Center Stage: A Look Back at SBC’s Community Theatre
Editor’s note: In a two-part series, writer and local theatre director Joe Todaro explores the history of Shreveport-Bossier City’s community theatre as well as the challenges experienced by local theatre troupes.
[dropcap]I[/dropcap]f you asked the average theatregoer about the history of local theatre, the answers would probably vary according to the person’s age, taste or a variety of other factors.
Local theatre audiences undoubtedly have their favorite actors, favorite shows, and favorite theatre venues. After all, this area has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to theatre offerings, with numerous troupes offering numerous productions a year, audiences are hard pressed to find a time when someone does not have a play in progress.
Yet despite the choices, all the groups that SB Magazine talked to expressed similar concerns about the theatre community in Shreveport and Bossier City. Community actors are spread thin among all the troupes, the expense of producing theatrical entertainment is daunting and the audiences seem to be disappearing. A look back at history reveals these are not new issues.
When you consider theatre history in Shreveport-Bossier City, your frame of reference plays a role. The time when you began attending theatre likely influences your recollection of the best and most memorable theatrical experiences. But, that frame is exceedingly narrow. This is a look back through many years to get a feel for how community theatre has come to where it is on the local stage.
The Shreveport Little Theatre boasts of being the oldest continuously operating community theatre in the U.S., having begun production in December 1922. Stage Center was formed in 2012, shortly after the dissolution of the Peter Pan Players. Across that 90-year span, and up to today, a lot has happened theatrically, but it is far from the full history of Shreveport-Bossier City’s theatre. The area had a vibrant theatre community for at least 60 years before Shreveport Little Theatre ever produced its first show.
In his History of the Shreveport Little Theatre, Edward D. Brown wrote, “theatrical entertainment was a popular and integral part of the social life of Shreveport from its beginning. Amateur entertainments had been presented from 1835 throughout the rest of the history of the city. Levee warehouses solved the problem of serving as the first rustic theatres. Showboats docked at the levee and presented the more popular minstrels of that time.”
The J.S. Charles Company reportedly produced the first serious drama in Shreveport in 1857. In his master’s thesis at Louisiana State University, Henry Lindsey looked back at the local stage prior to 1900. He wrote that his main source of information for the research was local newspapers, and the earliest available examples were from 1854. In his research, Lindsey reported “several interesting and significant facts.”
In the early days, performances took place in warehouses along Shreveport’s bustling riverfront district, on riverboats or even in tents.
The Gaiety Theatre was completed in 1858 and opened in January 1859 by the Charles Company. Amateur groups continued to stage entertainment during the Civil War, according to Lindsey, saving the theatre from “complete disintegration.”
In the mid-1800s, menageries were the main source of entertainment. A menagerie was generally a collection of wild animals trained to provide entertainment and exhibition. A newspaper article from Jan. 21, 1857 announced the Charles Company would be coming to town and from all reports would regale the local citizenry and was “very good indeed and worthy of patronage.”
A budding stage performer named Adah Isaacs Menken was a member of Charles’s company and went on to establish a name for herself in song, dance, equestrian skill, writing and dramatic acting. Lindsey adds that although Menken was an attraction, she was not the only member of the group with talent and popularity, a view expressed clearly in press coverage of the appearances.
In addition to bringing entertainment to town, Charles seems to be credited with instilling a love for fine drama in the community and being instrumental in starting a movement to construct an attractive theatre building, the Gaiety Theatre. Prior to the construction of The Gaiety, Shreveport had no theatre buildings, but The Banjo showboat was a frequent visitor to the port. Locals craving entertainment went down to the riverfront and boarded the boat to see the shows.
The revival after the war of what Lindsey terms “worthwhile professional theatre” in Shreveport was marked by the arrival in 1869 of “Captain” W. H. Crisp and his company of actors. Talley’s Opera House was constructed in 1871 and was used until 1889 when the Grand Opera House was opened. Lindsey reported that many of the world’s leading artists visited Shreveport by the end of the 19th-century and theatrical entertainment appears to have been a vital and integral part of the social and cultural life of the area.
