GREENSBORO — Act I: 1956. Auditions for Greensboro Children’s Theatre’s production of “Rapunzel.”
Frances Britton brings 9-year-old Barbara to audition in the fellowship hall of West Market Street United Methodist Church.
The oldest of her four children, Barbara sang at church and enjoyed watching television’s Mickey Mouse Club and its Mouseketeers, and Frances Britton thought children’s theater might interest her.
Barbara doesn’t win a role. Instead she’s put in charge of props.
“I didn’t know what props were,” she now recalls. “I went through a crisis, trying to find this stuff.”
Stuff such as radishes, which weren’t so readily available, even to a family such as Britton’s that owned grocery stores. She spray-painted turnips with red enamel, but the coating never dried and left sticky spots on the stage.
“My first foray was learning to make something out of nothing, which I guess I have been doing ever since,” Britton says.
She stuck around, becoming more intrigued as she helped directors and learned how plays went from script to stage.
“You could see the whole picture, how it all worked together,” she says.
What Britton couldn’t picture then: A 34-year career with the drama program of Greensboro’s Parks and Recreation Department, running the children’s theater that inspired her as a youngster.
On Jan. 31, the curtain will close on that stage of her life.
Britton, 57, is retiring as director of City Arts Drama, which runs Greensboro Children’s Theatre, Livestock Players Musical Theatre and the Greensboro Playwrights’ Forum, all volunteer groups, and offers drama classes for children.
Since helping to start the drama program, Britton has directed more than 200 children’s theater and Livestock plays. Thousands of children, teens and young adults learned stage skills under her tutelage.
“I don’t think that anyone in this community could have done more for theater education for children,” says City Arts supervisor Mary Alice Kurr-Murphy.
Several City Arts Drama alumni developed performing careers: Shannon Cochran, who appeared in the movie “Star Trek: Nemesis” and TV shows such as “NYPD Blue”; Ken Campbell, who has shared the stage with John Raitt and the screen with Lee Marvin; and baritone Robert W. Overman, who has performed leading operatic roles across the country and in Europe.
“She has directed more shows in this building than any other person,” says Carolina Theatre executive director Brian Gray, who previously worked for Britton and acted in her plays.
“She is wonderful at creating those great pictures on stage, being able to direct dozens of people, and it always looked great.”
Act I, Scene II: Three years later. The Greensboro Children’s Theatre director calls Barbara with the news: “The queen has the measles!”
Barbara, always tall for her age (she now stands 6 feet, 2 inches), has yet to act in a Children’s Theatre play.
“I couldn’t play lead ingenue roles, and I wasn’t old enough for lead characters,” she recalls.
So she had worked with directors, learning about props, prompting and stage management and memorizing others’ lines. That would come in handy now. Britton learns the queen’s part and makes her only appearance in a children’s theater play.
She later does some acting and singing as a student at Grimsley High School and UNCG and in community theater in South Carolina. But she realizes she prefers organizing scenes to appearing in them.
“The roles I played were exhilarating, but it was scary,” she admits.
“There was probably an insecurity that I wasn’t in control of everything,” she says. “Directing is stressful, but it’s a different kind of stress.”
“If I had the opportunity to perform more when I was younger, it might have been easier.”
Those experiences helped define her career path, and by the time she interviewed for admission to UNCG, she knew what she wanted to do.
“I said I wanted to direct children’s theater through a recreation program.”
Act II: 1971. Budget cuts have ended Britton’s job with a community theater in South Carolina. She returns to UNCG for master’s degree work in children’s theater.
Carole Lindsey (now Lindsey-Potter) is hired to expand the city’s arts programs, which consist primarily of dance classes. She recruits Britton, then 24, to revive Greensboro Children’s Theatre, which serves grades four to nine.
The two start Greensboro Youth Theatre for ninth-graders through young adults, staging plays in the Town Hall auditorium at the Greensboro Coliseum complex. Then comes a suggestion for summer productions in the old Guilford County agricultural arena on Burlington Road. The Livestock Playhouse is born in “the barn” in 1972.
