In On The Act

On Nov. 14, 1953, a group of Tulsa actors came together for the first performance of a melodrama called The Drunkard. The play, adapted by Richard Mansfield Dickinson from an earlier work called Ten Nights in a Barroom, was so successful that they held another performance. Fifty-eight years later, The Drunkard is an enduring Tulsa tradition, performed at the Spotlight Theatre every Saturday night to mostly sold-out audiences, and is widely considered the longest continuously running play in America. 

“Sometimes in August or the hottest part of the year we wouldn’t put a show on,” says stage manager Jere Uncapher, “before we had air conditioning.”

But the show would always go on when cooler temperatures returned, and the audience always returned to revisit the denizens of the Sickle and Sheaf, the inn and barroom in the town of Cedarville, and to follow the tragic but ultimately uplifting story of the drunkard Joe Morgan, who once was a man of lofty position at the old mill, only to lose his way to drink.

Uncapher, a jack-of-all-trades who has volunteered at the Spotlight since 1967, describes the production as a labor of love for everyone involved, all of which are volunteers, from the director and cast to the bartender and servers. All proceeds from the show, minus expenses, go to charitable causes.

“The original idea was to help out starving artists,” Uncapher says, “and that’s still what we do.”

For performances of The Drunkard, the Spotlight is made to resemble an early 1900s beer garden, with checkered tablecloths covering tables on the wooden floor. Prior to the first act, as servers take food or drink orders (and, yes, alcoholic drinks are available), the emcee encourages the audience to join in a sing-along of tunes from the era. But as enjoyable as the sing-along is, the real fun awaits.

Anyone who has seen The Drunkard can attest that the reason folks keep returning is simple: They’re part of the show. Before the first act, the audience is told in no uncertain terms that it is expected to participate, with applause for the heroes and boos and hisses for the villain. Booing and hissing practice is taken as a group. Instructions are given as to when to throw the tomatoes. It is reiterated that, yes, tomatoes will be thrown. And curtains go up. 

As the actors move from scene to scene, sometimes the audience will get lost as to when to cheer. No worries, as one of the characters, usually Sample Switchel, the hillbilly handyman and perhaps the play’s moral center, will break from the action and address the audience directly to explain that a mark was missed.

And so it goes for the rest of the performance, and after the curtain call and a variety show called The Olio, the actors and other volunteers remain to shake hands with individual audience members and ask if they had a good time, all the while certain each of them did. And when the audience leaves, it leaves with a smile. And it will again next Saturday night.