On a hot summer night in 1963, tent theatre debuted under a round, 55-foot tent in shades of tangerine and green.
“Audiences loved the shows from the very beginning,” said Lesley Fleenor Trottier, ’67, who was in the first two seasons. “It was something new, different and exciting. It was also very professional. I was coming out of high school, and I knew immediately it would become a Springfield tradition.”
It did indeed. For 60 seasons, Tent has sold out shows.
Over the years, it has amassed thousands of fans. Cast members have gone on to incredibly successful careers – Broadway shows, Emmys, Oscar nominees, Golden Globe wins and more.
There are scores of memories. Love stories. Family traditions. Near disasters. Frightening weather – even a tornado siren or two.
Mark Templeton, Tent’s current managing director, has been involved with Tent since 1998. He fell in love with it the moment he saw a production, remarking, “I was so enamored with the experience that immediately I wanted to become a part of it.”
A Success From The Very Start
Tent was born out of a problem. Back in 1963, the building that is now Carrington Hall had many of its windows bricked over for insulation. It was sweltering and there was little sunlight.
The theatre and speech programs were housed in Carrington at the time. Theatre professors Dr. Robert Gilmore and Dr. Irene Coger made a decision.
“They decided, ‘Hey, were going to go outside. At least we can have some air blowing,'” added Templeton.
The first season, the tent structure could accommodate 200 people. Admission was $1 per person. There were two musicals and two comedies.
“In those early years, everyone did everything,” explained Ron Seney, who started in Tent in 1965 and has since participated in about 10 seasons.
The crew painted and built the sets, helped backstage, sold concessions, acted as ushers, swept floors, sorted costumes and more.
It built an incredible sense of community and everyone was treated the same.
“Little, big, small, lead or not the lead, you were an equally important part of the production,” added Fleenor Trottier.
Every graduate interviewed for this story echoed that tent created a sense of family and friendship.
Sandra House, ’65 and ’68, was in Tent productions in 1964. She remembers that the costumes were stored in the attic of Carrington Hall.
Both Fleenor Trottier and House worked under the direction of Coger. They credit her with creating a standard of excellence that prevails today.
“Dr. Coger prepared us for life,” said House.
According to an Aug. 4, 1963, article published in Springfield’s Leader & Press, Professor Gilmore was taken aback by Tent’s immediate success.
“We did not expect the type of response that we got,” said Gilmore in 1963. “We thought we’d just barely get the thing off the ground this summer. As a result of the surprise crowds, the project may well become self-supporting the first season- something the college administration definitely did NOT require in approving the plans.”
Seats Added, But Shows Still Sell Out
With that immediate success, Tent was ready to expand. The second season, an addition allowed the cast and crew to accommodate 350 patrons. They still sold out.
In 1968, Craig Hall (including Coger Theatre) was completed with air conditioning. It was the new home of the theatre and speech department, but no one wanted to move the performances inside. Tent had already made its mark on Springfield as an outdoor summer experience, and it was to stay that way.
So, in 1969, a concrete pad was constructed outside of Craig Hall. That has been the home of Tent Theatre for decades.
Tent Has Tinkered With Format
Tent has changed how it offers performances over the years.
From 1963-70, there were four shows per season in stock format. That means they open and close one show before starting another.
In 1971, it was changed to repertory format. That means a different show was performed each night. They also transitioned to three shows per season, which remains the number today.
The benefit of repertory format: People from out of town could see all the shows in a matter of days, said Dr. Carol J. Maples, ’80, Tent alumna and assistant department head.
“We would get people from all around the nation who loved Tent, and they could see all three shows. We’d strike a set each night, store it and put the next one up. A lot of times we tried to coordinate so that some of one set was used in disguise with another. But every night after a show, some real dedicated technicians would take those things down and set up the next one, and we’d go again,” Maples said. “It was kind of brutal, but at the same time, there was such a family atmosphere.”
This format also gave the students a chance to change roles each day, which is great training. Repertory remained the format until 2002 when they went back to stock which continues today.
The 1970s Becomes a Golden Era
Tent thrived in its second decade.
John Goodman, ’75, Tent’s most famous alumnus, was on campus. He credits Tent and the late Howard R. Orms, a longtime theatre faculty member, as feeding his passion for his future career.
In a 2014 speech on campus, Goodman said: “I’m so very grateful for the friends that I made at this school. Friendships that were forged through endless hours of rehearsals, study and work- except it really didn’t feel like hard work because we were having so much fun.”
Many of Goodman’s classmates and friends also went on to successful careers in film, television and stage. This includes actor Kathleen Turner; actor Tess Harper, ’72; actor Jack Laufer, ’76; Fox Network Senior Vice President Monte Kuklenski, ’75; playwright and combat choreographer Craig Handel, ’77; and Broadway performer Dale Hensley, ’76.
Cast, Staff Known For Antics
In any era, Tent participation is known for leading to funny stories.
- “The cast used to play tag during the show (in the 1970s),” said Maples. “Rumor has it, at one point in ‘Destry Rides Again,’ John Goodman was supposed to be dead. People were weeping around him (on stage), and he reached out barely- the audience couldn’t see it- touched them and said, ‘Tag, you’re it.’ Everyone was so tickled, but they also had to look like they were sobbing because he was dead.”