Britton, Lindsey and company turn the hot, buggy arena into a makeshift theater. They build platforms and a fly system for props, rent a piano, borrow curtains, hang No-Pest strips. They rehearse “Oklahoma,” “The Odd Couple” and the original musical “Psychic Setback” (“It was the ’70s,” Britton says.).
The week before opening, the fire department gets wind of their plans and shuts them down for fire code violations.
“It never occurred to us that there were all of these laws we had to follow,” Britton says.
“We could have given up, but we had put in so much time and work and creative energy. It was important to make it safe, but important to show the kids that you just don’t give up.”
They scrambled together volunteers and worked with the fire department to meet codes, even covering arena sawdust with sand and wetting it down before performances. They opened on time and, with all the media attention, brought in crowds.
“Learning how to work within the system and still achieve what we wanted was what we learned that summer,” Britton says.
Without that persistence, Livestock could have died before its debut.
The venue had its rustic charm: Actors occasionally halted performances when rain on the tin roof drowned out voices. Pigs oinked outside during one show.
“I loved it,” Britton says. “It was such fun. That’s why we kept going.”
In the late 1970s, Youth Theatre and Livestock became Livestock Players Musical Theatre and moved to Carolina Theatre. Greensboro Children’s Theatre productions later moved to Weaver Academy.
Then came the city funding cuts of 2002. The City Arts Drama budget was cut 62 percent. It could no longer afford Carolina Theatre rent. Livestock plays moved to the smaller City Arts Studio Theatre in the Greensboro Cultural Center, near the program’s first-floor office.
Without Britton, Lindsey-Potter says, Livestock would not have survived.
“There were people who loved working with her and loved the Livestock program, and many came back who had been paid before and offered their services for free, to keep Livestock going,” Lindsey-Potter says.
Act III: January 2005. Britton peers over her glasses, watching her last auditions for Greensboro Children’s Theatre.
With the tumult of the budget cuts having died down and with the City Arts Drama program stable, Britton feels that it’s time to go.
Guest directors have been hired for the season’s remaining shows.
Britton has assurance that her job will be filled. One possibility, says City Arts supervisor Kurr-Murphy, is that assistant drama director Stephen D. Hyers, who oversees the Playwrights’ Forum, would move into Britton’s slot, and the city would fill his job.
When she’s gone, Britton hopes that Greensboro will continue and expand its arts programs. She would like to see class schedules include both recreational and more professionally oriented offerings, such as advanced acting, singing for the stage, stage movement and stage combat.
She also hopes that Livestock eventually can afford to present the occasional large musical involving more people, which the small City Arts Studio Theatre doesn’t accommodate.
“One of the things I loved about musical theater is that you had choruses for people who were not ready for big roles,” she says. “But it’s more difficult to do in a small space, so you lose part of the training ground that is so valuable.”
As recreational activities, City Arts Drama productions “are not meant to be professional, but they are meant to be the best quality we can do,” she says.
“We want them to learn correct techniques. We are catering to the individual and the people who are participating more than we are the audience, but we certainly want to do things that appeal to the audience.”
When rehearsing actors have a difficult time nailing the part, “I love working with them to the point where the light bulb goes on, where it feels right.”
Yet Britton never set her directing sights on Broadway.
“Here you can work with young talent, help people learn and enjoy it, and they don’t have to make a living at it. They are having a good time without the pressure of wondering where their next meal is coming from if they don’t do it right.”
Britton says that she would consider directing again, but adds, “I just don’t want to feel like I am doing it all of the time.”
In building a production, “What you are doing is creating an altered existence,” she says. “You are creating something that isn’t real, but it has meaning and moves people. And then you can move away from it, and do something entirely different.”
She’s cleaning out her office in the Greensboro Cultural Center, transferring tapes of old shows to DVDs, and admitting that it all feels a bit strange.
“I always had a plan for what I was going to do next, and now I don’t. I hope I can do some self-discovery, and use my talents in other areas.”
Expect to see her in Livestock and Children’s Theatre audiences, applauding the program she helped to create and exploring her own next act.
Contact Dawn DeCwikiel-Kane at 373-5204 or firstname.lastname@example.org