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Celebrating the Theatre

By Meagan Russell
In Center Block
Sep 1st, 2021
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The Strauss Little Theatre is set to celebrate its 90th season this fall. Strauss boasts the longest continuous source of live entertainment in the area. Their 90th season marks 90 years of uninterrupted commitment to serving the arts in the Twin Cities. Despite all odds, in the midst of wars, recessions, and global pandemics, Strauss has adapted because ‘the show must go on’.   Since their official incorporation in 1932, the Strauss has been the artistic cornerstone of the Monroe area, advancing culture and supporting local artisans.

ARTICLE BY LAURA CASON | PORTRAIT BY KELLY MOORE CLARK

Beginning in the 1920s when a small group of Twin City residents formed a drama club in order to read Shakespeare, the Strauss became the main cultural outlet for the area in and around Monroe. At the time of their official incorporation, the group took the name, The Little Theatre of Monroe, Inc., set their dues at $1.00 a year per family and in July of that same year put on their very first show, The Whole Town’s Talking. The group spent the next few years performing on whatever local stage was available. They put on performances at the Grand Street Theatre, Central Grammar School, Georgia Tucker, Neville, Ouachita Parish Junior College, and Crosley Elementary. They even put on a special courtroom drama in the parish courthouse itself. 

During the Second World War, the Little Theatre of Monroe gained some national attention when American actress Shelley Winters graced its stage for two performances at the start of her career. Her husband at the time, Captain Mack Paul Mayer, attended Selman Fields Air Force Navigation School and she practiced her art with the company during their time in the Monroe area. Shelley Winters would go on to win two Academy Awards, a Golden Globe, and an Emmy. After the war ended, Selman Air Force Navigation School was closed and the City of Monroe rented The Red Cross Recreation Building on it’s campus to the Theatre, giving the group their first home stage.

In 1958 Mr. Clifford Strauss, upon seeing “The Pajama Game,” one of the Theatre’s first ever musical productions, offered a matching donation of $50,000 through the Carolyn Rose Strauss Foundation in order to build a new home theatre for the group. And so construction began on 1300 Lamy Lane, the current home of the Strauss Little Theatre, who changed their name in honor of the donation while remembering their beginnings. In 1961 construction was completed and the theatre group has been performing on their very own stage ever since. Over the years, the Strauss continued to grow and expand, collecting members, patrons, and donors. One notable player in this expansion was Executive Director, Chris Ringham, who joined the group in 1967. Chris spent the next 35 years improving and expanding the theatre into what it is today.

These days the Strauss puts on five major shows a season as well as several dinner theatres and special events throughout the year. Most productions are directed by local talent. In fact, that is one of the many ways the Strauss’s presence for the past 90 years has impacted the community of the Twin Cities. Community Theatre provides opportunities for young and developing talent to gain confidence in their abilities and learn skills they might not get to otherwise. Strauss has had a parade of established and talented leadership come through its doors and help train the young actors and actresses of the area. From set designers right out of Hollywood to directors and professional choreographers from NYU, the Strauss is the premier option for young performers looking to develop their skills and hone their craft.

Beginning with Shelley Winters in the early years, Strauss has maintained a tradition of fostering and sending out young talent into the entertainment world with the skills they need to succeed. In more recent memory, some of these names include Chase Coleman, who went on to act on-screen in HBO’s Boardwalk Empire and the CW’s The Originals. Another Strauss alum who’s succeeded on the national stage is Sarah Jane Nelson who made her Broadway debut in The Green Bird, directed by Julie Taymor and went on to star in Swing!, a musical conceived by Paul Kelley. Nelson also is credited for a small role on CMT’s Nashville. Off the stage, Strauss contributor Joey Joseph worked as a musical director on Broadway for the shows Beetlejuice (2019) and Pippin (2013). The Strauss stage has also showcased three Miss Louisianas over the years, including Linnea Allen, local celeb and news anchor for KTBS in Shreveport.

But the Strauss is not just a place for the up and coming, it is first and foremost a community theatre. Bob Chambless, President of the Board of Directors, emphasized the fact that there is a place and role for everyone at Strauss, no matter your age, physical ability, or area of expertise. “We need them,” He says,“We can’t exist without them!” Whether your interests lie in acting, costume design, lighting, sound, back crew, set design, or simply volunteering the night of, it takes a community to put on these shows. Anywhere from 50-100 volunteers are needed for each production. It takes every one of those volunteers and every small part they play to make it possible for the show to succeed. At the end of the three to five months that everyone has been working together, they report unanimously that there is an incredible sense of accomplishment when it all comes together, not to mention the friendships, connections, and memories they have made along the way. Strauss community member Aubri Skinner says, “Being a part of the theatre community has undoubtedly changed my life for the better. Some of my very best friends are people I’ve met in the theatre. Also, it’s such an impactful medium of storytelling, and I feel so lucky to have a space for it here in North Louisiana.”

And storytelling is what it’s all about.  Strauss doesn’t just put on plays and musicals, they tell the story of humanity, of what it’s like to exist in particular moments of time and how no matter what circumstances or difficulties we may face, our shared experience unites us. In a time where there is so much to mourn, Strauss is offering us something to celebrate. “There is nothing like live theatre,” Mr. Chambless remarks, “Every performance is different because there is a kind of conversation that happens between the audience and the actors. Every night something different happens on stage, that’s the beauty of it.” One of their top priorities is to add value to the people of Twin Cities’ lives through developing and maintaining a culture of performing art. They seek to connect people to one another through our shared human experiences and to help all those who pass through their doors grow in their own personhood. 

On August 17th the Strauss held a Grand Re-Opening and ribbon cutting to celebrate and recognize this special occasion. The Strauss would like to invite all of the surrounding area to come out and see some family oriented live theatre this year during their 90th season. The Theatre is dedicated to maintaining a clean and safe environment for its patrons as they abide by all CDC recommendations and state mandates. The first show of the season, Disaster!, is a light-hearted musical comedy centered around the music of the 1970s, including hits like “Hot Stuff”, “Knock on Wood”, and “I Will Survive.” The production will be showing the weekends of September 16th – 19th and 23rd – 25th. It’s sure to be a fun time for all generations, but especially those with fond memories of the seventies. 

The other shows Strauss has planned for this season include: The Man Who Came to Dinner showing November 4th – 7th, 12th, and 13th, Nunsense showing January 13th -16th and 20th – 22nd, The Odd Couple showing March 17th – 20th, 25th, and 26th, and Company showing April 21st – 24th and 28th – 30th. Tickets will be available for purchase to non-members at the box office four weeks prior to the show dates or at the door starting after opening night. For premier access to tickets, opening night showings, and other benefits you can support Strauss Theatre Center by becoming a member online at strausstc.com/membership, in-person at the box office located at 1300 Lamy Lane, Monroe,  between the hours of 10am and 4pm Monday through Friday, or over the phone by calling 318-323-6681 during the box offices hours. With 4 membership levels, there is something for everyone, from local businesses looking to advertise in playbills to casual theatre goers who just want tickets to a few of the main stage shows. For details about pricing, auditions, volunteering, and sponsorship please see the website, strausstc.com. Be sure to follow the Strauss Little theatre of Monroe on Facebook and Instagram under the handle @strausstheatre as well as the blog, which can be accessed through the website, for updates, announcements, and to learn more about special events this season!   

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