Theater in 70th year
Story by Kimberly Jenkins
Photos by Mark Richard
Hidden on a little street corner is the Portsmouth Little Theatre, which has called the corner of Lawson and 12th streets in Portsmouth home for 70 years.
Community theater is a mix of original, local and creativity that brings a sense of vibrancy to a town.
This special place has a four-show season and has staged “Romeo and Juliet,” “My Fair Lady” (musical), “The Odd Couple” (female version), “Little Shop Of Horrors,” “Miracle on 34th Street,” “You’re A Good Man Charlie Brown,” “South Pacific,” “George Orwell’s 1984” and so many others during its history.
The building began its life as a cinema — the projection booth is repurposed for lights today. It was purchased by the Portsmouth Little Theatre group that presented its first show in 1948, using space at the local high school. And since then, the community has supported the endeavor both by helping with financial needs and sharing talents.
The theater is run by a board of governors who are elected by their season ticket holders. At present, the president is Guinevere Mercer and the vice president is Leigh Anne Smith. As with a lot of small theaters across the United States, many times the board will also be part of the crew for a show, whether it be in acting or behind the scenes.
Smith started performing on stage at age 15. She minored in theater in college and ended up back home and wanted to do more with the theater than just be on stage.
“I have been on the board for 14 seasons and I have been everywhere, I have acted, I have directed, I have built sets, I have worked the sound, and I’ve worked at the box office,” Smith said. “As board members, we each have to cover the box office for one show and if we are in the show, we have to get someone to cover for us. We all have to buy a season ticket, we have to support the theater.”
It’s clear those who are involved are deeply invested in the ideals of such a place and an appreciation of their surroundings.
“We renovated our lobby and made it Art Deco from back in the 1940s, we used all Art Deco colors. We found some screens in the screening booth and framed them for the lobby,” Smith said. “The light fixtures for the men’s and women’s restrooms are original. The chandeliers and the tin roof are also original to the building. The stage, however, was not, due to the fact that it was a movie theater.
“Our stage is different because it does not have wings. We literally have only about two feet,” Smith said.
That necessitates being creative both on the stage and off it. When they produced “Annie,” which has a large cast with many children, the theater used pop-up tents on each side of the building.
The Portsmouth Little Theatre does not always have things easy, as it runs purely on ticket sales and donations. Sometimes there is confusion between the theater and another group in town — the Portsmouth Area Arts Council, which produces theater for children — as the arts community is smaller and the history of such groups sometimes meshes.
Resources are often tight, but it’s all about the experience.
“I think if people came to see what we have to offer, they would come more often. We have a lot to give back to the community and the tickets are not that high. If you just buy a season ticket package you get all four shows for less and there are ways to do more if you give more, for example, get your name in the programs. If you are looking for something different to do, come see us,” Smith said.
If you’re new to the stage but curious about it, you are welcome.
“The auditions are pretty loose. Usually you just read from the script. We are very open and relaxed, there is nothing to get nervous about,” Smith said. “Even if you are just interested in theater, but not acting — like if you are good at sewing, or building things or just want to work the ticket booth — we would love to have you.”
For details on volunteering, contact Smith at [email protected]
The theater’s board is trying new ideas, like a winetasting fundraiser held earlier this year, and they’re eager to reflect the Portsmouth they see around them today.
“We are finding our way in a new era of entertainment,” she said.
Portsmouth Little Theatre
1117 Lawson St., Portsmouth