During Reconstruction in Shreveport following the war, public band concerts were the primary form of entertainment. Newspaper articles indicate that troupes visited after the war, but the economic conditions in the post-war south led many to financial collapse. When Captain Crisp appeared after the war, he reportedly gave new life to the struggling entertainment field.
Shreveport historian Lilla McLure told Lindsey that Talley’s Opera House was built in 1871 by DeLafayette Talley whom migrated South after the war. The building was located at 216-218 Milam Street, and remained standing until at least 1951. In addition to its primary purpose, the opera house reportedly was used as a servicemen’s dance hall during World War I. A group called the Amateur Dramatic Association of Shreveport presented a play there in May 1878 to good reviews. The play was described as an emotional drama entitled Led Astray.
Local theatre was again interrupted by outside forces when the yellow fever epidemic struck the region. Newspaper reports indicate as many as 25 traveling organizations were forced to close because of the disease. Despite the problems, Lindsey wrote, “The period between 1878 and 1888 proved to be one of the richest and most colorful in Shreveport’s theatrical history. With the end of the reconstruction period, more and better troupes visited the city and people had more money to spend.”
In October 1878, John T. Raymond brought his portrayal of Mulberry Sellers in Mark Twain’s The Gilded Age to the opera house. It was a role he would make famous later on the New York stage. The Pomeroy Shakespearean Troupe brought the bard to theatre-upon-Red-River in November 1879. John McCullough, described as one of America’s greatest tragedians, played Talley’s Opera House in 1880, bringing Virginius, Othello and Julius Caesar to life. An amateur light opera company, formed in 1884, performed Patience and The Chimes of Normandy that summer to good reviews.
By the late 1870s, complaints arose concerning the condition of Talley’s Opera House. Touring companies said they needed a larger and better-equipped theatre, and audiences and newspaper editors echoed their complaints. The community responded by building the large, ornate, and well equipped Grand Opera House on the corner of Edwards and Texas Streets, which formally opened on Sept. 17, 1889. The premiere performance was May Blossom staged by the Gilbert-Huntley Company. Early performances at the new theatre, according to newspaper accounts, included An American Princess starring Jennie Calef, described as “America’s Greatest Soubrette.” Other bills at the Grand included The Rose of Castile, starring Emma Abbott, Fanny Hill’s Big Burlesque Company, Sinbad and America, and the Livingston Family of Acrobats.
By 1899, plans were announced for the construction of a summer theatre and dance pavilion. An amateur performance was scheduled to open the venue on May 12, 1899.
As the millennium turned, and all this activity percolated on the banks of Red River, a new theatrical murmuring began across the country. Dubbed the Little Theatre Movement, it was described as an attempt by U.S. based theatres to create dramatic forms and production methods “free of the constraints of large theatre conventions.”
In the early 1900s, some dramatists, stage designers and actors, exposed to the theatre of the late 19th-century, were influenced by the theories of German director Max Reinhardt, design concepts of Adolphe Appia and Gordon Craig, and staging experiments at such places as Theatre-Libre of Paris. The little theatres encouraged freedom of expression and staged the works of promising young writers. They chose scripts based solely on artistic merit. The so-called little theatres provided an early opportunity for playwrights like Eugene O’Neill, George S. Kaufman, Elmer Rice, Maxwell Anderson and Robert E. Sherwood whose works are still performed today throughout the world.
The Shreveport Little Theatre was born in 1922 and its first season was, by all reports, a success. In 1923, bylaws were drawn up and the group was formally established with Duncan Allen Brown as the business manager and Julie Rogers as director. Under their leadership, membership continued to grow for productions, which were being staged in the City Hall auditorium. As the company flourished, it moved its home to the basement of B’Nai Zion Temple for its third season.
Of historic note is The Cajun. The play was the Shreveport entry in the Belasco Cup Tournament at the Nora Bays Theatre in New York in May 1926. It placed second, and as one of two prize-winning productions received a cash prize offered by Samuel French, Inc. playbrokers. Flush with the success of The Cajun, its first three seasons, and a membership that swelled to 375, the group hired Clarence W. King to design a permanent home for the players. Over a period of five years the company moved from City Hall to the basement of the synagogue and finally to the auditorium of the Woman’s Department Club on Margaret Place. Soon it would occupy a $35,000 facility at 812 Margaret Place, where it remains today.
