Although Arkansas was often considered wild and uncultured in its early history, the state has a consistent theatrical tradition of professional touring troupes, local companies, and community theater—all providing Arkansas theater-goers with entertainment from slapstick to the classics.
The first recorded attempt at a permanent theater in the state was in Little Rock (Pulaski County) barely two years after statehood, when the capital city’s population was about 1,400. In July 1838, a meeting was organized to establish a theater. After unsuccessful attempts to sell shares for the construction of a permanent building, the first theatrical production recorded in Arkansas was mounted on December 3, 1838. It was presented in a downtown warehouse and was a comedy called The Young Widow. The actor/manager was Sam Waters, who, along with his wife, formed the nucleus of Little Rock’s professional troupe.
A month later, in January 1839, a remodeled downtown building was opened as the Little Rock Theater. Along with a comedy called Charles the Second and a “poetic address” composed by Albert Pike, a repeat performance of The Young Widow was staged with Sam Waters dressed as a woman. The production was reported to be well attended “with a respectable audience.” However, by May, the theater was closed.
More theaters would come and go in Arkansas’s capital city, as well as around the state. The theatrical history in Jonesboro (Craighead County) reflects the typical series of events in small towns across Arkansas. In 1885, Jonesboro’s population was about 1,500, with growth due to the arrival of railroads going through town, making it accessible from all parts of the country. Along with traveling troupes, Jonesboro enjoyed local talent presented by the Ladies Aid Society and the Epworth League, the latter a group dedicated to providing genteel public entertainment.
On January 15, 1894, the grand opening of Jonesboro’s 400-seat Opera House was held, marked by a traveling troupe’s Swedish dialect comedy, Ole Olsen. In November 1895, Will Malone, manager of the Jonesboro Opera House, closed it and opened the 800-seat Malone Theater in a remodeled building in October 1896. Audiences were treated to productions of Hamlet, King Lear, and Spartacus, as well as pieces like Old Farmer Hopkins. Malone’s motto was “First rate entertainment or none.” Unfortunately, that policy did not ensure financial success, and though the building stood into the 1960s, it was used in the twentieth century only for local events like graduations plus a few touring shows.
Today, theater in Jonesboro is available from the Arkansas State University (ASU) theater department, which also presents a children’s theater series during the summer. The on-campus Fowler Center and Convocation Center host traveling productions such as shows by the Arkansas Repertory Theatre and touring companies. The Foundation of Arts presents children’s theater at The Forum, the renovated Strand movie theater.
Theater in other Arkansas cities and towns evolved in much the same way, with theater groups generally coming and going according to their finances. Today, many cities, towns, and counties in Arkansas host local theater groups. As of 2009, a general review of theaters in Arkansas includes the Fort Smith Little Theater in Fort Smith (Sebastian County), Royal Players in Benton (Saline County), Lyric Theater of Harrison (Boone County), Twin Lakes Playhouse in Mountain Home (Baxter County), Rogers Little Theater in Rogers (Benton County), and Main Stage Center in Eureka Springs (Carroll County). Conway (Faulkner County) is home to the Conway Community Arts Association, Hendrix College, and the University of Central Arkansas (UCA). The Arkansas Shakespeare Theatre was founded at UCA in 2006.
In addition to touring productions at the Walton Arts Center, Fayetteville (Washington County) enjoys presentations by the University of Arkansas (UA) drama department and its Boar’s Head Players during the summer as well as a professional company, TheatreSquared. The Pocket Theater, a community group, is located in downtown Hot Springs (Garland County), and the Hot Springs Village Players present their productions in Woodlands Auditorium at the Ponce de Leon Center in Hot Springs Village (Garland County). Along with entertainment from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff (UAPB), that city enjoys onstage productions at the Arts and Science Center and occasional presentations at the Saenger Theatre. The Great Passion Play, an outdoor religious pageant, was held in Eureka Springs starting in 1968.
Little Rock is home to the Arkansas Repertory Theatre, a professional troupe begun in 1976; Children’s Theatre at the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts; Murry’s Dinner Playhouse; The PUBLIC Theatre (which hosts Community Theatre of Little Rock); the University of Arkansas at Little Rock (UA Little Rock); Weekend Theater; and Wildwood Park, as well as touring companies of Broadway shows.
|Arkadelphia||Arkadelphia Little Theater|
|Batesville||Batesville Community Theatre|
|Bella Vista||Village Players|
|Bull Shoals||Bull Shoals Theater of the Arts|
|Cabot||Cabot Community Theatre|
|Camden||Arkansas Community Theater South—ACTS|
|Cherokee Village||Cherokee Village Players|
|Conway||Arkansas Shakespeare Theatre
Conway Community Arts Association
University of Central Arkansas
|Dumas||Dumas Area Arts Council|
|El Dorado||South Arkansas Arts Center|
|Eureka Springs||Main Stage Center
Great Passion Play (ended in 2012)
Opera in the Ozarks at Inspiration Point
|Fairfield Bay||Stas’ Productions|
|Fayetteville||Arts Theater Live
University of Arkansas
Walton Arts Center
|Fort Smith||Fort Smith Little Theatre|
|Glenwood||Glenwood Area Community Theater|
|Harrison||Gray Blue Productions
Lyric Theatre of Harrison
The Theatre Company
|Hot Springs||The Pocket Theatre
|Hot Springs Village||Association of Senior Arts Programs
Hot Springs Village Players
|Jonesboro||Arkansas State University
Foundation of Arts
|Little Rock||Arkansas Repertory Theatre
Community Theatre of Little Rock
Murry’s Dinner Playhouse
Phoenix Theater Company
The PUBLIC Theatre
Red Octopus Theater
University of Arkansas at Little Rock
|Maumelle||Maumelle Community Children’s Theater|
|McCrory||The Ken Theatre|
|Mena||Ouchita Little Theatre|
|Morrilton||Rialto Community Arts Center|
|Mountain Home||Twin Lakes Playhouse|
|North Little Rock||Argenta Community Theater|
|Ozark||Foothills Little Theatre|
|Paragould||Collins Theatre Foundation|
|Pocahontas||Imperial Dinner Theatre|
|Rogers||The Rogers Little Theater|
|Russellville||Arkansas River Valley Arts Center|
|Searcy||Center on the Square|
|Siloam Springs||Sager Creek Arts Center|
|Springdale||Arts Center of the Ozarks|
|Texarkana||Texarkana Repertory Company|
|West Memphis||Crittenden Arts Council
The Little Theatre of Crittenden County
For additional information:
Coe, Margaret. “Dog Fights and Other Diversions.” Craighead County Historical Quarterly 23 (January 1985): 1–17.
Stokes, D. Allen. “The First Theatrical Season in Arkansas: Little Rock.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 23 (Summer 1964): 166–183.
Stuck, Charles A. The Story of Craighead County: A Narrative of People and Events in Northeast Arkansas. Jonesboro, AR: 1960.
Sweetnam, Ashley Nicole. “A Natural Stage: A History of Theater in Arkansas.” MA thesis, University of Missouri-Kansas City, 2008.
Worley, Ted R. “Bypaths of Arkansas History.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 12 (Winter 1953): 394–8.
Arkansas State University
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