Winter is the perfect time to explore the natural stone shelters where native Arkansans once lived
One hundred years ago, while incumbent Woodrow Wilson tried to maintain neutrality during two concurrent conflicts, the Mexican Revolution and World War I, and managed to squeak out a win over his Republican opponent Charles Hughes under the slogan "He Kept Us Out of War," a group of lawyers at the Little Rock Bar Association were planning a satirical spoof whose seeds would bear theatrical fruit for the following century. This weekend, Gridiron celebrates its centennial with "Gridiron 2016: Bake America's Cake Again," a full-fledged dramatic production at the Arkansas Repertory Theatre put on by Central Arkansas's community of legal professionals, and aside from the obvious implications in promotional photos, nobody's sharing any hints on what the centennial plot entails.
"The content of the show is a deeply held secret," says Dent Gitchel, a Gridiron cast member since 1970 and the production's designated archivist. "The politicians pretty well wrote the script for us this year, though. You can't improve on that." In a year where the election cycle has unquestionably met and exceeded its quota of strangeness, Judge Mary Spencer McGowan, who's in her 20th year producing the show, agreed. "It wrote itself. It's a funny year, and the script is made even funnier because of it."
With choreographer Jana Beard and musical director Lori Isner at the dramatic helm, Gridiron has gone from, as actor Craig Wilson says, "a skit at lunch among a small group of men to what we do now, with 80 to 100 people on a full-scale production stage over the course of five nights." Wilson, director of health policy at the Arkansas Center for Health Involvement, is among the cast's most accomplished actors, having taken a brief hiatus from what was then a relatively new law career to act professionally. "The Gridiron family was integral in my being able to do that," said Wilson. "Theater and music put me through school," he said, "and I chose the path of being an attorney. [Gridiron] is an outlet for me to continue doing what I love to do." Wilson's co-star Kathryn Pryor, a partner at the Wright Lindsey Jennings law firm, is a longtime veteran of Arkansas's acting community. "I was in Gridiron in 1984, before I went to law school, and I've been in it every year since then. For Craig and myself, it's less stress and less time than doing a normal theatrical production, and gives us time to get on stage."
The pair's quick wits have, no doubt, been put to the test in the courtroom, for which they're likely thankful during the Gridiron run; the script is distributed only when rehearsals begin and often changes along the way to spoof the current political climate. "Rewrites go on until opening night," McGowan says. "There have been a couple of seasons when we've changed it during the run. We're nimble." Pryor recalls one time in particular, when actor Judge Reinhold, while doing substance abuse counseling in Arkansas prisons, was written into Gridiron's script at the last moment. McGowan spoke with Reinhold ("Beverly Hills Cop," "Fast Times at Ridgemont High") after the actor had seen a show. "He asked if he could be in it, and we said, 'Are you kidding? Of course.' Our committee got to work, and we inserted him into what was already sort of an 'Alice in Wonderland' scene."
The original 1916 production was likely more of a roast than its later iterations, an irreverent gathering of lawyers poking fun at local politicians, colleagues and themselves, but that's just an informed guess; no proof remains of that inaugural show, but a program from the 1920 Gridiron equivalent (now in the archives at the Butler Center) reads, "We present our 5th Annual Luncheon ... ." Gitchel says there's a bit of a "black hole from 1928 until about 1945," presumably due to the struggle of daily life during the Depression and World War II, when many of Little Rock's lawyers were serving in the military.
Productions resumed in 1946 as luncheons in the now-demolished Marion Hotel until Griffin Smith, a high-profile lawyer and enthusiastic fan of Broadway musicals (Gitchel says the bookcase housing Griffin's collection of Broadway tunes must have been around 8 feet high) decided to expand Gridiron's scope. "Remember, there were likely only a few lawyers in the county, or even in the state, who were women," Gitchel said, "and Griffin had this brilliant idea: He said, 'Let's go ahead and make this full-fledged.' " He hired University of Arkansas at Little Rock theater professor Margaret Carner to direct, UALR dance professor Dot Callanen to choreograph and bandleader Betty Fowler to direct the music. Shows migrated to the UALR auditorium, then to Hall High, then to the Arkansas Arts Center until 1990, when Gridiron formed a relationship with the Arkansas Repertory Theatre, where the biennial production (save for a hiatus in 2012) has been held ever since.
"It's a lot like family," McGowan said, and Wilson echoed that sentiment. "As lawyers, many of us deal in the political space a lot, so for us it's an opportunity to take a step back and have a little fun, to take a step back and not take ourselves too seriously just for one night, for one hour."
"Gridiron 2016: Bake America's Cake Again" will be performed at The Rep at 7 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 4, and at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Aug. 5-6. Tickets are $30-$35 and available at therep.org or by calling 501-378-0405.
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