Theatre for the Community
The Sooner Theatre: It’s not “community theatre; it’s theatre for the community,” declares Nancy Coggins, the organization’s public relations and development director.
That distinction, along with the nonprofit’s frequent collaborations with other arts organizations in the community, truly makes this theater one of the cornerstones of Norman’s downtown art district.
The Sooner Theatre, housed in a landmark Norman building, today is a thriving performing arts center, offering the public a host of live performances, theater camps for all ages, and a venue for multiple community events.
I recently had the opportunity to visit with Coggins, who shared information on the theater—and what readers can do to help keep the arts thriving in Cleveland County.
Can you share some of the details of your organization’s early days?
The Sooner Theatre opened its doors in 1929 as the first movie theater in the region built to show talking pictures. For nearly 50 years, it served as the most popular movie theater in the area until the mid-1970s, when multiplexes gained popularity and the single-screened Sooner could no longer keep up with the demand. In 1975, the Sooner Theatre closed and stayed dark–nearly lost to the wrecking ball–until 1979, when a dedicated group of citizens appealed to the City of Norman under the aegis of the nonprofit organization, The Sooner Theatre of Norman Inc. The city agreed to purchase the theater and lease it to the organization. After the first phase of restoration, the Sooner Theatre opened her doors again in 1982 as a community performing arts center.
Today, the Sooner Theatre, led by Jennifer Baker, executive director, and Brandon Adams, artistic director, offers a Main Event Concert Series, Sooner Stage Presents theatrical season, year-round classes, camps and full productions for students in the Studio of The Sooner Theatre, and rental venue options for community events, and participates in multiple outreach performances at events and festivals throughout the region, all while preserving the historic character of the theater.
We host professional artists, including members of Actors Equity Association, to first-timers and foster performers from 3 years old and up. Our presentations reflect our mission, our image and, ultimately, they determine our survival.
We also embrace the opportunity to collaborate with other arts organizations in our community. Most recently, the theater worked on a co-production of Our Town, directed by the head of the OU Drama Department, Tom Orr.
What is your mission?
To provide cultural, educational and entertainment opportunities for the community by operating a financially sound performing arts facility and by preserving its historical integrity and character.
What areas do you serve?
The programming this organization provides has helped create what is now an active arts district in downtown Norman, and it has helped cultivate a thriving theater community in Norman. In addition to the theater, we have recently added a second historic building in Norman’s downtown arts district to house The Studio of The Sooner Theatre, providing more than 55 performing arts year-round camps and classes for almost 1,000 students in the metro area. More than 15,000 people from all walks of life see a live concert or theatrical performance at the Sooner Theatre during the year, and almost 8,000 of those see a production with a cast of entirely student performers, ages 8-18.
How many productions do you stage yearly, and what is the approximate yearly total attendance?
We typically produce three community theater productions, our Murder Mystery event (see Around Town for details on this year’s Valentine’s production), four full-scale youth productions, an annual showcase, and three to four concerts per year onstage at the Sooner Theatre, in addition to several smaller productions and cabarets at our Studio space. We also host more than 40 year-round classes and at The Studio of The Sooner Theatre provide performing arts education to hundreds of children in grades PreK-12. Community involvement benefits dozens of other nonprofit organizations with free tickets and volunteer assistance.
What can people in the community do to help your organization, including funding, in-kind gifts and volunteers?
All of the above! We need individual and corporate supporters, sponsors for season and individual productions, and concerts. There are many advertising opportunities in our youth production and season programs. We are always looking for in-kind gift opportunities, whether it’s building materials for sets, costume construction, painting, printing collateral materials, etc., and we always need volunteers to help usher, work the sweet shoppe, build sets, etc.!