AN HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE OF TOWN AND GOWN THEATRE
Town and Gown theatre began in 1951 with an idea from one individual – Mr. John Woodworth. John had a theater and a communications background and worked at OSU. He thought the second floor of the OSU A&M Student Union would be a great place to produce plays.
John approached Craig Hampton, Asst. Director of the Student Union, and together they discussed a plan which would include both university staff and citizens of Stillwater in a theater group that would perform in the Ballroom. Maggie Glass was included as well because she was artistic and creative and knew many people in Stillwater.
The three visionaries met to discuss their ideas and came up with the name “Town and Gown”. The Student Union Ballroom had a standard proscenium-style stage, but they decided to try an “in the round” setting where the stage was surrounded by an audience.
Making phone calls and distributing fliers, they organized a meeting of faculty, employees, and students at A&M, as well as interested Stillwater citizens, with the goal of finding actors and production staff.
John Woodworth directed Town & Gown Theatre’s first play, “The Constant Wife,” in the fall of 1951. The cast and crew included nine actors and 14 members of the production staff. Technical positions included Lighting Director, Set Properties Manager, Business Manager, Costumer, Publicity Chair, and more. Straight back chairs were used in concentric circles around the stage. Tickets sold for 50 cents each.
After the first production, plans were underway to produce another play. Officers were elected, including a President, Vice President, Secretary, Treasurer, and two Board members.
Night Must Fall was the second Town & Gown production. Performances for all shows were held on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday evenings only, because the ballroom could not be used on weekends, as student dances and other events filled its schedule.
Southern Exposure was the third play of the inaugural season. Risers were borrowed from Gallagher Hall, but eventually new risers were built to allow for a total of 175 seats.
By then, roughly five hundred tickets were being sold for each production. T&G had a good start because it had a strong nucleus of initial members, many of whom had dramatic experience. Officers on the Board served for one year, which ensured that no one was indispensable. Thanks to networking and publicity efforts, the organization grew to eventually
include around 65 OSU faculty and staff members, students, and local residents.
In 1955, ticket prices were raised to $1 per ticket and a constitution was written. A critical rule required that individuals become members and then apply for an apprenticeship. Applications were reviewed by the membership committee and voted on by the members at a meeting. If 2/3 of the voters agreed, the applicant became an apprentice. Apprentices had to be involved in at least 3 separate productions in 3 different capacities within a 2-year period. Active members (members in good standing) had to stay involved in at least one production each season. Anyone who was a T&G member when the constitution was written was identified as a Charter Member. These rules were in effect until the late 1960s.
T&G began selling season tickets at the outset of its fourth season. During its first 5 years, the theater company was bringing in roughly $2,300 per year in income and paying out $1,900 in expenses. They claimed Assets of $500 for lighting equipment and $600 for Fixtures and Furnishings. Royalty payments averaged $400 per season and printing was approximately $200 per year / $50 per play.
Town & Gown thrived because members had a passion for the arts, and theater in particular. They volunteered and involved family members and friends. They trusted that the Board members and officers would take care of the business end of the organization, freeing them to work on productions – the most fulfilling part of the theatre experience – and also vote on important matters. T&G pulled from the acting talent of nearly 200 local citizens and invited students
In 1956, Jon and Betty Wagner joined the theatre. They would be an important part of the theatre team until the 1990s.
By 1957, T&G had provided five seasons of performances at the Student Union Ballroom (20 plays), produced under the direction of local citizens. The theater had accumulated technical equipment valued at more than $1,000.00. Through season ticket sales, patrons’ donations, and advertising revenue, T&G was able to cover expenses and to establish a building fund with $1,000 it had saved. Members wanted a “home” for Town and Gown, as they were tired of having to find places to rehearse – including homes and garages, church fellowship halls, etc. – being at the mercy of the Student Union Ballroom’s schedule, building props and set pieces in garages and bringing them in for plays, and returning them to storage between every show. T&G’s intention was to construct a fine arts building that would also be available to other organizations for recitals, art exhibits, and other activities.
In 1961 ticket prices increased to $2.50. With the help of donations, T&G now had $10,000 for their building fund. The T&G Building Committee looked at every vacant building within the Stillwater area that might have room for a center stage, backstage, seating for an audience, storage for props, costume and makeup rooms, etc.
