Tragedy Tomorrow, Comedy Tonight:
Eighty-five Years of Community Theatre in Winchester
by Shirley Echelman
My interest in community theatre began in 1951, when a friend and I, two bored and out-of-the-loop high school juniors, discovered the Omaha Community Playhouse. Unbeknownst to our parents, we volunteered to work backstage. We helped build and dress sets and locate props. It was a lot more interesting than school, and we even got the chance to meet Henry Fonda and Dorothy McGuire, Omahans who got their start at the Playhouse. They came home to star in a special performance of The Country Girl; launching a fundraising campaign to replace the old barnlike theater, where actors who exited at stage left emerged directly onto an open deck in the middle of a Nebraska winter. If this scene is familiar to anyone in room tonight, you are a member of WLT’s family..
My mother was not happy when she discovered that I was “hanging around with actors,” and so my involvement ended after a few months. I went away to college, then moved to New York, which was about as far from Omaha as I could get without crossing an ocean, and my life took me in other directions. Martin got me involved again after we moved to Winchester and retired from our day jobs, through his own interest in learning about theatrical lighting and sound design. . It is one of the many blessings he bequeathed me. We both found a “second family” at the old train station on Boscawen Street.
Setting the Stage
I suspect that most of you assume that the word “Little” in WLT’s name refers to the number of seats in the theatre. True, there are but 97 seats in the place, but that’s only part of the story. WLT is part of an American cultural development born early in the 20th century and known as the Little Theatre Movement.
Amateur theatre has a long history in America. Around 1850, Mormons founded the Deseret Playhouse, and by 1874 the Aurora Drama Guild in Illinois and the Concord Players in Massachusetts, the latter founded by Louisa May Alcott, were well underway. The Footlight Club, founded in 1877 in Jamaica Plain, MA, is recognized by the American Association of Community Theatres as the oldest continuously producing community theatre in the country.
Despite these local “amateur” productions, most theatrical performances in America during the 19th century were professional traveling troupes presenting formulaic melodrama or slapstick comedy. Around 1890, a few producers and playwrights began to create plays that addressed issues in modern society, but even these usually focused on the sensational aspects of the topics they dealt with.
In 1895, the owners of a majority of large American theatres formed a cartel to control competition and prices. This group effectively stifled dramatic experimentation in the commercial theatre for a number of years. Nevertheless, by the 1920s pure melodrama, with its one-dimensional characters and exaggerated plots, had largely become the province of the new medium of motion pictures
An identifiable alternative was definitely underway by the early 1900s. The European Art Theatre Movement, generally credited with giving impetus to the Little Theatre Movement, actually began prior to the turn of the century with revolutionary changes in theatre technique, playwriting and acting style. These companies usually performed in smaller spaces than commercial companies. This is probably the origin of the phrase “little theatre.”
The Irish Players of Dublin was one of the most influential of the European companies Their U.S. tour in 1911, “aroused the antagonism of American theatergoers against the kind of commercial drama that had dominated the landscape” since the mid-19th century, according to Robert Gard of the Wisconsin Idea Theatre.
Simultaneously with the Irish Players tour, small theatre groups were springing up across the country, in places like Wisconsin, Illinois and North Dakota. These groups worked to present more adventurous plays, often based on the lives of local people. As early as 1909, Percy MacKaye wrote of the need for “civic” theatre activity, which he saw as “the conscious awakening of a people to self-government in their leisure activities.” (The Civic Theatre, 1912).
Sometimes, these theatre groups grew from social service centers such as Hull House in Chicago, whose artistic director, Laura Pelham, has been credited with being “the true founder of the little theatre movement”. Many of these groups evolved into prominent professional theatres. Among the best known are the Pasadena Community Playhouse, the Provincetown Players (producers of Eugene O’Neill’s first plays), and the Washington Square Players, which became the Theatre Guild. In 1923, Clarence deGovela declared that ” the future of the Little Theatre movement lay in training and developing American playwrights.” (The Community Playhouse, 1923.)
