HU Little Theater’s big role upstaged by Nor’easter

By Stephanie M. Smith

Hampton University’s Little Theater sits quietly in the middle of the Armstrong Hall academic building.  Its small, intimate setting is dimly lit, empty and still on most days during class hours when not in use.  Its stage sits blank, only containing a small bucket, giving testimony that the already water-damaged Little Theater experienced further damage by a Nor’easter that caused the university to close Nov.12.

Seven classes have been affected by the storm damage, said Curtis Otto, an assistant professor in speech and theater, and technical director in the School of Liberal Arts.

Otto said the storm damage has caused him a tremendous headache. 

“The Little Theater is well used,” he explained “It’s a storage space, a teaching space, a rehearsal space, everything.”

Otto is among the few who are able to realize the significant role that the Little Theater plays in the School of Liberal Arts.  The role of the Little Theater is strongly felt at the moment though as multiple tasks have been disrupted because of the storm damage. 

Above the front portion of the stage a piece of the ceiling is cracked and peeling, exposing an area where significant damage was experienced.

“You’re underneath something that could kill you,” Otto told me as he directed attention toward the area of the stage ceiling that appeared as though some of its pieces had fallen before.

“There’s nowhere else,” said Otto “This is where everything is done.  This is where rehearsal is held. This is where the scenery is built for shows, and this is a classroom.”

To those who are unaware of the theater’s role, the damage makes the venue appear simply old and run-down. But a look into the theater’s history sheds light on its importance.

The Armstrong-Slater building, located near the entrance gate and Whipple Barn on a site, part of which was the old St. Crispins Dormitory, once housed not only the music department but the communication center.  The $1.6 million General Samuel Chapman Armstrong Communication Center Music Building was completed in 1964 after 18 months of construction activity. 

A Daily Press article published that February, shortly after the building was opened, entitled “Hampton Institute Center is ultra-modern facility,” by Seymour Kopf, reveals the original excitement associated with the opening of the facility that included a description of the Little Theater.

The Little Theater was described as having “a push-button, revolving stage; the stage coming-out virtually into the audience’s lap.” 

The article quoted a depiction of the theater from Professor Dowling Bolton, who was director of the first college play presented in the Little Theater. “The audience feels very close to the actors and actresses,” he said “We can divide the 32-foot-diameter turntable into three or four different scenic setups, which means no curtain changes and more fluid play.”

Alfred Willis, assistant director for collection management for such departments as architecture and fine & performing arts in the Hampton University Harvey Library, confirms the modern design that was kept in mind when the theater was constructed.

“The most up-to-date ideas of theater production were in mind when constructing this theater,” said Willis as he took the time to explain the theater and its architecture.

The theater has a downstairs sitting capacity of 300 and a balcony capacity of about 100.  According to Willis, the theater was made wider and shallower so more people could be seated closer to the stage.  The balcony was even set up in such a way to bring the audience closer to the stage.  All of this was a part of conforming to the modern idea of integrating performers and the audience during a production. 

Its modified thrust stage, which places a good portion of the stage in front of the apron, also contributed to the theater’s modern style. Keeping in line with more modern ideas, the theater’s technical control box is located in balcony whereas older theaters have technical boxes located behind the stage. 

The Little Theater’s church-design curved seating also aids in bringing the audience closer to the stage creating intimacy between the audience and the performers. 

The name Little Theater itself speaks of the venue’s significance and purpose. 

The phrase Little Theater first emerged in the 20th century as a name that referred to amateur and community theater.  Armstrong’s Little Theater is home to the performances of the Hampton Players, which allows students to showcase their talents.  This along with the theater’s intimate design made the name Little Theater a perfect reference to the Armstrong Hall venue, especially when compared to Ogden Hall.

Though the Little Theater is presently showing its age through water and storm damage and a broken turntable stage that has not been used in 10 years, it still serves a great purpose for the Hampton Players, students, and professors. The left wing of the theater’s stage serves as a storage area for scenery and props while the right wing serves as the shop for the construction of scenery and props. 

Though the theater’s turntable stage no longer works, Otto managed to build a 32-foot diameter turntable to place on top of the old one for “A Love to Call My Own,” which was performed last spring and was one of the many successful productions that have been put on in the Little Theater by the Hampton Players.

The Hampton Players musical productions continue to bring a full audience into the Little Theater, and its stage continues to present successful actresses and actors.  Shannon Bowman, a junior theater major from Pasadena, Calif., and Brandon Coleman, a graduating senior theater major from Atlanta. are both aspiring performers who share a common love for the theater.

“Since theater is my passion it [the Little Theater] has given me the opportunity to cultivate my craft through student runs and main-stage performances,” said Bowman, who played Maureen Peal in the Hampton Player’s production “The Bluest Eye,” which was performed last month.

Coleman, who had a lead role as Guy last fall in the Hampton Player’s production “Blues for an Alabama Sky”, plans on moving to New York to pursue a professional acting career.  He has applied to Julliard, Parsons The New School for Drama, and New York University in hopes to receive his Master of Fine Arts in acting.  As he prepares for graduation and his big move to New York in January, Coleman appreciates his time in the School of Liberal Arts and the work that he was allowed to do in the Little Theater.

“The Little Theater has been my home away from home if you will,” said Coleman “I believe the Little Theater has given me the tools and the confidence to start my career as a professional actor.” 

Dec. 4, 5, and 6, the Little Theater will continue on despite storm damage and present the Hampton Player’s production of “Dearly Departed.”

“We lost some days of rehearsal [for “Dearly Departed”] because it [the Little Theater] was unsafe. Repairs are going on as we speak,” said Otto three days before opening night. “Repairs will be done in intervals.  Things will be set up to be clean and safe during the show but full repair won’t be done until after show.” 

Though the Little Theater sits temporarily in need of quite a bit of attention, it goes on to serve a big role for Hampton University’s School of Liberal Arts, the Hampton Players, and the community in hopes to continue bringing audiences and performers together like no big theater can.

The writer is a junior at Hampton University Scripps Howard School of Journalism and Communications