Tent Theatre is entering it’s 56th season this coming summer. The typical format each season is two plays and one musical, but this season will see one more event: a dedication.
The dedication will honor Byrne Blackwood, one of the co-founders of Tent Theatre, who died in January. While Blackwood hasn’t held the role of managing director of Tent Theatre since his retirement, he held a continued presence in the arts scene of Springfield and was scheduled to design a set for the Springfield Regional Opera up to the day of his passing.
“That tent stands out there partly because of him,” said Mark Templeton, the current managing director of Tent Theatre.
Tent Theatre was founded in 1963 by Irene Coger, Robert Gilmore and Blackwood. There was no air conditioning in the auditorium at Missouri State University where plays were usually performed. During the summer, it was too hot to ask patrons to sit inside and watch. Templeton said Tent Theatre was born as the solution.
The gimmick of the tent had so much success that by the time air conditioning was added, summer plays continued to be performed in a tent outside, where it’s remained ever since.
Templeton said almost every year since its founding, Tent Theatre runs at full capacity, usually sold out. While there are many outdoor theater companies, not many are holding outdoor theater inside a tent.
“It’s very unusual in this day and age for a theater organization, especially an outdoor theater organization, to be around as long as we have,” Templeton said.
Templeton has been with MSU for 23 years, and only one other person has held the position before him— After holding the position for 35 years, Blackwood was ready to retire and began transitioning the role to Templeton.
“Throughout the years of being a friend, leaning on him for knowledge and everything he did for Tent, he was definitely a mentor,” Templeton said. “Just two people span the entire period from a management standpoint. A lot of things he taught me about Tent Theatre historically, things that were important to him, I still try to make sure I carry that torch to this day.”
This year, the three plays Tent Theatre will be showcasing are “Grease,” “The Mousetrap,” and “Catch Me If You Can.” Templeton said each play will be something special, with “Catch Me If You Can” featuring the star-power of Broadway actor and local celebrity Kim Crosby, “The Mousetrap” being performed for the first time at Tent Theatre, and “Grease” being the very play that was Blackwood’s most successful production of his career.
In addition to being Blackwood’s most successful play he ever ran, this year “Grease” also holds a heightened significance: this year’s performance will be dedicated to Blackwood.
“It was a total coincidence that we’re doing this show in his memory,” Templeton said.
The process to perform in Tent Theatre is a bit different from how students would get involved with performing in a usual play at MSU. As opposed to rehearsing months in advance, Tent Theatre performers have two weeks, six days each week, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. to rehearse.
Tent Theatre is a professional theater company rather than academic. Students from universities all over the country are invited to audition. Templeton said they will see upward of 300 auditions, and they will cast just 33 actors this year. Ten of those 33 are students from different universities.
“We are in such a highly competitive field in theater that our students must also be trained to compete, and there’s no better place to compete for a role than in Tent Theatre,” Templeton said.
Another difference is that Tent Theatre can pay its actors, allowing stars like Crosby to participate and student actors grow their network.
Jenna Leavitt, a junior musical theatre major from MSU, is performing in this year’s production of “Grease” as the character Jan. Leavitt has also performed in several MSU productions such as “Bare,” and found that she preferred Tent Theatre’s more intensive process.
“My favorite thing to do ever is theater, and so doing it from nine to five and getting paid for it is like literally what I’m going to school for, so that’s really awesome,” Leavitt said. “During the school year, you don’t get paid, and you’re putting in all this work. It’s still very rewarding, but you don’t get paid.”
Additionally, because rehearsals are so long and performances go on for two weeks, actors have to focus carefully on both building up and managing their stamina. Leavitt said this is something she looks forward to experiencing that performing in regular MSU plays don’t facilitate in the same way.
Students at MSU are also involved in Tent Theatre beyond acting on stage. Graduate post baccalaureate non-degree student Mallory Maggi will be working as vending manager for Tent Theatre this year. For the last two years she worked as an operations assistant and found that Tent Theatre has been valuable as a learning tool for her, and allowed her to work in her field at a young age.
Maggi said Blackwood’s death demonstrated how large Tent Theatre’s community really is, between people sharing stories of him and the impact he and Tent Theatre had on their lives.
“I think this summer will be a celebration of all of that,” Maggi said.
For the first weekend of Tent Theatre, June 14 to June 16, Tent Theatre will be holding numerous events as part of Blackwood’s dedication, from a cocktail hour to reminisce, a display of artifacts Blackwood possessed and a special performance of Grease in dedication to Blackwood. A closing brunch will feature many speakers familiar with or close to the late Blackwood, including his son Randy Blackwood.
“I’m hoping that in the end of the event, that people can feel the passion he had for our field of choice, being theater, and hopefully it will inspire us to move forward through our careers, and remember that we have a responsibility too to continue on with that kind of passion,” Templeton said.