Center Stage Pt. 2: A Look Back at SBC’s Community Theatre
Editor’s note: In part two, local writer, actor and director Joe Todaro wraps up the history of Shreveport-Bossier City’s community theatre looking at the schools’ roles in theatre, as well as the future of the performing arts in the area. You can read part one from July’s magazine here.
Ginger Darnell decided to return to her hometown, Shreveport, after launching her professional career in New York. She also married a culture shocked New Yorker by the name of Richard Folmer and transplanted him to Shreveport where she continued her career as a teacher and actor at Centenary College. She was in the inaugural production at Marjorie Lyons Playhouse, The King and I.
Richard didn’t stay culture shocked for long. After a period when he spent time traveling with theatrical companies, entertaining people on the dinner theatre circuit, and dabbling in television and film, he found himself fully immersed in the local theatre scene. Many in the theatre community consider Ginger and Richard to be local royalty and their recent turn in On Golden Pond was an audience success.
The Folmers’ opinion about the health of local theatre is that the community should be aware that the abundance of opportunity could actually be hurting.
“There is so much being done now, it’s difficult for audiences to be able to see everything,” Richard said. “The talent pool and the audience pool get decreased, spread thin, I think. Before, you could afford to go to maybe five shows; now you have five shows on a weekend.” Fewer audience members reduce ticket income, and that means troupes lose money. “Therefore, it makes it difficult for people who want to do shows to do them and pay for them. You can’t blame anybody. People [theatre companies] have to make a living. When we started out, there was PAC, MLP, LSU-S, BPCC and SLT. Now you have the new theatre companies that have popped up: ACT [The Academy of Children’s Theatre], the youth group at SLT, and Stage Center.”
“Peter Pan [Players] was a strong force early on. Isabel Rosenbloom was the first person that gave young people, other than in the school systems, a chance to do shows. Peter Pan was very instrumental and did very well for a long time,” Ginger added.
“Now you’ve got all of these youth groups. Not only does it not allow people to support all of them, it doesn’t let actors work with everyone,” Richard said. It’s not a condemnation, he said, but it can make things difficult for actors who want to have an opportunity to participate in local theatre.
Local theatre has enjoyed the theatrics of its college partners, Centenary College, Bossier Parish Community College, Southern University and LSU Shreveport.
All the schools have a similar situation in that the process of selecting and staging theatricals is different from the other theatres’ process. They have available talent only during school sessions. And, since they are teaching institutions, they work with students who choose the program.
Ray Scott Crawford, PhD, is the dean of the Division of Communication and Performing Arts at BPCC. “We can only do things after I’ve met the students and have to get them done before the semester ends.” Unlike his fellow theatres, Crawford can’t announce a season and cast it but must analyze his available talent and create a season based on their strengths.
“The size of our audience is directly proportional to the popularity and commercial recognition for family audiences of the shows we do,” he said. “So, if we do Peter Pan, it’s going to bring in a lot of people. We did Seussical and we had great audiences. Our children’s shows do extremely well.”
The children’s shows were the brainchild of the late Steven Slaughter who nagged the school administration to get into the theatre business. In 1989, Slaughter decided he wanted to produce a play. He had been a part-time teacher of speech classes at the college. The administration acquiesced and BPCC staged Pajama Game. The show clicked and in 1990, they did Dracula and Grease. “It just kept going. Then they began doing the Christmas show, and that became a part of the community,” Crawford said. “[Steve] would write the Christmas shows, which were wonderful and stupid and silly. In fact, we still do one every year.”
Over the bridge at the head of Texas Street, Dr. Will Andress described the Emmett Hook Center’s process for picking shows. “We’re still working to find our niche. And we think we’ve discovered it being in the old tried and true, the top 10 of the musical realm, like the Rogers and Hammerstein productions, and then the big Disney blockbusters. Probably the highlight of our run was the production of Les Misérables, where we had 140 audition, had a great cast, and we did 10 sold-out performances of 325 people.” Andress said his theatre is always looking forward to the soon-to-be released shows that could have audience appeal.
Steeped in Shreveport theatre from an early age, Drew Edward Hunter was no stranger to the old Storefront Theatre at First Methodist. It’s gone, replaced by the Emmett Hook Center and Hunter is now living in Florida. Along the way, he has made a name for himself as an artist, designer, and notably, the infamous Dr. Blood of those Gas Light Players horror shows staged at the Louisiana State Fairgrounds years ago.
