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Theatre Tuscaloosa can trace its roots to several Tuscaloosa performing arts organizations. In 1971, after the Tuscaloosa Little Theatre of previous years had run its course, Bill Leapard and Bill Clifton formed the Tuscaloosa Community Players. In its early years, the group performed at mismatched venues across Tuscaloosa and constructed its scenery in borrowed garages and carports.
In 1976 the Arts Council of Tuscaloosa leased the Historic Bama Theatre as a performing arts center, and the Tuscaloosa Community Players' production of George Washington Slept Here served as its inaugural event. The Tuscaloosa Community Players now had a permanent venue for its productions, but the facility lacked proper lighting equipment and an effective heating system. The scenery had to be constructed on the stage and costumes had to be stored in the basement of the Alabama Gas Company.
Meanwhile, Bill Leapard founded another theatrical entity in the summer of 1974: SummerShow. This organization’s mission was to produce an annual summer musical with production costs underwritten by Frank Moody and the First National Bank of Tuscaloosa. Although its productions of Annie Get Your Gun, The King and I, and Gypsy were successful, SummerShow reached new heights when it moved to the Bama Theatre in the summer of 1977 and produced Mame. The production was so overwhelmingly successful that proceeds from it were able to purchase proper lighting equipment for the theatre.
In 1980, under the guidance of Doug Perry, the Tuscaloosa Community Players were able to combine forces with the Punch and Judy Children’s Theater (sponsored by the Junior League of Tuscaloosa) and Shelton State Community College to hire a full-time artistic director for the Tuscaloosa Community Players who would also teach theatre courses at Shelton State. Paul Looney was selected for the task, and the ambitiously-revamped Tuscaloosa Community Players launched its season that fall with his production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Over the next decade, the quality of the Tuscaloosa Community Players’ productions and services improved dramatically, and the organization began growing by 200 to 300 percent each year. It was during this period that the Tuscaloosa Community Players changed its name to Theatre Tuscaloosa, in order to reflect its transformation into a significant regional theatre. In 1984 the organization acquired a vacant storefront on University Boulevard in downtown Tuscaloosa, and by 1989 the building was renovated and converted into the T. Earle Johnson Stage Centre. This facility would serve as a permanent residence for the organization, housing rehearsal space, an office, a conference room, and a shop with storage space for equipment. That same year, Theatre Tuscaloosa took on the task of reviving SummerShow (which had been defunct since 1986) and mounted a production of Damn Yankees. Since then, the “summer show” has served as a pillar of the Theatre Tuscaloosa season.
Theatre Tuscaloosa received international notoriety in 1993 when it was the first performing arts organization selected to send a delegation to Tuscaloosa’s sister city of Narashino, Japan. The show chosen was the Stephen Sondheim musical revue Side by Side by Sondheim. The organization saw a great expansion in the 1995-1996 season with the creation of a professional educational division. This division, named Stage Centre Company, has presented productions in schools, concert halls, churches, and hotel ballrooms across the state of Alabama.
“O, to realize space.”
That quotation by Walt Whitman appeared on numerous publicity materials for Theatre Tuscaloosa’s 1998-1999 season, as the organization’s dreams had finally been realized: it would be receiving a performance space of its own. Theatre Tuscaloosa’s board of directors agreed to help raise funds for the construction of a fine arts center at the new campus of Shelton State Community College. This facility would include a scenic studio, a costume shop, rehearsal space, offices, and a state-of-the-art theatre built specifically for live performance. This would be the first time that all of Theatre Tuscaloosa’s activities would be housed under one roof, and it would be one of the finest facilities in the state of Alabama. In October of 1998, Theatre Tuscaloosa mounted My Fair Lady, its first production in the Bean-Brown Theatre at the Sandra Hall Ray Fine Arts Centre.
That same year Theatre Tuscaloosa founded the Alabama Stage and Screen Hall of Fame to honor Alabamians (by birth or adoption) who have made significant contributions to film, television, or theatre in their careers, and in 1999 a gala was held to induct the first class of nominees. Tallulah Bankhead, Fannie Flagg, Rebecca Luker, Nat King Cole, and Jim Nabors are just a few of the luminaries who have been inducted into the Hall of Fame since its inception.
Theatre Tuscaloosa was invited to send yet another delegation overseas in 2000, but this time to Tuscaloosa’s other sister city: Schorndorf, Germany.
In 2006 Theatre Tuscaloosa welcomed Tina Turley as its new executive producer, and under her auspices, the organization has continued to vary its programming and increase its production quality. That same year, Paul Looney directed A Dickens of a Carol, Theatre Tuscaloosa’s first world premiere production. 2007 saw the presentation of A Lesson Before Dying, featuring Tuscaloosa native and professional actor Stephen Williams. Theatre Tuscaloosa partnered with the Alabama Writers’ Forum in 2008 to present Page to Stage: A Theatrical Celebration of Southern Authors. This event featured stage adaptations of works by celebrated southern authors such as Nanci Kincaid, William Bradford Huie, and Fannie Flagg. In 2011 Theatre Tuscaloosa presented the Alabama Shakespeare Festival hit Bear Country, with acclaimed professional actor Rodney Clark serving as both actor and director.
In 1992 Peter Filichia (president of the New York Drama Critics Association at the time) wrote of Theatre Tuscaloosa: “I’ve seen regional theatres virtually since their inception, and the work that this group does is not only a great credit to the town and state but the nation.” As Theatre Tuscaloosa ventures into its fourth decade of existence, it continues its mission to enrich the West Alabama community by presenting the highest quality entertainment possible. “You’re gonna love tomorrow!”
Written by Clifton Baker in August of 2012