Vern Stefanic knows a little something about community theater in Oklahoma.
After all the veteran director and award-winning playwright has been involved in more than 80 productions with numerous troupes and groups around the state. The years of experience have taught Stefanic much about the nature of community theater in Oklahoma and also prompted his enthusiasm for the historic, volunteer-driven stage craft.
“We have so much talent in Oklahoma,” says Stefanic. “Community theater is a way for untapped or unschooled talent to be discovered.”
Community theater, which is easiest to define as local productions featuring generally amateur and almost always volunteer talent, is about more than just showcasing residents’ acting chops. It is also about entertaining audiences, celebrating the arts and, in some cases, bringing together small communities.
From Oklahoma’s largest cities to some of its smaller towns, community theater has long been a part of the state’s civic fabric. Despite modern challenges, it remains an integral part of Oklahoma culture.
“Theatre Tulsa was founded because at the time, there was no professional theater in Tulsa,” he says. “The community wanted arts and culture in Tulsa, and the vision for a community theater was born.”
Theatre Tulsa began in 1922 with a production of Our Town. Tulsans have seen Theatre Tulsa through the Depression, World War II and two devastating fires. Theatre Tulsa is said to be the oldest continuously running playhouse west of the Mississippi, and after 89 years, it continues as one of the region’s cultural flagships.
Since Theatre Tulsa’s inception, numerous other community theater groups have arrived on the scene. Today, Oklahoma boasts more than 75 theater groups, both urban and rural, that produce plays on a regular basis. Community theaters have taken root both in urban locations such as Tulsa and Oklahoma City and rural towns, such as Clinton, Chickasaw and Shawnee.
The vibrancy of Oklahoma community theater has not gone unnoticed, particularly in light of efforts by tourism and economic development leaders to accentuate the state’s cultural attractions.
“Community theater is an extremely important component of the cultural? life of any city,” says Ken Busby, executive director of Tulsa’s Arts and Humanity Council. “It engages a diverse group of performers as well as? audience members.”
Tulsa has 10 active community theater groups and Oklahoma City has five. In 1969, the Oklahoma Community Theater Association was formed by the Lawton Community Theater to unite all of the theater groups throughout the state. OCTA provides support, communication, festivals, fostering of artistic excellence and encouraging high standards from its members. An elected board of directors and an appointed advisory council govern it.
Some theater groups have come and gone over the years, but the ones that stay have dedicated boards, volunteer bases and quality shows with quality talent. Different theaters take different approaches to remaining viable in a landscape that today has far more competition for the public’s entertainment dollar.
Groups like Shawnee Little Theater and Broken Arrow Community Playhouse have been successful over the years because it is truly a community endeavor, from the acting onstage to the community enjoying the talents of other community members.
“Broken Arrow Community Playhouse serves a buffet dinner before every performance,” says Stefanic. “Everyone knows each other and comes together to celebrate the talents of their town through theater.”
Broken Arrow Community Playhouse has been around since 1980 and has brought quality productions to Broken Arrow ever since. Like most small town community theaters it is run entirely by volunteers who are passionate about theater and about creating a better quality of life for their citizens.
Shawnee Little Theater, founded in 1967, has won several national awards and is known for showcasing local talent. A lot of that talent comes from one family in particular.
The Hopkins family has been active in SLT since the beginning. Over three generations and 25 family members have performed or been involved with the theater in some way.
“Some of my earliest memories are from Shawnee Little Theater; our family has been involved in, I think, every role there is,” says Nicki Hopkins Sherman, a second-generation community theater participant.
“Actor, director, stage manager, choreographer, costume, set and lighting design, construction, musician, kid wrangler, ticket sales, fundraising, you name it,” Hopkins continues. “We’ve even served in every office of the board.”
Her brother Greg is currently president of Shawnee Little Theater. His favorite theater memory was directing his mother as the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz. Even Hopkins’ dog has taken to the stage as Sandy in Annie.
Community theater includes numerous specialty troupes. Oklahoma City’s Jewel Box Theater, for example, has been around for more than 50 years, and is sponsored by The First Christian Church. They perform some of their productions, such as Oklahoma!, outside. In cooler weather, they move productions inside to a theater adjacent to the church.
Oklahoma City also has a theater just for children. The Oklahoma Children’s Theater hosts children’s productions every year, as well as a touring group. They also provide afterschool programs, acting workshops and summer camps for children. It is located on the Oklahoma City University campus, which is also known for its strong arts program.
What unifies community theater enthusiasts both rural and urban is the love of the stage and appreciation for the rewards that it can present.
Hopkins, who just recently directed Shawnee Little Theater’s production of Annie, fondly recalls her experience as a first time director.
“With Annie, I had the ability to sit in the light booth and view the audience’s reactions,” says Hopkins. “I will never forget the feeling of realizing that the audience sang Tomorrow with the Cabinet, upon FDR’s command. Every night. I teared up every time, knowing they were so caught up in the moment.”
