City’s Theatrical Outlook Considered Bright in ’64
Wichita Eagle, December 28, 1963
This is the third in a series of articles by local civic leaders outlining some of the problems and areas of progress in Wichita as the end of the year approaches.
Mary Jane Teall was one of the organizers of the Experimental Theater which became the Wichita Community Theater, Inc. She has directed all of its productions since it originated in 1946. During the same period she has been an assistant professor of drama and speech at the University of Wichita. She is married to Robert Teall and has two children, Lee Woodard and Marilyn Podgornik.
By Mary Jane Teall
What can Wichitans expect theatrically in the future? Predictions are always difficult and dangerous, but in the light of plans for the new Civic Center, predictions can be optimistic in terms of growth, innovations, and the chance of accomplishing both. Wichita’s proposed Civic Center will surely five imeptus the theater. The large theater should attract audiences which will warrant an increase in the booking of road shows.
The “Little Theater” in the new Civic Center, which will be used by the Wichita Community Theater, because of the uniqueness of the stage and equipment and the newness and intimacy of audience-actor relationship will require fresh and imaginative design and direction, even perhaps a new style of play. Wichita is likely to have a theater plant sufficiently new and distinctive in design to attract national attention.
It is hoped that it also will attract an increasing number of local skeptics and non-theater goers.
Between the present and the competion of the Civic Center, we can expect a continuation of the varied theatrical fare and consistent quality. Emlyn Williams already has been signed by the Community Theater for two nights in February, 1965, to bring his one-man show of Dickens to Wichita. The expected growth of the University of Wichita in Kansas should make more talent and workers available to the University and Experimental theaters. If audiences indicate interest, the Community Theater Workshop will expand its experimental theater.
As to what the people in the Wichita area can do… You can attend the theater. Theater does not come to you. You go to it. You anticipate, make plans with friends, buy tickets in advance, you dress for it. Once there you give yourself utterly to it with “a willing suspension of disbelief.” Theater is special. It is alive, never the same twice. It should be an occasion.
In return for the audience’s efforts, theater can give laughter, insight, compassion, escape, and glimpses of what men have thought and felt since time began.
Wichita no longer has five to seven professional theaters playing melodrama or farce nightly. But it does have theater, and in scope of material its theater equals or surpasses Broadway and off-Broadway. The productions are visually exciting, sufficiently well done to be entertaining and moving, and prices range from 60 cents to $5 a seat.
For the skeptic who scoffs “What theater?,” we would defend the point that theater in Wichita is distinguished by the broad swath it cuts through the dramatic literature of 15 centuries. Let us do this by examining the local theaterical offerings during a span of six months (October 1963 through March 1964.)
During this period, the theater-goer can see two Shakespearean plays, “The Taming of the Shrew” (professional repertory on tour), “Macbeth” (Wichita University Theater); Sophocles’ “Oedipux Rex” (professional); two plays of the avant garde Absurdist Theater by Edward Albee, “The Sandbox” and “The American Dream” (WU Theater); four Broadway hits…. the Community Theater’s “Take Her, She’s Mine” with Hugh Marlowe, and “The Best Man,” professional road companies in “A Man for All Seasons” and “A Thousand Clowns;” a smash Broadway musical, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” (brought by Harry Peebles); two different productions of Stephen Vincent Benet’s “John Brown’s Body” (Community Theater and Friends University); Garcia Lorca’s poetic “The House of Bernarda Alba” (WU Theater); and a lavish production of Offenbach’s “The Tales of Hoffman” (WU Opera Theater). Add ot these Genet’s “The Black,” Sartre’s “No Exit,” and short plays and original scripts performed in the Community Theater’s Experimental Workshop; two outstanding Children’s Theater presentations, and it seems that the variety of the local theatrical menu stands up rather favorably with the theatrical listings in the current “New Yorker.”
A total of eight productions are firmly scheduled to complete the current season by mid-May. These include a musical, “The Fantistics” (WU), an opera (WU), the prize-winning “Member of the Wedding” (Community Theater), and two Children’s Theater plays.
There is also summer theater. The first week in July the Community Theater’s “Commedia” will open again to run continuously on weekends through August with satirical sketches, songs, and improvisations, and the University Theater will produce at least one play.
Thanks to the Harry Peebles Theatrical Agency and an annual importation of the Community Theater, Wichita has some professional theater. But perhaps as significant as the spectator experience offered to virtually every taste and age, is the opportunity to work in the production of plays.
Productions of quality are created in Wichita by its own citizens. People of varying skills and abilities, ranging in age from 10 to 72, are an essential and creative part of the back-stage, on-stage, and managerial operations of local theater. Working under experienced professionals, they keep themselves alive and growing.
Community Theater participants average over 300 annually, and there is always need for more actors, carpenters, painters, seamstresses, electricians, gag writers, handy men, leg men, idea men (or women, of course), ticket sellers, and reliable workers with time. The Children’s Theater directed by Irene Vickers Baker has similar opportunities and needs. Any student attending the University of Wichita may work in the University Theater directed by Dick Welsbacher or in the student produced Experimental Theater. There is a cry for more student participation in theaters at both WU and Friends.
Theater programs in all of the local high schools have vitality, variety, and wide student-parent support. All have shown marked growth in the past five years. The Community Theater offers courses throughout the year in creative dramatics for children, in acting for teen-agers, and for adults, and in training of recreation and church directors, taught by Jean Ann Stevens and Elizabeth Sherbon. The Wichita Art Association has classes for children in dance and dramatics taught by Osythe Dearsmith Moore.
The old “legit houses” are dark or have given way to parking lots, but theater of stature, excitement, entertainment, and beauty still plays in Wichita, and enough of it that a theater-going habit can be formed. It is even possible that more than the population’s 10 per cent who now regularly or infrequently see a play might find delight and wisdom at the theater.
Copyright Wichita Eagle, 1963