Playhouse on the Square by Murray Riss

With a burst of pride and a burst of gratitude, Circuit Playhouse Inc., which includes Playhouse on the Square and The Circuit Playhouse, observes the 40th anniversary of its founding. More than 6,000 people have acted, staffed, ushered, handled tech jobs, and struggled to bring forth the 744 shows produced at our theatres since 1969. The celebration of this occasion is in their honor, for without their talent and dedication, Memphis’ professional theatre company could not have reached this landmark event.

The history of Circuit Playhouse, Inc. actually began more than six years before its official 1969 incorporation. In the summer of 1963, Jackie Nichols, going into his senior year at Overton High School, teamed up with fellow student Walter Slaughter to form a troupe of student actors to perform shows in churches and civic centers. Their initial production was A Life in New York by Anna Cora Mowatt and was directed by Ray Hill. For the next few summers, the Circuit Players, as the nomadic group dubbed themselves, produced such shows as Babes in ArmsHow to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying; and The Roar of the Greasepaint, the Smell of the Crowd. Early on, Jackie found himself at the helm of this enterprise, developing management skills on the job while drawing from his onstage experience at Front Street Theatre where he was a promising tap dancer and occasional actor.

By 1969, Jackie was the only member of the original Circuit Players remaining in the troupe when the old Memphis Civic Ballet Academy on Walker near the University of Memphis (then Memphis State) closed and became available to rent. Jackie and the Circuit Players, together with their fledgling Board of Directors, which then included Don Winfield, Susan Kahn, Harris Segal, Nancy Johnson, and Skip Giles, made the decision to rent the building and incorporate – and Circuit Playhouse, Inc. (CPI) was born on November 20, 1969, in its new space The Circuit Playhouse.

The thrill of having a permanent home came with the realization that bills would have to be paid each month – $300 rent and approximately $200 for utilities.

The first official CPI production was a surefire crowd pleaser – with a twist. The Fantasticks, directed by Barry Fuller, was presented in a rock musical format! The second show made clear to Memphis audiences that this fledgling theatre had more in mind than sheer entertainment. In 1969, political controversy and social upheaval were the dominant features of American society. Staking out its now-familiar niche as the city’s innovative and risk-taking theatre, CPI produced We Bombed in New Haven, a play with a ringing anti-Vietnam War message.

In the next year and a half, CPI produced both popular favorites such as Bus Stop and classics such as Of Mice and Men. CPI also stretched the minds and sensibilities of Memphis audiences with more challenging and confrontational works such as The Boys in the Band, a landmark play dealing with homosexuality, and Marat/Sade which gave Memphis its first onstage nude scene as well as an exploration of social injustice.

Then, early in 1971, came the first in a series of unexpected events in the history of Circuit Playhouse, Inc. The space they were renting was sold to make way for a blood bank. Like so many other moments of decision in the theatre’s past, it was a blessing, but very well-disguised. A frantic search ensued to find a new home for the theatre.

The result of the search was a space at 1947 Poplar, across from Overton Park. The Circuit Playhouse had a new home.

CPI acquired this larger and newer building with central air-conditioning and higher ceilings: a much-improved facility for producing shows. Recognition of the theatre’s well-established position in the community came at this time with the first funding grant from the Memphis Arts Council.

The move from the Memphis State area into Midtown put the theatre in a most congenial environment for its future growth, and the area included such attractive neighbors as the Memphis College of Art and Brooks Museum. Furthermore, Overton Square was newly opened, spearheading a widespread revitalization of Midtown.

Over the next few years, CPI’s new home grew into a sort of theatrical compound. In 1971, the theatre rented an adjacent building for a twofold purpose. Part of the structure was used for a costume shop. The remainder of the building became a new performance space: Workshop Theatre, a venue for new, original, and one-act plays. Two years later, another building next door to The Circuit Playhouse was used to create Theatre II, a space for producing little-known plays requiring small casts and minimal sets. For the next several years, the three theatres operated on an annual budget of approximately $30,000 with no paid staff.

In 1975, Overton Square, Inc. approached CPI with an intriguing proposition. The Overton Square management invited the theatre to move to the recently vacated Lafayette Music Room at 2121 Madison. They thought that this would be a mutually advantageous arrangement, increasing business for both the theatre and Overton Square’s restaurants and shops.

Jackie and the Board of Directors, after much discussion, concluded that the Overton Square location was not an appropriate venue for the kind of theatre CPI was currently presenting, nor for the kind of audience that was drawn to its offerings. Yet, the proposition was an attractive one.

