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John Lamb, Published February 11 2014

A stitch in time: NDSU celebrates a century of theater

FARGO - Don Larew remembers the day he started looking at North Dakota State University’s theater department in a different light.

It was 1979 and the theater design and tech teacher had been at NDSU for a decade. He was visiting a former student in St. Paul and killing time in a bookstore when he stumbled across an intriguing title.

He picked up the slim volume, called “The Little Country Theatre,” and looked at it, stunned.

“I thought, ‘My god, this is the same place I work,’ ” the professor emeritus recalls.

The book was written in 1923 by Alfred Arvold, the father of Little Country Theatre, NDSU’s program, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this month.

Larew retired from NDSU in 2009, but over the past 30 years became the historian of theater at the school. For the anniversary he spent seven months putting together an exhibit spanning a century on – and behind – the stage.

The show, up through April 10 in NDSU’s Memorial Union Gallery, mixes more than 200 photos, blocks of texts and artifacts like set models and costumes to illustrate the role of theater on and off campus.

The program’s anniversary will also be marked by a production of “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” opening June 27. Prairie Public Television filmed a documentary, “The Little Country Theatre: 100 Years at North Dakota State University.” The 30-minute piece features interviews with NDSU theater alum like Michael and Martha Olsen, Steve Stark, Brad Delzer Janet Dickinson and Ryan Metzger among others.

Stark delivers an illustrated history performance and the documentary will be screened at a March 1 reception at Memorial Union Gallery and Century Theater.

Through the years

Subtitled “Master – Mentor – Medium,” the exhibit serves as a crash course on the program’s history.

Arvold came to NDSU – then called North Dakota Agricultural College – in 1907 to teach speech and head up public programming, including a senior play.

The drama club grew and on Feb. 10, 1914, Arvold founded Little Country Theatre during a three-day celebration. The name was a nod to the “Little Theatre” movement of the time, which dismissed popular comedies, dramas and standards in favor of exploring social issues.

(It wasn’t just happenstance that Little Country Theatre opened from Feb. 10 to 12. Arvold idolized Abraham Lincoln, whose birthday is Feb. 12. Oddly enough, before founding Little Country Theatre, Arvold changed the name of the dramatic club to the Edwin Booth Dramatic Club. While Booth was considered one of the finest actors of the 19th Century, he’s now better known as the older brother of John Wilkes Booth, who assassinated Lincoln in 1865.)

Little Country Theatre started with simple beginnings in a 200-seat chapel in NDSU’s building, Old Main. With no budget, Arvold had to raise money for the productions as the troupe was entirely self-supportive. He not only believed in the work the troupe was producing, he believed it could make a difference to those who saw it.

“He really wants to see the people out in the state have the diversion for the hard work they do,” Larew said.

It wasn’t just the people in the surrounding areas that took notice. Larew says that the formation of Little Country Theatre was noted in the New York Times.

With a flair for circus theatrics, Arvold was a tireless promoter of not only the program, but the school and he would eventually attract actors and entertainers like Charles Laughton, Harpo Marx and the Trapp Family Singers, who inspired “The Sound of Music.”

Arvold retired in 1953 and Frederick Walsh took over LCT.

“He came in and really refined what Arvold had done,” Larew says of Walsh.

The new director decided the group needed a new home. He championed the construction of Askanase Hall, the first public building on campus built with private funds.

“We wouldn’t have Askanase Hall if he wouldn’t have had the forsight,” Larew says.

Walsh’s vision wasn’t just for bricks and mortar, but programming.

With his eyes on the skies, Walsh started Prairie Stage in 1972. The program had NDSU theater students tour the state, visiting about 10 towns each summer, setting up a giant green and gold tent and holding performances under the big top until the week was up. Prairie Stage remained on the road until ’76.

Walsh was involved in the state even outside of NDSU’s interests. He was one of the driving forces behind founding the Medora musical in 1958 and helped write its signature work, “Old Four Eyes.”

“They’re really the muscle people that made it happen,” Larew said of Walsh and Arvold.

Hands-on education

While the two educators may have been the force behind the programming, it has been students who have done the detail work.

Larew asked former students to share notes on how working at NDSU shaped their post-collegiate life. Those thoughts are posted next to their designs for play sets and costumes.

While the school hasn’t produced many name actors (Dickinson and Metzger being possible exceptions), Larew says those in tech and design have a better chance of finding jobs after college.

“The way we approach theater, you really pick up a broad range of skills that really prepare you for a life in theater or a life outside of theater,” says Rooth Varland, faculty costume designer and theater department head. “We’re the place where those students actually get hands on experience.”

Varland says students learn all facets of the theater, with actors spending time building sets while those used to being behind the scenes get a taste for what’s happening onstage.

“I had to take acting my first semester, which was terrifying but fantastic at the same time,” says Kelsy Hewitt, a senior getting her BFA in design and technology with an emphasis in costume design.

Hewitt studied fashion in California, but grew disenchanted with the notion of designing one look for a lot of people as opposed to a wardrobe for a select few.

“It’s designing the one-of-a-kind piece that’s really telling the story,” she says of theater costuming. “You should be able to have that character onstage and see who they are, what they’re there for and what they’re going to do just based on their look.”

One of Hewitt’s outfits for last fall’s production of “Love’s Labour’s Lost” is the most recent piece in the exhibit.

She’s currently working as assistant costume designer to visiting artist Bill Brewer for the upcoming production of “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.”

“He’s kicking my butt every day and I love it,” she says.

If you go

WHAT: “The Art of Theatre: Master - Mentor - Medium”

WHEN: On display through April 10; A public reception will be held from 2 - 5 p.m., March 1

where: Memorial Union Gallery, North Dakota State University

WHAT: “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”

WHEN: 7:30 p.m., Feb. 27 - March 1, 2 p.m. March 2

where: Festival Concert Hall, North Dakota State University

Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533