Debbie Litch has this thing for productions. Goodness knows she’s performed in enough of them, often where there’s a need for a high-energy, larger-than-life, sing-to-the-rafters presence who can get the audience pumped. Her next role is that of Dolly Levi, the determined center of the musical Hello, Dolly! that opens on August 27th at Theatre Memphis.
It’s a big part, a huge part, but it’s not Litch’s biggest. You’d have to save that distinction for her ongoing (17-year) role as executive producer at Theatre Memphis. Turned out that she was a natural. She took over in 2004 after a few years of previous executive producers coming up short. The theater’s board wanted to maintain a solid financial position, improve the quality of productions, and reach out to the community for volunteers and sponsorships.
Litch brought an impressive résumé made for that set of challenges. She was an entertainer and director for a Florida hotel and a San Francisco cruise line. She’s volunteered on several boards and worked for the Memphis Symphony Orchestra as interim executive director, marketing director, and development director. And she was development director at Memphis Brooks Museum of Art from 1999 until she took over at Theatre Memphis. It’s fair to say she knew people and she knew how to get things done.
So, she worked from season to season, but was always looking ahead to 2021, the 100th anniversary of the founding of Theatre Memphis. Of all the productions she’d been part of, this birthday would be a blockbuster.
Act 1: 630 Perkins Extended
At the same time, something else was looming larger with each passing year: the property and the building at 630 Perkins Extended. When the structure was built in the mid-1970s, it was thanks to a major push by the Theatre Memphis board and executive producer Sherwood Lohrey. Since 1921, the year of its birth as the Memphis Little Theatre, performances had been staged wherever a spot could be found. First was Germania Hall at Third and Jefferson; later it would have a permanent home beside the James Lee House, then in use by the Memphis Academy of Arts (that school moving to Overton Park and becoming Memphis College of Art). While the Victorian-era house was an art school, a stable there served as the Little Theatre’s venue. Then in 1929 the company would find a welcome place in a room originally designed to house a swimming pool at the Pink Palace Museum mansion.
Litch says that looking back at 100 years is important, “but the fact is that we are vibrant and we’re just getting started. We want to continue to raise the bar and see where else we can go as far as the quality of our productions, because what’s very important to us is that consistent artistic excellence is on that stage.”
In the 1960s, the board had put together plans for a new building to be located on that triangle of land that the city had agreed to lease to the group. It was a long time coming. Changes were happening, both good and bad. A fund drive was aiming to raise $600,000 for a new facility, but prices were rising and the economy was rough. It would eventually cost $1.3 million, but an energized board managed to get suppliers to be generous and the building that opened for its first performance in May 1975 was worth a good bit more than that. The organization had also decided to change its name to Theatre Memphis — Lohrey had no use for the word “little” in the name.
Some items on the wish list didn’t make it into the new building and what was missing became more and more apparent over the years. For one thing: not enough restrooms.
It’s a bit of a joke for Litch, who can tell you everything you need to know about the original building and the revamped new one. “I always say this all started because we needed more restrooms and that’s the truth,” she says. “We went from eight to 21. That is huge.” That may have been a frequent complaint from theatergoers, but Litch and her board wanted to do so much more.
Upgrading the facility was an ideal way to welcome the 100th anniversary. “We started dreaming and scheming about this three years ago, which is not a long time,” Litch says. “We had a very defined checklist of what we wanted to accomplish in three categories. Number one, priorities that we had to have. Second were just at the bottom of the first priority. And then the third were extras depending on just what those costs were going to be. And it all came down to wanting to make sure that our audiences had a very functional, warm, safe place so that it could match what we work so hard to do on our stage from an artistic standpoint.”
One priority was a south corridor. For more than four decades, the audience had no access to the auditorium on that side. You could enter from the left side or the top rear, and it always felt like something was absent. In fact, Litch found slides from the original architect that specified that corridor, “but I guess back in the early Seventies, when they were making the choices and from a financial standpoint, they decided that they’d rather have some other things and not add that south corridor.”
It’s there now, bringing a long-missing symmetry to either side of the performance area and with a porte-cochère for convenience, walls for local art to be displayed, and a bar for — well we know what that’s for, and now that there are 21 restrooms, fully justified.
That passageway is a major addition, but what will catch the eye of those who come to the new facility with memories of the old is that lobby behind the auditorium. The space used to have stairs going down to a bar and restrooms. Those stairs are gone and now a grand stairway offers access to the auditorium and an expanded lobby area with tables.
Even before you get to the lobby, you’ll be able to go to Will Call from the outside and then enter through new doors. In the past, people would come in and join a line that put everyone in everyone else’s way to get to Will Call, which was a quaint table staffed by a volunteer. Another item taken care of from the checklist.
