Southern Plains Productions brings accessible performing arts to Oklahoma City.
Historically typified by Broadway lights, pageantry and pomp and circumstance, theater as a cultural pastime tends to carry a perceived barrier of entry. But Southern Plains Productions is a burgeoning Oklahoma City theater company out to subvert these stereotypes and put the spotlight on emerging talent in performing arts. The nonprofit brings together collegiate and early talent from across the world to conduct productions as probing as they are inclusive and as diverse as they are accessible, which may indicate an exciting new chapter for a city with a rapidly ascending arts scene.
Southern Plains’ artistic director Jackson Gifford returned home to Oklahoma in 2020 after college in Michigan to fulfill his long-held dream of making theater more accessible to the general public and giving voice to a diverse array of people and stories. Working with Chandra Boyd, a longtime friend and member of the Oklahoma Arts Council, he built a theater company with a mission of inclusion.
“The big idea I took away from my studies in college is that theater is not necessarily accessible to all people,” Gifford said. “I wanted to create a space, through site-specific work, for new stories that have yet to be produced in this part of the country, and combine that in a space for young, emerging artists given their first opportunities in a professional institution.”
The company started in 2020, but like most everything, it was sidelined by the pandemic, and Southern Plains’ first show, a production of Small Mouth Sounds, didn’t premiere until May 2021. “We started this at a crazy time, but the right time,” Gifford said. “In 2020, when so many theaters were canceling their seasons, we were being crazy and opening ours. People needed theater; they’d been separated and distanced.”
Southern Plains operates under a summer-stock model, which means it presents shows in the summer months and conducts productions, from beginning to end, within seven weeks. Shows are performed in atypical venues, such as the Myriad Gardens Water Stage for Small Mouth Sounds.
After the company’s first production, the goal was to increase to two shows per summer. Following what Gifford describes as a hibernation mode to prepare, 2022 saw performances of the two-person play Lungs at Factory Obscura and the rock musical Lizzie at Tower Theatre.
“For that production of Lizzie, we were terrified that we weren’t gonna fill up the theater, but the Tower was excited about presenting a musical,” Gifford said. “We assembled a creative team from New York, Chicago, Russia and some from Oklahoma. We sold out two great performances, and we had a line waiting to buy standing row tickets. That showed us the Oklahoma City community is here and excited about theater and what’s to come.”
Looking ahead, Southern Plains seeks to build off that momentum. Its 2023 slate, with the theme of “silent stories” about marginalized voices, includes a July show called The Chinese Lady about likely the first Chinese woman to arrive in the United States, and an August production called Silent Sky about hearing-impaired astronomer Henrietta Leavitt, which will be performed inside the planetarium at Science Museum Oklahoma. The shows will feature an Asian American creative team and a director of Chinese heritage for The Chinese Lady, and hearing-impaired actors for Silent Sky.
For Gifford, Southern Plains is an opportunity to be part of a cultural upswing in Oklahoma City’s arts scene and to build off the community’s momentum while carving a unique path of its own. He emphasized the vitality of collaborating with local nonprofits and like-minded organizations to spread that message. “We’re working to redefine what theater is,” Gifford said. “I hope that Southern Plains is contributing to different important conversations.”