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The Savannah Playhouse

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In the fall of 1949 the theater department at Armstrong Junior College was kinda small. It consisted of one class, and only nine of us had signed up for it. That didn't limit us though. Our theater group, The Savannah Playhouse, was open to all who wanted to participate. It was a joint college-community venture. Subsequently we had lots of participants, some of them newcomers and many with years of experience, working in it.

The class was the core of the Playhouse. Our teacher-director, Carlson Thomas, had high standards for us. He wanted us to learn every aspect of staging plays, and to do it with professional-quality skill. We learned to build scenery, paint scenery, light scenery and move scenery. With the help of experienced community volunteers, we learned to dress the stage and the performers. We rigged the drops, set up the props and worked the lights. And we acted in the plays.

It was the backstage work that interested me. I didn't want to act. I wanted to learn about what went on behind the scenes. I liked making things and took most naturally to building scenery and handling it. But in my first term I was pushed into taking a small part in I Remember Mama. I played a writer who gave advice to the heroine. Each play ran for six days, and I struggled through the run, but had no desire to do it again. Once they'd seen me act, nobody pushed me to do it again.

For I Remember Mama, we'd rigged up a drop curtain, counterweighted with a sandbag, that was raised and lowered with a homemade winch screwed to the floor. Since I was a stage hand doubling in a small role, my main job during the show was tending the winch. During dress rehearsal, I was sitting next to the winch, waiting for my cue, when suddenly it went up into the air, and the sandbag came smashing into the floor a couple of feet from me. So did our drop curtain. The screws holding the winch had pulled loose.

When we put it all back together again, we used bigger, stronger screws.

We need something stronger to hold the theater together, but we didn't know that. The next play on our schedule was Charley's Aunt. We had already begun work on it when our director was badly injured in an auto accident, and for the rest of the season we were on our own. One of the people in the class was Ross Durfee, who had done his time in the military and was going to college on the G.I. Bill. He was already an actor who'd had professional experience. He took over direction. Walt Kessel, our production manager, and Wray Potter, our lighting director, were community people who'd had a lot of experience with local theater. They took over the stage crew. We went on with the show and it was a success.

The third production on the schedule was The Barretts of Wimpole Street. We got together a cast and crew of the best people available, and put our best efforts into the best production we possibly could do. I spent hours after classes, and some in between classes, on the crew building sets. The end result was everything we'd hoped for. A first-class production that sold out at the box office.

The final production on our schedule was The Merry Wives of Windsor, but we decided to substitute something simpler. We chose The Drunkard, a Victorian play that had been performed for decades, mostly as a farce. My right hand appeared in that one, though not in a speaking role. At one point a performer was supposed to give another a bouquet of flowers. But the bouquet was intentionally left offstage, as if it had been forgotten. On cue the hand of a stagehand would thrust it out from behind a piece of scenery. Mine was that hand.

I was really enjoying working with the theater, and was doing well enough to get a work-scholarship as assistant to the director. I had a notion to go on to a degree in theater and perhaps become director of a little theater somewhere myself.

We had done too well carrying on without Carlson Thomas. As usual, the college was on the financial edge. The Board decided to dismiss him, close our tiny theater department, and make theater an extra-curricular activity the next term. That ended community participation. I had some disagreements with the new approach, and after a while, I quit the club.

The community people formed a new theater group and I went with them. But they didn't have a theater to perform in. They had to do their productions in borrowed space. Without a proscenium stage they started working in the round. I assisted with the lights for a season, but I wasn't really needed. And I was a stagehand at heart. There's not a lot for a stagehand to do when the stage is just a circle of floor space surrounded by audience. My enthusiasm for theater waned and after a while I gave it up.

© 2021 Gary Ross Hoffman

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