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Community theaters mean more than just entertainment

Community theaters have been growing in Mississippi for several years bringing enrichment and entertainment to their communities.

Promoting theaters all over the state, the Mississippi Theater Association has more than 500 members with many of those being community theaters. “Mississippi has a rich history of community theaters. They increase personal and economic growth,” said the group’s executive director, Stephen Cunetto of Starkville. “Studies indicate how much the arts impact local communities. Theaters bring people in from surrounding areas and they build community relations and work with businesses and other arts programs.”

Now in its 74th year, the Meridian Little Theater with 1,800 members is the oldest and largest community theater in the state. It was recently voted the Best Live Theater by readers of Mississippi Magazine.

The director, Jimmy Pigford, believes in its value to the community. “This theater has been very successful. It gives people opportunities to see live performances. Sometimes that’s the latest thing from Broadway,” he said. “We have a youth theater with 300 children trying out and 9,500 children are bussed in for programs. For many, it’s the first live performance they’ve seen.”

Some 30% of the theater’s members are from outside the city of Meridian and Pigford says they shop and eat in the city’s restaurants when they come in for performances. The group does four major productions and children’s summer workshops each year. They are now preparing to present “Beauty and the Beast” October 5-11.

“We welcome 22,000 patrons each season,” Pigford said. “Business leaders show their clients our theater. It’s used by Realtors and economic developers to demonstrate the quality of life here. It’s very well supported by the community. That’s the secret of our success.”

Malcolm White, executive director of the Mississippi Arts Commission, says he’s visited community theaters all over the state that are growing and that bring value to their communities.

“They seem to be robust and thriving,” he said. “The theaters apply for grants through this office for bricks and mortar. There’s been a lot of physical work done, so I know the program is working really well. We’re encouraged by that. Strong arts are positive indicators for communities in a number of ways. We believe that communities that grow with the arts are the most thriving communities.”

The Tupelo Lyric Theater and the Starkville Theater recently completed additions funded through the Arts Commission’s grants program, White said.

The Tupelo Community Theater was formed in 1969 and has 1,200 members. For 20 of those years it has had a full-time executive director to write grants, handle finances and enhance what the theater is doing.

“It’s a very successful theater and one of the largest in the state,” says Tom Booth, the executive director. “Someone here years ago figured out that arts make good business sense. Tupelo is very supportive of the arts.”

He says that support is based on the economic value the theater brings to the community. Other communities are recognizing that value, too, with theaters growing in Northeast Mississippi. Booth listed the towns of New Albany, Houston, Ripley and Pontotoc that have formed community theater groups.

“We are supportive of them and help by lending costumes and scripts for reading, and we make recommendations,” he said.
Booth says it’s a huge asset for the Tupelo Community Theater to own its building, the 468-seat Lyric Theater. The facility is almost 100 years old and was built for live theater although it was a movie theater for 50 years.

“Our patrons come in to plays and spend money for dinner,” he said. “The Convention and Visitors Bureau always wants to know how many tickets we sell. We have many season ticket holders who live an hour’s drive away.”

Booth, who becomes president of the state association in January, agrees with Cunetto that interest in theater seems to be growing all over the state.

Cunetto said the association has been assisting struggling community theaters on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Facilities, sets, costumes and scripts were destroyed along with the personal property and lives of theater members.

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at llofton656@aol.com.


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