"In June of 1972 a cultural event of great importance to this area took place when Mansfield State College (MSC) erected a blue and gold theatre tent on its campus." So reads the first sentence in an unsigned history of Mansfield Festival Theatre appearing in the printed program for the 1979 season.
Mansfield Festival Theatre was the brainchild of John Tillinghast and Frank Ball. Then chairman of the Theatre Department at MSC, Dr. Tillinghast induced Frank Ball to leave his job as director of theatre at the Riverside Church in New York and join the faculty here. They received administrative and financial support from the college and, working as a team, Tillinghast and Ball produced and directed the summer theatre through the first four seasons.
During the first three years, plays were produced under a canvas circus tent, and for the remaining six years, in a pole barn. During MFT's nine-year history, a total of forty-two separate productions appeared on the MFT stage before a combined audience of more than thirty thousand persons. MFT not only brought seasoned stars from New York but also young up-and-coming actors to its audiences.
For instance, in the 1972 premiere season, Kevin Kline and Patti LuPone, both of whom now have Hollywood and Broadway credentials, performed under MFT's original tent. Eric Poppick and Bob Zmuda also have been in the national spotlight. Others, like Noel and Gloria Schwartz, came to MFT with Broadway dancing reputations. And of the many local actors and musicians who showcased their talents in MFT, quite a few continue to perform in Mansfield University and Hamilton-Gibson productions.
Between 1972 and 1980 Mansfield Festival Theatre enjoyed the support of many individuals and organizations. Mansfield State College provided the funds, the services, and the use of its facilities. The Pennsylvania Council on the Arts recognized MFT's cultural importance to the region with grants beginning in 1975. The Mansfield Foundation also provided substantial financial assistance, and the MSC student government backed the theatre's operations, as did many local businesses and organizations.
The most important support, however, came from the audience who returned to the theatre each year. Although the producers of Mansfield Festival Theatre looked forward to a bright future, that bright future was not to be. At the end of the 1980 season, in response to budget constraints, Mansfield State College made an administrative decision to discontinue its funding for MFT. Soon thereafter, the site of the MFT pole barn adjacent to Allen Hall became a parking lot.
The late Michael Leiboff of the Communication and Theatre Department, used to speak of his acquaintance with Bob Zmuda and Chris Albrecht (MFT, 1973 season). It was here in Mansfield that Bob and Chris first met and became friends. In later years, they would work together again and make entertainment history with a little project know as COMIC RELIEF (HBO Television).
Mr. Leiboff was fond of telling how he had encountered Chris Albrecht at an NBA game in Philadelphia, introduced himself and talked to him about his experiences here those many years ago. Leiboff said to Albrecht, "When I say Mansfield Festival Theatre, what comes to your mind?" Albrecht replied, "the birthplace of COMIC RELIEF!" He went on to explain, that it was because of the friendship and professional contact established at MFT that they later came back together and created this monumental project for HBO.
There are many stories such as this one. Although the Festival Tent was torn down in the mid-eighties, the spirit, dedication and talent born during MFT is still going strong at Mansfield University. We are proud of the special history just as we are proud of the strong musical theatre tradition that continues today. Now, over 30 years later, you will find Mansfield University graduates working in all aspects of this industry from Hollywood to Broadway - and beyond.
Compiled by Dr. Larry Biddison,
Mansfield University Emeritus Professor of English,
from information in the printed programs of the nine years of MFT's operation