Prairie Stage Touring Company
Visionary theater director Fred Walsh died on this date in 1999.
Walsh’s 1952 introduction to North Dakota was chilly, but not because of the weather. The founder of The Little Country Theatre, Alfred Arvold, was being forced to leave NDSU, because he’d reach the state-mandated retirement age of 70. Walsh – a decorated war veteran – was there to replace him.
In his autobiography, Walsh wrote that he introduced himself to the legendary director, who promptly told him, “Don’t unpack your bag, young man. I’m going to have you fired.” Arvold didn’t get his way, though, and Walsh spent the next quarter century breaking as much new ground as his predecessor had.
For many years, the Little Country Theatre had held its productions in Old Main and Festival Hall on the NDSU campus. Under Walsh’s guidance, LCT moved to Askanase Auditorium in 1968; it was the first public building in the state built mostly with private money.
Walsh was also the person who selected the performance sites for the Burning Hills Amphitheatre at Medora and the Custer Memorial Theatre at Mandan, and he produced shows in both venues. He also wrote a play about Teddy Roosevelt titled “Old Four Eyes,” which was performed by his students in Medora. It was the origination of the now famous Medora Musical.
Walsh also formed a traveling show called the Prairie Stage Touring Company, which performed around the state from 1971 to 1976.
The current director of the LCT, Donald Larew, says Pairie Stage traveled with a tent designed specifically for plays – it had no center pole – and the actors themselves had to set it up at each of their destinations. They performed in 10 North Dakota communities a year, providing more than just a theater experience for NDSU students.
“The actors were really roustabouts,” Larew said. “They would go into a town Sunday and set up a tent and be ready for performances.” At each stop, the company would stage two different plays – three times for each one. They also held two performances of a children’s play and also conducted workshops and theater programs for local drama students.
Larew has recently revived the Prairie Stage Touring Company, featuring a children’s touring company, which carries on both Alfred Arvold and Fred Walsh’s visions of taking theater to the more rural areas of the state.
In 1988, Fred Walsh was inducted into the Hall of Fame of the North Dakota Speech and Theatre Teacher’s Association. In his acceptance speech, he said, “Ladies and gentlemen, in this business of education, it is our responsibility to be concerned not with gimmicks and gadgetry – but with human minds and human souls.
“But this problem now is yours. I’m retired. I had my problems. I fought my battles. Won some and lost some. And I had a lot of fun. But now it’s all yours. And I won’t offer you any solutions – even if I had any. I wouldn’t want to deprive you of the fun.”
Written by Merry Helm