A Triple Sweet Stage Treat: Valdosta’s 27th Annual Peach State Summer Theatre

With a rich history of family-friendly musical theatre, Peach State Summer Theatre (PSST!) might be one of the best kept secrets in the south. For 27 years, the Jekyll Island Musical Theatre Festival and Peach State Summer Theatre has staged an annual trifecta of summer musicals that has become the toast of the town. In 2005, the summer theatre was relocated from Jekyll Island to the campus of Valdosta State University, where it continues to thrive.

Peach State Summer Theatre_2012 Rehearsals

Managing Director Duke Guthrie says he still hears that faint chorus of, ‘We didn’t know you were here,’ despite packed houses and the program’s status as a state-recognized destination. PSST! was designated as the Official Musical Theatre of the State of Georgia by the Georgia Legislature in 2006. “We have a regular group of people that travel up from Jacksonville, travel from Tallahassee, north of Tifton. And then we have the folks that just stumble upon us and they are pleasantly surprised,” says Guthrie. “We still get, ‘Oh, we didn’t know you were here,’ but I think people are impressed. Our theatre is intimate. We’re not a 1,500-seat auditorium. We’re a 200-seat room, so literally there’s not a bad seat in the house. If you want to see people sweat, you can watch people sweat. But it is that intimacy and that closeness and the connection to the performance that I think is pretty special.”

From June 3 to July 17, Peach State will deliver three summer musicals: Beauty and the Beast, Ring of Fire, and Nice Work If You Can Get It. Opening the season June 3 is the Broadway classic Beauty and the Beast, staged through July 16. Ring of Fire explores the songbook of Johnny Cash in a unique musical about love and faith, struggle and success, and rowdiness and redemption from June 17-July 16. The musical features more than two dozen classic hits including ‘I Walk the Line’, ‘Folsom Prison Blues’, and ‘A Boy Named Sue.’ Set in the age of Jazz, the musical Nice Work if You Can Get It features the hijinks of a millionaire playboy, a beautiful bootlegger, rum runners, prohibitionists and gold diggers set to the music of Gershwin. It runs June 24-July 17.

Beauty and Beast 1Guthrie says they stick to the ambitious, three-show schedule because, “That’s the way it’s always been and what brings the audiences back year after year.” It’s also what allows the company to continue to spread its wings. “It’s an opportunity to do different things. Our audiences really enjoy the three shows in two days. Not everyone does it that way. We have folks who plan around when they can see all three,” he says. “We like to do things that have artistic merit. At least one of the shows has a family appeal. In Valdosta and surrounding area, we can’t get too terribly far past PG so we’re looking at those things.”

Guthrie says planning begins with show selection and creating a cohesive, three-piece puzzle. “Do we get a chill when we think of all three of them together?” he says. “It’s almost like tossing spaghetti on the wall and seeing what sticks.” Occasionally, that means losing rights because of Valdosta’s proximity to Jacksonville and Tallahassee. “It happens, not often, but it does impact our decision making,” he says. “At that point, we don’t always have a Plan B because if that show is out, what does that do to the others? It’s a house of cards. We kind of have to start all over. When it comes to other things, we tend to have plans B through Z lined up.”

With such a diverse and overlapping show calendar, Guthrie and his team pull it off in just 10 weeks. It’s an intense offering, one that requires the blood, sweat and tears of a dedicated group of artists on and off the stage. “As actors, they may have a lead in one or two shows and a supporting role in a third. Ring of Fire is a true ensemble piece, but it’s made up of our principal actors,” Guthrie says. “Our actor techs have skill in a particular tech area.”

Guthrie and Wheeler attend two annual auditions in the southeastern region to mine for new upcoming talents. The process allows the Peach State team to see approximately 800 actors exhibit their singing, dancing, and stage skills. “That’s when you line up your plan A through plan Z. Also, it’s where we hire a lot of our tech staff. It’s a lot of work to get done in three or four days but we’re always willing to face new challenges.”

Guthrie says a portion of the actors are VSU students, but Peach State draws in artists from all over, including two equity guest artists coming this year. “We hope it’s planned well. That’s key. We start construction three days before we begin rehearsal. Its three calls a day for the actors every day until the third show opens. A morning call, an afternoon call, and an evening call. We give them a shift off. For those who are doing a lot, it can get a little intense, but we try to manage the time well for everyone.”

Guthrie has served at program’s helm since he was a student at Valdosta. At 28, he wasn’t a typical theatre student but he quickly realized the potential of the program and his passion to help gain congressional recognition. “I came to theatre as a not-quite-traditional student. I wanted to do the management part. I have been an actor and I still do and I direct and I enjoy it. But I think I have a knack for the business side. My office isn’t organized but my thought process tends to be. I can multi-task pretty well. And I have an artistic understanding about how the art affects the business side of things and how the business affects the art, which I think is important,” he says.

“I came on as managing director at Jekyll on July 1, 1999, and I’ve been with them ever since. I was a student at Valdosta State when Jekyll first started. I was an actor in the first two companies in 1990 and 1991. Our artistic director Jackie Wheeler has done every season but one in some capacity or another. There’s a lot of continuity and institutional memory of sorts.”

Before joining VSU’s Faculty in 1999, Guthrie worked for a New York City-based general management firm that specialized in touring theatricals. While there, he worked on a number of shows in various capacities, and worked with Chita Rivera, Sir Ian McKellen, Sandy Duncan, Darlene Love, and the Radio City Rockettes. As an actor, Guthrie’s credits include Sir in The Roar of the Greaspaint, Benjamin Franklin in 1776, and Edna Turnblad in Hairspray. Guthrie also performed internationally in Souls Descending, a butoh dance by and starring Catherine Schaeffer, presented at Festival Fringe, Edinburgh, Scotland. Guthrie served as Treasurer of Southeastern Theatre Conference and served on its Executive Committee and Endowment Committee. He is also on the Board of Georgia Theatre Conference as Past President and served on the GTC Board as Vice President of Programming and four years as Treasurer.

Peach State Summer Theatre is committed to providing quality theatre to the city of Valdosta and making South Georgia tourist destination. Peach State Summer Theatre celebrated the 20th Anniversary Season of professional summer musical theatre produced by Valdosta State University in 2010 and recently received an Arts Education in American Communities Grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

“This will be our 27th year, including our time on Jekyll Island, and knock on wood, we haven’t lost anybody yet,” says Guthrie.” With good planning and making sure we’ve got our ducks in a row, we can usually make the magic happen.” Peach State Summer Theatre’s musicals are juicy and ripe for the picking. Find more info at www.valdosta.edu/psst.

Find link to EU’s review on all three shows here.

Event: Peach State Summer Theatre
Venue: Valdosta State University Fine Arts Building
Date: June 3 to July 17
Tickets: Adults $29, Seniors and Students $24
Contact: (229)259-7770, www.valdosta.edu/psst

About Liza Mitchell