Theatre Tulsa Celebrating 85th Anniversary

Contributing Editor

HISTORY LESSON? Hollywood has often been accused of playing fast and loose with the facts in their historical movies, but Cecil B. DeMille had nothing on Theatre Tulsa when it presented “The Complete History of America.??? Brought to you by the same people who dreamed up an evening called “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Abridged,??? this scene from the whimsical look at America’s forefathers shows Jerrod Kopp (the fellow in the three-corner hat), T. J. Bowlin (long hair) and Nate Gavin (the George Washington wannabe).

Courtesy Theatre Tulsa

Now in its 85th season Theatre Tulsa is, well, the Tulsa Little Theater once again.

That latter name is the same the organization had when it began its existence with a bill of one-act plays performed in a tent.

In the early 1930s it moved to a permanent structure at 15th Street and Delaware Avenue. in a building that looked like a brick-lined Quonset hut. It stayed there until deterioration forced the theater to move to the Performing Arts Center’s John H. Williams Theater. Now most of the plays are done at the Liddy Doenges Theater in the PAC.

It is an immense downsizing. At the Delaware Playhouse, with over 400 seats, Tulsa Little Theater reached a zenith of 7,000 season subscribers. Its performances ran six times a week over a three-week run with a fourth weekend thrown in for good measure, resulting in a total of 27 performances that could accommodate roughly 11,000 theatergoers for a popular hit. A standard season offered six plays and a summer musical.

Today a production can play to about 280 or so patrons a day through a six-performance run. The season subscribers number fewer than 400.

Still, says Theatre Tulsa (the name was changed in the 1970s) President Sally Adams, the future has rarely been brighter.

“For years we have been suffering from heavy debts, but the past few presidents have done a wonderful job of getting us out of the financial mire, and now we actually have a little money in the bank. We’ve got our costs down. Now it takes about $15,000 to $25,000 to put on a show, and we can do it by parceling out the work that needs to be done. We used to have a lighting and sound director, and now Wolf Audio does it on a show-by-show basis and does a wonderful job. We have a group of directors to choose from depending on the play. We have an office manager who is part-time. The actors and many of the people who work backstage do it for free. We are no longer wondering if the theater is going to be around next year.”

In its heyday in the 1940s and 1950s, Tulsa Little Theater had the local scene to itself. The occasional professional company might come by to play for one or two nights at Convention Hall, but for the most part the community theater had a stranglehold on Tulsa’s theatergoers.

In those days, Theater Tulsa’s seasons might mirror the Broadway offerings of a couple of years previous. The Great White Way was filled with new productions and the standards were such that most plays, like most movies, could be seen by the entire family.

Those days are gone and, says Adams, the royalty cost of anything relatively new is astronomical. Thus many theatrical seasons rely on plays that have been around long enough to be relative bargains to produce.

Still, a good play is a good play regardless of its age. No one is waiting breathlessly to see the new “Hamlet Returns;” they’re perfectly satisfied with the old one.

This season, Theatre Tulsa started off with a critically praised production of “A Lion in Winter.” “The Dresser” is in rehearsal and it will be followed by Noel Coward’s “Private Lives,” “Sex, Love and the IRS” and “She Loves Me.” All will be done in the Doenges Theater except “She Loves Me,” which is a musical and demands the space the John H. Williams Theater can give.
The Theatre Tulsa audience may be down, says Adams, but with so many theater companies total Tulsa theatrical attendance may be up and most of the companies are doing well.

“The difference is the Tulsa Area Community Theater Alliance,” she says, “which was begun to help theaters cut costs by assisting each other. We recently needed a piece of equipment that we were going to have to build from scratch for a historical play. Another theater, which had done the play a couple of years ago, had that equipment gathering dust in a warehouse and loaned it to us. We loan things to other theaters. Costs go down. Theaters help each other keep the costs down and that ultimately increases the choices for the Tulsa audience”

In the meantime, Theatre Tulsa keeps offering an opportunity for local amateurs, many of whom are better than many professionals, to strut upon the stage. It is conducting workshops. It offers the old opportunity to build sets, costumes, and all the adornments of theater.

“I feel,” says Adams, “we’re being the leader we think we should be.”

Updated 11-01-2007

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