Arthur Maitland, the former director of Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carre in New Orleans, was announced as director for the 1926-27 season. In 1936, the theatre’s fourth director retired, and the board hired John Wray Young whom was the director of the Little Theatre of Duluth, Minnesota. His wife, Margaret Mary Young, became the theatre’s first technical director. The duo would serve the community and its Little Theatre for the next 22 years.
At about the time the Wray’s tenure at Shreveport Little Theatre was ending, another local theatre group was about to get a windfall. Marjorie Lyons was an actress from Dallas that worked, for a time, with The Shreveport Little Theatre. She had plans for building a modern theatre in Shreveport, but then she had a disagreement with John Wray Young. Determined to build her theatre, but unwilling to negotiate with Young, Lyons opted to put the theatre that would bear her name on the campus of Centenary College of Louisiana. The Marjorie Lyons Playhouse was built in 1956.
As The Shreveport Little Theatre provided an outlet for community actors to express their artistic sides, Marjorie Lyons Playhouse (MLP) was the training ground for future thespians, technicians and other practitioners of the theatre arts.
According to current Centenary Theatre Department Chair Don Hooper, the theatre continues to be the major training ground for a lot of the people who work in theater in these communities.
“MLP, from my perspective, has been central to theatre in this region. It has been innovative in theatre, partly because of Centenary College and the institution allowing the theatre to experiment and thrive without a lot of interference, which isn’t always allowed in other theatre formats,” Hooper said. “Where we were allowed to push the limits of the social envelope in doing the first AIDS play in this market, in doing things like Bent and a number of other shows that other theatres, for a myriad of good reasons, couldn’t do. So, Marjorie Lyons Playhouse has been the place that could really delve into the social issues and ask the hard questions.”
The City of Bossier and local artists established East Bank Theatre, housed at the Bossier Arts Council, in 1980. Located in the newly redesigned “East Bank” area of old Bossier City, the theatre is actually the old courtroom and holding cells for the city-owned facility. Actors inhabit dressing rooms that still have vertical metal cell bars in place.
For many years, First United Methodist Church operated its Performing Arts Center out of a converted building nestled among its other buildings at the end of Texas Street in downtown Shreveport. Originally a sawmill, the building later housed a bakery before its resurrection as a performance venue. Creaky with age, plagued by mold, vermin and dicey electrical service, the PAC, as it was affectionately known, was a beloved place for local actors. Some still speak longingly of it today.
In 2010, the church opened the doors of its brand new, state-of-the-art theatrical facility, The Emmett Hook Center for the Performing Arts. Boasting lots of clean space, comfortable dressing rooms and a roomy auditorium, the Center debuted with Crazy for You, a musical inspired by the music of the Gershwin brothers, George and Ira.
In addition to troupes with dedicated facilities, there are several other theatrical groups who produce shows. They rent dedicated theatres or adapt other spaces for their needs. The Shreveport Regional Arts Council recently created a “black box theatre” as a rental space on the street level of the old Central Fire Station.
The Shreveport Little Theatre’s Robert K. Darrow is the managing and artistic director who saw the theatre through the rebuilding after its second devastating fire. In the mid-1980s, the original structure was seriously damaged in a blaze. After producing shows in other venues for a while, the theatre reconstructed the stage and stage house areas and returned to its home on Margaret Place. In 2008, while in the process of renovating and updating the structure, a second fire destroyed the entire structure, necessitating a complete rebuild.
The reconstructed playhouse is currently in its 97th season, and like its ancestors from the mid-1880s, financing continues to be a concern. Despite good attendance and quality show production, Darrow said other factors make having a financially viable theatre challenging. “We’re the, I think, only independent performing arts organization with their own venue,” he said. “The overhead is tremendous. It’s going to take a lot more than our ticket sales and our membership sales to sustain us. Our tickets cover between 40 and 50 percent. We’d have to double our ticket prices and that would put us out of business, I think. You must find innovative ways to raise funds. There’s only so much grant money out there.”
