Few areas in Jacksonville invoke a sense of place quite like San Marco Square, a commercial district located south of downtown Jacksonville. The wide tree-covered sidewalks fronting historic storefronts make this a unique destination in the Jacksonville area. Designed as the commercial hub of the residential San Marco neighborhood and developed by Telfair Stockton & Co, San Marco Square is a triangular shopping district around a central plaza. Completed in the 1920s, “San Marco Square” is named after St. Mark’s Square in Venice, Italy. Today the retail and dining scene is thriving, and the recently redeveloped Balis Park creates a beautiful focal point in the center of the square. The south end of the square is anchored by Theatre Jacksonville, one of the oldest community theatres in America and a jewel of Jacksonville’s cultural scene.
Theatre Jacksonville is an important entertainment destination in San Marco Square, serving about 45,000 people annually. Its regular patronage comes from as far away as St. Augustine and Amelia Island. In recent years, shows such as Les Miserables, Side by Side by Sondheim, and Hairspray have drawn patrons from as far away as California, New York, and states in between. Theatre Jacksonville aims to provide a low cost, high value experience for its patrons. Theatre Jacksonville is able to provide high quality entertainment because of the dedication of its volunteers, who are the life-blood of the theatre. Every aspect of each of its shows – from actors, technicians, office, front-of-house, costume crew, set construction and stage managers – are the work of volunteers. In Theatre Jacksonville’s most recent fiscal year, hundreds volunteers supported theatre programs for a total of 14,532 hours. Theatre Jacksonville harnesses the power of these volunteers to create professional quality shows that stand up to any theatre across the country. People often are amazed by the quality, saying such things as “The Miracle Worker was absolutely PHENOMENAL. AMAZING. I couldn’t believe that it could be done so with volunteers.”
“Strange as it may seem, the Little Theatre of Jacksonville is a by-product of the World War,” so claims the 1938 playbill for Boy Meets Girl, the Little Theatre’s first production in its new home on San Marco Boulevard. The first members of the group that would become Theatre Jacksonville were members of the War Camp Community Service, which entertained the servicemen stationed in Jacksonville during World War I. After the war, in 1919, a portion of the group became The Community Players and produced plays and provided readings for the citizens of Jacksonville. In 1926 they changed their name to The Little Theatre of Jacksonville to join the nationwide “little theatre” movement at that time.
Though they had no permanent home and the Great Depression was hitting Jacksonville hard at the time, the officers and board of directors of the theatre didn’t limit their vision for its future. Along with the regularly scheduled season of plays and play readings, they provided training for newcomers wanting to develop their acting skills. The theatre’s leadership also never gave up on a new playhouse. The organization’s first home, The Little Theatre, was built in January 1938, through the generosity of Carl Swisher, president of Jacksonville’s famous Swisher Cigar Company. From that day forward, the theatre has had a permanent home and has been a fixture in San Marco Square. In 1972 the group changed its name to Theatre Jacksonville and started to take the shape of the organization we know today.
The Harold K Smith Playhouse, which houses Theatre Jacksonville, was built in the Art Deco style. It houses a 311 seat auditorium, which is the largest of any community theatre in northeast Florida. Its proscenium stage and original pin rail fly system are still in operation. It is the only theatre in town where volunteers can train on an industry grade counter weight system that allows for the lights and set pieces in the high tower over the stage. In 1991 the Theatre was named to the National Register of Historic Places, and in 1994 it gained historic designation by the Jacksonville Bureau of Historic Preservation. The building has withstood the test of time with the support of generous donors who have sponsored renovations and repairs to both the structure and the systems that support its operation. In 2000 the front façade renovation was completed and the building was formally dedicated as the Harold K Smith Playhouse. In 2007 the lobby was renovated back to the original Art Deco style to match the building exterior. In both 2012 and 2013 the Weaver Family Foundation made generous contributions to upgrade the facility and further enhance the user experience for all who set foot in the theatre. Thanks to the generosity of donors and the efforts to preserve its architectural heritage in the course of renovations, Theatre Jacksonville has an outstanding home that will endure the next hundred years.
Each year, Theatre Jacksonville provides an array of quality programs with broad appeal. Theatre Jacksonville’s programs include its Mainstage Season, Annual Classic, Guerilla Show Series, Jr. Mainstage Play Series, Annual Benefit, Educational Outreach, and Special Performance Projects and Events. The Mainstage season consists of five plays and musicals. Each year hundreds of potential shows are pored over by a hard working committee in order to choose the 6 shows that will make up each Mainstage Season as well as the Annual Classic. The shows are chosen individually and as a whole to ensure a season of programming that is timely in its address of contemporary social issues and appeals to a culturally diverse population. The current 2015-2016 season includes Always a Bridesmaid (November 2015), The Light in the Piazza (January 2016), The Melville Boys (March 2016), The Explorers Club (April – May 2016), and Disney’s The Little Mermaid (June 2016). The Guerilla show series offers contemporary cutting edge dramas and comedies during the mainstage season on dark nights. Minimalist and progressive pieces that are beyond the traditional are selected to engage, challenge and inspire audiences. In addition to the robust schedule of performances, Theatre Jacksonville also offers adult acting classes and after-school acting and musical theatre classes to children ages 7 to 18.
Whether you’re a fan of the theatre or just looking for a unique way to spend your night out, Theatre Jacksonville provides a high quality product for a very affordable price. Despite a volatile economy and increasing prices at other entertainment venues, Theatre Jacksonville has kept a ticket price of just $25 for individual shows and $20 per show for season subscribers. These efforts keep money in the patrons’ pockets, which can be spent on a drink at one of the many nearby bars or a pre- or post-show meal in a café overlooking the beautifully lit San Marco Square. In business for 96 years and anchoring San Marco square for 77, the Theatre’s commitment to excellence is apparent from the moment you walk through the threshold into the restored Art Deco lobby until the phenomenal volunteer cast takes their final bow. For more information, visit www.theatrejax.com
Photos courtesy of Theatre Jacksonville.