Proff Koch fanned students’ creative spark into a flame

Years before Charles Kuralt did it, Carolina had a champion of the common people who understood the value of taking his show on the road.

His name was Frederick Koch – the legendary Proff Koch – who founded the Carolina Playmakers nearly a century ago.

Whereas Kuralt hit the road in search of stories about people in out-of-the-way places, Koch went to out-of-the-way places so people in small towns across North Carolina could find something they might not have seen: people on stage who looked and sounded, and even seemed to be just like them.

There was a good reason for that, said University Historian Cecelia Moore: “They were.”

The stories and characters of folk plays were written by the same students who acted them out on stage.

Back then, almost all those students were the sons and daughters of North Carolina, and their stories were drawn, as Koch wrote in Theater Magazine in 1922, from “their observation of the lives of their own people.”

Photographs, artifacts, playbills and original documents that explore the founding and history of this groundbreaking collegiate group are the focus of the exhibit “Making a People’s Theatre: Proff Koch and the Carolina Playmakers,” on display in the North Carolina Collection Gallery in Wilson Library through May 31.

The exhibit features pictures of the various buses that transported the student actors through the years, including a bus from the 1920s dubbed the “Playmakers Special.”

In connection with the exhibit, Moore – whose day job is serving as special assistant to Chancellor Carol L. Folt – will give a lecture on April 8 titled “A Model for Folk Theatre: The Carolina Playmakers.”

The lecture, she said, draws heavily from her dissertation for the Ph.D. in history she earned from Carolina last spring.

Moore, who graduated from Barry University in Miami with a bachelor’s degree in theater, was inspired to study the history of the Carolina Playmakers after she was hired as the development director for PlayMakers Repertory Company in 1995.

The casts for the productions of today’s professional theater in residence at Carolina are drawn from faculty members who are professional actors and their graduate students, as well as guest artists and Equity actors, but there always seemed to be snippets of conversation about the Carolina Playmakers of old, Moore said.

Cecelia Moore

She listened, and the more she learned, the more she wanted to know. It was when Moore went looking for information, she said, that she discovered there was a piece of history missing – and waiting for her to write.

“When we study American drama, we never hear about folk drama, mainly because official histories focus on the professional stage,” Moore said.

That’s what inspired her to trace the history of Koch and the Carolina Playmakers and the huge movement in student-theater that it helped to spread throughout the country in the 1920s and 1930s.

While doing her research, Moore said she pored over scrapbooks that the Playmakers kept from 1918 until the mid-1970s, which are now part of the North Carolina Collection, also housed in Wilson Library.

From 1905 to 1918, Koch taught at the University of North Dakota where he initiated his work in folk-playwriting and founded the Dakota Playmakers.

After President Edward Kidder Graham recruited him to Carolina’s English department in 1918, Koch established his now-famous course in playwriting, English 31, and founded the Carolina Playmakers.

In May 1943, President Frank Porter Graham – the cousin of the president who had recruited Koch to campus 25 years before – dedicated the remodeled Forest Theatre, where the Playmakers performed.

In December 1943, Koch gave what would be his 39th and last annual reading of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.”

He died unexpectedly in Miami Beach on Aug. 16, 1944, but the program he began would live on for another three decades until it was finally overtaken by the modern world.

When Koch was a boy, Moore said, he had dreamed of being an actor. But it was in the classroom, not on the stage, that he left his mark as a showman and sage, Moore said.

“Every man,” Koch once observed, “is a product of his environment. Every young writer, therefore, works most successfully with materials which he sees, not afar off, out of range of his personal every-day feeling, but near at hand – those which touch him most intimately at every turn of his existence.”

Among the former students who paid particular heed to that advice were Paul Green and Thomas Wolfe of Asheville, who played the title role in his own play, “The Return of Buck Gavin,” a tragedy about a mountain outlaw. Wolfe’s later works included the well-known “Look Homeward, Angel” and “Of Time and the River.”

Samuel Selden, longtime chair of the Department of Dramatic Art who succeeded Koch as director of the Carolina Playmakers, said Koch believed that “every man possesses somewhere within him the creative spark, and that this needs only a little tending to be made into a flame.”

A year after Koch’s death, Selden wrote about Koch never losing that raging fire within himself: “His life was motivated ever by a desire to shape his particular part of the world into a beautiful play – a play full of laughing young people among whom he would have his role of the grand old man with his pipe and his dog.

“He sang to his work and about it, and his song made it dance with life.”

[ Story by Gary Moss, University Gazette ]