Smithfield Little Theatre a theatrical family for generations

Published 11:19 am Wednesday, January 24, 2018

         By Diana McFarland

Managing editor

The Smithfield Little Theatre is more than just a stage on which to perform plays and musicals.

For some, the theater is a family affair, for others it was a place to meet their future spouse, hone their acting or singing skills, and for a few, it was a place to step out of their shells and find a voice.

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The Smithfield Little Theatre got its start more than 50 years ago with a handful of people and $100 from a wealthy donor. The group put on “The Cat and the Canary” in 1962 at Smithfield High School, said long-time Theatre supporter June Hurst.

The group made enough to pay the donor back and went on do another show, and then another and another, she said. {mprestriction ids=”1,2,3,4,5,6″}

After many years in a renovated cotton gin, the Smithfield Little Theatre now enjoys its own 175-seat facility and the sponsorship of Farmers Bank and other donors, as well as the many theater-goers who purchase season or individual tickets for the numerous productions performed each year.

The Theatre also hosts performances as part of Smithfield Music, as well as having hosted many camps and special events for children and adults.

Kim Norman met her husband Kelvin, in a roundabout way, through the Smithfield Little Theatre, and their two children, Collin and Skylar, grew up there, acting in plays and at times entering the One Act Play contest. Norman got involved with the Theatre through her father, Glenn Pitman, who performed in “1776” in the 1970s.

Norman has painted sets and performed in starring roles, such as Mother Superior in “Nunsense” and Miss Hannigan in “Annie.”

As for her children, Norman said the time they spent on stage and backstage gave them a strong sense of self.

“There’s so many skills learned on stage that can apply to other things,” said Norman.

Trey Gwaltney has been on stage at the Smithfield Little Theatre since 1975 when he was eight years old. His parents, Cecil and Linda, were also active in the theater.

“The theater was part of our household,” said Gwaltney, who has grown up to act, conduct, direct, do some backstage work and hold leadership positions in the organization that is run by volunteers.

Elaine Dairo, who has served in leadership positions in the Theatre, was active with the I-Spy theater camps and recalls one shy young participant, MacKenzie Sheppard, who initially had to be coerced to attend but now plans to major in performing arts in college.

Since that initially balky beginning, Sheppard has been a member of the Nansemond River Performing Arts Company and has won best performance this past fall at the Virginia Theatre Association’s annual high school theater festival, said her mother, Lisa Sheppard.

“Without the opportunity and experience at the Smithfield Little Theatre I-Spy Theatre Camp, MacKenzie may not have found her passion and voice in theater art and other world program. The arts literally gave her life,” said Lisa. 

Gwaltney said the theater continues to attract not only audiences from beyond Smithfield, but musicians, actors, singers and technicians as well, which he believes is a testament to the quality of performances over the years.

Many times people are surprised to learn the music wasn’t recorded, but was instead a live performance, he said.

Linda Gwaltney, Trey’s mother, has been involved with the theater for more than 50 years. Her first production was “Little Mary Sunshine,” that was performed at Smithfield High School.

Linda said she’s seen the theater grow and go from never having young people or men to a new influx of youth and men that she attributes to an increased awareness of the arts in the schools.

The Theatre performs around four musicals and dramas throughout the year, which this season included “Of Mice and Men,” to “Thoroughly Modern Millie” and “The Full Monty.”

Some have been elaborate, such as “Peter Pan” in 2010, which included flying technology from Flying with Foy out of Las Vegas.

Others have been simpler, such as “The Dining Room,” where all the action took place in a well-to-do family’s dining room during different time periods.

The Theatre also hosts annual events, including “The Gentlemen of the College,” from William and Mary, and a Christmas production.

Going forward, Gwaltney said the Theatre always relies on the support of the community in the form of donations and ticket sales, as the cost of rights, royalties, scripts and costumes can run into the thousands of dollars.

Another area that needs support is the technical portion of the production.

“You always seem to find someone to sing and dance on stage, but it’s more difficult to find someone to work the technical aspect of it. That’s an area that is really looking for more participation and the Theatre welcomes volunteers in any capacity,” said Gwaltney.

Another change is the propensity of younger theater-goers to forgo buying season tickets in favor of purchasing tickets quickly via their phones, Gwaltney.

In the end, the show does go on — and those involved are always looking to make it better.

“Someone will always say ‘this is the show I’ve ever seen here,’” said Gwaltney.

Editor’s Note: This is the fourth in a series on the arts in Smithfield and Isle of Wight County. Next week focuses on the many individual and start-up venues in the county.  {/mprestriction}