Story Jason Browne | Photographs Sam Gause
It’s Sunday dinnertime in the upstairs room at the Playhouse on Main in Starkville, Miss. The long, all-purpose tables with the folding legs are pulled together to form a square in the center. Family members roll in one at a time, some much later than others, but they’re all there eventually.
The grouchy, disapproving aunt. The shy, barely-audible sister. The loud-mouthed, conversation-hijacking brother. The little kids in the corner who can’t stop snickering. The gay cousin. Everyone.
The roles of mom and pop change every few minutes, depending on who has the floor. In fact, all the roles are interchangeable and freely passed around the table like the day’s script. And rehearsal hasn’t even begun yet. Actors, performers, are given to flights of fancy. Excursions. Simply dialing up or down their personality based on their mood at the present minute.
Then it’s time to say grace, and the Starkville Community Theatre (SCT) falls into harmony.
“We’re like a big family around here,” says anyone, everyone, all of them. It’s a cliché they refuse to back away from. And it’s one that bears out under scrutiny. Players hassle and tease or cheerlead as the situation dictates. A female singer, uncertain how to harness her voice, is encouraged. Inside jokes zing across the empty space in the center of the four tables between reads. The men think their jokes funniest and talk the loudest among themselves during breaks, intending to be overheard. The room buzzes until it’s time for another read.
NO SMALL PARTS
“We put in so much time together at rehearsals, so many hours, that you can’t help but create a family bond,” said Lyle Tate, 35, an actor, director and crew member with the SCT since 1999.
Tate’s experience with the theatre is a common one. He moved to Starkville from Shannon, Miss., as a college student in 1997, took in an SCT show and has been around ever since. Players have to audition for parts in each show, so when he doesn’t earn a spot on stage, he helps build the sets. If that crew is full, he moves to the sound booth, or hits the streets to drum up publicity, or whatever it takes to help. As would most of the players.
“There are not a lot of egos in that sense. Our people want to do whatever it takes to get the show off the ground,” said Pattye Archer, current publicity chair for the SCT and a former president and director.
Archer has seen the way the SCT gets into people’s blood. She’s been around for the past 15 years. Others have been around since the genesis in 1978. Bob Anderson, who helped establish the theatre way back then still serves as treasurer and “resident curmudgeon.”
Archer says Mississippi State University acts as a pipeline for fresh talent, both on stage and backstage, but turnover remains relatively low.
“People from MSU come to audition and, a lot of the time, just stay in town,” she said. “One guy was a doctor who went away to med school, and one reason he came back was that he wanted to come back to the SCT.”
STANDING ROOM ONLY
Actors aren’t the only ones coming back. The tiny Playhouse theatre seats only 89 and the SCT schedules nine shows per year. The result is 801 total available seats for the entire season, and the SCT generally sells just over 600 season tickets prior to each season.
“They’ve raised prices over the years and still sell out shows,” said Lynn Spruill, a season ticket holder and former SCT Board of Directors member who serves as Starkville’s chief administrative officer. “It’s not difficult to fill it up because of the limited size. But if it we didn’t have good productions, it wouldn’t matter how small it was, you couldn’t fill it up.”
Spruill says the SCT creates a unique atmosphere in downtown Starkville, offering award-winning theater to complement the dining choices, and creating a metropolitan ambience generally found only in much larger cities. And that, in turn, functions as an attractive selling point for Starkville, whether to big-money industrial park executives moving their families to the area or to culturally-inclined graduates deciding where to begin their post-collegiate lives.
As SCT music director, Carole Sorenson isn’t at all territorial about her musicals. Even she says all of the productions are met with equal enthusiasm.
“They love all the different types of plays the theatre does,” she said.
But it depends on whom you ask.
“This community gets really hyped about music,” said SCT performer Isa Stratton Beaulieu.
Archer says musicals have gone over especially well, with productions of “Smoke on the Mountain” in 2006 and “Forever Plaid” in 2008 scheduling extra dates due to popular demand.
From an actor’s point of view, Tate says he enjoys doing musicals but prefers dramas and comedies that force him to stretch his range of acting motion.
Like most families, SCT may split hairs on the minor details, but it’s nothing they can’t work out around the table.