New Spaces, New Faces

New Spaces, New Faces

Theater scene continues to bloom in NWA


When new theaters open — and Northwest Arkansas is fortunate to have a lot that do — the spaces are often innovative out of necessity. In the last year or so, Pilot Arts and the Smokehouse Players are two new companies that have thrown their hats into the ring, and they are both performing in unconventional, unexpected venues. Meanwhile, the University Theater — one of the area’s longest running companies and a sure bet when it comes to quality productions — will now perform most of its mainstage shows at the renovated black box theater in the Global Campus building on the Fayetteville square.

University Theater Reinvents Itself

The University of Arkansas Department of Theatre is now a few shows into its new arrangement with the Global Campus, and chairman Michael Riha could not be more pleased. Riha says the intimacy and up-to-the-minute technological advances of the renovated UA Black Box Theatre make it much more valuable for training students.

“It’s more reflective of what’s happening in today’s theater,” says Riha. “There’s not a lot of opportunity for Broadway-style, proscenium theaters. It’s more about storefront-sized theaters and the intimacy of what American audiences are responding to today: seeing a performance up close.”

There is already evidence that the new space is boosting audience numbers.

“There is drive-by and walk-by recognition of the marquee,” says Riha. “I’ve gotten emails from people saying, ‘I didn’t know you guys produced theater.’ I think people love the parking, they love the fact that they can park and get a drink and dinner and walk over to the space. All of these things contribute to the ease of our patrons.”

Pilot Arts Takes Flight

Pilot Arts founder and executive director Missy Gipson says she first became aware of the Arkansas Air and Military Museum as a wedding venue.

“My thought was, ‘Why not a theater?’” remembers Gipson. “It has a fabulous feel all on its own, so I knew it could be outfitted to tell some great stories for Pilot. It went with our branding of ‘Come take flight with us’, and it was also located in this terrific open space surrounded by planes coming and going, adventures being had. I just knew it would inspire our artists and our community.”

Gipson says the first season soared even higher than expected: Attendance topped 2,500 people.

“I believe we are tapping into something that’s good for our community, for theater makers and theater goers,” says Gipson.

Smokehouse Players Up Close And Personal

Smokehouse Player co-founders Terry Vaughan and Tim Gilster were familiar with the “Chillin’ Room” — a room that, in its previous life, was a walk-in refrigerator — because they used another room upstairs from it at the Ozark Mountain Smokehouse for meetings with a local playwriting group. When owner Frank Sharp approached them about possibly getting a theater group to perform there, Vaughan says the limitations of the room — its small size and lack of entrances and exits that actors can use while a performance is in progress — didn’t stop her and her husband from jumping at the chance.

“We did the Off-Off-Broadway scene in New York City for years and knew what was required to produce theater in unconventional spaces,” says Vaughan. Our solution to all the obstacles was to adopt the bare bones style of theater that we knew and loved from back in the day: no sets, minimal costumes, limited props.”

Performing in the space, says Vaughan, is exhilarating.

“You are inches from the audience, and you can see their faces,” she says. “It’s scary and thrilling. Because there is no set and very few props, the actors are very exposed. There is nothing for them to hide behind. It is risky. The audiences feel that risk, and the connection between the audience and the actors is palpable.”



Next Shows

University Theatre

“Macbeth” by William Shakespeare

Feb. 1-10

UA Black Box Theatre

2 E. Center St., Fayetteville

Pilot Arts

Kidstage: A children’s theater course that culminates in a performance of “Ninjas: The Musical.” Open to kids ages 8-14. Classes start Jan. 11, and tuition is $125. See for details.

Smokehouse Players

“Valentines and Killer Chili” by Kent Brown

Feb. 8-9

Ozark Mountain Smokehouse

1725 Smokehouse Trail, Fayetteville

Categories: Theater