“My parents introduced me to Gaslight Players when [it] was in the old Crystal Ballroom and the Washington Youree Hotel. It’s where the American Tower is now. I saw many of the Shreveport legends on stage like Bob Weimar, Billie Jardine, Ruth Sprayberry,” Hunter said. “In the very early 1970s I met Jimmy and Isabel [Rosenbloom, who created Peter Pan Players], that was right at the beginning of their time. I think their very first play was Peter and the Wolf. I worked with Peter Pan from 1974-75 all the way until I moved from Shreveport in 1985.”
“I also did plays at Marjorie Lyons,” said Hunter. “The most memorable being during Robert Buseick’s very first year at Centenary. The first play he did was Look Homeward Angel and the last play he did in the season was the shocker for Shreveport, which was Marat Sade. I was in several summer musicals. I was in The Music Man with Buddy Flowers. I was very blessed to have worked with some of the Shreveport mega-talents.”
As Hunter mentioned, and many others agree, a turning point in Shreveport theatre history was reached when a 36-year-old Portland, Oregon transplant by the name of Robert Buseick arrived to take over as head of the Theatre Department at Centenary College in 1969.
“I was extremely excited to see the Playhouse and to have the opportunity to be there,” Buseick said. “Orlin Corey had been there and before him was Joe Gifford. My first season was Look Homeward Angel, Marat Sade, Stop the World I Want to Get Off. We also did that year Prince Rabbit, which was a children’s play I had written.”
Others’ opinions on Buseick’s arrival uniformly deemed it a watershed moment for the local stage.
Lane Crockett, who reported on local theatre and reviewed many productions, agreed. “I think, when Bob came, some of the theatres had become a little staid, relying on an aging audience. But Busieck worked with younger actors, and he came in with big ideas for Marjorie Lyons. In the first season he did The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade. You know that long title thing. It set people back. It was a staggering show and he inherited a wonderful group of kids at that time. I think [his arrival] was needed at the time because theatre evolves and there weren’t any newer type plays being done.”
A longtime collaborator of Buseick’s and co-founder with him of River City Repertory Theatre, Patric McWilliams, was effusive in his praise. “Shreveport theatre was fairly a safe, boxed in, conventional take on theatre until Buseick arrived there in, I think, 1969. Then he sort of blew the roof off of theatre there. [Things like] no curtain, immersive, people hanging from trees outside the theatre.
“From that point until we all left it was educating and bringing that audience up to theatre that wasn’t just about sitting there and laughing with your gloves and pearls on. It became theatre that challenged you and made you face topics that maybe you didn’t want to. It introduced theatre as a tool to socially make you think.
“It was very interesting over the years, like a show where a wall was broken. Where the ‘f’ word could be spoken on stage. And you were there, at that moment, when that wall broke and, bang, the audience would accept it,” said McWilliams.
Another of Buseick’s Centenary cohorts was the current head of the school’s theatre department, Don Hooper. “The community doesn’t ‘owe’ Bob anything. However, the theatrical community has prospered because of Bob Buseick and his willingness to push the edges of the social envelope and his demanding of a higher quality of production. In that sense he has explained to this community what we can do and how good we can do it. In that, he uplifted the performance values of our entire region.”
But actors and theatres aren’t the only vital component of local theatre history, according to former Shreveport actor/designer Drew Hunter. “Any discussion of Shreveport theatre cannot exclude the old Piccadilly Restaurant. It was the meeting place. It was where everybody went, not just to wait for reviews of last night’s performance, but after rehearsal. Night after night after night. I’m still friends with Betty Ramey, who was a waitress. I was the last paying person out of Piccadilly the night they closed in August 1985. That was the social club for Shreveport theatre.”
As Crockett pointed out, the world has moved on for local community theatre. The pioneers have made their marks and moved on or passed away. The current community of theatre-makers is keeping the footlights burning for audiences despite all the challenges.
Next time you see or hear that a local theatre group is putting on a show, think about all that has gone into making the current production a reality. It is a rich tapestry of almost 200 years of history, talented people, vigorous volunteer efforts and generous patrons who have made local theatre what it is: another thing that makes Shreveport-Bossier City special.