An article in the Stillwater News-Press noted that T&G had signed a 99-year lease with the City of Stillwater to build a theatre just west of Boomer Lake. Architecture plans were drawn up in Oklahoma City, but after carefully studying the plans, T&G canceled the agreement due to the cost of a new building on a lot that the theatre would never own. The committee continued the search for an affordable existing building to remodel.
In 1962, an oil field service company offered to sell the theatre their sheet metal building that had been used as an office and garage. The price was $30,000 for the building and a one-acre lot. John Head Construction was contracted for remodeling work, including installation of air-conditioning and acoustical ceiling tiles and construction of dressing rooms, wardrobe storage areas, a light and sound room (upstairs), a coffee bar, and restrooms. Members worked on non-professional improvements such as painting and general cleaning. In time, the box office and a paved parking lot were added.
In April of 1962, “Look Homeward Angel” was the last Town & Gown performance in the Student Union. Immediately after the show closed that night, props and lighting fixtures were moved to T&G’s new home. By July, a production of “Bell Book and Candle” opened in the new facility; the audience sat in 150 canvas and wood deck chairs. The theatre could now schedule plays for the weekends and for two-week periods and had a permanent place to rehearse.
By August of 1964, the $10,000 mortgage on the new property was paid off thanks to patron donations. T&G’s first musical, “Little Mary Sunshine,” was produced in 1966.
In 1968, T&G began offering Sunday matinée shows. By the 1970s, attendance was at roughly 1,000 patrons per production, and the summer musicals were frequently seen by upwards of 1,700. In 1969, Williams Hall on the OSU campus was razed to make room for the new Seretean Center for the Performing Arts. Two hundred theatre seats were donated to Town & Gown to replace the existing canvas and wood chairs, raising its seating capacity by 50 seats from the previous total of 150.
In the early 1970s, T&G Productions typically netted $7,000 to $8,000 annually after expenses. It was during this time that the current lobby and art gallery were added to the building. (In 2006, the Wagner Art Gallery was dedicated in honor of the Jon and Betty Wagner and their contributions to the theatre).
In the early 1980s, Town & Gown conducted outreach programs such as Reader’s Theatre for Children, Children’s Theater, various workshops, hosting a fundraiser for Stillwater High School’s Music and Drama programs, and more. Town & Gown also became an active and involved member of the Oklahoma Community Theater Association (OCTA) during this period. Other highlights of the ‘80s included the following:
Many of these accomplishments were noted in a letter to the Stillwater City Commission from Town and Gown in the mid-1980s, requesting $15,000 in revenue sharing funds to be used for building improvements. The request was the only one DENIED out of all of the applications from non-profit organizations. Needless to say, the Board of Directors was livid.
By the late 1980s, it was becoming more difficult to sustain the theater’s appeal in the face of so many new entertainment options for local residents. In 1989, Dr. Jerry Davis of the OSU Theater department wrote that volunteer members of the Town & Gown Board of Directors had indicated that attendance at meetings and community interest in general had been declining for the past few years. Finding volunteers to work on productions (especially cast and directors) was also becoming more difficult. Thankfully, donations and advertising revenues had remained relatively stable.
By 1995 the theater’s membership roster included only 39 people. But in that year, a major remodeling project was undertaken which added new restrooms for the lobby, a room dedicated to hat and accessory storage, a new costume shop and large “closet” room, new backstage restrooms for the cast and crew, and new dressing rooms. The addition expanded the size of the theater significantly.
In 1997, Town & Gown hosted the summer OCTAFest play competition. Many OCTA members recalled it for years afterward as the best ‘Fest they had ever attended. Town & Gown had entered productions in previous OCTAFest competitions as well and had even taken one to the International festival after winning at the state, regional, and national levels.
Through the efforts of a dedicated core of long-term volunteers, Town and Gown has experienced a renaissance during the 2000s. Each season has brought many new faces to our stage, and those who volunteer for the first time find they can’t stay away. The membership consistently numbers around 100 and we typically sell about 500 season tickets each year. The pool of acting and technical talent we draw from has increased significantly, so that large productions are often difficult to cast not because of too few hopefuls at auditions, but too many instead.
Town & Gown, in partnership with OSU Theater, hosted the biannual OCTAFest event again in July 2017 – 20 years after last hosting the event – and it was again an unequivocal success. For the second time in the last three festivals, T&G took home the People’s Choice award, and actor JohnMark Day won the Best Actor award. A renewed strengthening of our bonds with the OSU Theater Dept. has allowed us to tap into the ranks of student actors as well.
The future of Town & Gown Theatre is indeed bright. We look forward to many seasons to come!