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Slice of Life: Theatre Lawrence leader has rich history in arts

Mary Doveton grew up in Dubuque, Iowa, and her childhood thespian activities prepared her for her role as director of Theatre Lawrence.

Mary Doveton grew up in Dubuque, Iowa, and her childhood thespian activities prepared her for her role as director of Theatre Lawrence.

April 18, 2011

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Childhood thespian activities in Dubuque, Iowa, prepared Mary Doveton’s path for involvement in Lawrence’s community theater.

“I put on plays on our front porch, involved the neighborhood kids and charged a nickel for each performance,” says Doveton, now executive director of Theatre Lawrence.

“I hung sheets on pegs for props and scene changes and made things up as I went along.”

She won a drama scholarship to Clarke University, Dubuque, learned to do everything including staging, lighting, directing and acting, and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts. She came to Kansas University for a master’s degree in theater and met her physicist husband, John, at Memorial Stadium in 1970 when Chancellor Laurence Chalmers called a rally to end the semester due to student unrest.

They moved to Canada, where Doveton participated in Calgary’s semi-professional dramatic arts community, and returned to Lawrence in 1973 when John joined Kansas Geological Survey.

Doveton taught drama and English at Topeka West High School until the first of her two children was born.

“The thought of commuting, teaching five classes a day and directing three shows during the school year seemed a lot to return to, so I started looking for other opportunities,” she says.

Doveton was surprised Lawrence didn’t have a theater outside the university, and in 1977 she gathered with some like-minded people in the Carnegie building, where the city planned to open an arts center.

“The city expressed concerns about having enough activities there, so a guy in the group egged me on to start a community theater and then left town,” she says.

The group produced a $500 kitty for the new theater’s first production, “The Secret Affairs of Mildred Wild,” based on Mildred’s dreams of featuring in Hollywood movies. All of Doveton’s earlier experiences were required to pull it off.

“With hindsight it wasn’t the best choice for our first event,” she says.

“We needed lots of sets and costume changes. We held rehearsals and built sets all over town, and stored things in garages, basements, barns, anywhere we could find space. A Wichita theater offered to loan us their King Kong set, and a large head and giant hand that opened and closed. The moving truck broke down during a fierce storm en route to Lawrence and had to be towed. Kong finally made his entrance into Lawrence and we got some good publicity, but it was a pretty dramatic experience for everyone.”

Under Doveton’s enthusiastic and dedicated leadership, the theater continued to produce shows in Carnegie, South Park, Trinity Episcopal Church and Tepee Junction. A good enough following developed to enable a former church (the present location) at 1501 N.H. to be purchased in 1984. Plans are under way to start building a new 300-seat theater with a youth education wing at Sixth Street and Wakarusa Drive fairly soon.

“Lawrence is a great gathering place for extraordinarily talented and generous people,” Doveton says.

— Eileen Roddy can be reached at eileenroddy@sunflower.com.

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