The Little Theater That Could

Written by Shane “Mr. Red” Elks

The Little Theater That Could
By: Shane Elks

littletheatreIf you travel south from the center of Charlotte for about 20 minutes you will find yourself in the town of Gastonia. Gastonia is known for its ties with textile history, great fried food (paired with a cherry lemon sundrop) and local malt shop Tony’s amazing milkshakes. What may surprise you is that Gastonia has long been home to a vibrant theater company. One of my first theatrical experiences was at the Little Theater of Gastonia and I accredit it to one of the places that forced my love for live theater today! I remember traveling to this small square building for their production of Sweet Charity. From the moment I stepped into the lobby and stood in line at the ticket booth I felt an excitement from the crowd. When seated in the intimate theater the lights went down and there before me a whole new world became alive under the stage lights! I recall leaving the theater that night thinking, “Am I still in Gastonia?”

For over sixty years this theater has fought low to no city funding, a rise and fall in volunteering and a failing economy. Yet never have they closed their doors to their community. Current President of the Little Theater of Gastonia Susan Lisle states “,The purpose and mission of the Little Theater of Gastonia is to promote the general welfare of its members and the community by providing quality entertainment and instruction in the theater arts. It is these words that a handful of people in 1949 used to start the Little Theater in order to bring live theater to Gastonia. Today we use these words to guide us as we choose appropriate plays for our audiences and our summer workshops. Our board strives to see that this theater keeps thriving with the best quality plays possible and opportunities for all who want to be involved on or off the stage. Our hope is, of course, to remain an active community theater and a vital part of downtown Gastonia.”

I asked Little Theater of Gastonia set creator, actor and director for over twenty years Jeff Manus what has been one of the major changes he has experienced over the years and he replied”, Because the world is ever changing it’s more difficult to get volunteers to commit to a show. You are asking people to give up a good percentage of their time for eight weeks. This isn’t just a problem at LTG, I think it’s become a problem in most volunteer organizations.”

Manus shares an enthusiasm for his wishes for the Little Theater of Gastonia’s future with veteran actor/director/costume master Leslie Hodnett. Both envision a bigger facility and an increased theater education program for the community’s children and interested volunteers. “The Summer Workshop is one of the best workshops in the area.” Says Hodnett “,We teach theatre arts, we teach community and we teach families all the aspects that go into the making of a production. We show kids how to investigate cultures and history to form the proper setting and costumes. We teach design elements of set and costuming and lighting. We teach power tools, sewing machines and light board operation. We introduce kids to people like Simon Donoghue and Sarah Buckner and Liz Hyde…Jason Pelusio came to talk about careers other than acting. We teach Respect. We teach them how to work together to put on a fantastic show. Profit is nice but it is not our goal. Bringing new families into our theater is our goal. Folks like Carol Taylor and Dana Frady came into LTG because of the Summer Workshop. The Summer Workshop will give us the next generation of people that we need to survive.”

Once again Jeff Manus and Leslie Hodnett agree that Little Theater of Gastonia has continued to grow with the times and offers top notch productions with amazing talent and crew. Hodnett expressed “,We need to raise awareness of our quality productions and maintain the high standards we sought to accomplish over the last ten years. I really feel our product competes well with professional theatre in Charlotte, theatres with budgets ten times what we spend. This pride in our productions creates a community within LTG that is hard to describe.” Hodnett also continued to speak about the shift in focus toward the community for funding “,LTG is struggling to reinvent itself. We used to sustain ourselves with season memberships (flexpasses) and ticket sales. Now the big corporations that used to be our “Angels” in the past are gone…Textile Companies have gone out of business, local corporations like Matthews Belk have been sold and we have to go out and sell ourselves again. The economy has definitely made theatre an extravagance that families think they cannot afford. Most theatres will raise enough money through grants and sponsorships to pay for show expenses. They have fund drives for capital expenditures and capital improvements. If the expenses can be supported in these other ways, then we can make sure that the community will be able to afford our ticket prices.”

A new face to Little Theater of Gastonia is the multi-talented Cris Jambon. She too states her opinion on the need to reach out into the community for support “,Two big businesses with big checks don’t equal more people. I would rather have ten small businesses support who will also bring their families to attend and volunteer. Along with the dollars we must build a brand for LTG!"

There is no doubt that with the dedicated volunteers and history of the Little Theater of Gastonia that it will continue to adapt and remain a vital part of its community. Jambon is also the director of “Boeing Boeing” the first show for this season at Little Theater of Gastonia which runs September 13-16 and 20-22. When asked for one reason why one should travel the short 20 minutes from Charlotte to see this 1960’s French Farce beside the fact that it is one of the most produced comedies around the world (including the critically acclaimed Broadway revival in 2008) she replied “,I will give you three! One, The set built by genius Jeff Manus. Two, Farce is better than farts. Ditch the reality TV. Live theater made with the talent in this community is as real as it gets. Three, maybe the best reason, You will laugh your ass off.”

You may view this season and become involved with the Little Theater of Gastonia by visiting


Shane Elks   Shane Elks

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