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What is theater? Spanish playwright Lope de Vega said it was two planks and a passion.
The Community Theatre of Little Rock proves de Vega’s point. Despite limited funding and continually having to move from theater space to not-so-typical theater space, the group has persisted for 50 years.
In April, the group will stage “Arsenic and Old Lace” at its most recent home, Woolly Auditorium on the campus of the Arkansas School for the Blind.
Since its founding in 1956, this oldest theater group in Central Arkansas has staged plays by 20th-century playwrights Noel Coward, Gore Vidal, Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman, William Inge, Agatha Christie, and George Bernard Shaw. Today, the CTLR mainly stages comedies and musicals, with a dash of Shakespeare every now and then, and a glimpse of Chekhov.
It is a testament to the artistic desires of the community that the CTLR has survived. It briefly competed for audiences with the Arkansas Arts Center in the 1960s, and since 1975 has gone up against Arkansas’s only professional theater, the Arkansas Repertory Theatre. It has relatively new competition from another amateur company, the Weekend Theater.
There’s something to be said for the company’s ability to maintain a supportive audience for five decades, even if it is smaller than what the Rep enjoys. “We are not professionals,” Tricia H. Spione, the CTLR board president, said, “but everyone on board has had some background or training in theater. We are not getting paid for this and it is not our full-time job. We want to have fun.”
The theater has survived, Spione believes, because of its people “young and old, who contribute to the vitality of the group. It becomes more like a family because we have to do everything. Your hands are in it all along. The name says it. We are a part of the community. People feel satisfaction and you gain friends from it.”
Active participants in CTLR come from diverse backgrounds — lawyers, electricians, teachers, carpenters, computer technicians, students and children work together to create art. Several families volunteer and use the theater as a way to spend time together, Spione said. Most people work both behind the scenes and on stage, day and night. The average amount of rehearsal and production time is well over 75 hours a week during the season.
Oddly, the non-profit organization opened its first season with two experimental plays, “Accent on Youth” and “Biggest Thief in Town.” But after its first year, the troupe began performing traditional plays and more than doubled the number of seasonal shows. There were peaks of up to nine shows in a year, though lately the number has been three or four.
The number of large-scale musicals that the group has staged over the years is astounding. It is hard to imagine how a production of “Hello Dolly!” or “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” would be staged in the National Investors Life Building, one of CTLR’s stops in its never-ending search for acting space.
“Arsenic and Old Lace,” directed by Brigitte Brumbelow, will be staged April 14-16 and April 21-23. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Call 663-9494 for tickets or more information.