Old Fort Stockade

by Joanne Nesbit

Brown County continues to offer plays for audiences from around the country. Folks fill the Brown County Playhouse during the summer months for productions featuring students from the Indiana University Theater Department.

However, there was a time when the county had its own actors-troupe made up of local residents and those who came from other Indiana cities to spend the summers in and around Nashville. Known as the Brown County Players, these amateur thespians displayed their skills in an outdoor theater called the “Old Fort Stockade” adjacent to the Community House and the Old Log Jail. The atmosphere was rustic with the stage house faced with logs in keeping with the Brown County style of architecture.
Rehearsals were conducted amid the whirring and buzzing of saws and pounding of nails as locals worked to complete the theater on time for the opening production. When the director warned an actor not to turn her back on the audience, she asked, “But where is the audience?” The director pointed to the wall of square-hewn logs chinked with mortar and said, “Here’s the audience, and as appreciative a one as some I’ve seen.” The hand-hewn stage floor was covered with chalk marks to indicate where the actors should stand. Some folks came to watch the rehearsals. Even the sheriff’s red setter bloodhound wandered in for a time and watched with sad-eyed appreciation.
The first production in this new venue in 1941 was “The Male Animal” by James Thurber and Elliott Nugent. The comedy featured the ideas, ideals, and the lone life of one Tommy Turner, a Mid-western college professor. Nashville potter Karl Martz played the role. County residents from Whippoorwills Nest, employees from the Nashville House, a postal employee, an IU student and a university trustee summering in Nashville, joined Nashville residents. Carolyn Griffith, wife of artist L.O. Griffith, took part.
Karl Martz didn’t duplicate any piece of pottery he had made before and when he got tired of making pottery he painted pictures. Martz lived with his wife just a short distance out of Nashville towards Bloomington, yet refused to have a car, listen to radio, go to a movie, or read a newspaper. But he was outstanding as a performer with the Brown County Players.
A New Yorker in the publishing business got fed up with the big city and came to Brown County to vacation. His cabin southeast of Nashville is where he tended his vegetable garden and painted pictures when not acting with the theater troupe. Other participants in the productions included a Nashville housewife and her daughter, a husband and wife who once operated a grocery store in Indianapolis, and a band-singer’s wife who just returned to the county from Hollywood. It was in Brown County she chose to spend her time while her husband was on tour with the band.
Brown County’s own Buddy Thompson was the fellow doing the sawing during one rehearsal. Thompson was a “little person,” a wood carver who once trouped with the best of the country’s midget shows. But in the 1940s Thompson kept a woodcraft shop in the Community House where he carved likenesses of animals. He wasn’t a member of the Brown County Players, but an active participant in making the productions happen. If a member of the cast wanted a cup of coffee, Buddy brought it.
With such a variety of talent available to the director, the Players’ director Joseph Hays said, “Artists, poets, actors. And where could you find anything like it anywhere but in Brown County?”