bureau meetings with everyone assisting in gathering stories and presenting them to the public. The grant ran out and the company moved to West Liberty in 1981, continuing to tour storytelling plays about rural life in Ohio mostly to farm groups and festivals.

School touring was launched in 1985 with ‘Coming of Age’ about growing up on a farm at the turn of the century. The offering was so popular that Little Miami was able to employ a full-time company of performers presenting 8-10 shows per week throughout west central Ohio. Music also became an integral part of the performances when the company added Rick Good as a performer. Little Miami also conducted 3-4 school residencies each year in which the performers assisted students as they collected stories from older residents of their communities and created original plays based on their stories.

It was during a residency in Mechanicsburg, Ohio, in 1987 that Jeff came across the story of Addison White, his journey on the Underground Railroad, and his rescue by the citizens of Mechanicsburg in 1857. This story became the basis of ‘Freedom Bound,’ the most popular show ever created by the company. Bob Lucas joined the company as a songwriter and performer, and ‘Freedom Bound,’ with a script by Jeff Hooper and songs by Bob Lucas, premiered as the first production in a summer season in a tent just outside West Liberty. The name of the company was changed to Mad River Theater Works to reflect the company’s new home in West Liberty and to avoid confusion with Miami, Florida, which was happening as a result of the company’s growing national reputation.

The summer season continued from 1988 to 1992. In addition to Freedom Bound, four other original full-length plays were presented: ‘Black Hats,’ ‘Coyote Road,’ ‘Evelyn and the Polka King’ and ‘Shooting Star.’ School touring continued and Mad River began to tour nationally with ‘Freedom Bound.’

The road was not always smooth. It was difficult to find enough bookings to sustain national tours and the summer season required a tremendous amount of energy. The shows in the tent, while artistically satisfying and well-attended, were never able to generate enough ticket sales to support themselves.

The end of the summer season led to a new, smaller company centered on resident composer and performer Bob Lucas, and Ernest Jordan, an extraordinary African-American performer. Jeff and Bob created ‘John Henry’ in 1995. Using only two performers, the show was presented at a national showcase for young audiences and was a hit. Bookings poured in from across the country and ultimately led to an association with an agent, Baylin Artists Management.

School touring in Ohio continued as the national touring picked up steam. New shows were created each year and, after a spring and fall tour to Ohio schools, were offered to national audiences. Original productions with scripts by Jeff Hooper and music by Bob Lucas included ‘Wings of Courage’ about the first African-American fighter pilot in World War I, ‘Casey Jones,’ ‘Everybody’s Hero,’ the Jackie Robinson story, and ‘Walk On,’ the story of Rosa Parks, among many others.

Jeff turned Mad River Theater Works over to Bob Lucas in 2007 and he served as artistic director until 2020 with managing director Chris Westhoff. Jeff and Bob’s shows continued to tour nationally, and other shows were created and toured in Ohio. Chris Westhoff took over the leadership of Mad River and moved the company to Yellow Springs in 2023.
Mad River Theater Works has premiered over 35 original productions in its 46-year history. Of those, over 30 were written by Jeff Hooper with music by Bob Lucas. Mad River tours to more than 20 states each year and reaches an annual audience of over 75,000 students, teachers, parents, and others. Mad River has reached a combined audience of over 3 million since its beginnings in Yellow Springs, and the company continues to create new plays and reach new audiences throughout the United States.

Information and photos courtesy of Jeff Hooper, Founder of Little Miami Theatre Works / Mad River Theatre Works.
For more information on Mad River Theatre Works visit their website at https://madrivertheater.com/ or their Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100064459338866

Visit the Logan County History Center at 521 E. Columbus Ave., Bellefontaine, Ohio 43311, to learn more interesting aspects of Logan County History.
The History Center is open for tours Wednesday – Sunday from 1:00 pm to 4:00 pm.