By Tina Alvey
“I believe that in a great city, or even in a small city or a village, a great theater is the outward and visible sign of an inward and probable culture.”
— Sir Laurence Olivier
(English actor, producer and
LEWISBURG — From its humble beginnings in a tent on the riverbank to today’s state-of-the-art facility amidst the thriving arts scene in America’s Coolest Small Town, Greenbrier Valley Theatre has held a special place in the heart of the community.
Marking its 45th anniversary season this year, GVT has evolved from a grassroots repertory company that proudly produced five shows in that tent, on to a student summer theater based in a former barn and through several years as a regional theater, moving from pillar to post with no single home. A rough-hewn structure — formally dubbed The Barn — built across from Greenbrier Valley Airport in Maxwelton served as GVT’s home from 1976 until the summer of 2000, when the renovation of its permanent downtown location was complete.
Artistic Director Cathey Sawyer points to that final move, into what had been a department store, as GVT’s most significant change during her 20-year tenure.
“It allowed us to go from a summer theater to a year-round operation,” she explains.
Finding the right building at the right time was serendipitous for the organization.
“We had decided — the board had decided — to find a new permanent home for the theater,” Sawyer recalls. “Then, it just happened that Leggett went out of business, and that building was available at a very good price. It made sense for us to be downtown.”
GVT bought the 27,000-square- foot former department store for $125,000 in December 1994. Thanks to generous responses to a private fundraising appeal issued to approximately 40 people, the board had 90 percent of the purchase price in hand or committed by the deal’s closing date, with the balance raised via a more public appeal in early 1995.
“We had a board that was visionary,” Sawyer says. “But after the building’s purchase, it still took a while to figure out what to do with it.”
A decision was made to convert a portion of the structure into commercial shop spaces, thereby providing a revenue flow to help with ongoing utility and operating costs at the theater. Extensive renovation of the space that would become the auditorium, lobby, offices, dressing rooms, storage spaces and more continued until its inaugural summer season opened June 9 with an original musical based on the period in 1941 when The Greenbrier became a temporary home for Axis diplomats interned by the U.S. government.
That tradition of spotlighting West Virginia-themed productions continues today, Sawyer points out.
“People may not realize this, but we do West Virginia stories quite often,” she says with pride.
Sawyer’s own play based on the true crime story of “The Greenbrier Ghost” is a perennial favorite at GVT and next season will be showcased again alongside a production which tells the Civil War tragedy of David Creigh, “The Greenbrier Martyr.”
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Although the theater bases its age on the April 19, 1967, incorporation of Greenbrier Repertory Theatre, its founding can be traced to the summer of 1966, when John and Betty Benjamin formed a small professional company of actors and pitched a striped tent on the banks of the Greenbrier River in North Caldwell.
According to a history compiled for the theater, John Benjamin took on the role of producer and “infected a number of young recruits with the theater bug.” Those early recruits included Brad Dourif — who would go on to win a Golden Globe award for his role in the 1975 film “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” — along with Lee Gillespie, Peggy Townley, Ruth Benedict and Paul Detch.
Detch and John Benjamin were among the founding board of directors of Greenbrier Repertory Theatre in 1967. The other directors were Edward White, William A. Boone, Ann Benedict and Helen Lindsley.
After the Benjamins departed, the tent folded, but Gillespie continued the spirit of their work and, as a teacher at Greenbrier East High School, organized the Greenbrier Student Summer Theatre under the Greenbrier Rep charter. That group of college and high school actors performed in a new venue — a spacious barn owned by David Francis and former (and future) Gov. Cecil Underwood.
The name Greenbrier Valley Theatre was first attached to what was reorganized as a “new regional theater” in 1974. Lewisburg’s Carnegie Hall provided the stage for that summer’s five productions, which featured a professional company assembled by the theater’s new managing director, Wayne Innerarity.
GVT continued the following year under the leadership of managing director Jean Webster Tsokos, who oversaw the construction of The Barn at the airport — a project that cost an estimated $60,000 and relied heavily on donated materials and furnishings.
The initial summer season at The Barn included productions of “Godspell,” “Witness for the Prosecution” and “Fiddler on the Roof.”
Grants began to flow into the theater’s coffers at around this same time, according to GVT’s official history, which also notes the community continued its support “through increased attendance and contributions.”
Over the next 16 years, GVT would struggle through transition after transition, as general managers came and went, with the result being that during several of those lean years, few productions were mounted.
In 1991, GVT’s board instituted a nationwide search for a full-time artistic director, drawing more than 100 responses from as far away as California and England.
Cathey Sawyer, GVT’s first full-time artistic director, took the helm with the opening show of the 1992 season and used her extensive contacts in regional theaters to fill out the company. Perhaps most importantly, she offered the theater stability through a long-term commitment that continues to this day.
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The theater at 113 E. Washington St. is now frequently a site for meetings, wedding receptions, seminars, dance programs, concerts and other social and civic functions, as well as serving its main purpose as the home of GVT.
In addition to “paying off the mortgage,” which she lists as the theater’s biggest hurdle, Sawyer says GVT’s growing success is also pushing the limits of its facilities.
“We need more space for educational classes,” she says, noting the building’s Jefferson Street wing may be pressed into service for that purpose more frequently in the future as demand for classes grows.
Another challenge for Sawyer and her team is finding long-term solutions to the issue of artist housing, whether it be leasing or purchasing living space for the talented performers who are so integral to GVT’s success.
Productions scheduled for the theater’s 45th anniversary season include “The Happy Memories Club,” “Cabaret,” “The Crucible” and “A Christmas Carol.”
Greenbrier Valley Theatre is West Virginia’s official year-round professional theater. For more information on GVT or to purchase tickets for an upcoming performance, call 304-645-3838 or 866-888-1411 or visit www.gvtheatre.org.
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