Curtain call: Retiring Theatre Lawrence founder looks back on 45 years of performances and changes

photo by: Austin Hornbostel/Journal-World

Mary Doveton sits in a seat at Theatre Lawrence, 4660 Bauer Farm Drive. Doveton founded the theatre 45 years ago, and she'll soon retire after serving as its first and only executive director.

Mary Doveton, the founder and executive director of Theatre Lawrence, is about to begin her next act — retirement.

Within a few months, she’ll be stepping away from the community theater she started in 1977 — which has grown from a small group’s passion project to an institution recognized not just locally but throughout the eastern Kansas region and across the country.

Under Doveton’s leadership, the theater has written a rich history over the past 45 years, from putting on traveling performances early on to stints at two different long-term homes. But no matter where Theatre Lawrence has called home, Doveton will tell you the part she’s enjoyed most has been the act of bringing a performance to life. She told the Journal-World Thursday that it’s been “rewarding and terrifying” to watch as countless cast and crew members have played out that process time and time again.

“That’s the part of the job I’ve loved the most, creating that magic,” Doveton told the Journal-World. “My passion is to create worlds and share emotions with audiences. Theater’s kind of a weird art form; we all go to the theater and sit in the dark and watch a bunch of strangers walk back and forth and cry and laugh and sing. How do you — as a performer, as a director — take that story, how do you take those universal emotions that are part of that story and share them with the audience?”

Through Theatre Lawrence’s decades of performances, Doveton has been its only executive director, and she’s overseen many a change over the years. That’s included moves to two permanent homes — first, a former church at 1501 New Hampshire St., and then, in 2013, a brand-new 35,000-square-foot theater and education facility in west Lawrence that was funded by a successful capital campaign.

But in the early days, the institution, which was first known as the Lawrence Community Theatre, was much more nomadic. Rehearsals and set construction happened wherever the original group could find space — in basements, garages and barns — and the performances themselves were put on at venues like South Park and Trinity Episcopal Church.

“I think our traveling around helped in some ways get me ready, at least, for (the current space), because you had to be so adaptive to the spaces that you were in, and you became so aware of using the good points of a space,” Doveton said.

Being able to adapt has been a key theme for the theater throughout its life. It’s had to endure bumps in the road such as fires, floods and, most recently, COVID-19. During the height of the pandemic, Doveton said the staff and volunteers felt it was especially important that the theater keep going however possible. They pivoted to showing drive-in movies on the side of the building, and that later turned into hosting outdoor shows, performing over Zoom and even turning the theater into a vaccination center.

One constant through all of these changes has been the countless people who believed in the theater and helped make it happen, Doveton said. Looking back on the community meeting she called in 1977 to kickstart the city’s community theater scene, Doveton said she’s grateful passionate people like her showed up — and if she had a regret about where the theater is today, it’s simply that some of the original group isn’t around to see what their shared dream became.

“I can’t think of the theater without the thousands of people that made it happen,” Doveton said. “The people on the stage, the people behind the stage, the people raising the money for it, the people that dreamed of it.”

Although her retirement is near, Doveton’s work isn’t done quite yet. She’s keeping busy as she helps the next executive director, Jamie Ulmer, get acclimated to the role. Ulmer joined Theatre Lawrence two weeks ago, and Doveton is staying on board through the transition.

It’s a bittersweet feeling, Doveton said. While she feels it’s the right time to bring in new leadership, she also says the theater has been such a vital part of her life that separating from it will be hard.

“I kind of feel like I birthed three children,” Doveton said. “I had a daughter, a son and a theater, and they all are within a few years of the same age of each other. We’ve all grown up together.”

Doveton said she nevertheless has plenty of hopes for Theatre Lawrence in the coming years — especially that it will continue to grow and evolve, just as it has during the past several decades. She said she wants to see the theater bring in new, diverse audiences and continue to bolster its youth programming.

She isn’t taking her final bows without one last standing ovation, though. Earlier this week, the Lawrence City Commission honored her contributions to the community with an official recognition. And recently, Doveton was recognized with a national honor — the Art Cole Lifetime of Leadership Award from the American Association of Community Theatre. The award is given every two years to just a single recipient.

“That is a big deal for the theater,” Doveton said. “… It’s a big honor for our theater, not just for me, to be recognized nationally.”

Folks who want to celebrate Doveton’s retirement can come to a reception Saturday, March 25, at the theater, 4660 Bauer Farm Drive. Doors and the bar open at 7 p.m., followed by a brief program at 7:30 p.m. and a reception afterward.


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