History of the ArtsCelebrating Almost 75 Years of Theatre at Armstrong
1930s- Curtain UpThe curtain went up on theatre at Armstrong when Stacey Keach joined the Armstrong Junior College faculty in the fall of 1936. In February 1937, he directed the college's first play, a production of Three Cornered Moon. Keach arrived with a vision of theatre that combined the talent of the college and the community for the benefit and enjoyment of both. For four years, until his departure in 1941, this combination of town and gown was known as the Savannah Playhouse and transformed the stage of the Armstrong auditorium into a community theater. Keach possessed a flair for showmanship and a wide-ranging repertoire. He performed many roles himself and then went on to a long career in film and television.
1940s- Finally Over "Over There"World War II interrupted theatre at Armstrong with most of the eligible men drafted into the U.S. Armed Services. However, things began to change as they came back from "over there." In the summer of 1947, the school and the community got their theatre program back on the boards.
Carlson Thomas arrived at Armstrong in August 1947 to revive the theatre program and rebuild the Playhouse. He was a genius on the technical side of theatre productions. He could build anything; and if he could not build it, he could scrounge it up from somewhere. Treasures from secondhand stores and attic trunks found their way to the Armstrong stage.
Outside of the auditorium he constructed a new, lighted marquee to announce that theatre was back in business at Armstrong. Once again, students, faculty and actors from the community brought their skills to Playhouse productions. In May 1949, Thomas offered the community a five-day festival of productions reprised from the spring season: Green Grow the Lilacs, a Victorian mystery, Angel Street, and Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew. Originally, Thomas had wanted to stage Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma!, but couldn't get the rights. Instead he added country and folk music to Lilacs, Oklahoma!'s original source material, and turned the play into his own musical.
Injuries from a serious automobile accident in December 1949 took Thomas temporarily off the scene and the theatre program shifted to smaller proportions necessitated by college finances. The curtain came down on the Savannah Playhouse.
1950s- Cue the MasquersThe curtain rose again in the fall of 1950 when the Armstrong Masquers took the stage for the first time.
One of the World War II veterans who returned to Armstrong after the war was Jack Durfee. He bridged the years between Thomas' departure and the founding of the Masquers. His leadership may have helped the college administration to decide that the theatre program could still be successful on a smaller scale, and at a smaller cost. In a sense, he both closed the Playhouse and opened the Armstrong Masquers.
When Durfee left to complete his baccalaureate degree at Stanford, Jack Porter took over and directed the Masquers from 1952 to 1955. Theatre productions ranged from Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, in which Porter played the role of the hapless Willie Loman, to Moliere's 17th century French comedy, The Doctor In Spite of Himself and Shakespeare's Othello, with faculty member Joseph Killorin in the title role.
Porter chose Othello as a showcase piece for the Southeastern Theatre Conference that he invited to meet in Savannah. It provided an insight into race relations in 1954, the year of Brown vs. Board of Education. The conference membership included both blacks and whites. It was not easy to make arrangements that would accommodate a racially-mixed group for the conference luncheon. But the telling question came early from one of Porter's conference colleagues: "What color is your Othello?" Porter replied that Killorin's makeup changed with each presentation, but he realized that the real question addressed not the color of the skin but the way in which the character was portrayed. How black could and should Othello be?
After Porter's departure, Durfee returned to replace him.
1960s- The Show Goes on the RoadDuring the first half of the 1960s, and during the college's last years downtown, a series of directors ran the theatre program. But when the college moved to its new campus in 1966, Frank Chew became director of the Masquers in the Jenkins Theater on the new Abercorn campus.
He gathered around him a close-knit group of liberal-minded students, and together they used the Jenkins Theater for traditional productions and for productions that carried a distinct political tone.
In conjunction with the student Democrats on campus, they lampooned George Wallace; and they staged a production of Sam Shepard's Chicago that pushed hard against the edge of Savannah community standards. Parents and local legislators protested the play's profanity and a particularly suggestive scene. High school teenagers filled the audience. Chew scrubbed out the profanity but retained the controversial scene in which the male lead stood with low-slung jeans while his stage wife knelt and bestowed a kiss upon his navel. Joe Killorin, now dean of the college, pointed out that there were also scenes in Hamlet that might carry offense if truly understood.
1970s and '80s- Reaching OutJohn Suchower came to Armstrong in 1969 and provided the Masquers with more than 20 years of theatre direction. He initiated a summer theatre program to draw students from other parts of the state and, for many productions, he invited members of the community to join the theatre troupe. In the best tradition of Stacey Keach, community and college participated together in Masquers' productions. From its southside location, the college now needed to work harder at building bridges into the community than had been the case when Armstrong resided at Bull and Gaston Streets.
Joe Mydell joined Suchower from 1974 to 1976, bringing the perspective of an African American theatre director. In the 1970s, Armstrong found itself in the midst of a higher education desegregation case brought against Georgia and nine other southern states. Every aspect of life at Armstrong confronted issues of race and the legacy of southern racism. Masquers' productions were simply one stage among many on which these questions played out. Now it was not Othello, but Ossie Davis' play, Purlie Victorious that Mydell offered to the audience. As Mydell told a college Inkwell reporter, "If black and white societies can look at the problem [racism] and laugh and at the same time realize that they are the problem, then communication barriers can be eliminated."
1990s- A New MaturityThe Armstrong theatre program began to show a new maturity during the '90s with the introduction of new opportunities for students. Pete Mellen arrived in 1993. Roger Miller joined him in 1996, the year that Armstrong became Armstrong Atlantic State University. Together, they have taken the Armstrong theatre program to new heights, appropriate to a university-level institution. A baccalaureate degree in theatre was introduced as Mellen and Miller actively recruited theatre students with competitive scholarship offers.The university began sponsoring theatre trips to New York that were open to students and individuals alike in the community.
A new "black box" in Jenkins Hall was the setting for experimental productions for small audiences, while the main stage continued to offer broad appeal theatre seasons that included The Apple Tree and The Fantasticks (1993); and Thurber Carnival and My Fair Lady (1994).
New Century, New StageThe new century made its début on stage along with productions of Charley's Aunt, A Christmas Carol and Shakespeare' Love's Labor's Lost.
In 2006, Pam Sears, the theatre program's first female faculty member, made her directorial debut with A, My Name Is Alice.
The theatre season of 2007 ended with a production of Three Cornered Moon to mark the founding of the Savannah Playhouse, the forerunner to the Masquers, 70 years earlier.
The twenty-first century has seen a physical renaissance of Jenkins Theater. In 2007, the theatre was closed for a year to undergo a restoration. During construction, theatre activity moved from place to place on campus while the Masquers Chinese Theater was under construction. The temporary theater included two black box venues carved out of a former Chinese restaurant in the Armstrong Center.
The curtain went up on the newly-renovated Jenkins Theater in November 2008 with a production of the Gershwin tribute show, Crazy for You, directed by Pam Sears. The grand new quarters included a new box office, completely renovated auditorium with new seating and acoustics, and state-of-the-art sound and lighting facilities. Jenkins Hall also includes a new black box theater and a television studio for teaching screen acting.
Each new season has brought a repertoire of modern classics including A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, The Bad Seed, The Fantasticks, Arsenic and Old Lace, You're a Good Man Charlie Brown and Picnic.
It took a world war to cause the theater to go dark. But, like a good revival, it came back better than ever to become Savannah's longest running theatre program. Throughout its long run, the Masquers has not flinched from reflecting the social and political issues and changing mores swirling around in society. The show goes on.