Tent Theatre 1963-2012
Tent Theatre will be celebrating its 50th Seaon this summer. In 1963, Dick Haswell, Head of the English Department, and two Theatre Professors, Robert Gilmore, and Irene Coger, pondered the problem of what to do with summer productions at the College. Speech and Theatre, which finally became a separate department in 1965, was a part of English at this time. The theatre in the Administration Building (later Carrington Hall) had steadily had its windows bricked over for heating purposes, and by 1962 had primarily only west windows which let in sunlight but very little air movement. Air conditioning was a thing of the future. Tent theatre was born as a solution to this problem.
The first tent was a fifty-five foot round tangerine and green structure which seated about two-hundred in the audience and the first season presented four shows in a stock format . The ten weeks of work included tent and scenery, lights, and costume construction and the rehearsal of the first show in the first two weeks. During the remaining eight weeks, each show was presented for two weekends at night, while work proceeded during the daytime on the show to follow. The first show in the tent was Neil Simon's Come Blow Your Horn (which the tenters promptly christened "Come blow your lines").
Audiences flocked to the tent in droves; many ladies in fancy summer dresses and men in sports coats and ties. Some patrons even brought picnic dinners to have on the grass outside the tent before the show. The tent was playing to full and sometimes overflowing audiences thanks to word of mouth, outstanding newspaper coverage, and the excellence of the productions. Tent audiences have always been very large; averaging about ninety percent capacity through the years. The biggest problem with the first year...the tent was too small.
The following year this was solved with the addition of a thirty foot by fifty-five foot section in the middle making the tent oblong rather than circular and bringing the capacity to about three-hundred-fifty. And the tent continued to play to capacity crowds. The basic formula for the season offering was two musicals and two modern comedies although through the years some comedy classics have been found in the repertory; Moliere' s French comedy The Miser, in 1963, and Shakespeare's comedy, The Merry Wives of Windsor in the 1964 season were two such examples.
Stock remained the form for the season until 1971 when Repertory replace it. It was reasoned that switching shows night after night was not only an excellent way for patrons who might be off on vacations part of the summer to see all the shows, it was also excellent training for the actors who learned how to play different roles each night; an evil villain one night a singing waiter the next. The repertory form calls for a very intensive period or building and rehearsal at the beginning of the summer with a new show opening every week for the first three weeks of production and then alternating shows for a four week period. The Rep presents three shows while stock included four most years. The Repertory schedule has continued to be a popular one with tent audiences.
In 1968 Craig Hall and the air conditioned Coger Theatre were finished, but when it was mentioned as early as 1966 that the tent might move indoors, tent theatre patrons gave overwhelming support for keeping the outdoor venue citing the ambiance as a major factor. Thus, in 1969 a concrete tent pad was built next to Craig Hall and the 1969 tent was created, a rectangular one-hundred foot x fifty foot orange and green beauty with a dramatic end so that seating could go higher on the audience end. This created better sight lines and increased seating to over four hundred.
In the summer of 2007, managing director Mark Templeton and Artistic Director Michael Casey met with Acotrs' Equity in Chicago in hopes of transitioning Tent Theatre into a professional Theatre Company. Prior to the 2008 Season, Actors' Equity and Tent Theatre engaged in a agreement to operate under a special Letter of Agreement referencing the University/Residence Theatre Association contract. It was the first time that Equity allowed such a special letter of agreement. The first production under this special agreement was Cyrano de Bergerac. Tent Theatre now operates under a full U/RTA agreement which allows our collegiate stars to work side by side with theatre professionals from around the country. These professional performers and technicians have quickly become mentors for our students and provided major industry connections for their entry into the professional marketplace.
The Tent Theatre is truly an institution in the city and in the state and is well known in theatre circles for spawning a great number of former tenters who work in the business either on or offstage; in front or behind the cameras. We are proud of all of them, and are very thankful for the great number of patrons who support the tent by returning to see the shows year after year.
Mark Templeton Tent Managing Director 1999-2012.