By 1932, Burns Mantle of the Chicago Tribune listed more than two dozen non-professional or semi-professional community- based groups whose focus was staging new or untried plays. These groups were scattered across the country, from upstate New York to southern California, and from Texas to Minnesota. Some of them retained the phrase “little theatre” in their titles and others did not, but all of them are offspring of the same movement.
The Winchester Little Theatre—the Nomadic Years
According to an article in the Northern Virginia Daily celebrating the 65th anniversary of WLT, “theatre has always been a major part of the cultural life in this area. Beginning in the late 18th century, dramatic performances took place in two halls in Winchester. A third venue, on the second floor of the Frederick County Courthouse, was added in 1841.” (NVD, 8/19/93).
The Winchester LittleTheatre Guild was organized during the winter of 1929-30 by Garland Quarles, then Principal of Handley High School, and faculty members John Finley and Edward P. Browning, Sr. The Guild’s first public performance was a one-act play, Aria da Capo, by Edna St. Vincent Millay, which opened to an audience of 400 on April 8,1930 in the high school auditorium.
The Winchester Star’s reviewer stated that “The Little Theatre Guild scored a hit last night” and went on to report that “their aim is to bring back the lost love of the stage which has been seriously undermined by the talking screen.”
Directed by Browning, the cast included Sedden Nelson, Judy and Tucker McGuire, and Johnny Weems. Tucker McGuire later acted professionally in London’s West End. The choice of vehicle firmly placed the Guild in the Little Theatre Movement. The play, regarded as an anti-war statement by many critics, portrays a group of characters controlled by a script not of their own making, but from which they are powerless to step away.
Two years later, the Guild presented its first full-length effort, Noel Coward’s Hay Fever, at the Capitol Theatre. The charge for renting the Capitol was $125, and the contract allowed for only five on-stage rehearsals, all of which had to be scheduled after film showings, and three of which had to be in front of the theatre curtain. There wasn’t much opportunity for actors to become accustomed to the set.
In 1937, the organization filed for non-profit status with the IRS under the corporate name Winchester Little Theatre, Inc.
In these early years, reserved seats cost $1 for the orchestra and 75 cents for the balcony, and general admission seats sold for 50 cents. Fifty years later, in 1980, ticket prices had risen to $12 for a four-play season, or $5 for an individual
ticket. In 2013, a season ticket cost $61 for four plays and $76.25 for five plays.
From 1932-42, the Guild presented 3 or 4 plays a year, mostly at the Capitol, but also in churches, other movie theatres, empty storefronts, and a warehouse. Some of the sets were built in the empty swimming pool of the old Boy Scout building.
During World War II, full performances ceased, although there were occasional informal presentations at the Elks Lodge, the Armory, and local school auditoriums.
The group reunited in 1946.Their first post-war play, My Sister Eileen, was presented in June 1946 at the George Washington Hotel as a benefit for the War Memorial Fund. This production saw the first involvement of Marion Park Lewis, who had recently moved to the area and who brought to WLT an considerable educational and working background in California theatre groups, including the Berkeley Experimental Theatre..
Eloise Strader was another key member of the group during this time. A Winchester native who had been teaching math in Arlington, Virginia; she returned home to teach at Handley High School. Eloise was a charter member of the Arlington Little Theatre where she had worked with “Scotch” Beaty, a leading ALT director. The Beaty children carried on their mother’s tradition. Their stage names are Warren Beatty and Shirley MacLaine. Eloise told me recently that “I learned most of what I know about theater from Mrs. Beaty, and she was an inspiration to me.” Eloise built sets and directed a total of seventeen plays at WLT. She is no longer able to attend performances because of hearing problems, but remains an enthusiastic supporter.
