Biloxi Little Theatre cast members scoured the Gulf Coast in 2013 for materials they could use to build the signature barricade required for the troupe to produce “Les Misérables,” which had just become available to license. They picked up objects from the side of the road and cut plywood into the shape of a grand piano to place on top.
“You can’t build that barricade,” folks told them about the visually stunning, crucial set piece in the Paris-set musical. BLT’s stage measures at a mere 28-by-26 feet, and “Les Miz” is known as one of the world’s biggest musicals.
“We love to hear about how we can’t do something so (that) we can turn around and do it,” BLT Board President Teresa Johnson said of her and Choreographer LeAnne Womble-Reilly’s commitment to realize their vision.
On opening night, a traveler curtain far upstage hid the completed barricade until the time came. The revealed set piece elicited audible gasps from the audience. The barricade rotated on the stage, a slim crew member inside turning the prop to create the effect.
“It was quite gratifying,” Johnson said. “We had a great team, and that’s how our shows get put together.”
‘Barefoot in the Park’
This year, Biloxi Little Theatre closes its milestone 75th season with Neil Simon’s hit romantic comedy “Barefoot in the Park,” which will have performances from May 13 to May 15 and from May 20 to May 22 at the BLT playhouse (220 Lee St., Biloxi).
The play about a buttoned-down lawyer and his free-spirit wife on the heels of their honeymoon and the arrival of her loopy mom puts an upbeat exclamation point on the season’s wrap. This is actually BLT’s 76th year, but with pandemic closings, it gets the 75th season designation. There’s talk of marking the milestone with a fancier, gala version of their annual Bravo Awards celebration—“our own little Tony Awards,” Johnson said.
Judy Madden, who found her niche at BLT 30 years ago, sits in the director’s chair for “Barefoot,” a comedy she first directed two decades back. “It all becomes a different show with a different cast,” she said. “They’re going to be fantastic.”
Bailey Smith of Ocean Springs, a medical assistant, flexes her community-theater chops as spontaneous newlywed Corie. She’s been doing community theater on the coast since age 5 and has about a half-dozen BLT shows under her belt. In her 20s, Smith finds humor in the period piece’s setting of a small apartment in 1960s New York, as well as in Neil Simon’s lines.
“Corie gets a princess phone, a rotary, and (director) Judy said, ‘Do you even know what that is?’” she said, laughing. “With how much everything has advanced, there are things in this show some in the cast have never seen or experienced. … It’s like stepping back into history and getting to relive it that way.”
Dylan Devenny of Gulfport, a software engineer by day and now actor after-hours, plays the lead role of Paul. He was drawn to “Barefoot” because it sounded fun and hilarious, which he said is “proving to be the case.” After an ensemble turn in BLT’s previous production, “All Shook Up,” he’s enjoying this show’s small-cast experience. “Paul and Corie are very much an opposites-attract couple, and it’s very heartwarming to see how that all unfolds.”
‘We Just Don’t Go Away’
The Biloxi community has been watching BLT unfold and flourish for generations. The theater formed in 1946, officially as The Little Theatre of Biloxi—a name that evolved to Biloxi LIttle Theatre, BLT for short, over the years. Evidently part of a post-war boom for theater—Gulfport Little Theatre started then, too—BLT’s origins trace to a group of Biloxi live-theater enthusiasts who combined aims and interests in service to the stage and community performing arts.
“People were looking for things to up the culture of the area and to have something fun to do,” Madden said.
Actress Jane Wood Pringle was at the helm of BLT’s founding, which the troupe pays tribute to with an award bearing her name at their annual Bravo Awards gathering. Longtime Biloxi attorney Clare Sekul Hornsby was also among that early group, Madden said, noting handwritten minutes from a first meeting with Clare Sekul’s signature.
The group met in Pringle’s basement, and productions found venues where possible, including the Biloxi Community House and the auditorium at Biloxi Central High School. An early account on BLT history noted that Pringle’s first onstage co-star was a young Keesler airman, Murray Hamilton, who became a well-known supporting actor in TV and film. Mr. Robinson in “The Graduate” and Amity’s mayor in “Jaws” were among Hamilton’s many roles.
In the 1970s, BLT stashed sets and props in an old 1920s church, then in use as a community center. “There are stories about how all the people would go get all the sets and props and walk down the street several blocks away to the Community House to put up their sets to do their shows,” Johnson said. “The neighbors were used to seeing them all out in the streets, carrying strange things.”
