Written by Rebecca Budde • Photography by James Hawker
Though the stage is her home, the audience won’t find Renata Rimkus under the spotlights at the Springfield Muni. “No way, not me,” she says with a laugh. A leading role at center stage is not what Renata desires for herself; she’d rather spend her time helping shine the spotlight on others.
Renata, a receptionist in the Department of Neurology, and her husband, Tony, have been the caretakers of the Muni since 2009. Tony, a technician for Pepsi, heard about the caretaker position one summer day as he shut down the soda lines for the season, a volunteer job he’s performed for a number of years. Tony told Renata about the position, and the couple drove back to the Muni that same day to find out more information. It didn’t take long for the couple to audition for the part. Watching the shows for free all summer, meeting new people and not having to pay for rent or utilities sounded like a scene from a play. About a year later, they packed up their belongings, sold their Springfield home and moved to the Muni, into their new mobile home located just behind stage right.
As caretakers, the couple run the concessions for three days during dress rehearsals the first week and then Wednesday through Sunday nights during the second week of the show for the actors and volunteers. They also provide maintenance for the grounds in front of their home and keep watch over the property. The busy summer schedule means working outside most of the night with little time for conversation or dinner.
Twelve years ago, Renata wouldn’t have been physically able to manage the responsibilities of the caretaker position. “The heat and being on my feet for so long would’ve been too much for me,” says Renata. Her weight has been something she’s struggled to manage for many years, and she chose to have gastric bypass surgery in 2000. About 170 pounds lighter now, Renata is proud of her healthier lifestyle, which gives her the energy to appreciate life at the Muni.
Tony and Renata both agree that they are thoroughly enjoying the experience and plan to remain the caretakers for another 8 to 10 years. The downside for Renata: “It takes up all our spring and summer,” she says. She also admits to being a little more tired than usual on Monday mornings during the season. “The rest of the year though, the Muni is deserted.”
Come fall, the property may be deserted of people, but once the shows stop the Rimkuses have an audience of their own: coyotes, owls, red foxes and deer, which have been known to peek into their living room window. “As long as I don’t see a snake, I’m fine,” says Renata. “The day we moved in, I did see a snake though, and I said, ‘We’re movin’!’”
Her threat didn’t hold. After making friends with a lively cast of characters like “the Diva of Doodads,” and seeing a variety of great musicals ranging from “Fiddler on the Roof” to this year’s projected sell-out, “Beauty and the Beast,” Renata finds herself bitten by the showbiz bug. “It’s fascinating to watch the performers do their hair, makeup and get into costume and transform into the character they are playing,” she says.
After the fireworks light the sky on the final night of each show, the makeup comes off, costumes are put away and the crew noisily strikes the set, sometimes working until 3:00 in the morning. Renata returns to her home at stage right to rest for ‘Act 2’: her daytime role as a receptionist for the SIU neurology clinic.
In the morning, perhaps a little groggy from the hectic weekend, she dons her costume: a chocolate brown lab coat with SIU’s logo embroidered on the front. She’s surrounded by the backdrop of the SIU neurology clinic at 751 N. Rutledge St. As the receptionist, she takes her cue from the arrival of a patient. But Renata isn’t acting. Her naturally warm, inviting personality puts people at ease. “She enjoys talking with the patients, and she knows them all by name,” says co-receptionist Becky Matrisch.
Renata has played many parts at SIU since she was first hired in 2002 as extra help for the Department of Internal Medicine. Though it may not feel like center stage to her, Renata’s role as a receptionist at SIU puts her in the front line when the patients first arrive. Her ‘opening performance’ is vital for the success of the rest of the SIU team.