Professor of Performing Arts Dr. Rick Tyler is retiring after 41 years of teaching theater at McPherson College.

For the first 21 years of his career, Tyler was the sole faculty member in the theater department.

When Tyler began working at McPherson College, his budget was $900 for a season of four shows. Looking at the fees for royalties and scripts, along with the costs for costumes, props, furniture and other set pieces, he soon realized additional funds would need to be raised to increase the quality of the productions.

In order to raise funds, Tyler drew upon his experience working with other theaters during the summer months, who offered dinner before their shows. Thus, the First Nighters program was born — a way for season subscribers to have dinner prior to the opening night of a play or musical.

"When we first started, we didn't have any silverware or plates or glassware or anything," Tyler said.

In the beginning, plastic plates were used for the meals.

"We would wash them and we would get two or three shows out of them," Tyler recalled.

The first show First Nighters saw was "Antigone." Now for the 40th anniversary of the program, the college will perform "Another Antigone” at 7:30 p.m. on March 8-10 in Mingenback Theatre.

At its peak, there were 250 season subscribers and the meals brought in $10,000 for the theater department.

Dinners are now served before each performance to accommodate the demand.

While the audience appreciated a full meal, it presented some challenges — especially before an additional industrial kitchen was built. Tyler recalled how water had to be microwaved in order to keep up with the dishes being washed in a single sink. On another memorable evening, a glass bowl shattered directly above a tureen of onion soup, which was then taken off the menu.

The dinner menu often reflected the setting of a show – whether it was a picnic basket dinner for small-town Texas' "Greater Tuna" or a Mediterranean dinner for a Greek play. Before a production of "Romeo and Juliet," diners were seated at tables featuring either red or blue linens – denoting whether the theatergoers belonged to the Montague or Capulet families.

The addition of a second theater faculty member allowed Tyler to focus on teaching theater history and technical theater. To build sets and costumes, students must learn how to draw, sew, paint and work with tools — skills that were more commonly taught in homes and high school classes 40 years ago.

Tyler went from having high school girls teaching him how to sew to being able to alter wedding dresses and stitch up a long jacket for Petruchio in a pirate-themed version of "The Taming of the Shrew."

It was building sets that really piqued Tyler's interest, and he has framed sketches — from his very first attempt at a single-room set to elaborate drawings of multi-level designs — framed and hanging in his office.

In recent years, the number of students participating in the technical work of the production has declined, a trend Tyler attributes to the prevalence of smartphones, video gaming systems and televisions in every dorm room.

"The students were much more willing to work in the theater, because they didn't have anything to distract them," Tyler said.

Being able to raise his children — both of whom are McPherson College graduates — on campus and expose them to a variety of people was one of the unexpected benefits of teaching, Tyler said.

"A fun thing for me, in theater, is I don't have just theater majors," Tyler noted. "Because we're such a small campus, I have English majors, pre-med majors, religion majors and auto restoration majors."

Looking back, Tyler said the McPherson community was supportive of both him personally and the productions professionally, making his career an enjoyable one.

"I really liked it," Tyler said. "It was a fun job. I got to come here every day and play. Every day was something completely different."

Reservations for "Another Antigone" can be made by calling the Mingenback Theatre box office at 620-242-0444 or emailing theatre@mcpherson.edu. Tickets are $5 for adults and $3.50 for seniors and students.

Contact Patricia Middleton by email at pmiddleton@mcphersonsentinel.com or follow her stories on Twitter at @MacSentinel.