COLUMBIA, Mo. -- Long before there was a Summer Repertory Theatre program at the University of Missouri, audiences gathered on the education building's roof to watch student-directed shows. Imagine 75 wooden folding chairs set up in a square around an invisible stage, and you begin to get a picture of what was known as the Starlight Theatre.
Among the many actors who performed on the makeshift stage in the mid-1950s was an up-and-coming star named George C. Scott.
It was also where a lesser-known theater student launched his career, staging his thesis play, "The Loud Red Patrick." Larry Clark would later bring that stage indoors, founding the MU Summer Repertory Theatre. The theater's inaugural season opened July 3, 1969, with a production of Moliere's "The Imaginary Invalid."
Now in its 40th season, the Summer Repertory Theatre has gone through a number of changes. Clark, now 75, went on to direct 17 shows for summer theater and has since retired from MU as a professor of acting, directing and history of the American theater in the 20th century. But one thing has remained the same: Audiences can still expect to be entertained by a company of paid actors who want nothing more than to put on a good show.
"There are so many more" different summer "theaters and things going on now than there were when Summer Rep first started," said Jim Miller, MU professor of acting, directing, costume design, musical theater performance and stage movement. "What I think you get here, though, is really top-notch design. There isn't a bad seat in the house."
This summer, Miller is directing the musical "Cabaret," which debuted on Broadway in 1966 and became an acclaimed 1972 film starring Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey. The MU show opened Wednesday and continues through July 20.
"Sanders Family Christmas" follows under the direction of Clyde Ruffin, chairman of the MU Theater Department. The musical, which runs Thursday through July 27, is part of a Sanders family trilogy that includes the well-known musical "Smoke on the Mountain" and features a variety of gospel music. Both shows are at MU's Rhynsburger Theatre, which seats 288.
Also included this season are three "Comedies in Concert" -- short comedies written by students -- all of which are sold out.
Clark said today there is little crossover of actors in the summer productions. That wasn't the case in the early days, when the program featured a paid company doing three shows -- a classic comedy, a well-known American play and something more avant-garde. The shows opened on consecutive nights and played in nightly rotations. The pace could be grueling.
"Everyone was in at least two of the shows and sometimes all three," Clark said. "We had auditions here during which 200 to 250 people from a 500-mile radius would come.
"The kind of shows we were doing were a great experience for them," he added. "The audience also enjoyed seeing the same actors do different roles."
Back then, there was little competition from other theater companies. As a result, most of the shows were sold out. "We had very, very strong attendance," Clark said.
Sometimes, the summer program would employ a visiting professional, such as a writer, director or costume designer. Clark said there were even summers during which equity actors were brought on board.
"It was very different from what they are doing now," he said. "It has evolved over the years."
Ruffin said budget cuts are to blame for some of the changes to the Summer Repertory Theatre program. Auditions are held locally instead of on a traveling basis, and many of the actors are college students.
"We try to get the word out regionally," Ruffin said. "One of the reasons we cut back on travel is so we can continue to pay the company a competitive salary."
Miller said the format for the summer program changed a few years ago to make room for the popular short student-written plays. The Comedies in Concert were inspired by MU Associate Professor David Crespy's Writing for Performance program.
"That allowed us to do one less big show and add several smaller shows," said Miller, who added that most of the students hired for summer theater are at the top of their game. "Once they get a lead in Summer Rep, they are really polished."