Community theatre still thriving after 106 years
JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (AP) — The amount of work that it takes to run a theater, any theater that produces live stage performances, is enormous.
From the business of running a venue in the entertainment industry to the sheer amount of manual labor and artistic effort, it requires a massive number of hours from volunteers simply to put on a show, not to mention a full season of shows.
But the Johnson City Community Theatre continues on, after 106 years.
Since 1912, the theater has been consecutively producing year-long seasons of productions that have endured through many times of controversy and tribulation in America. Through two world wars, the Great Depression, the Vietnam War and the Great Recession, the Johnson City Community Theatre has managed to produced consecutive seasons with at least two live stage productions every year.
The theater has been there for the surrounding community, making them laugh, think and get lost in the world of live theater through the good times and the bad.
Over the century, the group has produced an enormous variety of shows from classics by George Bernard Shaw and Tennessee Williams to modern classic musicals like “Rent,” and “All Shook Up.”
This strength through thick and thin and commitment from the community is what make is the theater the longest continually running community theater in Tennessee and the sixth-longest-running theater in the country.
According to various theater members, not many details of the earliest history of the theater is not well-known. Like much of regional history, much of it is passed down through the telling of stories and experiences, in true Appalachian fashion.
The theater has gone by a few different names throughout the years. According to a program from the theater’s 100th season, when the group first officially performed in 1912, it went by the Johnson City Drama Club, performing shows at the Johnson City Country Club and in the Mountain Home Theatre. At that time, the theater was less of a community theater and more of a club.
The name changed again in 1924 to the Johnson City Little Theatre Guild, where most written records began to be kept.
The final name change, and the one that stuck, was in the mid-1960s under the president at the time, Cheryl Laws. A couple noteworthy board members at this point in history were Berney Burleson and Harold “Bud” Frank.
According to lifetime member Bill Campbell, the ’60s were when the theater truly became a “community theater.” Before this time, Campbell said it seemed to be more of a group of friends performing, but in the mid- to late ’60s is really when it began to feel open to everyone.
“It was a fun place to be,” Campbell said. “It became a very welcoming place.”
Campbell first became involved with the theater around 1964 and watched it go through many changes.
Eventually around the late 1960s, the theater moved into the building it is still in today on 600 E. Maple St. in downtown Johnson City. Converted from an old church, it functioned as a theater-in-the-round before moving to the more proscenium style that it has today.
Despite the renovations, the building’s past life is still slightly noticeable from the outside and it is easy to picture a row of pews leading to a pulpit, making it unique compared to others in the area.
Location was not the only thing that changed. Campbell said the theater, which had focused mostly on adult shows and casts, started including children and young people, people of color and many other community members it had not reached out to before.
In the 1980s, the theater began to evolve a little more. Previously, the shows performed were strictly family friendly plays. It was during this decade that the theater produced regular musicals and some adult-themed shows such as “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” by Edward Albee. And the theater grew very popular.
The trends of the 1980s remained consistent until modern day, as far as shows produced. Today the theater’s seasons include both plays and musicals from family friendly pieces to adult pieces and every range of musical.
This year, the theater embarks on its 106th season with Scott Elliot as its current board president. The season includes a little bit of everything, with Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” ″Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead,” by Bert V. Royal and Disney’s “Tarzan the Broadway Musical.”
Elliot says the theater has grown a lot in the past year with new actors, musicians and patrons and doesn’t see it slowing during the upcoming season.
“Over the next several years, we are anticipating bigger and better shows, even bigger audiences, and a lot more community involvement,” Elliot said. “The Board of Directors has been working hard to bring better quality shows to JCCT and this community. We are also so grateful to the community and the (Johnson City) Press readers for being elected winner for Readers Choice for best local theater. It’s truly an honor for us.”
To learn more about the theater or to be involved in the upcoming season, go to http://jccommunitytheatre.org.
Information from: Johnson City Press, http://www.johnsoncitypress.com