With $30,000 provided by Overton Square for the renovation of the 2121 Madison building and increased funding from the Memphis Arts Council, Playhouse on the Square, complete with a Resident Company of professional actors and a paid staff, was born as an offspring of Circuit Playhouse, Inc.

The Grand Opening took place on Wednesday, November 12, 1975 with a production of Godspell, and Memphis, after a seven-year hiatus, once again had a professional theatre. That first season was graced with the performances of many fine actors, among them Larry Riley, Michael Jeter, John Dunavant, and Beverly Baxter, who would later achieve notable careers in New York and Hollywood. There were also notable additions to the Board of Directors during that opening season of Playhouse on the Square. Gene Katz and Buck Clark joined the volunteer leadership of the theatre, providing both creativity and stability to its management.

In 1979, CPI received a CETA grant to explore an entirely new direction and cultivate a new audience. Show of Hands, the Theatre of the Deaf, under the direction of Marc Martinez and Karin Barile, created a troupe of hearing and hearing-impaired performers that played to both hearing and hearing-impaired audiences.

Another area of exploration was environmental productions that involved producing plays in offbeat locations particularly appropriate to a specific show. The first of these was Hot’l Baltimore, presented in the lobby of the defunct King Cotton Hotel in 1975 during the period when Playhouse on the Square was just coming into being. This experiment was a great success, running for a solid month and selling out nightly.

Three seasons later, in an ironic turn of events, another environmental production was staged in what was then an abandoned movie theatre. The Rocky Horror Show, in its first non-Broadway production, and starring musician Larry Raspberry as Frank N. Furter, was produced at the old movie house (formerly the Ritz, the Guild, and the Evergreen) at 1705 Poplar. At the time, no one could have predicted that the building would soon become a permanent home for The Circuit Playhouse!

Shortly thereafter, rumors began to circulate that the CPI building at 1947 Poplar was about to be renovated for another purpose. Undertaking yet another search for new space, Jackie and the Board of Directors entered into negotiations with the owner of the old movie house where The Rocky Horror Show had been produced. After a short stint as a country and western bar, the place had closed, and the owner, after considerable persuasion by Gene Katz and Buck Clark, agreed to sell. After all the years on the move, The Circuit Playhouse finally had a place to call Home!

The new space had 10,000 square feet compared to the 3,000 square feet at 1947 Poplar, and for the same amount of money each month, CPI would own the building. The stage would be larger with a higher grid, improved sound and lighting booth, and seating for 140 patrons. The new theatre would have a costume shop, its first set shop, and the luxury of a space for a rehearsal room, as well as improved dressing facilities, and storage for costumes and props.

There was only one hitch – the renovation and move would have to be accomplished in just two months. Jackie redesigned the space and contracted architects, plumbers, electricians, and carpenters. During the run of The Play’s the Thing, the final production at 1947 Poplar, everyone – crew, staff, and actors – who had a free moment ran down the street to work at the new building. Somehow, three weeks after The Play’s the Thing closed, CPI opened Loose Ends in its new home.

Each of the two theatres continued to pursue its own direction. The Circuit Playhouse initiated the Mid-South Playwright’s Contest, offered a Foreign Film Series, and staged off-Broadway and experimental works. Playhouse on the Square began to offer weekday matinees for school groups in addition to its regular season.

In 1981, Playhouse on the Square added five young performers to its operation, initiating the Intern Program (now called the Associate Company), which today includes sixteen young college graduates hired to assist in all phases of production. The program was begun to enable emerging theatre artists to explore every avenue of the profession and apply their education in the real world.

By 1985, Playhouse on the Square was beginning to feel growing pains. The 2121 Madison Building was no longer adequate. Seating for many productions was limited by the floor-level stage, the student matinee series, which had an attendance of 6,000 students, had outgrown the theatre’s capacity, and Overton Square had recently been sold to out- of-town developers who were anything but supportive.

The old Memphian Theatre (a former Elvis hangout!) on Cooper Street near Union was available for leasing. As it worked out, CPI ended up purchasing the building – and then faced the task of raising $150,000 needed to renovate it. Soliciting three-year pledges from individuals and corporations, the theatre was able to borrow the money from the bank with the pledges as collateral.

Again, arranging a move smack in the middle of the season, the theatre completed the run of Of Mice and Men at 2121 Madison and, in the two weeks before the opening of Gypsy, managed to move into its new space at 51 S. Cooper. On Friday, the 13th of November, 1985, Playhouse on the Square hosted a double-barreled celebration for the opening ofGypsy and the inauguration of its new, 250-seat home.

