In the nineteenth century, theater performances in Mississippi, as in the rest of the nation, were a primary source of entertainment. With the advent of rail and steamboats, traveling companies of professional actors and musicians performed in venues generally called opera houses or showboats. Julius Cahn’s Official Theatrical Guide listed eighteen Mississippi towns on the touring circuit in 1905: Biloxi, Brookhaven, Clarksdale, Columbus, Corinth, Greenwood, Greenville, Grenada, Holly Springs, Jackson, Laurel, Meridian, Natchez, Oxford, Port Gibson, Sardis, Tupelo, and Vicksburg. The opera houses in Corinth and Meridian still stand.
The introduction of motion pictures in the early twentieth century had a major impact on theater and public entertainment. Live performances by professional touring companies declined, and theater venues were converted into movie houses. Over time, most theater performances at the community level consisted of volunteers who established “little theaters” to present plays and musicals. Some of the earliest in Mississippi include the Meridian Little Theatre (established 1932); Natchez Little Theatre (established 1932); Vicksburg Little Theatre Guild (established 1936), later the Vicksburg Theatre Guild; Biloxi Little Theatre (established 1946); and Bay St. Louis Little Theatre (established 1946). By the 1960s the state had at least sixteen active community theaters. In 1962 the Panola Playhouse in Sardis became the state’s first community theater to engage a professional director, with theaters in Corinth, Meridian, Greenville, New Albany, and Vicksburg soon following. In 1965 New Stage, the state’s first professional resident theater, was established in Jackson. The Free Southern Theater, established at Tougaloo College in 1964, was Mississippi’s first integrated community theater and provided productions free of charge to mostly rural black audiences throughout the state. The theater relocated to New Orleans for funding reasons yet continued to tour Mississippi through the 1970s. While many of these early theaters have not survived, Mississippi had more than forty-five community theaters by the second decade of the twenty-first century.
<subhead>High School Theaters
Many high school theater programs started as after-school programs where students rehearsed and performed plays for their peers. With increasing interest in adding the arts to the curriculum, theater classes and eventually full theater programs were developed.
In 1963 Dominic J. Cunetto of Mississippi State University founded the first statewide high school drama festival. Ten years later, growing participation led to the festival’s division into two regional festivals whose winners advanced to the Mississippi Theatre Association’s festival. With the exception of a few years when it was hosted by Delta State University, Mississippi State has continued to host the North regional festival. University of Southern Mississippi faculty member Blaine Quarnstrom founded the South Regional Festival, which the school has continued to host except for a brief time when southeastern and southwestern festivals took place.
The Mississippi Delta Tennessee Williams Festival in Clarksdale has sponsored an annual high school drama competition since 1993. Student actors perform monologues and scenes from Williams plays and compete for cash awards for their school drama departments.
Many Mississippi community colleges and universities house theater departments offering bachelor’s, bachelor of fine arts, and master of fine arts degrees. Historical records for productions at institutions of higher learning begin in 1885, when Pauline Orr, head of the Department of English and Elocution at the Industrial Institute and College for the Education of White Girls of the State of Mississippi (now Mississippi University for Women), began holding student performances. A joint production of As You Like It by students from the then all-male Millsaps and all-female Belhaven in Jackson created such as fuss about religious schools doing “theatricals” that productions were suspended at Millsaps from 1917 to 1927, when a professor in the English department began producing shows and subsequently founded the Millsaps Players. The University of Mississippi’s first theater courses were offered in 1929 as part of the newly established Department of Speech. Theater became a concentration within the department from 1946 until 1980, when the Department of Theatre Arts was founded and the producing arm changed its name from University Theatre to Ole Miss Theatre. In 2004 Ole Miss Theatre launched the Oxford Shakespeare Festival, a repertory theater company that operated until 2013. Mississippi Agricultural and Mechanical College (now Mississippi State University) established a Dramatic Club around 1909. It became the Blackfriars Drama Society in 1959, when Peyton Williams was the faculty sponsor. In 1963 the Mississippi State University Department of Speech hired Cunetto, who developed the theater program. Mississippi Southern College (now the University of Southern Mississippi) lists productions from 1949. The school’s Department of Theatre and Dance provides both undergraduate major and minor degree programs and graduate programs. In 1977 the Department of Theatre established its repertory theater, the Southern Arena Theatre.
<subhead>Professional Theater, Performing Arts Centers, and Other Notable Theaters
Mississippi has one professional theater, Jackson’s New Stage Theatre, which hires Equity actors and stagehands as well as non-Equity actors. Founded and chartered as a nonprofit organization in 1965, New Stage immediately began attracting full houses and the city’s first racially integrated audiences. Founding member Jane Reid Petty served as the theater’s first managing director, first benefactor, president of the board, fund raiser, playwright, actress, and director. Ivan Rider was the theater’s first artistic director. New Stage has subsequently established the Eudora Welty New Play Series, created a professional internship program, and hired an education director to coordinate the internship program, acting classes, day camps for students, and a touring program bringing live drama to schools across Mississippi. In 1978, after the Jackson Little Theatre closed its doors, New Stage acquired the facility.
Mississippi also boasts three major performing arts centers that bring to the region national touring productions, including Broadway shows. The Bologna Performing Arts Center, a multidisciplinary facility at Delta State University in Cleveland, opened in 1995 and houses the 1,178-seat Delta and Pine Land Theatre and the 135-seat Recital Hall. The Gertrude C. Ford Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Mississippi seats 1,250 in the main hall and has become a premier entertainment venue in the Oxford area since it opened in 2003. Since 2006 Mississippi State’s Riley Center in Meridian has offered performances, conferences, and educational programs in a restored 1889 grand opera house theater with 950 seats, a 200-seat studio theater, and 30,000 square feet of meeting space.
Other notable programs include the Lynn Meadows Discovery Center’s Wings Performing Arts Program in Gulfport and the Vicksburg Theatre Guild’s annual production of Gold in the Hills. The Discovery Center, an interactive children’s museum that opened in 1998 in a refurbished 1915 elementary school, involves 500 children and youth in productions reaching annual audiences of 21,000 on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
<subhead>Mississippi Theatre Association
During the 1950s a group formed the Mississippi Little Theatre Association to help foster performances. In 1967 the association’s board began the legal process of incorporating as a nonprofit, nonshare corporation. In 1968, before completing bylaws and incorporation, and responding to the urging of past president Robert M. Canon, the association changed its name to the Mississippi Theatre Association and revised its mission to include all types of theater organizations and services. At that time the association began encouraging the retirement of the archaic term little theater. The association seeks to foster appreciation of and participation in children’s, community, high school, professional, and university theater in Mississippi by sponsoring festivals, workshops, and retreats; communicating with members and the public; acting as an advocate with government agencies, business, and the public; recognizing excellence in performance and production; and sanctioning representatives to regional festivals. The association hosts an annual festival and conference to provide professional development and education through workshops and one-act play competitions for high schools and community theaters. As of 2018, the MTA state convention—held in different locations every year—features the Community Theatre Festival, High School Festival, Theatre for Youth Festival, Ten-Minute Play Festival, College/University Auditions, Playwriting Competition, and Individual Events Festival.
- Robert M. Canon, “Community Theatre in Mississippi: Problems and Prospects (master’s thesis, University of Mississippi, 1967)
- Philip C. Lewis, Trouping: How the Show Came to Town (1973)
- Mississippi Theatre Association website, www.mta-online.org
- New Stage Theatre website, www.newstage.com
- Ellen L. Tripp, “Free Southern Theater: There Is Always a Message” (PhD dissertation, University of North Carolina at Greensboro, 1986)