By Robert Schanke, Founding member and MATC Fellow

On April 28, 1979, Tice Miller of the University of Nebraska at Lincoln called a meeting for the purpose of planning an annual theatre conference sponsored by what was then Region V of the American Theatre Association (ATA) which consisted of the states of Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota, and South Dakota . The Region V was already called the Mid-America Theatre Conference (MATC). Several years earlier, ATA had divided up the country into several regions, but our region, unlike some of the others such as SETC, had never organized in any serious manner. Harold Nichols was the Chief Regional Officer of the region at the time. The stated purpose of the region was “to unite persons and organizations within the region with an interest in theatre and to promote the growth and development of all forms of theatre.”[1]

The first organizational meeting was held at Creighton University in Omaha where Suzanne Burgoyne was director of the theatre program. People attending included Tice Miller, Suzanne Burgoyne, Harold Nichols, Rosemarie Bank, Graham Thatcher, Ron Frederickson, Robert Schanke, Ron Moyer, Rex McGraw, and Bob Welk.

The discussion at that round table focused on how to organize and structure the conference. Did we want just a mini-ATA with panels and speakers? Did we want to be innovative and try something else? The end result was a mini-ATA held at Howard Johnson’s Motel and Restaurant in Omaha, Nebraska, on March 28-30, 1980, with the theme “Excellence for the Eighties.”  From the very first meeting, the heart of the conference has always been the Theatre History Symposium. The plan was that MATC would become more vital, more organized, but still operate under the umbrella of the national organization ATA.

For our “banquet,” we purchased chicken box lunches in advance and sold them to attendees. The planning committee feared that we might be sponsoring a convention and nobody would come, so the idea was to be very frugal.

Some of the sessions included such topics as “The Place of the BFA/MFA,” “Frontier Theater in the Midwest,” “The Training of a Director,” “Playwriting in the ’80s,” and “Critics of the ACTF: Curse Them or Bless Them.”  Panelists included Ron Engle, Julia Curtis, Robert Schanke, George Glenn, Tice Miller, Kent Neely, Weldon Durham, Richard Poole, Norman Fedder, Jed Davis, Felicia Londre, David Thayer, Jay Edelnant, Ron Willis, David Gooder, and Ron Moyer. The keynote speaker at the luncheon was Richard Ramos, who was the Artistic Director at the Tyrone Guthrie Theater, with the speech titled “Building a World-Class Theatre in the Mid-West.”

At that first conference, a survey asked attendees on what the goals should be for MATC; there were probably 20 items to be ranked in descending order of priority. Someone ranked the publication of a scholarly journal at 252. Nevertheless, one of the main achievements of that first conference was the decision to found a new theatre journal, which became Theatre History Studies and was edited by Ron Engle until 1994. The germinal idea for the journal came from Tice Miller, but also in on the discussions were Weldon Durham, Felicia Londre, Ron Engle, and Harold Nichols.  Then, at the August 1980 ATA conference in San Diego, Engle approached Bruce C. Jacobsen, Dean of the College of Fine Arts at the University of North Dakota, for funding and he agreed. The first articles for Volume I of Theatre History Studies came from papers delivered at the Theatre History Symposium during the Minneapolis MATC meeting in March 1981.

In 1985, while Robert Schanke was Chief Regional Officer and representing MATC on the board of ATA, he realized that the future of ATA was precarious. Because the financial situation of that organization appeared tenuous and all of the financial assets (roughly $9,000) of MATC were held by ATA, he quickly filed articles of incorporation in the state of Iowa and was then allowed to withdraw the MATC funds from the ATA bank account.

[1] Stated on page ii of volume 1 of Theatre History Studies (1981).