Tulsa’s historic theater offers unique entertainment and performance opportunities.
If you’ve ever run along Riverside a mile or so north of the Gathering Place, you may have spotted a white rectangular building with a huge circular window and a poster of some dramatic-looking characters near the entryway. This historic Tulsa landmark is the Tulsa Spotlight Theatre, home of the country’s longest-running stage play.
The unassuming building that houses the theater boasts a history of its own. Designed by famous architect Bruce Goff in 1928, it was originally built as the Riverside Piano studio. After the original owners lost the property during the Great Depression, it was eventually purchased in the 1940s by an actor and converted to a theater.
In 1953, the theater began showing “The Drunkard,” and has continued ever since with only a brief hiatus during the 2020 pandemic. “The Drunkard” is a stage adaptation of the 1854 American temperance novel “Ten Nights in a Bar Room”. “The Drunkard,” is no ordinary temperance play, however. Spotlight presents a comedy-melodrama, complete with flamboyant characters, audience participation and several well-timed jokes. The actors frequently interact with the audience, encouraging the house to boo and hiss the villains and wildly cheer for the heroes. At one point, audience members are even able to rent cloth tomatoes to throw at the villain after his most dastardly deed. The show, based on the preachy anti-alcohol culture of 19th century rural America, turns its own genre on its head. It does not take itself seriously at all, inviting everyone involved in the performance, actors and audience alike, to spend the evening in roaring, carefree laughter.
Spotlight’s “The Drunkard” shows every Saturday night, starring Tulsa community volunteer actors. Every showing is unique, as different cast members play their characters in a variety of ways. Tickets cost $20 per person, and food and drinks (including alcoholic beverages) can be purchased during the show. For those interested in community acting, auditions and rehearsals take place Wednesday evenings. Aspiring actors can audition for a wide variety of roles, including the sweet and innocent Little Mary, the obnoxious country bumpkin Sample Switchell, and the mustache-twisting villain Harvey Green.
For any of those with younger family members, Spotlight also offers rotating performances of children’s plays. Just as with “The Drunkard,” the Children’s theater relies on community volunteers, which provides opportunities for local children to discover the world of stage acting.
The Spotlight Theatre, while often unmentioned in lists of famous Tulsa locations, provides the city with an essential outlet for creative expression. It provides those interested in the stage, both casually and seriously, to perform to a local audience and retain a high degree of autonomy in how they present their characters. The inclusion of audience participation in shows unites audiences and actors, creating an event in which even those who came to observe find themselves an essential component of the creative activity on stage. When the five act, three hour show finally concludes, the viewer leaves smiling, feeling the sense of what it means to belong to a community.