Allen and Suzanne McCalla weren’t sure how long their tenure was going to last at Greenville Little Theatre.
When they were hired in 1993, the theater was in trouble. Debt had climbed, and season subscriptions had plummeted after a series of missteps. The board made the McCallas a deal: the board would take care of the debt if the husband-and-wife duo would take care of the audiences. The McCallas succeeded… and then some.
This year marks the McCallas’ silver anniversary with the theater. During their tenure, they’ve produced more than 180 shows and tripled attendance. Here are some of the highlights:
“The New Odd Couple,” 1993
Allen was performing in a production of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” with Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre when a friend of his mother told him GLT was looking for new leadership. All of the applicants had to direct a play in that theater’s season. The McCallas wanted “To Kill a Mockingbird” but were given a female version of “The Odd Couple” instead. Allen directed, and Suzanne designed the sets and costumes. The play was a success.
GLT, like a lot of theaters, was set up for Broadway shows, not pop musicals. “A show would run on Broadway for three years, closed, and then released to theaters like ours,” Allen says. Suzanne adds, “Things began to change. Musicals closed on Broadway, and went on tour and not released. Different types of musicals began being written as well. ‘Beehive’ was somebody who wanted to do a set of songs and felt like they couldn’t do it without words.”
So GLT put the show in its season, not realizing that it might be hard to cast because it required a lot of black talent, something the theater had had difficulty attracting before. The theater was able to find the performers it needed, and the show was a success.
“Born Yesterday,” 1995
The first play the McCallas appeared in at GLT was “Born Yesterday,” something they had done in Kentucky. “There’s a role in it that is written for Suzanne practically, Billie Dawn, and she was fantastic in it,” Allen says. He played a love interest. “And you were good in it,” Suzanne says.
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” 1998
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” was the first Shakespeare play performed on the GLT stage. The play really brought out the company’s creative side. One artist made fairy wings out of watercolor chiffon that were mounted on sticks and branches, while another painted Van Gogh’s “Starry Nights” as the backdrop.
The rest of the set was a series of slides that went into pools of water. “It was just a lot of fun. It was a jungle gym of fun for the fairies, and the people, too,” Suzanne says. She still has those wings.
“Little Foxes,” 2002
“[Allen] was much beloved by the audience, and I am playing Regina, who is the biggest b**ch in written history,” Suzanne says. “Allen is an invalid in the show and he’s dying. He’s in a wheelchair, and they’re having an argument and he starts having a heart attack. As he is trying to take his medicine, he drops the spoon. He’s trying to pick it up and people are screaming, ‘Pick up the spoon.’” She decides to let him die. “We say there are still people who like to hold it against her,” Allen says.
“Ah, Wilderness,” 2005
“Ah, Wilderness” is the only time the McCallas have appeared in a GLT play with their son. They, fittingly, played the parents and he, the son. “The ‘Ah, Wilderness’ dad is probably calmer and wiser, but he’s still a dad,” Allen says.
“Romeo and Juliet,” 2007
“Romeo and Juliet” was the only other Shakespeare play produced by GLT. “I thought everybody would love ‘Romeo and Juliet.’ We did it for Sam [McCalla, their son], who was about to go off to college, and it was like, ‘OK, you’re going to be trained by the master right here. You’re doing Shakespeare before you go,’” Suzanne says, “and there was a lot of artistic interest in the show.” It was also the first time GLT created all the costumes for the show.
“Ain’t Misbehaving,” 2007
This was GLT’s first all-black cast, and it included high school student Delvin Choice, who later would go on to compete on NBC’s “The Voice.” “We were so proud that our audience embraced it. It was a fantastic show with fantastic music. It really speaks well of the audience we have,” Allen says.
“Les Miserables,” 2014
This 2014 production was one of the most important in the history of GLT. “A lot of people didn’t think we could produce ‘Les Miserables.’ I says, ‘Wait and see,’” Allen says. “It’s the best musical we’ve produced, just the show itself, and we produced it really well.” It also highlighted the talent pool in Greenville.
“Even if we had the money, we couldn’t have done this show earlier on. The people weren’t here. At times, we struggled to fill just basic roles,” Suzanne says. “‘Les Mis’ let the community know how great the talent pool is here. It was one of the first times where people could come and see this cast was local. It really highlighted how much the acting pool had grown.”
“Jesus Christ Superstar,” 2015
“Jesus Christ Superstar” is one of Suzanne’s favorites, but she doubted the McCallas would be able to do it. “When we first got here, we could not have done it. We would have had people boycotting,” she says. When the Peace Center had “Jesus Christ Superstar” on its Broadway season, people protested out front and Bob Jones University put up billboards.
“Allen says we’d never be able to do it here because nobody would come.” Then Allen wanted to put on “Carousel.” “Kimberly [Ferreira, GLT’s choreographer] says, ‘Oh, my God. I hate ‘Carousel.’ We’re not doing it,’” Suzanne says. They finally agreed, but only if Allen would add “Jesus Christ Superstar” later. As fate would have it, “Jesus Christ Superstar” wasn’t released for five years, and by that time, the controversy was gone.
“Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day,” 2016
This show made the list not because of the show itself, but because it is part of GLT’s touring program. Last year, 35,000 children saw “Alexander.” “That’s been one of the most rewarding things,” Allen says. “[The touring program] really took off when Sam came back from the Barter Theater, because they have one of the most successful children’s touring programs in the country and he worked for them,” Suzanne says. “We could just never get it to work. They have a formula at the Barter that works, and he set it up like that.”
“A Streetcar Named Desire,” 2010
“Every element of it worked. There wasn’t a miss at all,” says Suzanne, of her set design. “It just screamed New Orleans.” Allen adds, “If you’re designing a box set, it’s one room. Clever plays like ‘Streetcar’ take place in several places. You have to create an environment, and she created a great environment.”