L. Kirk Denmark and the Tradition of Beloit College Theatre
L. Kirk Denmark and the Tradition of Beloit College Theatre
by Konni P. Smith
This book was written to document the history of the Beloit College theatre. It is dedicated to L. Kirk Denmark, who was responsible for some of its greatest moments.
In 1951 L. Kirk Denmark founded Court Theatre at Beloit College, the most popular professional arena theatre in Southern Wisconsin and Northern Illinois. His impact on the theatre world won him public acclaim across the United States and in many other parts of the world. In January of 1965 officials announced that Denmark was elected to the board of directors of the American National Theatre and Academy. Among other prestigious acknowledgements, Kirk was listed in the 1966 Biographical Encyclopedia and Who's Who in American Theatre. Denmark's 1963 version of Moliere's The Miser received professional staging by the Syracuse Repertory Theatre in New York and by the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre in Wisconsin.
Festival Theatre had dedicated its 1983 season to L. Kirk Denmark for his rare ability to empart what he knew about theatre and inspire so many of the people that he came in contact with. Jim Sullivan, founder of the Rockford New American Theatre, director of Festival Theatre, and student of the late Kirk Denmark sums up the way so many people remember Kirk: "His dedication was total, his energy was awesome, his knowledge was so wide-ranged . . . even his personality was engaging."
L. Kirk Denmark was born on May 17, 1916 in Laddonia, Missouri to William Lee and Lilith Kirk Denmark. Kirk carefully planned his education so as to include and become acquainted with all facets of the theatre. After graduating from a Springfield, Missouri high school in 1934, Kirk went to get his bachelor of arts degree from Southwest Missouri State University. Doing further studies to obtain his master of philosophy, Denmark worked with playwright Ronald E. Mitchell at the University of Wisconsin. And in 1943 he was awarded his master of fine arts at Yale University where he studied with Otto Preminger. Denmark not only appreciated but lived for the performing arts. "Theatre was his life. He was very dedicated to theatre, very intense about theatre. It is what he worked for and what he spent really every working hour of the day doing," says Al Barraclough, longtime friend and colleague of Denmark. Denmark's devotion to theatre was interrupted only by the war.
After his navy discharge, Kirk resumed his theatrical involvement when he came to the Beloit College campus at the request of President Carey Croneis. Along with Frank Boggs of the art department and Bud Whiteford of the anthropology department, Denmark was part of the triumverant of new faculty members. Denmark began the theatre department in 1947 and graduated its first majors, Al Barraclough and Rebecca "Poppy" Baker, at the end of that first year. But even before the theatre department was founded and well before Kirk Denmark arrived at Beloit, Beloit College theatre did exist.
Theodore Lyman Wright entered upon duties at Beloit College in 1888 as professor of Greek literature and art. He had graduated from Beloit in 1880 and held a master's degree from Harvard University. During his teaching career, Wright directed 19 of the 24 plays performed at Beloit College. Acting in some of those plays was Charles Winter Wood who also came to Beloit in 1888.
In his youth, Wood was a shoeshine boy in Chicago. Judge Bloom heard Wood repeating verses from a Shakespearean play one morning while having his usual morning shoe shine from the "colored boy." The incident was so unusual that the judge offered Charles money to recite the verses again for him and two of his friends. The next morning, Wood eloquently presented "Clarence's Dream" to Bloom and his friends, Mr. Charles L. Hutchinson, and Mr. Charles Hansen. The three men felt that Wood's theatrical ability made him worthy of an education. So Hutchinson provided Wood with clothing, transportation to Beloit, and a hand-written introductory letter to then Vice President Holden asking that Charles be secured in the preparatory department.
Thus Theodore L. Wright and Charles Winter Wood met, worked together, and produced some of the earliest and finest drama at Beloit College. Wood won both the home and the state oratorical contests. He also placed second in the interstate oratorical contest with William Jennings Bryan as a judge. His senior year, the Greek Department staged Oedipus Rex with Wood taking the lead part of King Oedipus. The performance was of such high order and made such an impression on the people of Beloit that later the rendition was staged at Orchestra Hall in Chicago. There, too, it was a great success.
After his graduation in 1895, Wood rose to prominence on Broadway for his part of "DeLawd" in Green Pastures for which he had been understudy when Richard B. Harrison became ill and died. Undoubtedly, Wood could have become a leading black actor of the day. Instead, he joined Booker T. Washington at Tuskegee Institute in an aim to serve mankind and aid others of his race.
Early Beloit College performances were held in a natural amphitheatre behind the Wright Art Hall. While the actors performed Greek and Shakespearean plays, the audience would sit outside under the evening stars and watch the performances down the hill below them. The English department, at that time, offered only a few courses in drama and theatre. So in 1916, students organized and directed their own theatrical productions: these actors called themselves the Beloit College Players.
In the Players' early years, they performed in the Smith Gymnasium. When Scoville Hall became part of Beloit College, it then became their stage location. Students continued producing and staging their own shows until a growing interest in the performing arts prompted the serach for a theatre faculty member. When Denmark established the theatre department, the Beloit College Players became an extra-curricular extension of his department, simultaneously becoming an instrument in the birth of Beloit summer theatre.
One result of Denmark's enthusiasm was a summer theatre workshop which he started in 1947. Students could earn credit for summer theatre work and, at the same time, gain valuable experience in the technical and theatrical aspects of the stage. Professor Orville K. Larson of the University of Maryland and Kirk Denmark made up the first faculty which handled classroom work, production, technical phases, and drama direction. The troupes performed five plays in ten weeks. The summer theatre workshops ran for four summers as the predecessor of Court Theatre.
