After a two-year pandemic postponement, alumni from a wide range of classes joined members of the local community to celebrate the VMI Theatre’s 50th anniversary April 30, 2022.
Billed as a “50+2 celebration,” the reception in the Hall of Valor in Marshall Hall brought more than 30 alumni and their guests back to post to remember the good times they’d had both on and off stage, in most cases under the direction of a woman who’s been with the theatre so long that her name is almost synonymous with it: Joellen Bland. A friend and mentor to generations of cadets, Bland began her work with the theatre in 1978 and directed the most recent show, “Tom Jones: (Or the History of a Foundling),” an 18th-century comedy with many misunderstandings and cases of mistaken identity.
“I loved catching up with former cadets who enriched my life in so many ways over the years between 1979-2022,” said Bland after the show. “Theatre cadets have always been, and still are, very rare and very talented—and very, very special.”
Over the years, the VMI Theatre has produced more than 180 plays from a wide variety of genres on stages all over post. Shows have been staged in Scott Shipp Hall, Nichols Engineering Building, and Cameron Hall, among other locales, and it wasn’t until Marshall Hall opened in 2009 that the group found a permanent home in Gillis Theater.
The theatre has long been a place where cadets mingle with faculty spouses, high school students, and other theater-loving community members. Approximately 35 community members, many veterans of numerous shows, attended the Saturday evening reception.
As noted in the program for “Tom Jones,” “More than 900 cadets, faculty and staff members, area college students, and community performers have made a variety of dramas, comedies, revues, mysteries, and favorite musicals come to life on our make-shift stage.”
Productions have run the gamut from “Barefoot in the Park,” a Neil Simon romantic comedy, to “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” a dramatic adaptation of Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel set in a psychiatric hospital, and “Oklahoma!” and “South Pacific,” both Rodgers and Hammerstein classics. Over the years, VMI’s own “Brother Rat,” written by John Monks Jr. and Fred Finklehoffe, both members of the Class of 1932, has been staged five times since 1970, most recently in 2021.
Attending the reception and reminiscing about his involvement with VMI Theatre was J.C. Miers III ’84, who participated with the theatre in his 1st Class year. When the group staged “Mister Roberts” in Cameron Hall, Miers was playing a character who was supposed to spit tobacco juice onto a potted plant at one point in the show. Since he wasn’t a tobacco user, Miers chewed bubble gum instead to prepare for the spitting scene.
“I let go into the plant,” Miers recounted of the play’s opening night. “And I can hear from the audience a mix of ‘ugh’ and ‘oooh.’ It was all I could do to stop from breaking out laughing.”
Also remembering his theatre days fondly was Harold Stills Jr. ’92. “It made it worth being here,” said Stills of his theatre involvement. “Between being in band and doing the theatre, it was a great outlet from doing all the engineering stuff,” the mechanical engineering major stated
The theatre, he noted, was a place where cadets of all backgrounds could find their place. This was especially true of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” which involves a large cast and many singing roles. “There were football players. There were track guys. There were all kinds of people in that one,” said Stills. “And at first, the coaches didn’t like them doing that … [but] when they came to see the show, they said, ‘This is OK. This is working.’”
Support from Bland, Stills commented, was crucial to his continued involvement with the theatre, as time is always so tight at VMI.
“What helped was Joellen and the other people that ran this, they understood life as a cadet and the fact that we wanted to do this. … She knew we had all this other stuff to do. We did this because we loved it.”
Bland has loved it as well, even when sirens screaming on Main Street drowned out performances, as they did when the theatre was performing in room 318 of Scott Shipp Hall, or when cadet actors tearing down an aisle en route to a dramatic stage entrance nearly ran over a late-arriving audience member in Nichols Engineering Building.
“My time spent with [cadets] in ‘doing theatre’ at VMI has been memorable in many frustrating but rewarding ways, through the traditional ‘thick and thin’ in so many different places on post—but they helped [the theatre] stay alive and create lasting, never-to-be-forgotten memories,” she stated.
Mary Price Development Writer/Communications Specialist
The development writer plays a key role in producing advancement communications. This role imagines, creates, and produces a variety of written communication to inspire donors to make gifts benefiting VMI. Utilizing journalistic features and storytelling, the development writer will produce content for areas such as Annual Giving, stewardship, and gift planning.