First Presbyterian Theater celebrates 50 years

April 7, 2019

First Presbyterian Theater has presented comedy and tragedy for 50 years and the reason for its existence has never changed.

“We are a special place because we have a mission,” said Myra McFarland, retired journalist, local actress and theater volunteer who serves on the drama committee.

First Presbyterian presents “thought-provoking plays rather than a solid diet of musicals and comedies, although we do those, too, because you need some levity to make the bread grow,” she said.

Saturday, nearly 200 people attended a 50th anniversary celebration at the downtown church that included dinner, a silent auction and performances from past productions, including a scene from “Man of La Mancha” and Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice.”

The mission McFarland referred to is “to present an entertaining six-show season which will both examine and celebrate our lives. ... We give both audiences and volunteers in the theater opportunities to explore and enrich their lives,” according to an online statement.

Thom Hofrichter, First Presbyterian Theater’s artistic director since 1997, said the theater is “a place for people to come and not be judged. To do what they love to do.” Onstage and offstage, plays have meant that “teachers met crane operators and lawyers and Republicans meet Democrats,” Hofrichter added.

Former artistic director John Tolley said the theater has meant so much to the community and was mentioned as one of the city’s perks when Fort Wayne was named as America’s most “livable” city in 1982. Tolley served as the artistic director from 1974 to 1990.

Church members and leaders started working on the idea of a drama ministry and a brick-and-mortar theater in the early 1960s, when Lloyd Pinkerton was the minister of music and Jack Ruhl the organist.

“Lloyd Pinkerton and Jack Ruhl were the brains,” Tolley said. “George McKay and Bud McMillen were the money.”

Plays from “the entire history of Western dramatic literature: from the Greeks to Shakespeare, from Moliere to O’Neill, from Williams and Miller to Albee and Mamet,” have been staged in the 300-seat theater, according to a brochure at the celebration.

“Persons of religious orientation keep in touch with the contemporary world at First Presbyterian Theater. It is admittedly a controversial ministry. Why? Because by not being expressly Christian or didactically religious, it trusts the theater-goer to weigh ambiguity about who is the saint and who is the sinner, to reason who is the Pharisee and who is Christ-like in the experience of living in this world and to find the parable in the play, even as Jesus used narratives in an oblique style to raise religious questions,” an excerpt by David McCants reads in the brochure.

Hofrichter said the 12-person drama committee has never turned down a play suggestion he has made, although he “uses discretion. I’ve never been told not to do one.”

One of the evening’s organizers, Linda Kirby, said she is not a member of the church but spends a lot of time there.

“Most of my current friends I met at the theater,” she said.

She’s worked the box office and front of house and was onstage recently. It was a bit part, but she got a few lines.

The season’s last production, “Ben Butler” by Richard Strand, will open April 18 and run through May 4. For more information, go to firstpresbyteriantheater.com or call the box office at 426-7421, ext. 121.