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Michigan State University

MSU Traditions: Summer Circle Theatre

Students performing at night

MSU Traditions: Summer Circle Theatre

For over six decades, the MSU Department of Theatre has delivered thrills, laughs and drama to an engaged and ever-expanding audience beneath blue skies and the summer sun.

An annual harbinger of the beginning of the season, the Summer Circle Theatre has entertained generations of admirers by providing free, accessible theatre for all using the talents of MSU students and faculty.

“We provide a wide variety of outdoor shows on the MSU campus and it’s about blending old favorites with some provocative new plays,” said Department of Theatre Production Manager Abbie Tykocki. “It’s taken on various forms throughout its 60-plus years and gives our students the experience of working for a real summer stock theatre company.”

More than that, it has blossomed into one of MSU’s purest “town and gown” events connecting the university with the wider community.

This summer will mark the program’s 62nd season.

SCT historic photo 1961
The original Summer Circle Marquee at Demonstration Hall, 1961.
SCT historic photo 1986
Summer Circle Theatre on the banks of the Red Cedar River, 1986.
Performance of Schoolhouse Rock
Schoolhouse Rock, 2023
Performance of the importance of being earnest
The Importance of Being Earnest, 2019
Performance of A Midsummer night's dream
A Midsummer Night's Dream, 2023

Honoring the history of that long-standing thespian tradition is the heart of the production.

“To kick-off Summer Circle, the first time all the students and everybody gets together to start the process anew, the first thing we do is talk about the tradition,” Tykocki said. “We tell the stories that we’ve heard from the community about why this is important and cherished in East Lansing.”

The community has been the central focus since Summer Circle Theatre debuted its first shows in 1961 thanks to a team of MSU faculty led by chair of the Department of Speech Dr. John Dietrich. Then held indoors at Demonstration Hall, the program was founded using the best talents of both the students and the community to create quality summer theatre.

Moved under the banner of the Department of Theatre, which was created in 1968, Summer Circle Theatre was reimagined outdoors and transitioned into a free show to attract a wider audience. The changes were a success. Operating on a limited budget, the show moved into the Kresge Sculpture Court in the ’70s and later to locations along the banks of the Red Cedar River to accommodate its growing popularity.

In 2014, Summer Circle Theatre relocated to its current location in the space between the Auditorium Building and the Kresge Art Center. A $1.15 million project guided by donors and longtime supporters Sam and Mary Austin finally helped Summer Circle Theatre secure its own home.

SCT Courtyard
The Summer Circle Theatre courtyard is located between the Auditorium and Kresge Art Center.

“It’s been nice to see this really old tradition that so many people love and count on happening every year become more cemented and supported by the university,” Tykocki said. “It’s an important step of the education process in professional preparedness for our students, but also a really nice way to give back to the community.”

In recent years, Summer Circle Theatre attendance has ranged between 3,000-4,000 people, depending on the weather. Total attendance over the past six decades is estimated around 150,000.

For the students, the faculty and the community, Summer Circle Theatre continues to provide an experience unlike any other.

“It’s far more intimate,” Tykocki said. “Normally, there’s more of a separation between the audience and the performance. It’s just a completely different vibe.”

The collaborative nature of the production and the freedom of the venue is unique, Tykocki added. Everybody involved provides multidisciplinary support as performers, designers, managers and assistants. Free from the educational confines of the classroom, Summer Circle is bringing theatre back to its roots.

“It removes a lot of the classism and elitism that has been tied to what you traditionally think of with a Broadway show or something like that. This is truly a community event,” Tykocki said.

“Everybody is there to support each other. There’s a real camaraderie between the audience and the student performers that doesn’t exist in that traditional theatre setting. Everybody is just there to have a really good time. And they do.”


Author: Ryan Loren