1986 saw the inception of the CPI’s Theatre for Youth program which has expanded over the past twenty-three years into a full-scale Summer Youth Conservatory, year-round classes, a touring program, Teens ‘n’ Theatre Program, After School Acting Program, and a full season of school matinees.

In 1990, CPI instituted the city’s first independent Theatre School with theatre classes for children, teens, and adults.

At the beginning of the 1986-1987 season, Jackie responded to the theatre’s growing need for artistic continuity by hiring Ken Zimmerman as the company’s Artistic Director. Ken had received his Master’s Degree at Memphis State University, had worked extensively in regional theatre, and had begun his association with Circuit Playhouse, Inc. in 1970 when he directed The Boys in the Band.

Many people have used their time, effort, and talents to create financial stability for Circuit Playhouse, Inc. Living Reflections – the annual “Golden Curls” production started in 1983, with a four-performance run each year at The Circuit Playhouse raised thousands of dollars with its crowd-pleasing spoofs.

The Annual Art Auction, begun in 1978, has become an eagerly awaited Memphis event. Because of the generosity of hundreds of Mid-South artists, the auction has grown in scope, quality, and financial returns.

The growth in artistic capability and maturity of the theatres has resulted in an expanded awareness and appreciation in the local community and beyond. This is reflected in the numerous Memphis Theatre and Ostrander Awards presented to the theatres over the years. In December 1990, CPI was honored by the Tennessee Arts Commission in Nashville with the Governor’s Award in the Arts. In October 1993, Jackie Nichols was awarded the Gordon Hall Award for Outstanding Arts Administration at the Governor’s Conference on the Arts sponsored by the Tennessee Arts Commission and in June, 1999, received the Rotary Club Community Service Award.

These awards are a response not only to the long record of artistic excellence compiled by the two theatres, but to their continuing awareness of their place in the larger community. Having been concerned for some time that arts events were beyond the financial means of the city’s poorest citizens, Jackie suggested to the Arts Council that some way of making art, theatre, music, and dance available to the disadvantaged should be arranged. In January 1990, Arts Access came into being. It is a program making free tickets to arts events available to those on food stamps or who are clients of The Church Health Center.

To make theatre tickets available to those on limited incomes, Jackie instituted the Pay-What-You-Can program in 1991. Every show produced at both The Circuit Playhouse and Playhouse on the Square has a Pay What You Can night, ensuring that those who cannot afford the full price of a ticket will not be denied the pleasures of an evening at the theatre.

An exciting development in the theatres’ history got under way in 1992 with the news that the Devoe Paint Store, adjacent to Playhouse on the Square, was relocating and vacating its premises. Obtaining a ten-year lease with an option to buy, the theatre took over the space, acquiring in the process 6,000 square feet in which to build a new scene shop (enabling the costume shop at The Circuit Playhouse to expand), a large multi-purpose party room with an adjacent bar, a meeting room, and wheelchair-accessible rest rooms. To finance this expansion and ensure the financial stability of the theatres into the twenty-first century, Jackie spearheaded the Silver Challenge, a $350,000 fund-raising effort. Again, the Memphis community responded with large gifts and small, producing the needed revenue in a matter of months.

Since Circuit Playhouse, Inc. observed its 25th Anniversary in the fall of 1994, the theatre has launched at least half a dozen major new undertakings. The anniversary celebration had barely finished when construction began on TheatreWorks, a building one block west of Playhouse on the Square, built to house a variety of small performance groups unable to afford quarters of their own. Numerous theatrical and dance groups flocked to rent the space, reserving the theatre months in advance for a wide variety of performance offerings. This effort was motivated by funding and support from Andrew Clarkson and The Jeniam Foundation.

The following year saw the inception of a program that has had national impact in the theatre world – the Unified Professional Theatre Auditions (UPTA). Most national and regional theatrical conferences provide opportunities for actors and production personnel to audition for summer work. Theatres like Playhouse on the Square, looking for full-time, year- round staff, were often frustrated by auditions featuring talent available only for summer employment. Not content to sit around and complain, Jackie decided to remedy the situation. He appointed Michael Detroit, a Resident Company Member and frequent actor in CPI productions, to the post of UPTA Audition Coordinator. In February 1995, Playhouse on the Square hosted twenty-five theatres and two hundred actors from around the country at the first UPTA conference. Each year, the number of participating theatres and actors has grown. In 1997, the auditions expanded to include production personnel. The 2009 UPTA conference was attended by more than one hundred theatres and over a thousand actors and technicians. One measure of UPTA’s success is the gratitude and appreciation expressed annually by both theatre directors and auditionees for this chance to hire and be hired on a year-round basis.