The first Court Theatre grew out of a project from the previous winter when the senior class tried theatre-in-the-round and used the court of the Wright Art Hall as their stage. That production, Light Up the Sky, greatly impressed Denmark with its physically close relationship between actors and the audience. This fascination, combined with his passion for teaching young people, aided Kirk in envisioning a summer theatre with professional actors who could empart what they knew about theatre to inspire and teach student apprentices.
So in 1951 Kirk Denmark founded Court Theatre -- what was soon to become the most popular professional arena in the area. Court Theatre was founded with the aesthetic objective that students -- all students -- should see good plays done with professional skill. In combination with the educational objective that a professional's dedication, concentration, and skill rubs off. Denmark believed that a student who had exposure to such professionalism could better appreciate the value of a liberal arts education.
Not just any professional actor belonged at Court Theatre. It took a special type of individual to teach and get along with the student actor. Denmark saw Court members as having faculty status in the eyes of the young impressionable students. For these reasons, when hiring his company, Kirk Denmark mainly interviewed those who had obtained an education, preferably those with at least a bachelor's degree. By doing so, Denmark believed he was upholding the liberal arts ideals.
Because Denmark demanded dedication, concentration, and professionalism from his actors on stage as well as off, some of the finest drama was produced by the Court Theatre members. They put on Greek tragedies, modern absurdities, and everything in between. While on periodic sabbatical leaves from Beloit, Kirk Denmark studied first hand the methods of play production in their proper settings. In Paris he studied Moliere plays, mime and dance, and in England Denmark concentrated on the study of Shakespearean productions. This travel gave him the opportunity to observe classical drama presented with experimental techniques. Kirk Denmark held fast to the idea that "only fine drama can produce a truly fine production."
Not only were his productions memorable but many of the actors themselves have become noteworthy as well. Some who performed under Denmark's direction and went on to make theatre careers for themselves are Michael (James) McGuire, '52, (featured in the Broadway play That Championship Season and seen with Henry Fonda in the movie Home to Stay), Amy Wright, '71 (appeared in the movies Breaking Away and The Deerhunter), Jameson Parker, '72 (star of the hit television series "Simon and Simon"), and Daniel J. Travanti (star of the popular television show "Hill Street Blues"). Past Court Theatre favorites, Irene Baird, Al Barraclough, '47, Shirin Devrim, Anne Knoll, '51, Mary Latimer, Wesley Lau, Jenny and John Rembert, Ned Schmidtke, '64, Anne Shropshire, Deborah Trissel, '56, Hugh Wilson and Paul Yaeger, '50 are only a handful of performers enjoyed by so many audiences.
For Beloit area theatre-goers, a night at the Wright Art Hall became a part of a weekly routine. Five nights weekly a different audience would gather around the arena-style stage to see their favorite actors create, become, and live their respective roles. The Court members constituted the acting company while guest actors added extra weekly excitement. The seasons usually ran nine weeks a summer. The actors and crew spent seven days learning lines, blocking scenes, and designing and constructing sets, all before appearing on stage at night. Al Barraclough remembers the summer schedule as "mad, utterly mad. But it worked." And indeed summer Court Theatre did work.
What resulted from Denmark's love and dedication to the theatre was 26 successful seasons of Court Theatre, including his over 300 performances at Beloit College. Even his early retirement from Beloit in 1973 did not retire Kirk Denmark from the performing arts.
After leaving Beloit, Kirk taught a graduate course at the University of Miami in Miami, Florida, worked with Rockford College and the Starlight Theatre at Rock Valley College, and traveled to Russia with the U.S. Ballet Team. In 1975, Denmark returned to Beloit College as guest director for the dedication of the new Laura Aldrich Neese Theatre. Our Town was the opening production, the same play Kirk opened his Beloit career with in 1947 at Scoville Hall. Denmark's involvement in the Neese Theatre did not, however, begin with the building's dedication.
When it was time to build a new theatre at Beloit, the thrust arrangement was chosen with Denmark's recommendation. Authorities felt that a commitment should be made to a certain kind of stage for a student theatre. It should be a learning theatre, a theatre to be used as a laboratory for students. Since the Greek and Shakespearean periods of classical theatre was the best kind of learning tool for students to be involved in, the "new" thrust stage was proposed for Beloit College. It was modeled after the Tyrone Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis.
Court Theatre members performed for two seasons in the Neese Theatre; the first was under the direction of Al Barraclough and the final season under Carl Balson. In 1976, serious college financial difficulties forced the closing of Beloit summer theatre.
Festival Theatre was founded in 1982 "to recall the glory of the summer theatre program and its tradition." J.R. Sullivan, '72, in conjunction with the New American Theatre of Rockford, Illinois and with financial and promotional support from Beloit College, brought summer theatre back to Beloit. Along with it came new faces from the past, including Court members B.J. Jones, Michael Pierce and more. Denmark was, and will remain, a part of summer theatre. He was responsible for its tradition, all that it inspired in its actors, and all that it gave to its audiences.
At the time of his death in December of 1982, Denmark was working at the University of Wisconsin-Rock County in Janesville at a theatre later named in his honor. He was working on the show I Am a Camera. Those who knew Kirk Denmark and those fortunate enough to work with him and appreciate his work, can perhaps see the appropriateness in the title of his last production. So many people were able to "see" because of Kirk Denmark's talent, dedication, and love for the theatre. Denmark had a constant aim to present in his productions the many facets of the theatre world, some gay, some grave, some beautiful, some sordid, some fantastic, and some picturing the worst and best in life.
His eyes were the lens and the world his focal point for which he used to dedicate his life.