Tyler Civic Theatre celebrates 65 years

Published on Sunday, 11 May 2014 22:47 - Written by ADAM RUSSELL, arussell@tylerpaper.com


Actors, directors, producers and prop-men at the Tyler Civic Theatre have faced the creed of live theater — “the show must go on” — for 65 years.

Shows have gone on despite fires, broken bones, laryngitis and on-stage accidents, and made it the longest running “in the round” live, action theater in the nation.

Last week, Alfred Gilliam, the theater’s first director, was honored by the city for bringing a unique venue for actors and audiences in Tyler. Gilliam, a drama teacher at Tyler Junior College and choreographer for the Apache Belles, brought the idea of “in the round” theater, where the stage is encompassed by its audience on all four sides, to Tyler after World War II and built upon the roots of Tyler’s Little Theater, established in 1927.

Theater in Tyler died during wartime because male actors were difficult to come by.

But it was resurrected in 1949 when Gilliam and others created, designed and built the Tyler Civic Theatre on Front Street.

Actor Merry Lu Gentry performed in the theater’s first play in 1949. Like many actors, Mrs. Gentry was one of Gilliam’s drama students and found herself performing. She’s performed in 43 productions since and continues to act.

Mrs. Gentry and fellow actors Joyce Paro, who also was with the theater since its “early days,” Judy Griffin and Ray Deal, shared memories about the theater’s place in Tyler performing arts history.

There was momentum to bring theater resurgence to Tyler before the actual theater building was constructed. In 1948, actors performed plays where they could.

They performed in abandoned buildings, including a former drugstore, anywhere with a large open space where an audience could surround actors playing their roles.

Ms. Paro said performers would set up folding chairs on Coca-Cola crates to elevate them above the floor-level “in the round” stage. Gilliam and Mildred Stringer designed the original 192-seat theater on napkins in a Tyler café, she said.

Both were involved at Tyler Junior College, with the Apache Belles and teaching theater, she said. They were instrumental in the theater’s genesis.

The Tyler Civic Theatre has played an important role in the development of Tyler’s arts, Ms. Paro said. She said people from all walks of life, students, teachers, attorneys, insurance salesmen, even city managers and mayors have played roles over the decades.

“It brings performing arts to the community,” she said. “Man cannot live on bread alone. We have to have art whether it’s music, theater, visual and dance.”

Deal said the performing arts offer education, enrichment and entertainment for performers and an audience who look outside mainstream outlets, such as sports.

“We’re not all football players and athletes,” he said. “If there is no venue for people who are drawn more to the visual and performing arts it’s like not having a football stadium.”

The theater’s managing director DeAnna Hargrove said the community has been incredibly supportive over the past 65 years. The Tyler Civic Theatre has been self sufficient as a nonprofit entity and survived on membership dues, tickets and foundational and individual donations, she said.

The city unveiled a historical marker in front of the center, 400 Rose Park Drive last week in tribute to the late Alfred Gilliam, the founding director.

Mrs. Gentry said acting in the round is different from any other performing stage. It’s intimate but intimate in different ways by the stories they told.

During a performance in which Mrs. Gentry and other actors played gin rummy an audience member announced “You have a gin,” she said laughing.

People have shouted “look behind you!” when a villain made his move, Ms. Paro said.

Ms. Paro said an actor “over-playing” a caped villain during a melodrama where the heroes line went something like “and all will be exposed” as the villain turned toward the crowd with his pant’s fly unzipped.

“The audience fell out,” she said.

It’s tough at times to act, Mrs. Gentry said, especially when people actors know try to break their concentration and character. The rule, during a scene when actors would look into space, was to never look audience members in the eye but rather their foreheads, she said.

“Half the time I had to look into the crowd during one performance and they would be making faces trying to make me crack,” she said.

Ms. Griffin said the action behind the scenes is always the most frantic and entertaining. She’s been injured making entries. She and Deal consider themselves part of the “second wave” of performers and supporters of the theater.

Deal said the theater’s wealth of performance knowledge and history is bridged from those, like Gilliam, who started the theater, the early actors who still perform and new, incoming students of theater. The theater has open auditions for all its plays and there is always new talent, he said.

Ms. Hargrove said the new 370-seat theater, which sits through a few doors next to the now 130-seat older theater, represents a place where inexperienced and experienced theater performers and the audience can learn about and appreciate the art.

The 65-year celebration is in conjunction with performances of “Cheaper by the Dozen,” which continues Thursday through Sunday. The 2014 Summer Musical, “Hairspray,” will run July 10 to 13, 17 to 20 and 24 to 27.

“We depend on our community and they always come through for us,” she said. “When people pay for tickets they expect to be entertained and it says something that we’ve been here as long as we have.”