Financing is a universal topic among these theatre groups. Providing for the future is a major concern and assuring the long-term survival of the art form weighs heavily on all the producers’ minds. Actor/director/set designer Richard King said the path to the future is clear. “The young people — that’s the [SLT] Academy and the Children’s theatre — if nothing else, just build our future audience,” he said.
King added that the issue of money is ongoing. “We always talk about how theatres don’t have any money,” King said. He explained the same was true when he arrived in Shreveport. “They really didn’t have any money. I built the set for Cheaper by the Dozen for less than $8. It was cardboard and donated paint and my blood and sweat.”
Even though local theatres are used to working with limited resources, King said the community could be a big help. “We need an angel or two and some people who are good at fundraising who are willing to put in some time. We’ve got plenty of actors and directors, although not enough technical types, and certainly not enough people to promote the theatre.” King said that lack of promotion, as well as the number of different theatre groups, are possible reasons for diminishing audiences. “Shreveport’s a great big little town,” he added.
Patric McWilliams, co-founder of the River City Repertory professional theatre group in Shreveport lives in a great big, big town — New York City. Audiences are not a problem if the show is what people want to see. “If you do Neil Simon you get people in the seats. But if you do some play like Angels in America, it’s an empty space with five people sitting there,” he said. “That’s going on here in New York on Broadway. It’s gotten to be that if it’s not a Disney musical, you don’t get an audience. There are those sorts of things that will shoot through like a comet and be above that, like Hamilton. But for the most part, Broadway is starting to look like a Disney theme park.”
Appealing to a younger audience is not just a New York concept. Jared Watson and partner Seth Taylor started Stage Center in 2012 and Watson said they have a specific goal in mind. “I feel like we do shows that are a little bit more contemporary, not the same old, you know. I’m not trying to throw shade at anybody, and I’m certainly not trying to say that I’m better than anybody, because I don’t think that I am. I just think that we do something a little bit differently that’s maybe for a younger audience. I feel like my company does something that none of the other companies are doing. And that’s what I consider to be picking shows that somebody my age would want to go and see.”
Age is only one factor that attracts audiences. Angelique Feaster-Evans is a Centenary College graduate and executive director and founder of Mahogany Ensemble Theatre. She saw an opportunity to serve a group of actors and an audience she felt was underserved. “Having a platform for African-American, young and old individuals to be able to come and showcase their talent was important to me,” Feaster-Evans said. “In mainstream theatre, every season is not necessarily going to have roles that are there for [actors] of color. I think Mahogany provides the platform for our not being the exception or what [a director] needs for a show. You can’t do certain shows without a specific African-American actor. The genre of African-American theatre is broad enough that we can have a place. I love it when we are able to partner with other theatres, but I think we are needed and we are necessary.”
After more than a dozen years of playing in a variety of venues, Feaster-Evans is still looking for a way to create a permanent home for her troupe to share their talents with the community.
Until a few years ago, local actors who shared their talents on the stage knew there would ultimately be a review of the performance. Lane Crockett and the late Jim Montgomery were the writers actors loved to hate. They wrote those highly anticipated, yet dreaded, reviews of plays presented in Shreveport. For Crockett, it provided a bird’s eye seat for a lot of local theatre history. When he arrived in town, the scope of local theatre was a surprise.
“Unlike a lot of intermediate-sized cities, they had a very thriving theatre community and very good actors. It was a cornucopia of different types of theatre. And they developed Peter Pan Players, which was the first children’s theatre. Shreveport had a lot to offer,” Crockett said. “I wish they still did. But you know what happened, some of the people heading them moved or they’re gone, and nobody picks up the slack.”
Still, Crockett added, Shreveport has a thriving theatre community. “Theatres in Shreveport and actors have always been lucky to have audiences and keep a lot of theatre troupes going. At one time there were about eight or nine theatre companies, so there was a lot to do,” he said. “I think that being an actor here was tough because there were so many choices and you had to be pretty good most of the time, because there were so many good actors around. That’s kind of unusual for a city this size.”
Even without critics, the show must go on. In August’s issue, SB Magazine will continue to look at the modern theatre scene and get a hint of what might be behind the curtain.