Several years ago, I saw a poster for a local theater production of the musical 9 to 5 and decided to watch a performance. I wasn’t sure what to expect when we pulled up to the Fort Smith Little Theater. It is little, just under 200 seats. But I was blown away by the talent and the caliber of the production.
The following summer, I decided I wanted to get involved and auditioned for their production of The Wizard of Oz. (That’s me as the middle tree in the haunted forest).
If I was impressed as an audience member, I was even more in awe as a part of the ensemble. The cast and crew put in countless hours, rehearsing for several hours each night for weeks leading up to the performance. Learning lines, perfecting harmonies, sewing costumes, building sets, recording background tracks, programming lights. And the most amazing part? It’s all run by volunteers.
In my opinion, the volunteer nature of the theater is what makes it so impressive. No one here is a professional actor or singer, they just love the arts and sharing them with their community. I’ve watched as a professional pilot lead drinking songs from My Fair Lady, and a hospital administrator produced a play. I’ve seen a dental assistant sew beautiful costumes and a data analyst taking on the role of a king. When you see these shows, they seem more like professional productions than amateur night. The Little Theater gets amazing turnout for their auditions, so they can cast the most talented people from the River Valley area.
The Little Theater has been producing shows since 1947 when the Young Ladies Guild of Sparks Memorial Hospital decided to sponsor an amateur production of a play as a fundraiser. They are proud to say that the FSLT is Arkansas’ oldest continuously running all-volunteer community theater. Over the years, productions were housed all over town: school auditoriums, hotel ballrooms, and lecture halls. In 1952, the group became independent, breaking all sponsorship and partnership ties. They raised money to purchase what was The Baby Grand Grocery Store on North O Street for $15,000. They raised the down payment but had trouble getting a mortgage, as lenders saw a fledgling theater group as a risk. A theater patron turned out to be a loan officer who was willing to take a risk and the theater never missed a payment.
The renovation of the grocery store was completed entirely by volunteers and was the theaters home for over 20 years. Then in 1978, The Fort Smith Little Theater joined with the Fort Smith Art Center to buy land and build a facility to house both organizations. They sold the theater on North O and moved to the new theater on North Sixth Street, where it remains today. The theater has been upgraded throughout the years, with the newest renovation campaign happening just a few years ago in 2013.
The biggest change in the 2013 renovation was placing The Harlequin Man in the lobby. This one-of-a-kind sculpture was created by Al Reis and Jay Anderson. It was given to the theater in the 1960s and placed outside the theater as a sort of sign. Over time, exposure to the elements had damaged the sculpture and none of the original stained glass was left. However, in 2013, it was repaired and restored, then moved to the lobby for all patrons to enjoy.
The theater saves and scrapes and is very frugal with its funds. President of the board of directors, Carole Rogers, explains “We reuse everything. We build sets and then take them apart carefully. Every good 2×4 gets saved for next time. We borrow furniture. We reuse costumes.” The theater is self-sustaining, operating from ticket sales and financial support gifts, along with an endowment fund. The board of directors ensures everything runs smoothly, but no one is paid.
Rogers explains, “It’s a real community theater. People come from all over the area to participate. Sometimes we have kids running around during rehearsals because their parents are involved.” (In fact, the night I visited a rehearsal, ten-month-old baby Olivia was crawling around while her parents read through a script for the next show.)
It takes hundreds of volunteers to produce their season of shows, which includes six full-run productions and several offseason shows with shorter runs. Major shows take at least four weeks of nightly rehearsals and include at least eight performances. Rogers says, “We use rehearsals and our dark nights to give back to the community. During dress rehearsals, we invite nursing and retirement homes, local theater students and other groups to watch the show for free. Then on dark nights when the show isn’t doing a public performance, we will “sell” the show to local groups at cost and allow them to resell their tickets as a fundraiser.”
They would love to host you as a part of the theater or as a patron. Keep up with auditions, ticket sales and show information on their Facebook page. Also, keep an eye out for any historical programs or cast photos. The current members are trying to preserve an archive of previous shows, so if you happen to find one in your grandmother’s bookshelf, please let them know. Click for the list of productions they are missing. They love new volunteers, so if you’re from the River Valley area, contact the Fort Smith Little Theater to get involved. And of course, they’d love for you to enjoy a show. “After all,” Rogers said, “our favorite part is the performance and the applause.”