News Column

Wilmington theater community 'reinventing itself'

September 4, 2014

By John Staton, Star-News, Wilmington, N.C.

Sept. 04--The Wilmington theater community is a very different place today than it was when Sam Robison lived here the first time.

Robison, who spent the late '90s and most of the 2000s performing on Port City stages in everything from "Reefer Madness" to "The Will Rogers Follies," moved to New York in 2007. In October of last year he returned to Wilmington, and as he dove back into the scene by doing three shows in a row for City Stage, he found a theater community much changed.

"In '98, it was pretty much just Thalian (Association) and Opera House (Theatre Co.) and Big Dawg (Productions)," Robison said. "Now, having come back, there's just so many theaters and so many new spaces taking big chances. It's a very exciting time for local theater."

It's a sentiment that, in large part, is shared community wide.

"Theater is constantly reinventing itself," said Wilmington thespian Lee Lowrimore, who sits on the board of Dram Tree Shakespeare, a company that announced its formation Tuesday and will make its debut at Wilmington's 275th anniversary celebration Sept. 27 with some short scenes. "It's constantly changing and that's part of the excitement."

Part of the current excitement, several members of the Wilmington community noted, comes from a lot of change occurring in a short period of time. Just this year, five new companies have either made or announced their debuts. Two major companies, City Stage and the Thalian Association, have new artistic directors. And at least four longtime members of the theater community, including Robison, have graduated from performing and behind the scenes tech work to directing their own productions, with at least three others making their debuts last year.

But while everyone can agree that change is happening, what that change means is another question.

"Change is not always a bad thing, and it's not always a good thing," said Dallas LaFon a technician at Thalian Hall who's also the theater community's go-to lighting designer. In April, he made his directorial debut at City Stage with "Assassins."

"I think there was maybe a little bit of a rut, with the same people being hired to do shows over and over," LaFon said.

Several people said that, in regard to the number of new directors, it's largely a case of performers aging into the role. At the same time, those directors bring new ideas and relationships to the stage that change what's offered to the public.

"The change that I see going on is community-wide," said Ed Wagenseller, a professor of theater at the University of North Carolina Wilmington who's been involved in local theater and film since the early '90s. "The desire for freshness -- we're ready for something new, because the old battle axes are always going to be able to provide classics that put butts in the seats."

Old and new

At least some of the desire for change has come from UNCW students venturing out into the community to do theater, something Wagenseller said was frowned upon in the past by the theater department (which, in keeping with all of the other changes going on locally, has a brand-new chair, Thomas Salzman).

Students are regulars in productions at the Browncoat Pub & Theatre, TheatreNOW dinner theater and elsewhere. Earlier this year, UNCW theater student Liz Bernardo, who's performed with a half-dozen local companies during her short time in Wilmington, co-founded the Up All Night theater troupe with several other students, mainly to do original work.

"It's exciting to me because it feels like (the theater community is) growing in scope, with the number of people participating, and growing in ambition as well as far as the kinds of shows that people are wanting to do," Bernardo said.

Wilmington's oldest theater company, the Thalian Association, which traces its roots back to 1788 and is the official community theater of North Carolina, discovered earlier this year that change can be turbulent. Controversy erupted when two part-time artistic directors, Jason Aycock and Tom Briggs, were replaced by a full-time AD, David Loudermilk.

"Without discrediting people's feelings, I think things have calmed down," Loudermilk said. "As I've always told people, I never wanted to replace Tom or Jason. I just want to do my job the best I can."

More than 100 people auditioned for the Thalians' upcoming production of "Peter Pan," and more than 60 kids auditioned for an upcoming Thalian Association Children's Theater production of "The Music Man," suggesting that performers haven't abandoned the Thalians. Neither have audiences, judging by attendance for the Thalian Association's first full summer season at the Red Barn Studio, which the company took over from former Wilmington resident Linda Lavin last year.

"We've had a very successful summer season," Loudermilk said. "All of the shows were well-attended."

And while the Red Barn only seats 50 or so patrons, that the trio of plays were all recent Tony-winners on Broadway rather than sure-fire chestnuts from the past might be a clue that Wilmington's theater-going audience may be getting more sophisticated.

City sea change

A decade ago, the City Stage theater company, which performs most of its shows in a historic, fifth-floor Masonic hall in downtown Wilmington, was credited with bringing an array of edgy musicals and plays to Wilmington. Over time, however, the company raised eyebrows by re-producing initially successful shows two and three times or more.

"They did 'Tommy' twice in eight years," Wagenseller said. "'Tommy' shouldn't even be done once."

Earlier this year, founding artistic director Justin Smith and managing and musical director Chiaki Ito turned the company over to Rachael Moser, a longtime Wilmington theater performer who will host the StarNews Media Wilmington Theater Awards in January, and Nick Gray, who had been out of local theater for a while.

The two have big plans that include starting a "Fringe Festival" of original work in 2015 and becoming a professional Equity theater within five years.

"What I believe many still don't realize -- both in Wilmington's theater community and in the public -- is that City Stage Co. is actually a brand new company," Gray wrote in an email. "While Ian Moseley is remaining as our executive producer and former artistic director Justin Smith remains as our guiding light, my partner Rachael Moser and I are in many ways starting from scratch."

Recent weekends have seen "cleaning parties" refurbishing the notoriously well-worn City Stage space in preparation for the opening of "Carrie: The Musical" in October, a selection that hearkens back to the unexpected material the company staged when it first formed.

The changeover at City Stage is indirectly responsible for the formation of at least one new production company, C'est La Guerre, which will come to life later this month with a pub theater show, "The Lady in Question," at The Blind Elephant bar.

"We saw that things were going to be changing, and we wanted to throw our hat into the ring before things solidified," said Bryan Cournoyer, a performer who, with his wife, Nina Bays-Cournoyer, is one of the new company's producers.

Nothing new

To be sure, Wilmington's history is littered with the corpses of bygone theater companies with names like Tapestry, Five and Dime and Riverside.

"We have a little bell I ring in the office every time a new theater company is formed," said Tony Rivenbark, the executive director of Thalian Hall, who's been part of Wilmington's theater community since the late 1960s. "It's a stew. It's a soup. It bubbles up, then it simmers down."

Some see Wilmington's theater community as being linked to Wilmington's film community, which, given the uncertain state of the current film incentive, isn't necessarily good news.

"I think it's tied way closer than people realize," said Alisa Harris, whose TheatreNOW dinner theater just celebrated its second anniversary. "It's following the same pattern as it did 20 years ago. The film industry was booming at that same time, and lo and behold, how many theater companies started up? It was like a revolution of theater spurred by all these actors and technicians who needed something to do."

When filming largely left town because of what was then called "runaway production" to places like Canada, the theater community suffered, Harris said.

"I'm just so afraid of what's going to happen in the next couple of years," she said. "Three-fourths of our shows are (cast with) college students who are here for film and/or theater degrees. One of the reasons they're here is the film industry, and one of the reasons their professors are here is because of the film industry."

Others say that with the explosion in training and performance opportunities for young people, local stages should be well-stocked with up-and-coming talent for years to come. Add to that a concern that less experienced companies could overreach artistically, and there's a nice mix of sunbeams and storm clouds on the horizon.

Perhaps Robison, who returned to Wilmington after a six-year absence with the theater community in mind, sums it up best: "I'm as excited as I am trepidatious."

John Staton: 910-343-2343

Twitter: @Statonator

___

(c)2014 the Star-News (Wilmington, N.C.)

Visit the Star-News (Wilmington, N.C.) at www.starnewsonline.com

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Source: Star-News (Wilmington, NC)


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