story by Michelle Parks
FAYETTEVILLE — When Laurence “Larry” Luckinbill was growing up in Fort Smith, theater had no part in his life.
“There was no such thing as theater. It did not exist, as far as I was concerned,” the veteran actor and writer said during a recent phone interview.
Like his high school buddies, he headed to college at the University of Arkansas in the 1950s to study pre-med. They were succeeding at it, but he just wasn’t.
“I failed so miserably and so comically. I just didn’t get it,” he said.
He ditched his pre-med studies and spent the last two or three years of college taking every theater course offered.
“I’m the only actor I know that has a minor in organic chemistry,” he said.
The wake-up came for him while at the UA, when he connected with professor George Kernodle, who became his mentor. Kernodle took a group of students to Tulsa to see an amateur production of The Crucible, Luckinbill’s first live theater performance. He later saw his first professional production in San Francisco — Picnic, with a Broadway cast, in the Geary Theater.
“It was unbelievably glamorous and unbelievably real. At that moment, I knew something was afoot,” he said. “I found that the theater was so easy. It was exactly what I should have been doing. It was like putting on a great shoe. It fit.”
Luckinbill will share his experiences in theater and beyond, and also do some performing, at TheatreSquared’s Gala for Education, planned for 6:30 p.m., Thursday (Nov. 15) at Mermaid’s Seafood Restaurant. Tickets for the 2012 Gala for Education are $125 for individuals and $250 for sponsors; table sponsorships are also available. Tickets can be reserved by calling (479) 445-6333 or through this link.
Luckinbill and his wife of 32 years, Lucie Arnaz, are honorary co-chairs of this gala event. Lucie Arnaz, daughter of Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball, has had a diversified career spanning more than 45 years, with roles on Broadway, television and film, and performing concerts around the world.
During his successful 40-year career, Luckinbill has acted on stage and in television and movies, including the films Star Trek V: The Final Frontier and Cocktail. He also has been a writer, teacher, producer and founder of a non-profit theater company. He was nominated for a Tony Award in 1978 for The Shadow Box and nominated for an Emmy Award in 1987 for Lyndon. He was a recipient of the New York Critics Circle Award in 1970 for The Memory Bank and won an Emmy Award in 1993 for Lucy & Desi: A Home Movie (as writer and executive producer). In 2007, he was inducted into the Arkansas Entertainers Hall of Fame.
He and his wife got involved with TheatreSquared after he came back to the UA in recent years to teach and to perform on the same stage where he acted in college.
“I’m 77, and I came away feeling like I was 37, and I could do anything,” he said.
Arnaz is a trustee of the American Theatre Wing, founder of the Tony Awards, and she influenced the grants program to award money to theater companies across the country instead of mostly in New York. After that change, TheatreSquared was a recipient of a 2011 National Theatre Company Grant as one of the nation’s 10 most promising emerging professional theaters. It came with a $10,000 prize.
“It was totally well-deserved,” Luckinbill said. “And their education program got them the grant.”
The gala raises money for TheatreSquared’s education programming, which Luckinbill hopes will help inspire youth to get involved with theater, or at least appreciate how the theater experience can enhance one’s life.
Also at the Thursday gala, the 2012 Arts Advocate Award will be presented to Denise and Hershey Garner, recognizing their decades of service to the region. The couple, who have been married 36 years and are parents to two sons, have dedicated much of their time to advancing causes that affect the common welfare of individuals and the community. They have been involved in leadership roles in organizations that support areas such as arts, education, health, hunger, sustainability, poverty relief and child welfare.
At the gala, Luckinbill will discuss some of his memories regarding theater and education. Then he’ll perform from “Lyndon,” his one-man show that pays homage to President Lyndon B. Johnson. For the past 25 years, Luckinbill’s work has focused on “great Americans.” He’s written and performed one-man shows on Johnson, Ernest Hemingway, Teddy Roosevelt and Clarence Darrow.
Luckinbill said theater offered something he’s not found anywhere else. From early on, it provided a way out of situations that were hard to understand and sometimes seemed insurmountable.
“It was salvation out of what looked like ashes,” he said. “When you get much older, you realize what you thought was ashes … well, sometimes they use ashes on crops to make them grow better.”
Individual donors play a big part in making TheatreSquared happen. This fourth annual Gala for Education will provide flexible funding to support all of the education programs for youth and adults, said Martin Miller, managing director of TheatreSquared. Last year’s event raised $50,000.
Education programming has been part of TheatreSquared since its start in 2006. In addition to the performances the professional theater company produces, education programs can impact the region in other ways. Through its various programs, the company will reach about 10,000 students and teachers this academic year.
The company initially hosted young artists’ training, organized a summer academy and offered discounted tickets for performances for student audience members. It once produced a play each season for elementary-aged children.
That programming has evolved and grown up a bit, now offering many other programs, such as the Arkansas Schools Tour. This program brings educational touring productions and teaching workshops to high schools around the state. It places a priority on communities that lack ready access to the arts in the community or the schools.
The tour will go to 50 schools this year. And those touring programs are free to the schools, thanks to grants from several organizations, including the Arkansas Arts Council and the Willard and Pat Walker Charitable Foundation.
This tour is not just about the performances and the workshops, though. It’s opening a door to more engagement, to continuing that relationship between the schools and the company. The company wants the teachers to attend the T2 Professional Development Institute. It wants the students who live close enough to attend plays in its regular season. It wants to partner with schools for the Word/Play program, a semester-long literacy initiative that focuses on reading and writing skills through playwriting.
For the Arkansas Schools Tour, the goal is to create four plays that the staff can rotate each year, so no student sees the same show twice. So far, Morgan Hicks, director of education and program development, along with several actors, have presented shows about Shakespeare and Edgar Allan Poe. The shows are written in house. This year, they’re presenting The History Show, a 45-minute piece that covers aspects of United States history, hitting on key events and debunking myths.
The play’s format is fresh, its content sometime irreverent. The content introduces material through rap and reveals some little-known facts. The play’s characters rebel against their stage manager for her autocratic rule and decide to break out on their own and do their own history play. Divisions arise, and there’s a civil war among remaining cast members. Sound familiar?
During last week’s school tour, Hicks called to report on their time at Mena High School, where the cast got a standing ovation for the Gettysburg Address. Hicks spearheaded the writing of the shows, and she collaborated this year with actor Jordan Haynes. He’s trained in improv at the Second City in Chicago, which brings a comedic sensibility to the work.
“It’s like you open the door through comedy. And then, once you’re in, you can do a heartfelt Gettysburg Address,” Miller said.
This format seems to work well with high school students, who want people to prove themselves before they’ll let down their guard. Once the students see the shows, they are pulled in. The cast got an email from a math teacher in Mena last week describing how the students who tend to be more disruptive at assemblies were “spellbound” and watching intently.
“It shows you it’s not for lack of interest; it’s for lack of resources,” Miller said, referring to the lack of arts programs in some communities.
In the Professional Development Institute, teachers of all disciplines can learn theater-based techniques to engage and reach their students. For example, students take characters they’re reading about in a book and they stand up and bring those characters to life, giving them motivations and conflicts.
In other programming, TheatreSquared also offers corporate improv workshops, improv and acting classes for adults, and the Arkansas Playwrights Workshop. Also, T2 Artists Forums are free, public conversations with the cast and director of each production in the season.
They’re launching a new partnership with the Fayetteville Public Library: a script reading club. Copies of the script for the current production will be available for checkout from the library, and then a discussion will be held with a TheatreSquared representative about adapting that script for stage. The first discussion will be on the next production, Period of Adjustment by Tennessee Williams.