TV’s Colbert started career in Farmville

Published 10:12 am Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Stephen Colbert, named host of The Late Show on CBS in September, boasts a lengthy career in theatre. While Colbert’s biography lacks a Virginia reference, one of the TV host’s earliest performances was on the Waterworks stage in Farmville.

The year was 1983, and Colbert was a freshman at Hampden-Sydney College.

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“He came in with another Hampden-Sydney student, Mike Boudreau,” Waterworks director Dudley Sauvé said. “That was before Hampden-Sydney had a drama department.”

The Waterworks Players, organized by Sauvé, has offered community theatre productions in the Farmville area since 1973.

“I had a friend who taught at SVCC,” Sauvé said of the Players origin. “We called ourselves the Daniel Players (after the Daniel Campus at SVCC).”

From there, the Waterworks Players moved to Longwood’s lower dining hall, then to the Old Mill.

The name of the local theatre group came about when the Town of Farmville offered the Players the use of the old filtration plant (presently the Farmville Fire House).

“During a board meeting Thelma Mottley said — ‘I guess we’re the Waterworks now!’” Sauvé said. “The name stuck.”

It was at the Old Mill location that Colbert made his acting debut in Neil Simon’s “The Good Doctor,” a series of one-act plays adapted for the stage from Anton Chekhov’s short stories.

Appropriately, Colbert’s first role with the Waterworks was in a comedy.

“You think of Chekhov as a heavy Russian writer, but this was all comedy,” Sauvé said.

“Stephen was in ‘The Sneeze.’ He’s in the theatre behind his boss or some high-ranking Russian,” Sauvé said. “He sneezes and spends the rest of the evening apologizing.”

Did Sauvé envision Colbert’s future in theatre and television in 1983?

“I didn’t,” Sauvé said. “I knew he wanted to find a theatre school, and he asked me about it. My master’s is from Northwestern, so I said, Northwestern. That’s where he ended up getting his degree. It was a suggestion I made, and he seemed to take it.”

Director of the Waterworks for over 40 years and still directing at the age of 86, Sauvé clearly remembers that December evening in 1983.

“I can see it yet,” he said. “If you can imagine a room longer than wide, we did the play against the wide section so the audience was almost all in front. We had tables set up because we had wine and cheese. The sets for each of the one acts were very simple with just a few actors.”

A review of “The Good Doctor” from a December 1983 Farmville Herald stated, “Each of the ten episodes focuses on individual characters whose foibles are both humorous and all-too-familiar. The 15 cast members, many of whom play more than one role, turn in a performance that shows strong individual acting, effective ensemble work and the smooth meshing of all elements of the production. I particularly enjoyed Stephen Colbert in ‘The Sneeze.’”

Aside from providing a starting point for future celebrities like Colbert, Sauvé sees community theatre as an important part of the cultural scene.

“It’s a gift,” he said. “Not everybody can speak or act, not everybody can paint or build, but there’s always a little job you can do in the theatre. It’s an outreach — whether you have a great deal of talent or just want to have fun.”

The Herald’s 1983 review of “The Good Doctor” went on to note, “The production is excellent, the acting superb. The Waterworks Players are settling into their theatre after a long time of ‘finding places to put on a play.’ Staging, lighting and sound effects all bear the mark of that familiarity. I think this production marks a great step forward for the Waterworks Players — and it is just the start of the season.”

It was also the start of a theatrical career for Stephen Colbert.

“You never know where it will lead,” Sauvé said of his many Waterworks productions and actors. “Some people go on and get everything right.”

Sauvé is pleased with Colbert’s success and wishes him well.

“I have no idea how to get in touch with Stephen Colbert,” Sauvé said. “But I would love to send him a note that simply says — ‘Break a leg!’”