Today, Tulsa’s theatre scene is a lively village of eager theaters and acting troupes, happy to share resources with one another and work together on projects and shows. Fairy tale oxymorons like “friendly competition” seem to be honest descriptions of how these talented people work together.
But that was not always the case. Longtime bridge-builder Anthony Batchelder laid the framework for these coexisting tribes to put aside fearful grudges and start sharing.
“He was a real smartass, if you want to know the truth,” friend Cyndi Vetter spills. “But a very loving smartass. He’d pick on you, but it always made you laugh. Tony was great at making people feel comfortable and welcoming newcomers, getting people to work together.”
In the ‘80s, Batchelder was working as a street performer and stunt man in Arizona. He eventually took on a director’s role at Rawhide, a Wild West attraction in which actors would walk around dressed as cowboys and break into shows based on bank robberies and jailbreaks.
“He was great at stage combat,” Vetter remembers. “And acting and stage presence, even singing. Other than his wife and his dogs, theatre was his greatest love.”
Back in Tulsa years later, Batchelder worked as office manager at Theatre Tulsa, then as house manager at the Tulsa Performing Arts Center.
Steve Fendt was Batchelder’s overseer at Tulsa PAC. “I knew his name before he started working here,” he recalls. “We all knew him to be a great performer, director, and a smart guy because of TACTA.”
The Tulsa Area Community Theatre Alliance was founded by Batchelder and wife Julie Tattershall in 1998 with a mission to “promote awareness of community theatre in the Tulsa Metro Area, to share resources, and to develop a cohesive marketing plan.”
“An alliance between Tulsa theaters didn’t exist until then,” Fendt says. “Actually, it seemed impossible. Everybody was competing with one another, and it was sort of hostile. But Tony and Julie had a way of looking at a situation like that, shrugging their shoulders and finding a solution. Now we all share actors, costumes and props, ideas, marketing, everything. And everybody is more successful.”
Batchelder started making newsletters, websites and various forums for theaters to post their needs and resources and express desires for future projects. He sent out regular emails, relaying the information to the entire theatre community.
Fendt remembers, “A lot of local theaters, like us at Tulsa PAC, are owned by the city. So when the city budget started making cuts, a lot of theaters were faced with having to shut down.”
But because of TACTA, and Batchelder’s flair for strategic compromising and gaining the respect of the right ears, they didn’t have to. “They found ways of consolidating things: housing multiple theatre companies in the same buildings, things like that.”
Between stories of Batchelder’s battles and triumphs, Fendt stops to chuckle to himself for a moment. “No matter what it was, if it was broken, or if it was starting to break, or if it would eventually break someday, Tony had already drawn up plans to fix it.”
Shawna Lewis is a writer based in Tulsa, Oklahoma.