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The Boom in Off (‘Way Off) Broadway, Pageant, September 1964

WCT Newsletter 1964-1965 – Pageant Magazine Page 1
WCT Newsletter 1964-1965 – Pageant Magazine Page 2
WCT Newsletter 1964-1965 – Pageant Magazine Page 3

The Boom in Off (‘Way Off) Broadway

BY CREIGHTON PEET

Broadway‘s ailing, but excited audiences in Wichita and thousands of other U.S cities prove the boom is on the stage.

The Broadway Theater is a fabulous and aging invalid who now and then rises from her bed to perform a miracle. She then promptly sinks back into what must certainly by now be the most expensive invalidism in history.

When the 1962-63 sick bill was toted up, for instance, it was found that of 51 on new shows opening on Broadway, only nine had shown a profit at the end of the season, although a few got into the black that summer and a few more may make it with out-of-town runs.

This year, With no new native-born talent to create the stir that Edward Albee did last year with his Afraid of Virginia Wool?, and with an investigation of “ice” (the profits made by ticket scalpers) scaring off investors, the outlook seems even less promising for homegrown serious drama. In fact, six plays have opened and closed the same night: Bicycle Ride to Nevada, Once for The Asking, Have I Got A Girl For You!, Abraham Cochran, A Murderer Among Us, and Sunday Man.

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But the theater in Houston and Wichita and Seattle and Columbus and Atlanta and about 3000 other rides and towns across the United States is a lusty adolescent growing bigger and healthier every day. There are even some signs he’s growing so rapidly that he may one day be strong enough and know his trade well enough to give his ailing aunt some gentlemanly assistance. In Wichita, Kansas, for instance, there is a humming, clicking enterprise called the Wichita Community Theater, which has shown a profit every year since its inception back in 1946.

Its first performances were given in the Unitarian Church, which could accommodate only 185 thin people in its pews. No admission was charged. Instead a milk carton into which anyone who felt so inclined could drop a contribution was left by the door. Now its curtain rises in the University of Wichita’s 849-seat auditorium. At the beginning of each season about 2000 seats have ready been sold on a season-ticket basis for each of its four or five annual productions. Each production runs from five to seven nights. Recently Wichita expressed its confidence in the project by including a new million-dollar theater, on which the Community Theater will have first call, among the three theaters in a planned new complex of municipal buildings. Profits would hardly be worth mentioning by Broadway standards – about $10,000 last season. But community theaters are not run for profit. The impressive thing about the Wichita Community Theater is its cultural achievement. From the beginning, Mary Jane Teall, who is the general factotum, has never forgotten that to be consistently successful she must offer something for everybody. Fortunately, in Wichita there seems to be a genuine appreciation of theater at its best. The W.C.T.’s most successful play was The Visit. Other productions have ranged from The Taming of the Shrew to Stalag 17.

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To round out the season, the W.C.T. gives two revues on summer weekends. Altogether, out of Wichita’s 260,000 residents, between 6000 and 7000 buy tickets to the W.C.T.

But in Wichita, as in most places, there is another audience, which longs to see the offbeat and experimental. For this group a subsidiary Studio Theater was formed this year. Its first production was Brecht’s The Private Life of the Master Race.

The W.C.T. also gives classes in acting once a week to about 90 children. The purpose is not primarily to train them to be actors but to give them a chance to stretch their imaginations. W.C.T. also dips into its profits to provide for high school students who wish to major in drama at the University.

All this is done without any grants from foundations, any Iarge gifts, any fund raising. Martin Umansky, the business manager, believes that one reason for the project’s success is that “Nobody is ever asked to go out and knock on his neighbor’s door asking for cash.” Of course, the Wichita theater has many things going for it that Broadway hasn‘t. Tickets are from $2.25 to $2.75 tops. The rental is $2500 for the entire season. Except for one imported star for the opening production of the season who gets from around $1000 to $1500, it doesn’t have to pay salaries to actors, stagehands, or set designers. The total cost of each production ranges from $3000 to $4000. (On Broadway it averages $75,000 for a straight play and $300,000 for a musical comedy.) And neither of the two local newspaper critics has a taste for blood.

Most important is, of course, the support of the hundreds of citizens of Wichita who work with boundless enthusiasm on each production.Pageant Photo 03

First among that is Mary Jane Teall. She’s a tiny whirlwind of a lady just under five feet, who conceived the idea of the W.C.T. and since has stages its more than 90 plays by talking, wheedling, pleading, conning, and mesmerizing merchants, city officials, faculty members, and other citizens into giving their all.

