Behind the Curtain at Fort Smith Little Theatre

 

Anyone studying the traffic pattern at North Sixth and D Streets in downtown Fort Smith will find it very predictable. That location is home to Fort Smith Little Theatre, commonly called FSLT.

During weekday hours, it’s relatively quiet. Only a few cars come and go as volunteers stop by to handle administrative duties, unload lumber, or deliver altered costumes. But about 6:30 p.m., a steady stream of cars brings cast and crew members to evening rehearsals. Then come the weekend warriors—set construction volunteers who arrive to swing a hammer or sling a paintbrush.

This pattern lasts for about four weeks while a show is rehearsing. Then, it escalates to a human beehive of activity for two weeks of performances. After a show closes on a Saturday night, the cast and crew reunite again on Sunday to clean the facility and tear down the set. Auditions are held for the next production the following Monday, and this cycle starts over again. All. Year. Long.

This pattern has been predictable and thriving since 1947. As the oldest community theatre in Arkansas, this non-profit group exemplifies the adage, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

So, who are all these people coming and going from this location? A newspaper article from the 1950s preserved in FSLT’s extensive archives says it best: “The butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker – they’re all acting in the forthcoming Little Theatre production. Or if they aren’t, a closely related occupation is represented.”

Many years have passed since that story was published, but according to Tina Dale, FSLT Board President, it could easily be reprinted today. “Our organization seems to pull a very eclectic group of people. Thinking back over recent casts, I can name a physician, human resource trainer, choir director, waitress, retail salesperson, graphic artist, teacher, college professor, journalist, chef, lawyer, and many retirees. And that’s just off the top of my head,” she said.

Some are drawn to centerstage, looking for a place to showcase their talent. Others have no theatrical background but are willing to learn new skills and want to make new friends. Dr. Joanne Peterson fits that description. An anatomy professor at the Arkansas College of Osteopathic Medicine by day, she is a jack-of-all-trades at FSLT by night.

“I was looking for a way to meet people outside of work at the college. I showed up at FSLT auditions and asked if there was anything I could do to help. Before I could blink twice, I was helping with set construction and operating the light board. Since then, I have performed on stage, served as Board President, and recently directed The Lost Boy. I don’t have any theatre training, but I’ve had the privilege to learn from those who do. I’m proud of the performances we produce and so grateful for the friends I’ve made here,” Peterson said.

Over the years, there have been many instances where volunteering together results in more than friendship. “Romance seems to flourish when you spend time together and develop common interests. In the past few years alone, four couples have married after meeting at FSLT,” Dale said.

Family involvement is quite common as well. FSLT volunteer Gary Cameron explains, “My wife’s favorite task is collecting furniture and props for the shows. I enjoy taking care of the FSLT building and constructing sets. We both try to squeeze in a little stage time as well. A few years ago, my stepdaughter got involved. Now, my teenage grandchildren have found ways to participate. They have learned that while no one wears helmets or shoulder pads, theatre is a team sport. You can deliver a line on stage, but many others support you – putting the light on your face, handing you a prop, fitting your costume, and so much more.”

While it’s interesting that people from all walks of life come together at FSLT, it’s downright remarkable when you consider they are all volunteers. Everyone onstage and backstage is donating their time and talents so that others can enjoy good entertainment.

What’s their motivation? To quote another newspaper article from the FSLT archives, “The Little Theatre has but two purposes—to provide entertainment to Fort Smith and to have a good time doing it.”

“If you think about it, how FSLT operates doesn’t sound like a solid business plan. After all, our organization requires many volunteer hours, loads of talent, loyal audience members, and support from generous donors and businesses. And yet, here we are, providing year-round entertainment for seventy-seven years,” Dale said.

This unique theatre troupe began when members of the Young Ladies Guild of Sparks Hospital (now Baptist Health) met in 1947 and heard a presentation by Mrs. James W. Pattee, Jr. Having earned a degree in dramatics at Northwestern University, Florabell (Flo) Pattee had performed professionally in New York. Living in Fort Smith while her husband, James, was stationed at Camp Chaffee during WWII, Pattee brought her theatrical experience to the table and proposed that the Guild sponsor a Little Theatre. Seventy-five percent of the proceeds from performances would fund the purchase of surgical equipment for Sparks Hospital, and the remainder would help launch the community theatre – the first of its kind in Arkansas. The project was approved, and the rest is history.

After the production of Mr. and Mrs. Norththe theatre’s first performance, a separate Board of Directors was elected and would be shepherded by the hospital guild for several years.

In 1952, FSLT came of age. They performed their first independent production and bought a facility to convert into a performance space. The building was an empty grocery store on North O Street. It had not the slightest resemblance to a theatre. Actors and set designers had to work around the support poles throughout the building—even on the stage. By the 1980s, with success well-established, the theatre had outgrown that location. So, in 1986, FSLT relocated to its present site.

“People always ask me, ‘Don’t you dream of a bigger facility?’ My answer is no. We love our 200-seat auditorium. Patrons in the front row can literally reach out and touch the actors! Yes, it has challenges for some productions and requires a lot of creativity from set designers, but you just can’t beat the intimacy of our stage,” Dale said.

More than 9,000 people annually come to downtown Fort Smith for FSLT performances, and those audiences are as diverse as the actors on stage. While some attendees may be theatre buffs, most are just looking for good entertainment—a date night or a girls’ night out in a casual, comfortable setting.

“It’s important to us to provide good entertainment, but we want to do so at an affordable price. Fortunately, our season ticket patrons, community donors, and volunteers help control our operating costs and rising prices for things like lumber, utilities, and insurance,” Dale said.

So, what does the future hold for this organization? “We have a long and healthy road ahead, partly because there is an amazingly deep pool of talent in this area and also because children’s theatres and school arts programs are nurturing a future generation who will appreciate live theatre. I hope those students will find their way to FSLT when they are ready to participate in theatre as adults,” Dale said. “We’ll be here, and we’ll leave the light on!”

NEXT UP
Light Up the Sky
June 1-8
Hello, Dolly!
July 18 – August 8
Visit fslt.org for tickets and details and follow along on social media.

WORDS Nancy Blochberger
IMAGES courtesy Fort Smith Little Theatre

Do South Magazine

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