Act 2: Art of the Performance
You can’t talk about the Theatre Memphis building without noting the cut-steel sculptures by Lon Anthony titled Dramatis Personae. Anthony, known for his visual puns and whimsical images, was head of the Rhodes College Art Department. The commission of the sculptures, installed in 1979, allowed for several pieces representing theatrical characters.
“We were able to place those statues pretty much in the same places although they look different,” Litch says. “They’ve got the same angles and they’re speaking to each other the way that he had envisioned. And they’re on concrete — some had been placed on the ground resulting in some deterioration, but with them now on concrete bases and with lighting, it’s a much-improved setup.”
“We changed direction and this creative group, with our dedicated board, really did come up with some things that we knew we could accomplish,” she says. “And it made us have to think outside the box and grow in some areas that we might not have otherwise.” — Debbie Litch
Some significant art and design elements in the revamped building are held over, like the Burton Callicott rainbow painting along a side stairway, and some are new, such as the remarkable piece Backstage Romance by Brantley Ellzey. He describes it on his Facebook fan page: “Rolled construction drawings and vintage and contemporary play programs and posters are interwoven to create an intricate and colorful time capsule portrait of Theatre Memphis.”
Wayne Edge, a sculptor noted for his work with stones and wood, created chandeliers and sconces, a good bit of which was repurposed from the existing building. Litch doesn’t like to throw things away (theater people are very possessive of their props, sets, and costumes) and has tried to recycle whatever was possible. “We have a bar that was made out of the lower lobby wood,” she says, “and we were able to put our original donor wall up [above the grand staircase] in order to honor those that actually helped make this possible in 1975.”
Even the old stage contributed. “It had 25 years of paint, just layers, layers, layers that needed to be replaced and was part of the checklist,” Litch says. “And we would have probably just taken it right out to the dumpster, but when our designers and our production manager saw it, they said, maybe we can do something from this. That’s when they came up with the jewelry and our coasters. We saved all the wood from the original, lower lobby and then started making frames. So, we just kind of created our own concessions that had to do with Theatre Memphis because of the sentimentality and knowing the history.”
Act 3: The Pandemic
It’s good to have a well-thought-out plan for any big project, especially if a major modernization project is timed to a particular date. But all the planning in the world can’t account for a worldwide pandemic. In a way, COVID-19 was as disruptive for Theatre Memphis as it was for everyone else. And yet, a plan that includes being shut down for a period that included a good bit of 2020 was, if not fortuitous, at least something that could be managed.
“The reason that we planned the renovations for the first eight months of 2020 was so that this way we could turn it around pretty quickly and would be able to reopen a year ago this past August,” Litch says. “Little did we know. I was worried that we weren’t going to meet the deadline because we were giving [the contractor and architect] so many things that had to be accomplished. But they took it and said, yes. We had to change gears but knew that this construction show was going to continue on.”
Like everyplace else, Theatre Memphis had people working remotely and shut down any notion of producing shows. It didn’t lay off or furlough any of the staff although there was a “small decrease” in salaries, but benefits were retained. Fortunately, the work on the facility could continue, but having a big bash on May 20, 2021, wasn’t quite going to happen as envisioned. The idea would be, if they couldn’t celebrate the months leading up to the 100th, they’d just designate the 2021-2022 season as the centennial.
“We changed direction and this creative group, with our dedicated board, really did come up with some things that we knew we could accomplish,” she says. “And it made us have to think outside the box and grow in some areas that we might not have otherwise.”
So Theatre Memphis made the most of the situation. Litch says, “We started this countdown from February 10th to May 20th culminating with a wonderful cabaret show that Gary Beard and I put together called Liberace and Friends.”
Beard had done a one-person show of Liberace in recent years and Litch, of course, knows a thing or two about cabaret. “It was limited in the number of people just so that we could test out our audiences,” she says. But for the 100 days leading up to the anniversary date and performance, the Theatre Memphis team harnessed social media to tell different stories and present an array of facts about the company’s past.
It was also a chance to do some fundraising, an activity never very far from an executive producer’s mind. “We recruited a hundred people to adopt each of the days,” Litch says, “and it turned into a very successful fundraiser in order to help support this campaign and our endeavors during the time when we weren’t able to sell tickets and sponsorships.” That, plus help from ArtsMemphis, the Tennessee Arts Commission, and the state of Tennessee, went a long way to keeping things afloat.
Act 4: The Players: Architects and Contractors
Selecting the contractors and architects was, for Litch, something like holding auditions for a show. First was the contractor and, “our auditioning saw great, great choices, but at the end of the day, we chose Grinder, Taber & Grinder, and it was just magical,” she says. “I know there are horror stories out there, either building residential or commercial, but it was just golden.”
Next up for audition was the architect. “We selected Renaissance Group, which is a smaller boutique architectural firm, but has done a lot of things around,” Litch says. “They came to their audition, as I call it, with an amazing presentation and PowerPoint to show us what the south corridor and symmetry would look like.”
