In The Shadow Of Brilliance

Just last week, I wrote about a performer friend who had, on his own, researched and decided that Oklahoma was a good place to relocate to seek advancement in his late-career shift to performing on stage. That, in and of itself, was meaningful to me, because the vibrancy of local theater is one of the chief inspirations for this column – and because this individual was making the move from the very arts-intensive East Coast.

But the column also got me thinking about what all types of opportunities and venues he discovered in his research. That, in turn, reconnected me with some smaller theaters and troupes with which I have experience that inspired my own, similar appreciation of the local performing arts scene.

Many are familiar with the large performing arts venues in Tulsa and in Oklahoma City, and those more deeply versed in theater are aware of the secondary urban venues that tend to offer more experimental – often locally written or produced – theater.

But in the hinterlands of Green Country are theaters worth recognition that I am not sure theater aficionados are aware of. There is a certain charm, an authenticity, to small theaters that stage productions aimed at small-town audiences. But small troupes and theaters aren't necessarily defined by small thinking, and I am happy to say my early experiences have emphasized this.

This week, I thought I would introduce you to a handful of the smaller theaters that have impressed me in my early forays into stagecraft in Green Country.

The Wagoner Playhouse Association (www.facebook.com/pages/Wagoner-Playhouse-Association/117804252967) just finished a run of Neil Simon's The Good Doctor and it isn't the first time the quintessential small-town troupe has tackled a version of Simon. I had the opportunity to review a production there for a local paper once, and I recall emphasizing how pure the theater experience was there, how perfectly tailored the material was for the rural/small town audience, and what an immersive experience it was in such a quaint setting. But it all worked. As the local community ages, troupes like that of the WPA offer amazing opportunities for younger performers looking to make a name for themselves. This is small town culture at its best.

OK, so Broken Arrow is hardly the hinterlands, although some of us remember when it was. Still with so much of Tulsa theater based downtown, BA might feel a world away to some. Hopefully that's not the case when it comes to Broken Arrow Community Theater (www.bacptheatre.com). Honestly, given the great programming, which has only continued to improve, it's hard to imagine a real theater fan not being familiar with the BAC Theatre. From Zombie Prom this week to To Kill a Mockingbird later in the season, this talented creative staff brings a terrific combination of modern and classic, traditional and challenging, to a community that surely should appreciate what it has.

I'm ashamed that I can't remember the name of the first production I saw at Muskogee Little Theatre (www.muskogeelittletheatre.com), but to be fair, I was only visiting family in Oklahoma at the time – I was still very much an East Coaster. What I do remember about the production was that the show, in this small space, was spectacular. It utterly whisked me away from the quaint theater in a town I rarely associated with culture, into a perfectly directed, terrifically acted performance that easily could have been staged in a black box theater anywhere back home. I remember the incredible quality, if not the show specifics, and I remember wondering if Muskogee – and the region – realized what an astounding cultural icon they had here.

I still don't know the answer to that question.

But each of these smaller or less visible theaters could make a similar claim. Great theater in Green Country? You bet. Downtown, seeing Jersey Boys changed my life. But our small towns are important contributors too.

 -Michael W. Sasser is Oklahoma Magazine’s senior editor and an award-winning journalist. For comments or suggestions, reach him at editorsr@okmag.com.