Tom Berenson, an optometrist and a veteran actor in Tulsa and Broken Arrow, has participated in community theater since 1980.
“I’d always been interested in theater, but never took the time to explore it,” Berenson says. “A friend talked me into auditioning for (at the time the fledgling) Broken Arrow Community Playhouse’s A Diary of Anne Frank, and I’ve had the acting bug ever since.”
Berenson has performed in dozens of plays throughout the years, including The Gin Game, which was submitted to the Oklahoma Community Theater Association Festival of Plays and placed first. Since then, The Gin Game has gone on to compete at the National competition in Rochester, N.Y.
While community theater has brought years of entertainment to many and career achievements to some – Stefanic’s version of Miracle on 34th Street has won numerous awards and made it to Broadway, for example – challenges abound.
Most community theaters survive solely on season ticket holders, single ticket sales and donations from the public. Some of the larger theater groups may have a staff that helps with fundraising and grant writing. While some directors do get paid, all the actors are volunteers.
The model has worked for decades in Oklahoma, but with technology’s penchant for opening up new avenues of recreation, today it is often challenging for theaters to reach potential audiences.
“You can have the most talented actors perform, but if no one knows about the performance, then it doesn’t matter,” says Stefanic.
Stefanic believes one of the biggest challenges that faces community theaters (especially in larger cities) is the lack of marketing and marketing dollars.
“There are so many productions (in Tulsa) at one time, that there is no possible way to see them all,” says Stefanic. “You have to pick and choose, and the ones that have the most promotion are the ones that are going to sell the most tickets.”
Most theater groups do not have money for advertising, so it requires some creativity, such as utilizing social media.
“We need our people to get out of the box and come up with creative ways to market our productions,” says Stefanic. “We can no longer rely on posters and word of mouth. There is just too much competition for our free time, especially in Tulsa.”
Oklahoma’s greater cultural environment is arguably more amenable to theater than ever in the past. The Tulsa Awards for Theatre Excellence launched just a few years ago and is helping raise community theater’s profile.
“As a member of the Tulsa Awards for Theatre Excellence, I’m pleased that we have been able to raise the quality of community theater in a very short time – three years – so that its value as both an economic and cultural engine can be realized,” Busby says. “From ticket sales to advertising, technical crews to ushers, community theater is a vital part of Tulsa’s economy.”
Kurt Harris found his love for acting later in life.
“It was an indirect result of my daughter taking acting classes that sparked my interest,” Harris says. “My wife talked me into auditioning for Theatre Tulsa’s Cheaper By the Dozen. I didn’t even know it was a musical until I was on my way to the audition. I sang ‘Happy Birthday’ as my song and somehow got cast as the lead.”
He’s been hooked ever since.
For the past 10 years, Harris has performed in more than a dozen plays, from comedy to drama. One of the standouts for him was The Laramie Project, which won best play in 2002.
“I particularly liked this one because it really made people think,” says Harris of the play about the hate crime murder of Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyo.
“I enjoy doing shows that affect people in a profound way.”
His family commitments prevented Harris from pursuing acting full-time.
“I have two kids and a full-time job,” says Harris. “I enjoy doing this as a hobby – it is my creative outlet – lots of fun and not a lot of pressure.”
Harris can’t really name a favorite single play, though.
“All of them are my favorites for one reason or another; they all have different memories and are special in their own way,” Harris says. “I feel very blessed that I get to give back to the community by doing something I love.”
In fact, Harris recently starred in Theatre Tulsa’s production of The Pitmen Painters, a true story about Robert Lyon, an art teacher who taught a group of coal miners to paint.
Ardmore Little Theater
American Theater Company, Tulsa
Broken Arrow Community Playhouse
Chickasaw Community Theater
Carpenter Square Theater, OKC
Clark Theater, Tulsa
Children’s Musical Theater of Bartlesville
Duncan Little Theater
Enid Gaslight Theater
Heller Theater, Tulsa
Jewel Box Theater, OKC
Lawton Community Theater
Midwestern Theater Company, Tulsa
Muskogee Little Theater
Nightingale Theater, Tulsa
Oklahoma Children’s Theatre, OKC
Owasso Community Theater
Oklahoma Community Theater
Oklahoma Shakespearean Festival
Ponca Playhouse, Ponca City
Poteet Theater, OKC
Red Carpet Community Theater, Elk City
Sapulpa Community Theater
Shawnee Little Theater
Shakespeare in the Park, Edmond
Southwest Playhouse, Clinton
Stage Door Theatrical Company, Norman
The Stage Door, Yukon
The Pollard Theater, Guthrie
Town and Gown Theater, Stillwater
Watonga Community Theater
Yellow Rose Theater, Moore
*Most colleges and universities in Oklahoma also have theater departments that actively put on productions for their communities.