As for herself, she thinks nothing of staying up all night before an opening to make sure performances, sets, costumes, and light cues are just right. Her husband, Robert Teall, a building contractor, is in charge of scenery and serves as stage manager. “Of course, we’ve neglected our children terribly,” Mary Jane says, but neither her son, a lawyer, onor her married daughter Marylyn agrees. “We’ve had a ball,” Marylyn says, grinning.

Mary Jane, who majored in drama at Northwestern University, receives a salary of $5000 a year. The W.C.T’s only other salary ($2000) goes to Jean Anne Stevens, who teaches the children’s acting classes.

Also essential are Mary and Martin Umansky. Martin, who is vice president of a network TV station, has acted as business manager of the theater since its beginning. He also sweeps floors, counts tickets, and performs any other odd chores that may be necessary. Mary, his wife, acts in some of the plays, sews on costumes, and in a pinch ushers. “A quick study,” Mary Jane says gratefully. “She can learn a leading role in three days.”

Richard Batchelor, an art teacher, designs the sets, a commercial artist paints scenery and posters, and lights are handled by a dentist and a radio repairman. A lawyer donates legal services, and an accountant keeps the records.

At one time or another half the merchants in town have lent props. The bed manufacturer who supplied most of the furnishings for The Best Man at another time set his mechanics to forging heavy swords for Rashomon. Then for Happy Birthday they produced a trick bar stool that would shoot three feet into the air. But even that yeoman service pales in comparison  with the sacrifice of the family that wen without its living room couch, several of its chairs, and all of its dining stools for ten days while a show was being rehearsed and played.

Frequently a woman member of the theater borrows and drives a flat-bed cement truck to transport a load of props. “We don’t pay for anything we can promote,” Mary Jane says.

Every institution in town, it seems, pitches in. The Public Library sells season tickets (at from $7 to $11). The leading department store encloses with its August bills advertisements of W.C.T.’s coming season and allows customers to charge season tickets. The employees’ clubs at two large aircraft companies sell season tickets to members at reduced prices, making up the difference from club funds.

As for the actors, Mary Jane’s rigid rehearsal schedule frightens away all but the most dedicated. Rehearsals are from seven-thirty to eleven o’ clock five evenings a week, with an added four hours on Sunday afternoon.

From all this, it can be seen that the Wichita theater is no dilettante outfit, run by a group of socialites for their own amusement. Neither are most of its counterparts around the country.

These regional theaters, as they are called by New Yorkers, have reached various stages of development. Speaking very broadly, they may, however, be divided into two groups: the Equity resident theaters {about 25 in all), which have at least six members of the cast receiving the actors’ union’s minimum salary, and the non-Equity theaters.

In between the Equity resident theaters and all-amateur groups likc the Wichita Community Theater are the groups that hire a Broadway director for one or more productions each year, those that beef up their locally produced schedules by importing Broadway productions intact, and those that have from one to six Equity members on their permanent cast.

After the Equity resident stage, many feel, should come the repertory theater—and the great surge of interest throughout the country amused by New York‘s Lincoln Center Repertory Theater has reawakened this hope.

Many disillusioned producers feel, however, that America is just not suited to repertory. For one thing, it costs too much in a professional theater to shift the scenery every two or three nights. For another, there are too many temptations for actors to go elsewhere.

This year the National Theater and Academy, a nonprofit group that operates under a. Congressional charter, is helping a new organization known as the American Playwrights Theater, which seeks to give regional theaters a first chance at new scripts by major American playrights. So enthusiastic has been the response on the part of the theaters to the first two scripts offered (by Barrie Stavis and Arnold Sundgaard) that they may become better known throughout the country than any plays first produced on Broadway.

These thousands of productions being given all over the United State every year, many of them excellent and most of them fair, are having an important cumulative effect. People who come to see Bob and Joe and Sally also see good theater, and then they want more.

As Broadway is now sending directors, actors, and the works of leading playwrights to the regional theaters, new directors, actors and playwrights will come from them to Broadway. In time the interchange may become so great that the term “regional theater” may disappear-even from the language of Broadway-addicted New Yorkers.

 

Reprinted from Pageant, September 1964. Copyright 1964 by Macfadden-Bartell Corp.