Eventually, one of the scenic artists approached the City of Biloxi about doing their shows at the old church where they stored sets. They received approval, as long as the City could continue to use a big room downstairs as a meeting room and voting precinct and the main area upstairs for bingo night. That Lee Street address has been cemented as BLT’s playhouse since 1973.
“The first show they did in their new building was ‘Bus Stop,’ and it was directed by an 18-year-old boy named Wayne Smith,” Johnson said. Smith, now a Key West attorney, is returning in fall 2023 to direct ‘Bus Stop’ again, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of that production, she added.
When working around bingo night became a bother, BLT requested and obtained exclusive use of the space after committed BLT volunteer Cathy VerBerkmoes suggested the city just turn the building over to BLT. ”She was a bulldog,” Madden said. “She really fought for the theater.”
The theater has made improvements to the playhouse in the decades since. A quitclaim deed had stipulations about mineral rights and future use, Madden said. Should it cease to be used for cultural or educational purposes for two or more years, the city gets it back. “We just don’t go away,” she said.
A Community Comprising ‘All Walks of Life’
The nonprofit’s performing-arts mission includes working with children and teenagers. “That’s something that we try to take very seriously,” Johnson said of their programs. Their children’s musical “Wizard of Oz” is coming up in June.
BLT presents a non-musical show with teenaged cast members in summers, too, and plans to restart the summer camps that had been on hold for a while because of the pandemic and because another group had been using the theater for its children’s shows. “We’re getting our own program built back up,” she added.
A typical season includes four season shows, one or two musicals as fundraisers, a teen show, a children’s show, a Christmas show called “What the Elf? Not Your Mama’s Christmas Show”—which Johnson described as “a fun adult take on the holidays and not as irreverent as it might seem”—and “A Gleeful Celebration.”
“A Gleeful Celebration,” a musical revue that BLT started a decade back following a production of “Rent,” raises funds for pediatric AIDS research. This year’s performance will be BLT’s 10th show of its kind. From past productions, BLT has raised more than $65,000, which the theater donated to the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson, for their pediatric AIDS research. The 2022 fundraiser, coming up in July, has a “Legends” theme and will feature beloved songs from legendary performers, Johnson said.
The board president describes the community theater as “a family” where people can come, be accepted, find friends and showcase their creativity. “Every time we do a show and there are new people, they talk about how welcome they feel,” Johnson said. “And they stay. They come back and do show after show.”
Entire families—husbands and wives, siblings and kids—participate in BLT productions, too. “You can do things with your real family, and you can find your ‘heart family’ there as well,” Johnson added.
The community’s pull is strong enough to entice people with day jobs to devote nights and weekends to the effort. “I can remember one show we were working on, and we were behind on the set, and I was up there painting until 5 o’clock in the morning,” Madden says. “I had a very understanding boss, if I needed to go in a little late.”
“It’s a hobby for people. It’s a really addictive thing, and once you get into it, you love it,” Madden said. “There are days when you curse it, when things aren’t going right or you don’t feel like the show is ready … but you still just keep coming back to it.”
Biloxi Little Theatre’s slate of shows have included both audience-favorite classics and more serious fare, such as “Angels in America,” “A Raisin in the Sun” and “The Laramie Project.”
“We have put some things on our stage that might make people think a little bit more. For the most part, we’re not afraid to do that,” Madden said. “We like the idea of diversity in gender, race, orientation and physical ability … We’re open to everybody, and we really want to reach out to every part of our community.”
“Yes, we’re a community theater, and yes, we have fun, but what we want to do is put out a quality product for people,” Madden added. “People deserve to have good theater.”
“We have people from all walks of life—doctors and lawyers and fry cooks and kindergarten teachers,” Johnson said. “It amazes me sometimes when I think of the people who are in my circle of friendships that—if it weren’t for this theater—I would never have had an opportunity to meet.”
Area youngsters often get involved with BLT, leave to further their education and then come back to help run it. “The older people are happy to have someone to share their knowledge and experience with, and the young people just soak it up and continue to pass it down,” Johnson said. “I think that is why we keep going, because we have that kind of continuity.”
“We’re little, but we’re mighty,” Madden summed up.
“Barefoot in the Park” performances at Biloxi Little Theatre (220 Lee St., Biloxi) begin at 7:30 p.m. on May 13, May 14, May 20 and May 21, and at 2 p.m. on May 15 and May 22. General admission is $20 each with discounts for senior, military and students. To learn more or to purchase tickets, visit 4blt.org.