GUTHRIE — As the holidays near, many will mark the beginning of the season with a trip to the Pollard Theatre’s production of “A Territorial Christmas Carol.”
The production is based on Charles Dicken’s classic Scrooge story, but set around the time of the 1889 Land Run. Instead of London, the story takes place in Oklahoma Territory’s Guthrie.
Since 1987, the only time the theater didn’t do a production of “A Territorial Christmas Carol” was in 1990, when “Gifts of the Magi,” a play based on the O. Henry short story, was done instead.
A 1990 review in The Oklahoman summed up the production like this:
“Perhaps ‘The Gifts of the Magi’ may seem like a present to some and a lump of coal in the stocking to others.”
Following the less-than-enthusiastic reception of the first and only deviation from their now-traditional holiday repertoire, the company decided to go back to “A Territorial Christmas Carol.” They haven’t missed one since.
“It’s our golden goose that carries the rest of the season,” artistic director and resident company member W. Jerome Stevenson said. Shows are sold out throughout its monthlong run, and school groups travel in from all over to see matinee productions.
From Broadway to Harrison
George Pollard first opened a Vaudeville show in the one-time furniture store building off Harrison Avenue in downtown Guthrie in 1919.
The building later served as movie theater and was renovated for theatrical use in 1986.
Much of the interior refurbishing on the theater was done by Guthrie High School students. Carpentry classes tore out the old stage and bathrooms backstage and built new walls and a stage and proscenium arch.
The Pollard Theatre’s premier production was the musical “Guys and Dolls” in October 1987. A three-piece band provided the musical accompaniment for the production with a digital piano, synthesizer and percussion. The first season ran through August 1988 and featured nine different shows.
Today, the range of shows at the Pollard varies from shtick-filled comedies such as “The 39 Steps” to child-friendly shows to envelope-pushing musicals such as “Rent.”
That spirit of using what’s at hand and making it work is still a strong part of the Pollard’s credo.
It’s not unusual to see a union actor in a role at the Pollard, but more likely are actors cast from the local theater community and nearby colleges and universities, production manager and frequent Pollard actor Timothy Stewart said.
A large, extended family
The Pollard revolves around its five-member resident company that includes Stevenson and Stewart, and the talent of outside artists.
“We have to find a way to tell the story, but tell it our way, all while doing it within a set budget,” Stewart said.
Take, for example, the theater’s most recent production of “The 39 Steps.” The four-person cast played dozens of distinct characters. The company took a tongue-in-cheek approach to the minimal set and was able to make it work.
Stewart, who played a lead role in “The 39 Steps,” said his isn’t a typical 9-to-5 job.
“We don’t just show up and do the play,” he said.
While salaries for working theater artists in Oklahoma are meager, Stevenson said the Pollard gets by on grants, gifts and donations from community members.
Only a small portion of the budget is made up of ticket sales.
Stevenson said the Pollard’s focus is on creative storytelling and developing artists, particularly homegrown talent.
“You watch cast members grow over time and they become familiar,” Stevenson said. “It’s a unique experience.”
Pulling from that trough of local talent, the Pollard Theatre produces around six shows each year. Many who frequently contribute started out as students honing their talents on the Pollard stage.
Stevenson first came to the Pollard in 1990 while still a student at Langston University.
He left for a while after college, but returned in 2000.
Stevenson often acts in Pollard shows, but he also designs lighting, directs and does whatever job needs to be done.
Likewise, Stewart came to the theater in the late 1990s and also works at various jobs keeping shows going.
Resident artist James Ong, an original company member, is now in his 26th season at the theater. Others in the resident company have also been around for 10 years or more.
Investing in the community
Not only is the theater developing talent in the area, Guthrie Chamber of Commerce President Mary Coffin said the theater is integral to many businesses in historic downtown Guthrie.
“The Pollard Theatre is an extremely important part of the community,” Coffin said. “People come up before shows to have a nice meal, go and do some shopping.”
Since it’s not too far from Oklahoma City, many patrons make an evening out of it.
Some make a weekend out of a trip and stay at a nearby bed-and-breakfast. The Pollard has become a fixture of that local charm.
“Our town is magical, it tends to capture a lot hearts,” Coffin said.
Like so many of the scenes acted out on its stage, the narrative is the most important piece of what goes on at the Pollard.
Over the holidays in Guthrie, the universal story of a man (Ebenezer Scrooge) learning the consequences of his cold, bitter and hardened ways has become a central part of the Christmas celebration.
“The stories with the ‘everyman’ stand the test of time,” said Stevenson. Ultimately, it’s making that connection and telling stories that resonate.
“There’s nothing better than an audience that says, ‘I get that,’ and you helped them get there,” Stevenson said.