BY NICHOLAS SIEGEL | COURTESY PHOTOS
In today’s busy world, it’s easy to become hypnotized by the fast-paced conveniences of modern technology and forms of entertainment that are constantly changing. As technologies progress, however, live theatre continues to thrive. One of America’s oldest continually producing theatres, Clarksville Little Theatre, 301 East Montgomery Ave. in Clarksville, has captivated audiences and performers for more than 60 years.
Celebrating its 70th season this year, Clarksville Little Theatre has always been a beloved local venue. The theatre puts on five performances a year, including musicals, comedies, mysteries and dramas. Kevin Swansey, a volunteer who was recently elected to the board, has been working with the theatre since 1975 when he started out helping with props and sets.
“I’ve been there doing things off and on since 1975, so I’ve been doing things over there for quite a long time,” Swansey said. “It’s just a little theatre that’s close to my heart, and I want to see it survive. I can’t believe that it’s been there that long, and when I mention it, people don’t know it’s here.”
The community theatre has experienced a lot of change and renovation over its years. This includes an extension to the back of the building to provide dressing room space for actors, a workshop area, new floors, a new front to the theatre, bathrooms being moved to the lobby and the light booth being moved up to the loft.
Swansey recalled the earlier days: “I remember four people sitting on a bench backstage turning dials to turn the lights on and off onstage, and that’s gone from backstage to the loft with a computerized light board. All this is done through grant money, donations or fundraisers. It’s amazing that this little theatre has survived this long on community support.”
The support of the community has always been vital to the survival of the theatre, which is completely run by volunteers. Directors and choreographers are paid through a small stipend, but ticket sales are truly what keeps the shows going and the lights on. “It’s amazing because I’ve been in theatre since I was in the fourth grade, and I’ve seen theatre groups come and go – in fact I’ve been a part of several of them who have not survived – and this one has this long 70 year run, and I’ve been right there with it,” Swansey said.
The Clarksville Little Theatre got its start back in 1947 with its first production taking place in the George Rogers Clark School gym. The performances were eventually moved to the Clarksville Optimist Club, where actors and directors made use of a portable stage that was moved for every show. In 1951, the city of Clarksville sold land to the theatre for a permanent venue, and through a lot of help from the community, the early form of the theatre was born. A list of every show from that very first season to 2016 can be found in the archives on the theatre’s official website.
The theatre not only provides the wonders of live entertainment to audiences but the opportunity for actors to perform in quality shows as well. They see a wide range of actors audition for shows, from experts to those who have never performed before. “I have friends who have never been in a show like that before, and it’s a great confidence builder. Some people don’t even know they’ve got this talent until they walk on stage,” Swansey said. “Sometimes it’s hard. People don’t think they’ve got that talent. I love it when I see new people walk in.”
Swansey is also enthusiastic about the generations of actors who have had their turn on the proscenium stage: “One of my first shows over there, I met a girl named Sharon. We’re still friends. In fact she was in my wedding 40-some years later. And when I directed The Adams Family, her son, who is 14 now, was my Pugsley. So there’s another generation of kids performing over there who have parents who performed with me in the early days.”
With the help of the community, the Clarksville Little Theatre will continue to captivate the imaginations of audiences and performers alike. “I tell people all the time it’s my therapy,” Swansey explained. “I work in a very stressful kind of job, and I can go there each night to rehearsal to perform and be somebody else for several hours. That guy on stage doesn’t have the problems I have. I don’t have to worry about bills and pressures at work. This character I’m playing doesn’t have those things that I have in my life. It’s my therapy. It’s my escape from the real world.”
And the hope is audience members will continue to feel the same way, too.
CLARKSVILLE LITTLE THEATRE
301 E. Montgomery Ave. | Clarksville
www.clarksvillelittletheatre.org | 812.283.6522