It must seem awfully strange to Mary Doveton to be moving into a building designed specifically for theater. Theatre Lawrence’s executive director has been adapting other facilities to her needs since helping found the organization in 1977.
“We just rolled with the punches of whatever we had,” she says, reminiscing on 36 years of community theater productions.
Last month’s performance of “12 Angry Men” marked the final time the lights would go up on a production at Theatre Lawrence’s current location, 1501 New Hampshire St.
“There’ve been a lot of great moments in this building,” Doveton says.
The story of Theatre Lawrence is one of making do with what was available. The first seven years of the company were spent largely at the Carnegie Building downtown.
“It was just beginning as the Lawrence Arts Center then,” Doveton says.
Shows had to rehearse and set pieces had to be built off-site. The week the show opened, everything would be moved in and set up. As time went on, that became impractical.
“The Arts Center programming was getting bigger, and our audiences were growing,” Doveton says. “We needed a place of our own.”
‘People just want to help’
Theatre Lawrence board member Rob Sturgeon of McGrew Real Estate found the current location in 1984. Getting it required a crash fundraising effort.
“They told us we’d never do it,” Doveton says. “But we did.”
It took six months to repurpose the old church into a theater. Much of the design was overseen by one of the theater’s early technical contributors, Chuck Lown.
“We had a couple of professionals do the design,” Doveton says, “but most of the actual work was done by volunteers.”
Theatre Lawrence opened its new home in January of 1985 with “I Was Right Here a Moment Ago” by Lawrence playwright and author John Clifford, best known for writing the cult film “Carnival of Souls.”
Originally, the seating was on the pews that came with the building.
“People would sit down and kind of spread out like they do at church,” Doveton recalls, smiling. “Our house managers would go out and tell people to move closer so we could fit more people in.”
In the mid-1990s, when the defunct Granada movie theater was sold and transformed into a nightclub, Theatre Lawrence took possession of the seats.
“They had centuries of popcorn grease, bubble gum and who knows what else all over them,” Doveton said with a shudder.
Jack Riegle, Theatre Lawrence’s longtime technical director and one of two members of its Volunteer Hall of Fame, took all the seats apart and cleaned them thoroughly.
“We took them apart and hung them up from cables to dry after we cleaned them,” Riegle says. “It looked like the movie ‘Coma’ with all of them hanging there.”
“We gave the pews to a Baptist church in Kansas City,” Doveton says. “They came with a bunch of trucks and I don’t know how many people, and got them loaded up and took them away.
“They were so grateful. That’s the thing with organizations like this one and theirs. People just want to help.”
The theater’s red velvet curtain was acquired through similar means.
“We got a call when they were tearing down Vinland High School that there was a red drape there, and if we wanted it we had 24 hours to go get it,” Doveton says. “So Jack got some volunteers and a truck and drove down to get it.”
“And the amazing thing was it fit our space perfectly,” Riegle adds.
Twenty-eight seasons in the building did not go by uneventfully. A fire in late 2003 could have destroyed everything.
“We’d been in the building during the day,” Doveton says. “When we left, everything was locked up and every switch was turned off.”
But when the cast of “Nurse Jane Goes to Hawaii” showed up for rehearsal that night, they saw smoke and flames coming out of the basement window.
“The fire was in the costume room,” Doveton says, “and we were lucky the door was shut or it could have destroyed the whole building. As it was, we lost all the vintage costumes, including some really gorgeous ones that had just been made for ‘Kiss Me Kate.’”
The cause of the fire never was discovered.
“The best they could tell us was that there must have been a wayward spark from an old fluorescent light,” Doveton says.
The basement of the theater also flooded. A hose had been left out on a spigot outdoors.
“Someone came along and pushed the hose under the door and turned the water on,” Riegle says. “When we came in, there was water everywhere.”
Some disasters actually turned out well, though. At a 2007 performance of “Plaid Tidings,” the power went out at intermission.
“The performers went on and did the whole second act without power,” Doveton says. “Volunteers shone flashlights on the stage to light it, and the performers went on and sang and danced with no accompaniment.”
What Doveton especially recalls about the current building, though, is the special relationship the audience had with the actors.
“I can recall during a performance of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ when a little kid shouted out to Belle, ‘Don’t go over there!’ because that’s where Gaston, the bad guy, was,” Doveton says. “Or the time during ‘Greater Tuna’ when Marion Constantinescu was making dog noises onstage, and there was a blind person with a service dog in the audience. And the dog started barking back at him!”
“Or the time when an actor was supposed to leave his hat onstage, and this lady in the front row called out, ‘You forgot your hat!’” Riegle adds.
If it’ll be nice to finally leave behind 36 years of makeshift accommodations for the nice, new facilities out on Champion Drive set to open in June, Doveton can’t help but be sentimental about what’s gone before.
“The building is great,” she says, “but it’s more the people who’ve come through it — John Clifford, Chuck Lown, the Oldfathers, Sally Six Hersch — so many people who have shared their talent and done it for free.”
“They did it for the love of it,” Riegle says.
And that, then, is the legacy of Theatre Lawrence. It is not a building but a place where people come together to make memories. That won’t change, even if the address does.