The Bark Mill Players
In 1952, a full season of performances was staged at local high schools and churches. But it was clear that a permanent location was needed if the enterprise was to flourish. By 1955, WLT had found a home on the corner of Braddock and Wolfe Streets in an 18th century bark mill owned and donated for use by Irvan and Beatrice O’Connell.. The group renamed themselves the Bark Mill Players, although the legal name was not changed. The new space accommodated 98 seats. Season subscribers were called The 98 Club. The Bark Mill remained home to WLT for the next 18 years.
Here the group began to do shows in “arena” style, or theater-in-the-round. The space lent itself to this staging, and several members had visited the new Arena Stage theatre in Washington. They came back to Winchester eager to adopt the style, which allowed for a more intimate connection between actors and audience.
The first full-length play presented at the Bark Mill Theatre was My Three Angels, and the last was The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, (in February 1973). As the Bark Mill Players, WLT began to expand its horizons from “being an amateur company toward becoming a more serious theatrical enterprise,” in the words of long-time WLT director Barbara Swink.
During this time, Louise Patten was one of the driving forces of the group, directing, teaching, and mentoring. Mrs. Patten directed two plays a season from 1952-1968, and “for almost 20 years shared her talent, her home, and her resources with the theatre.” (Barbara Swink)
Around 1970, it became clear that WLT needed to move out of the Bark Mill. As Gene Babb, whose vivid memories of his years as one of the mainstays of the WLT family form a backbone for this paper, recalled , “It became obvious we’d have to have a place of our own or it would be hard to survive. It was difficult for patrons to climb the narrow staircase to the theater space on the second floor of the building. The lobby was cramped and you had to be a midget to comfortably fit into the lighting booth. There were other space and fire safety issues. Also, Mr. O’Connell wanted to use the building for other purposes.
A new home in an old freight station
A search for a space truly their own ensued, and in August of 1974, WLT opened the doors of its new home in the old Pennsylvania Railroad Freight Station with two one-act plays, Mystery at the Depot and Red Carnations. To celebrate the event, ice cream was served on the station platform at intermission. The building and its site were purchased for $55,000. Three still-anonymous donors made the purchase possible. However the building had not been well cared for, and an on-going fundraising effort was required to pay for necessary repairs and upgrades of the building systems. Records show that $73,123 was raised at special events and in small donations during the next five years. This paid for materials and equipment to transform the station into a minimally comfortable theatrical space.
Volunteers did most of the actual work. Boyd Headley and Jeff McHamer undertook a major part of the heavy work, Jody Armstrong-Jones did most of the interior decoration, and Susie Iden organized the volunteers. For more than a decade after the move, Tuesday nights were regular worknights, and everyone who was involved in the theatre, either onstage, backstage, or in the front of the house, pitched in.
From 1974-2008, WLT presented a four-play season. In 2008, a January play was added to the season, the first being a tour-de-force one person presentation of Shirley Valentine, starring Sally Anderson. From 2007 to 2009, a Christmastime radio version of It’s A Wonderful Life was added to the schedule.The current schedule of seven plays gives area residents the opportunity to experience live theatre all year long. WLT’s productions have proved to be popular with area audiences. Around 90% of available seats are filled for almost every production, and there is often a waiting list.
WLT for Kids
In 2004, WLT for Kids began offering summer theatrical opportunities for area youngsters under the general direction of Sara Gomez. There had been earlier attempts to do plays for young people. The most notable of these was a production of Golliwhoppers with adult actors, which was originally intended to be staged in the amphitheatre in Jim Barnett Park as a feature of the 1975 Apple Blossom celebration. Rain forced the company to move the play into the Armstrong Auditorium at Shenandoah College, with two subsequent performances at the new theatre in the old freight station.
By contrast with this earlier production, WLT for Kids focuses on involving local children and teens, both on-stage and back-stage. The plays are adaptations of well-loved children’s stories, and have proved enormously popular. From 2004 until 2011, WLT for Kids presented one play each summer. In 2012, the number was raised to two plays with two full casts. The program has recently expanded to include a number of after-school workshops under the direction of Roxie Orndorff.