- In 1964, alumna Sandra House, ’65, needed to wear a purple wig for her part. They were on a shoestring budget, and a wig cost $50. Since Sandra had long hair, they asked her to dye it purple- but she couldn’t wash it for a week because it had to stay that color. Sporting her new locks, Sandra was standing in line at the store, when she noticed two women looking at her. One hissed: “Look at that hussy.”
- Then there’s the fact that Tent is outside, and nature can intrude. “There was one night at Tent that all of a sudden, I could see my staff scurrying around midway through the first act,” Templeton said. “I could see panic in their eyes. I was like, ‘what’s going on?’ And I kid you not, on the sidewalk was a mama skunk and six baby skunks, nose to tail- coming straight toward the tent. I said, ‘Nobody move. Nobody say a thing.’ They went right by the audience. The audience was so in tune with the show that they never saw this skunk and six baby skunks. They filed right up the theatre, went out through the back and nested in the back of Craig Hall.”
Each generation, and probably each performer, has their own favorite Tent anecdote.
Equity Status Brings Professionals
In 2007, Templeton and Michael Casey, then-artistic director, were convinced that the program was ready to move to the next level: A status with Actors’ Equity.
Actors’ Equity is a labor union that represents more than 51,000 actors and stage managers.
Tent representatives met with Actors’ Equity in Chicago, hoping to transition into a professional theatre company. They were successful.
Since 2008, they have operated under a special agreement with the union. There are multiple benefits to this. First, it raises the overall profile of Tent Theatre. Second, professional actors and stage managers are brought in for Tent Theatre performances.
“We wanted the students to be engaged with professional actors and develop a mentorship role in this practicum facility where they would work side-by-side with professionals. We knew what an asset that would be for students personally. That has certainly proved to be the case,” Templeton said.
At the time, in order to apply to be a member of Actors’ Equity, performers or stage managers had to earn a certain number of points. Being in a Tent production helped them earn a point toward that goal.
Tent being associated with Actors’ Equity could further a student’s career goals after graduation if they wanted to pursue their own membership. After all, Tent has always been about teaching the students.
Current Process of Creating Shows
The Missouri State University students who participate in Tent Theatre are all enrolled in a practicum course and receive credit for their work. They also receive a scholarship. Students are expected to work eight-hour days. It is a full-time job.
Each year, the shows that will be performed are determined by the managing director, artistic director and producer. And each season has a theme. In 2022, it was “Dream Big!”
When selecting a show, there are technical limitations. They have to consider the size of the cast, and they strive to keep it light, said Templeton. “We make sure that it fits within the footprint of what our mission is, which is to engage with the community of Springfield and beyond, as well as give the students a great vehicle to practice their training,” he said.
Auditions start in January and February, including some travel to New York City or Chicago for equity actors. “Rehearsals begin in May. The first Tent show opens in June- a quick turnaround,” said Maples.
Costumes play an important role as well. That is where Cynthia Winstead comes in. She has been a customer for 30 years, as well as a professor in the department of theatre and dance.
Clothes help tell the story. And the costumes in Tent have become more elaborate over the years.
“Production values are much higher now,” Winstead said. “The costumes are more intricate. We use a lot more wigs now. Costumes are still used to help tell the story, which will and should always be the purpose of costuming. The audience’s visual IQ is higher and today’s audience expects interesting and completely designed visual elements.”
Planning starts as soon as a season is announced. Design meetings begin in the spring prior to the summer season.
They begin construction, fittings and buying before the end of the spring semester and as soon as a cast is finalized. Tent has a reputation for being hot, so that is taken into consideration.
The costume designer must be very aware of summer temperatures and the body heat generated by acting, singing and dancing, advises Winstead.
What keeps the actors hydrated? Pedialyte. It’s consumed in mass amounts.
Permanent Structure is Now a Reality
Missouri State University is abuzz with excitement about the new John Goodman Amphitheatre. It is a full-time home on campus for Tent Theatre, named for the successful alumnus.
A permanent Tent Theatre home was one of the large goals of our Onward, Upward campaign. Missouri State was able to break ground on April 8, 2021, thanks to private donors, including Goodman.
You’re invited to celebrate this new campus landmark during the next Tent Theatre season.
“The new John Goodman Amphitheatre, surrounded by the Judith Enyeart Reynolds Arts Park, supports the 60-year legacy of Tent Theatre,” said Dr. Shawn Wahl, dean of the Judith Enyeart Reynolds College of Arts and Letters.
In addition to having a new home for Tent, the new facility and park make the university and community better for everyone, he said.
“Students from all academic majors across the university will benefit from what we think of as an outdoor classroom. This new facility and surrounding park further enhance our arts and entertainment partnerships with the community. These new structures further solidify Missouri State University as a destination arts campus.”
The Goodman Amphitheatre has movable seating that can accommodate about 338 patrons.
This facility ushers in a new era for a tradition cherished by many alumni and friends.
Templeton is proud to be a part of it. “I feel like it’s my duty to be a voice for the alums who created this organization,” Templeton said. “I’m carrying a torch for them and making sure Tent Theatre remains true to its original mission and that students are engaged in a professional experience.”