Tuesday, June 25th, 2019

Smithfield Little Theatre Story


Hamming it up since 1962

by Rob Lauer

Mark Hall poses in front of Smithfield Little Theatre’s beautiful state-of-the-art facility.

Mark Hall poses in front of Smithfield Little Theatre’s beautiful state-of-the-art facility.

The Smithfield Little Theatre is about to have a birthday, and at age 56, it’s looking better than ever.

“The theatre was founded in 1962 by a hardy band of players who just loved performing,” past theatre president, Mark Hall, recalls. “Until 1966, our shows were presented in the old Smithfield High School auditorium. Then, two of our biggest fans—Mr. and Mrs. Howard Gwaltney, Sr.—offered to lease us an old cotton gin near the town’s waterfront for only one dollar a year. Our dedicated players rolled up their sleeves, jumped in and renovated the place. In 1973, the Gwaltneys gave us the building, and for the next 25 years, we continually made improvements to the facility. In 2000, Smithfield Foods decided to base their corporate headquarters here in town. They offered to build us a new facility on their campus if we would sell them the property on which the old cotton gin stood. In summer 2001, our new theatre was completed.”

The beautiful, red-brick, Colonial Revival-style theatre now stands at the entrance to Smithfield Food’s executive office complex, flanked by Church Street on one side and the Pagan River on the other.

“Through all these years, we’ve  produced three shows annually—two musicals and a play,” Mark continues. “In recent years, we’ve added a Christmas show each December and a summer youth production—which is an extended youth drama camp.”

Shows are selected from proposals submitted by local directors. “We look for directors with a fully-formed vision for a show and the passion to see it through,” Mark explains. “Because of this approach, we’ve done some edgy plays and newer musicals that aren’t typically produced by community theatres.”

America’s Little Theatre movement, which began in the early twentieth century, allows amateurs with an interest in the performing arts to come together and produce shows. Though found virtually everywhere throughout the country, they often exist under the radar of most Americans. But for those who love theatre—both audience members and actors—they are a godsend. They are also one of the few venues left in which anyone can find instant community.

“Our auditions are open to everyone—no experience needed,” Mark says with a smile. “We’re always looking for new faces and talents. And anyone interested in working backstage, making costumes, designing or building sets, running lights, managing the box-office or ushering is encouraged to call the theatre and leave a message. We’ll call you back and assign someone to be your mentor.”

The instant sense of community found by those involved in the theatre, owes much to the huge time commitment required to produce a show.

“From auditions to cast party is generally thee months, “Mark explains. “Rehearsals go for nine weeks—five nights a week, Sunday through Thursday. But for a big song-and-dance musical, rehearsals can be more extensive. I’ve  gone through eight-hour rehearsals on a Sunday. For most shows, you’re looking at about 20 hours a week in rehearsals, plus time outside of rehearsals memorizing lines.”

Smithfield Little Theatre’s selection of shows, its high production values, the precision of its all-volunteer system, and a sense of community bordering on the familial, attracts performers from across the region.

“Working there was amazing.
From the beginning, there was a feeling of family!
I was welcomed with open arms.
It was like I had known the cast my entire life.”

—Charity Robinson

“Working there was amazing,” says Hampton actress Charity Robinson. “From the beginning, there was a feeling of family! I was welcomed with open arms. It was like I had known the cast my entire life. It was an experience I’ll never forget.”

Smithfield Little Theatre has attracted acting talent from across the region,<BR> including (left to right) <BR>Jeff Joyner (singer with the Virginia Opera), Williamsburg’s Michael D. Jones, <BR>Franklin’s  Kathleen Halverson and Hampton’s Charity Robinson.

Smithfield Little Theatre has attracted acting talent from across the region,
including (left to right)
Jeff Joyner (singer with the Virginia Opera), Williamsburg’s Michael D. Jones,
Franklin’s Kathleen Halverson and Hampton’s Charity Robinson.

Williamsburg actor Michael D. Jones is thrilled to have been recently cast by the theatre. “At the audition, I could feel the creative energy all around,” he recalls. “It was one of the best times I ever had at an audition. I’m so honored to add this wonderful, state-of-the-art theatre to my resume.”

For 17 year-old Kathleen Halverson, formerly of Franklin, her first experience performing at Smithfield Little Theatre was “truly thrilling.”

“I never knew I could love something so much!” she enthuses. “With the applause, I think all of the actors felt a little bit like superstars. I wish I could go back to that one moment because it was so magical. It really reaffirmed that theatre was absolutely what I wanted to do with my life.” Motivated by the experience, Kathleen auditioned for James Madison University’s  theatre department. Of 200 prospective students who auditioned, she was one of only ten chosen. Now in her sophomore year, Kathleen thanks Smithfield Little Theatre for the role it played in her development as an actress.

Jeff Joyner of Newport News began his professional theatrical career as the Music Director of the Tidewater Dinner Theatre. Now singing with the Virginia Opera, he has also performed lead roles in two recent Smithfield Little Theatre productions.

“I’ve been impressed with the facility, the volunteer base which operates it, and the community by which it’s supported,” he says. “When accompaniment for musicals is compared to that of some other community theatres, most of whose instrumentalists are paid, what is accomplished by volunteers is often outstanding, and provides a learning experience as well. Smithfield’s appeal as a charming town to visit, with several excellent restaurants, coffee houses, wineries, and a micro-brewery, makes attending shows at SLT a pleasant package deal, which also factors into its success. The community sees the theater as important to its economic well-being, and supports it accordingly. It also doesn’t hurt that there isn’t a movie theater in town!”

All things considered, Mark is nevertheless quick to give credit to the theatre’s supportive audiences.

“We are truly blessed because before any performance is given, two-thirds of our seats are already sold to season subscribers—some of whom have supported us for 50 years,” Mark says. “Another thing that we’re particularly thrilled about is that SLT is the most ‘liked’ community theatre in the coastal Virginia area—with over 4,000 likes on Facebook.”

After all the hours of rehearsing and hard work are over and the curtain goes up, it is this kind of community support that not only keeps the theatre alive, but allows it to get continually better with age.

Smithfield Little Theatre

210 N. Church St.
Smithfield, VA 23430