With a view to ensuring a new generation of theatre patrons, Jackie launched the After School Acting Program (ASAP) in the fall of 1997. D’Arcy Bryan-Wilson was hired as the Founding Director, and spent several months developing this program for youngsters 8 – 12. Fifteen churches and community centers all over the metropolitan area agreed to become host sites for troupes of fifteen children for the twice-weekly activity. Each troupe, under the guidance of a director, creates an original theatrical piece to be performed at a festival at the end of each semester.

Based on the model of Little League Baseball, ASAP operates on the principle that children who participate in an activity, as opposed to being mere spectators, will develop a lifelong involvement in it. The program also helps to fill the void being created by education budget cutbacks in the arts. In addition, ASAP reaches an at-risk population by providing organized after-school activities. The hope is that many of the young people now flexing their artistic muscles in ASAP will become enthusiastic playgoers and supporters, and, perhaps, participants in the arts when they grow up.

Also in 1997, CPI gave birth to a new theatrical entity – the Memphis Black Repertory Theatre. In a community more than fifty percent African-American, Jackie believed there should be a theatre to present the works of black playwrights; utilize the talents of black actors, singers, dancers, and technicians; and appeal to the artistic sensibilities of both black and white audiences.

A unique and thrilling moment in Playhouse history occurred in December, 1997 when Jeanne and Henry Varnell, longtime supporters of the theatres, purchased and donated to CPI a building at 1711 Poplar, adjacent to The Circuit Playhouse. Formerly a recording studio, the building, now known as The Jeanne and Henry Varnell Theatre Arts Education Building, was refurbished to house all the Theatre for Youth programs: the Summer Youth Conservatory, the Theatre School, ASAP, and T’nT (Teens in Theatre). In addition, the Varnell Building is also the home of the Ray Hill Memorial Library and Resource Center, a collection of books, recordings, scripts, and other materials left to CPI by the late Rhodes College professor.

The Varnells’ gift of the building necessitated raising funds to pay for refurbishing the premises. Thus was born the 21st Century Challenge: Building for Generations, a capital funds drive to raise $600,000. A portion of the fund would be used to pay for the improvements to the Varnell Building and to fund an endowment that would cover operating expenses. Spurred by a challenge grant from the Plough Foundation, CPI raised $500,000 in order to qualify for a $100,000 Plough grant.

Since our 30th Anniversary, CPI has continued collaborations and site specific performances with other major arts groups. These include Every Good Boy Deserves Favour with the Memphis Symphony Orchestra at the Cannon Center; Inventing Van Gogh with, and at, the Brooks Museum of Art; and Exhibit This with, and at, The Dixon Gallery and Gardens. Having moved beyond the rag-tag freewheeling `60s that brought the theatre into existence, CPI is blessed with consistent management and artistic leadership that has been around for a while. These individuals include Karen Barile (Director of Theatre for Youth Program), Michael Detroit (Associate Producer, Audition Coordinator of UPTA), Whitney Jo (Managing Director), Kittianne Velloff (Finance Director), and Dave Landis (Associate Director).

The stimulus for “Breaking New Ground,” the Capital Campaign to build a new state-of-the-art theatre came from a strategic planning retreat attended by Board and staff over four years ago. The realization evolved that Playhouse on the Square could not move to the next professional level without a quality space in which to present its productions. The drive began for the $15 million campaign ($12 million Capital and $3 million Endowment) and was greeted enthusiastically by foundations, corporations, and individual supporters. With Playhouse on the Square occupying the new location at 66 S. Cooper, The Circuit Playhouse moved to the old Playhouse location at 51 S. Cooper. The old Circuit location at 1705 Poplar, now renamed The Evergreen Theatre, is available for expanded Theatre for Youth activities and expanded community rentals. In keeping with the organization’s attitude of support for all of the arts in our community, the new Playhouse on the Square and The Circuit Playhouse have performance time set aside for other groups such as Ballet Memphis, The Memphis Symphony Orchestra, Opera Memphis, the Indie Memphis Film Festival and others, creating a fantastic new synergy for performing arts in the Midtown area of Memphis.

As we move toward the half century mark, our vision of “enriching lives through theatre” remains constant. With the continued support of the community and the family of artists that make up Circuit Playhouse Inc., we will continue to bring a challenging and diverse repertoire of theatrical work that speaks to the intelligence, soul, and imagination of the Memphis community.