Dixie Deluxe

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New Stage Theatre

This southern city's only professional theater is fraught with history and risk-taking.

Tucked into a quaint historic neighborhood of Jackson, Mississippi, New Stage Theatre adds a lively and contemporary arts element to Belhaven's early 20th-century charm. It honors the past and augments the present, serving a community that stretches from just clown the sidewalk to schools across the state.

Launching its first season in 1966, Mississippi's only resident professional theater has made a dramatic impact, from its challenging play selections and topnotch actors to hosting this Deep South city's first racially integrated theater audience at a time when segregation was still common. The first production was Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. "That was way more cutting edge than Jackson was used to," recalls Patrick Benton, interim artistic director since summer 2000. "The theater started with a bang then and there.They let Jackson know there was more out there than community theater's fluffy comedies."

The late Jane Reid-Petty founded the not-for-profit organization with a core of local theater lovers. New Stage Theatre produced its first 13 seasons in an adapted 150-seat ehurch before moving to its current location in the Belhaven neighborhood in 1978. The 12,000-square-foot building houses the 364-seat Meyer Crystal Auditorium and the Jimmy Hewes Room, a flexible performing space for smaller, more avant-garde plays and improvisational comedy. The mainstage is 30 feet deep with a proscenium width of 35 feet. With three other buildings that provide actors' housing and office space, the complex makes up the Jane Reid-Petty Theatre Center. A summer 2000 lobby renovation, completed mostly with donated materials and labor, doubled ladies room capacity and made both male and female restrooms handicapped-accessible.

The theater has successfully drawn on Mississippi's own rich literary heritage. Its stage has been the site for world premieres of The Miss Firecracker Contest by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and Jackson native Beth Henley, John Maxwell's Ob Mr. Faulkner, Do You Write? (based on Nobel Prize winner William Faulkner of Oxford), and a musical version of The Ponder Heart, from the comic novella by Pulitzer Prize-winning author and Jackson native Eudora Welty.

New Stage also hosted the world premieres of Church Key Charlie Brown by newscaster Jim Lehrer, Full Moon by Reynolds Price and As The Crow Flies by Gary Grubbs.

New Stage overcame a 2001 financial crisis, brought on by long-term debt and years of overspending, by suspending its subscription series for a year, laying off staff and reorganizing, but never closing its doors. The euphemistically termed "intermission season" produced works on a show-by-show basis. "Actors and directors in the area who had worked at New Stage contributed their time and talent to help us get back on our feet," says board member Barbara Austin.

Donations from longtime contributors, coupled with a successfully matched challenge grant, helped the theater recmerge. It finished its last two seasons in the black."! think the theater has made a remarkable recovery," says Benton. Production budgets aren't what they once were, but the theater is rebuilding. It recently rejoined the Theatre Communications Group, is hiring some outside designers and continues employing a small number of Equity actors for each play.

A grant from the Mississippi Arts Commission Building Fund has helped spur much-needed replacements of aging equipment. …