Theatre Baton Rouge never dreamed it would be celebrating its 75th season amid a pandemic. But, in that time-honored theater tradition, the show will go on.
This season, the theater is presenting a mix of online and live performances.
When “Vintage Hitchcock: A Live Radio Play” is staged Oct. 29-31, it will be streamed over the Zoom videoconference app, and “An Act of God” in November will have live audiences of up to 40 people. For “It’s a Wonderful Life” in December, up to 80 people will be in the audience, while December's "The Gift of the Magi" will be streamed online.
“Theaters everywhere have been forced to close, so we had to figure out how to market what we’re doing and make sure we are able to provide theater to the community,” said Jenny Ballard, TBR’s managing artistic director.
The theater has been doing that since 1946, adapting to remain relevant as entertainment attitudes and options changed dramatically over the decades.
What would eventually become Theatre Baton Rouge began as Baton Rouge Civic Theater with a production of “The Male Animal” at the Woman’s Club on East Boulevard. Shows were staged in various venues around town until 1948 when the Harding Field theater became its home.
Designed to show movies to servicemen stationed at the Army airfield, the Harding Field theater had no backstage. Actors who exited on one side of the stage but then had to enter on the opposite side had to run around the back of the building, recalled Jerry Leggio, who began acting in the late 1950s.
That was problematic when it rained, as it did during “A Streetcar Named Desire” in 1959.
“One night, I went out and came back so wet I had to inject a line: ‘Stella, don’t you know it’s raining outside?’” said Leggio, who is in the theater's Hall of Fame. “Of course, everybody knew what I was doing.”
In 1951, the name was changed to Baton Rouge Little Theater, and it seemed to know what it was doing.
Theater House Magazine in the 1950s rated the theater as the third-best community theater in the country for its quality and community support, Leggio said.
A membership-based theater at the time, it was so popular that people who wanted to join had to wait for existing members to leave, said Gloria Leggio, a longtime backstage assistant and also a theater Hall of Famer.
“Like LSU football tickets now,” said Celeste Veillon, who has sung and acted at the theater since 1994.
That growth coincided with the tenure of the theater’s first artistic director, Lee Edwards, who stayed in that role until his death in 1978.
“He was a taskmaster,” said Jerry Leggio. “I remember him saying, ‘Every night you go out to perform, for the audience, that is their opening night. You have to treat it that way.’ He would sneak in there during the run to make sure everybody was on their game.”
Jennifer Johnson attended her first production in 1975 and soon auditioned for roles. Edwards was such an imposing figure that she initially hesitated to ask him if she could miss a rehearsal to attend her high school graduation.
“He said, ‘That will be fine as long as you get here as quickly as you can,’” Johnson said. “I did not attend the afterparty.”
Edwards was followed by Frank Pope in 1978, then Henry Avery, who served as artistic director for 16 years. Next came Roy Hamlin, who was succeeded by Keith Dixon in 2004.
By 1961, Baton Rouge Little Theater had raised money to build its own theater in the Bon Marche Shopping Center, which it has expanded and still occupies today.
With homegrown talent and proximity to LSU’s theater students, talent was abundant, allowing the theater to stage challenging song and dance productions like “A Chorus Line” in 1981.
“A lot of people from that cast went on to perform on Broadway and touring companies with ‘A Chorus Line,’” said Leonard Augustus.
Augustus was not in that cast, but he soon would become one of the theater’s star singer-dancers. Although the theater had its first integrated cast in 1965, there weren’t a lot of roles for Black actors until “West Side Story” in 1983. When he heard that the theater was auditioning Black performers, Augustus tried and won a role.
Not everyone in the cast was happy. Some actors in a fight scene didn’t pull their punches during the show, recalled Augustus.
“That wasn’t the theater. That was certain individuals, but it was also a sign of the times. I stayed silent about it because of people like this,” Augustus said, gesturing toward the Leggios, “people I knew were really good people and really encouraging and inviting me back to do auditions again.”
The theater continued to expand its repertoire and outreach. It became the first amateur theater to stage “The Producers” in 2008.
Dixon, Ballard’s predecessor, changed the company’s name in 2013 to Theatre Baton Rouge, reasoning “we’re not so little anymore.”
Ballard, who has been in charge since 2014, created a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee to engage the theater with a more diverse audience and talent pool.
“There is no substitute for live theater,” Ballard said. “You can have 400 channels on your TV at home. You can have every conceivable iteration of Shakespeare … but there is nothing that compares to being in the room. It is a special intimacy.”
Maybe not so intimate with 40 patrons in a room designed for 327, but that will change.
“We have a lot of great things happening, but as soon as COVID lets up, we plan to be able to shoot back into action," Ballard said. "But in the meantime, we’re doing what we’re doing, and we’re doing it really well.”