Giving Back to the Community
WLT is keenly aware of its place as an integral part of the cultural life of the Winchester area. As part of its “giving back” to the community, the theatre offers local nonprofit organizations the opportunity to hold a fundraiser at one of ten pre-opening night performances during the season. The theatre takes a modest payment for expenses, and the organization owns the hall for one night, selling the tickets for that performance at a price they set. This has proved to be a successful arrangement. WLT gets the word out about its plays, and the nonprofit benefits from a fundraiser that doesn’t take a huge amount of work to put together. A wide range of organizations, from Literacy Volunteers to the AIDS Response Effort have taken advantage of these special performances. Since 1990, when the program started, there have been about 190 of these events, benefitting more than fifty local civic and charitable organizations.
In addition to producing a full season, the theatre offers occasional workshops in acting, directing, lighting and sound design. Experienced members serve as instructors. New volunteers learn theatrical skills, and everyone benefits since there are a multitude of jobs to be filled for each production. Some volunteers work every show while others work whenever they can. All are welcomed and necessary to the success of the enterprise.
WLT oldtimers have fond memories of one special cooperation between the theatre and the Winchester Historical Society. To raise money for the restoration of Abrams Delight in the summer of 1962, the two organizations built an outdoor stage in Jim Barnett Park and presented the Moss Hart/ George S. Kaufman comedy, George Washington Slept Here.
WLT sponsored a playwriting competition In 2009 as part of the New Virginia Voices grant program of the Virginia Commission on the Arts.The winning play, Making Your Move, written by Winchester resident Jan Kirby, received a full production at the theatre in January 2011 and was very well received by the audience.
What the Future Holds for WLT
Now in its eighty-fifth year, WLT is a “going concern.” The theatre covers all of its normal operating expenses from ticket sales and a modest flow of donations from season subscribers. Each year, seven fully-staged plays are presented for two or three-week runs, five for adult audiences and two for children. With the exception of two part-time employees, a theatre administrator and her assistant, all of the work is done by volunteers.
It takes as many as 80 separate jobs to mount a show, including directing and stage management, lighting and sound, acting, set building and dressing, costumes, make-up and hair styling, props management, selling tickets and filling subscriptions, publicity and hospitality. Some of these overlap and many volunteers do more than one job. As one experienced WLT director put it, “Putting together a play is like preparing and conducting an orchestra, except that the score is sometimes very sketchy.”
The recent renovation of the lobby and public restrooms was accomplished by donors from the business community, who provided planning, oversight, materials and labor for the project. The same group of donors has plans for the backstage dressing rooms.
The challenge for the future is to save WLT’s home. The 19th century building that has sheltered the group since 1974 has serious structural problems. The City of Winchester has designated the building a historic landmark, and it is also included in the recent expansion of the Downtown Historic District. But the roof must be replaced and the brickwork repointed in many places. A local architect and contractor, both experienced in historic preservation, have worked with the WLT Board and staff for three years on plans to accomplish the restoration in a way that will allow performances to continue without interruption or the need to move out of the building while the work is going on. While WLT has a modest reserve for capital projects, a major fundraising effort will be necessary to preserve the building as a functional gem in the city’s crown of historical architecture. The Winchester Little Theatre has given its heart to this community for nearly a century. Hopefully, the community will respond with generosity to that gift.
In preparing this paper, I interviewed lots of folks who love WLT and have committed time, talent, and energy to its mission of enriching our community with entertaining and thoughtful live theatrical experiences. I’d like to share one of the most moving comments I heard during these interviews.
“For most of my adult life, I worked with colleagues who were good people but I felt there was something missing for them and for me. After I retired and moved to Winchester, I dropped in at the Little Theatre one evening, just to see what was going on. It was as if I had fallen into a rainbow. If I could, I would work in every play.”