“It was like putting a show together with the director, our scenic designer, our lighting designer, but on a little bit larger scale.” Debbie Litch
There were some givens as Litch and the board made their casting choices. “We can do pretty, and functional, and accessible all together,” she insisted. “And it shouldn’t be that much more money.”
Accessibility was crucial. People of a certain age buy plenty of season tickets, so it’s important to make it as easy as possible for them to negotiate the building. That was a factor is redesigning the lobby to dispense with the stairs going to the lower lobby. That part needed to be on one level.
“It also gave us an opportunity to bring everything up to code because things change in 46 years,” Litch says. “The codes weren’t as strict in the early Seventies.”
For the executive producer, dealing with the contractor and architect were in many ways unlike what she’d done before. And yet, she found that in key ways, “it was like putting a show together with the director, our scenic designer, our lighting designer, but on a little bit larger scale. And they appreciated it because of the type of people that they are. They love that collaboration.”
Act 5: What You Can’t See
Theatregoers will sit in new seats, be able to lounge in a more spacious lobby, have ample access to watering holes, and can go to the restroom much more comfortably. They can drop off a companion at the south side entrance and marvel at the décor and art.
But a good bit of improvement was made to areas seen by few outsiders. The old structure was bursting at the seams with set workshops, costume and fitting areas, dressing rooms, and offices — plus places to store all those costumes and set pieces and furniture and props. Some were freshened up with paint and better lighting.
Litch says they looked at the idea of excavating further down in the basement to add storage, but the cost would have been exorbitant. “The trade-off was that we would build up,” she says, which created invaluable space. Now they can put a set on stage and build another one in the shop ready to go when the next production needs it.
Litch marshaled the team and said, “I bet there’s some square footage down in that basement that you could find, because this is one time in our entire history that you’ll have that opportunity to clean it out and purge and merge.” Sure enough, a big cleanup found just enough room for a small rehearsal space.
Act 6: Curtain Going Up
Nobody could have foreseen the pandemic, but nobody was ever going to change Litch’s mind about Hello, Dolly! being the grand production that would celebrate the centennial and re-open the facility. “Us being a hundred, and that one being such an All-American classic, it just felt like it would be a fun and a classic comedy and a musical that people love and know,” she says. “So, we postponed.”
The Liberace production in May was the test. She kept attendance to about 140 people, all vaccinated and with all the protocols in place. “I had everybody seated and the right distance between, and every other row,” Litch says. “And I was doing welcoming remarks and seeing people just getting up to go sit with friends, and that gave us the opportunity to see that the confidence level was back.”
With rehearsals beginning in July, Litch said that getting ready to perform as Dolly Levi was a wonderful therapy. But her mind is always counting and calculating. “I’m just thrilled that we get to do a show.” she says, “Renewals [for season tickets] are coming back in, and I’m very, very pleased with where we are there, but when we start selling single tickets to Dolly!, that’s going to be a good indicator.”
Act 7: What’s Next
As July of this year got underway, Litch was keeping track of how people were reacting. “I just love the look on people’s faces when they walk in here and they’re speechless,” she says with some glee and some relief. “Because they remember what it was, and it was always good bones and a good facility in the greatest location. Now people can make the beginning or intermission part of the destination, not just that they have to go through the building in order to get to their seat and to start their experience.”
She says that looking back at 100 years is important, “but the fact is that we are vibrant and we’re just getting started. We want to continue to raise the bar and see where else we can go as far as the quality of our productions, because what’s very important to us is that consistent artistic excellence is on that stage.”
It’s certainly well-positioned for that.
This year, resident scenic designer Jack Yates won two awards from the American Association of Community Theatre (AACT) and Mandy Heath won one for lighting. “We don’t have a large staff,” Litch says. “We have an A-plus team, but we don’t have a bench. Everybody’s just so passionate and devoted and just perfect for what they do.”
Theatre Memphis will not be resting on its laurels, though. “The sky’s the limit on what we can even begin to imagine,” Litch says. “This year has allowed us, from a strategic planning standpoint, to go back and really look at some things and realize there’s so much left for us to do as a community theater, for and by our community. We’re excited that we can get this community involved and let this be a center — a place where everybody feels welcome, that there are no barriers.”
Key to that is building community relationships and attracting people to audition or work, from a technical angle or volunteer. Every year more than 700 active volunteers take part in productions.
And, of course, fiscal stability is crucial. “We want to continue to make sure that financially we’re able to guarantee that this theater will be here for the next hundred years,” Litch says. “We’ve been blessed with some designated funds to an endowment, and we want to truly continue to focus on that so that this way we can support the staff, we can support this facility, support our programs, and invest back into the artistic product.”
If all this seems like a lot, remember something Dolly Levi has been quoted as saying: “Everything concerns Dolly Levi!”