Now that the COVID-19 pandemic is slowly making its way out of the collective consciousness, there is a unique urge to be out and about, experiencing the community we once took for granted. One way that Oklahomans are immersing themselves in community is through theater – more specifically, dinner theater.
The concept of “dinner and a show” isn’t new by any means, but dinner theater directors are finding that tradition keeps guests, both old and new, in the audience night after night.
The Tulsa Spotlight Theater (tulsaspotlighttheater.com), known originally as “Riverside Studio,” has been around for nearly 100 years. Impressively, the theater has been running The Drunkard and the Olio – described as an “old-fashioned melodrama” with audience participation – for about as long as anyone can remember, only halting performances for health and safety protocols in 2020.
“November 14th of ’53 was technically the first performance,” says John Beasley, president of the theater’s board of directors. Meaning The Drunkard, a production made possible by volunteer actors and stage crew, is set to celebrate its 70th birthday this November.
The road to 70 years hasn’t been an entirely smooth one. Since last September’s passing of Jere Uncapher – a 65-year employee and knower of all things related to the theater – there was a marked adjustment period. Over the last year, however, Beasley emphasizes that “[Spotlight Theater] has risen to what I think is great success. I’m very optimistic for the future of the organization.”
And what does the future look like? A restoration of the building, around $5.4 million dollars of work, in part to renovate the building’s original kitchen. While dinner is not served at every performance of The Drunkard, the theater is keen on working with local restaurants to provide guests with discounts and special occasion dining – a far cry from the cheese sandwiches and black coffee on the theater’s original menu.
Another dinner theater organization priding itself on supporting local is Whodunit Theatre out of Oklahoma City (whodunit.net). Terri Myers, current director and former actress for Whodunit, explains that the original motive for the show was to highlight local talent and create an all-inclusive dinner experience.
“You can bring your mother, your brother, your preacher or your kids,” says Myers.
“We don’t have gore or gunshots,” she adds, as some guests may have reservations with the ‘murder mystery’ genre. “It’s all about leaving your burdens at the door.”
Thirty years after the first performance, Myers continues to uphold the original values of Whodunit, ensuring that the restaurants they partner with are local, every performance provides a high-quality level of entertainment and that everyone’s – both guests and actors – personal ideas of “fun” are being catered to.
If you’re interested in helping out creatives in your area, Beasley sums it up nicely: “Buy a ticket and come see our show; that’s the best way to support local arts.”
Fear Not, Introverts!
Considering that both The Drunkard and Whodunit’s shows are one part entertainment and one part audience participation, here’s a bit of insight for shy guests:
The actors will often break the fourth wall in order to build a rapport with the crowd, in addition to creating a foundation for the hijinks that will ensue.
Most audience work done by actors is group work – meaning that rarely, if ever, is one audience member is singled out.
The actors want you to have fun! If they can sense you’re uncomfortable or slow to engage, they will let you warm up before urging you to participate further. The performer’s main goal is to make sure that everyone is having a good time together.
Main photo credit: Historic Riverside Studio is home to Tulsa Spotlight Theatre and its rendition of The Drunkard. Photos courtesy Tulsa Spotlight Theater