The James L. Meader Little Theater
Did you ever wonder why Sage’s Little Theater is known as the “Little” Theater? It is not named for a person named Little. Rather, it is named for the Little Theatre Movement, which started in Europe and sprang up in the United States around 1911. This movement encouraged smaller, local venues to foster amateur efforts and shorter, experimental works. Playwrights like Eugene O’Neil benefited from this movement.
By the 1920s, the Little Theatre Movement was flourishing all over the country and at colleges and universities. For instance, Yale University, in 1926, started its graduate school of drama and built a little theater to serve its program.
Sage’s Little Theater was built in 1932. As college historian Julia Patton explained it, President Meader had wanted such a building for some time. Early in 1932, John Campbell, head of Sage’s Maintenance Department, discussed the matter with President Meader who gave Campbell permission to begin constructing the building on the sturdy foundations of the former garages of 91 and 95 First Street (behind the Kellas House and Boardman House student residences). In fact, for several years, the only entrance into the theater was through Boardman House.
Campbell was justifiably proud of the building which had no architect, contractor nor outside builder. I think his interest in the building went beyond its construction, however. In the early days of the Box and Candle Honor Society and the Dramatics Association, Campbell had contributed to set design as well.
Sage’s Little Theater sat about 600 people on the main floor and in the balcony. The seats were folding wooden chairs which allowed for versatile function of the building. In fact, in the late 1970s, trampoline classes were held there since it was the only space other than the gymnasium that had a high ceiling. The stage curtains were a gift from R.C. Reynolds, a trustee of the College. There were provisions for dressing rooms and property rooms and a control area for lighting. The theater was to be “sufficiently well-equipped with modern technical effects to present almost professional performances.”
The first production in the Little Theater, on October 14, 1932, was the one-act play The Conflict, directed by Bettina Hanna ’34, president of Box and Candle Honor Society of the Dramatics Association. Dorothy Sammis ’33, was engaged as director of the Little Theater. “Sammy,” as she was known, chose as the first experimental play Cradle Song, which was performed on November 18, 1932. (Cradle Song was a popular play in the actress Eva LeGalliene’s repertory. LeGalliene received an honorary degree from Russell Sage in 1930 and I can’t help but wonder if her involvement in civic and community theatre sparked President Meader’s interest in the Little Theatre Movement.)
In spring 1979, the fire inspector closed the Little Theater after identifying several fire code violations. There was a scramble to relocate functions that had been scheduled to take place there in April and May. Dracula was cancelled and the Visual and Performing Arts senior majors’ performances were moved. The Theatre Department drafted a plan of necessary changes and alterations both to bring the building up to code and to create a more modern space.
Thanks to generous gifts from both Elizabeth Perkins Green ’28 and the 50th Reunion Class of 1929, the Little Theater received a makeover, inside and out. The balcony was removed and the wooden folding chairs were replaced with tiered seating, reducing the seating capacity but improving physical and visual comfort. The walls and ceiling were painted black for better lighting effects. The stage was reconstructed, expanded and lowered.
A special program to celebrate the reopening of the building, complete with its new name—the James L. Meader Little Theater—was held on October 26, 1979. Directed and staged by Professor Dirk Hillyer, the program was a musical review with songs from past campus performances, including Bye Bye Birdie, Fiddler on the Roof, Telephone, Pippin, Old Maid and the Thief and Oliver.
The 1979 renovations were wonderful, but something was missing. Audiences had to stand outside, sometimes in rain or snow, until the house doors opened. Also, no one could use the restroom during a performance because it was backstage. The intermission sale of refreshments had to be held in the Kellas fishbowl.
In 2001, thanks to a generous gift from Edith McCrea ’24, a sheltered lobby and ticket booth were created; new and improved control and lighting booths were installed; backstage set storage areas were improved; dressing rooms were renovated; and new patron restrooms were installed in the lobby. Outside, there is now a canopy over the steps and a ramp for handicapped access.
The lobby was built in the space that had been between the theater and Kellas Hall. There is now a common wall between the two buildings. As a frequent patron of the Little Theater, I say thank you to Edith McCrea every time I arrive early to get my favorite seat and can stay warm and dry in the lobby!
Sage Archivist Aggie Stillman answers questions of interest to RSC alumnae.
Write “Ask Aggie” at email@example.com.