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INTERVIEWS WITH ARTS, ENTERTAINMENT & MEDIA WINNERS

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Best Male Musician: Randy McQuay

One good thing out of COVID-19 quarantine is a new single from blues singer-songwriter, guitarist and Best Male Musician, Randy McQuay. While “Better with a Song” doesn’t have a release date yet, McQuay gave an acoustic performance of the song on his Facebook page. With NC’s phase two opening, allowing for certain businesses and activities resume with limited numbers, McQuay has a few upcoming local shows across town: Edward Teach Brewery on June 18, Blockade Runner’ Blues Brunch on June 21, Holiday Inn Wrightsville Beach on June 27, Cloud 9 Rooftop Bar on July 3, and Elijah’s on July 9.

After reaching out to McQuay for a quarantine playlist (linked at encorepub.com) a few weeks back, encore followed up to ask him about the love of his town.

encore (e): What’s your favorite part of living in Wilmington?

Randy McQuay (RM): My favorite part of living in Wilmington is the brewery, food truck and music scene. It’s really a special scene of small business owners that help each other prosper … and it’s a lot of fun.

e: What do you think is our town’s best hidden secret?

RM: Wilmington’s best kept secret is its people. There is a good vibe here overall.

e: What was the last thing you remember doing before things shut down?

RM: Play a brunch show at Blockade Runner (March 15). I streamed the performance in anticipation of what was to come.

I also went out for more supplies on the way home from the show. In hindsight, I wish I’d bought some more toilet paper.

e: What has this pandemic taught you about yourself? About your community? About the world at large?

RM: The pandemic has kept me on my toes. I’ve had to be very creative to make ends meet. While there are some very cool silver linings, streaming is pretty lame. Even through all of this, the local community and my fanbase has been very kind, understanding, supportive and generous to me. The world is an incredible place that humans will inevitably destroy.

e: What’s the best concert/theatre event/art show you’ve ever been to here?

RM: It’s so hard to pick my favorite concert. I’ve had the opportunity to be an opener for some really great bands that were touring through Wilmington.

I always love to see JJ Grey at Greenfield Lake. I had the chance to open for him in Myrtle Beach and he’s been one of my favorite artists since. His style and energy, along with the scenery at GLA, is such a perfect match. I remember taking my (now) wife and my mother to a show. It was fantastic!

Best Art Gallery: Art in Bloom Gallery

Art in Bloom Gallery (AIB) is making an appearance on our poll for the first time as Best Art Gallery 2020. Owned and operated by Amy Grant at 210 Princess Street, the gallery works with 45 or so artists. Though the pandemic has shut down the physical gallery to foot traffic, it hasn’t lessened its output via virtual tours or opening one-on-one for customers by appointment. More than ever, art is needed to bring joy and reflection to our chaotic world.

“Art has the power to change our community and improve the lives of our current and next generations,” Grant says.

We interviewed the gallery owner about life during COVID-19 and how it’s affecting her business.

Art in Bloom Gallery window display. Courtesy photo

encore (e): How are you processing the pandemic?

Amy Grant (AG): I am hoping in the November/January timeframe, we will have a change in leadership in the presidential and legislative branches of the federal government and in the legislature of North Carolina. We need leaders who will unite us and bring together collective efforts to reduce and eliminate COVID-19, and to also partner with the Black Lives Matter organization and other groups and individuals working for change.

e: Clearly, the pandemic has really changed life in ILM; give us an idea of how AIB has adjusted.

Amy Grant (AG): Our gallery team is adapting to life in the time of COVID-19. The gallery is open by appointment only by calling or texting 484-885-3037 (mobile). Face coverings are required, and the gallery provides masks, hand sanitizer, and handwashing stations as needed. The online gallery is open 24/7, and may be viewed and purchased via our website (we also ship). Virtual tours of the gallery are available at aibgallery.com/videos/virtual-tours (thanks to Steve Smith of Angle Pros). A tour is created each time we change an exhibit (about every 30-40 days)

Our current art exhibit is “Visions of Inspiration: Featuring Artists Brian Evans, Dianne Evans & Kirah Van Sickle,” through July 19, 2020. In addition, we are featuring photography by Barbara Snyder and scanography by Susan Francy.

We have a program where customers borrow selected art for up to three days to see the art at home to decide if it is a fit. If customers are not able to visit the gallery, we will deliver the art to the customer.

We created a “Studio Views” series where our artists share photos of their studios and stories of their lives during COVID-19. Also, we have created short films and video clips of our artists in their studios and/or at the gallery.

On April 20, I had a Zoom video chat with Miriam Oehrlein, the owner of New Elements Gallery, about art and galleries in the time of COVID-19. Depending on feedback from viewers, Miriam and I plan to have a series of chats on other topics of interest. Gallery owners in our area tend to be collaborative. I believe we are stronger working together, and these partnerships will be more visible during the pandemic.In the long run, this type of cooperation will make our area more visible as an arts destination.

e: How are you measuring/considering when to open up again?

AG: I believe the gallery will not be able to open to the general public until next year. We are being cautious and protective of everyone’s safety and health since there is currently insufficient testing, no contact tracing, no proven safe and effective treatments, and no vaccine against COVID‑19. Local and state cases of COVID-19 are increasing due to many variables including human behavior such as not wearing face coverings and being in denial of the pandemic. Also, many visitors on summer vacation are visiting our community from other areas, including COVID-19 hot spots. 

During my morning and evening walks, I have noticed we have more people in town and most people are not wearing face coverings. It seems as if simple, common-sense practices are being ignored. Perhaps many people are in denial or do not understand that wearing a mask protects other people as well as the person wearing the mask. Or maybe convenience and comfort are more important than taking responsibility for the health and safety of self and others. 

In order for the gallery to open to the public, we would need to see fewer cases of COVID-19, changes in human behavior, and public-health measures such as sufficient testing, comprehensive contact tracing, proven safe and effective treatments, and eventually an FDA-approved vaccine. We are monitoring local, state, and national emergency authorities for mandatory and recommended practices.

We also look to the Arts Council of Wilmington and to the North Carolina Arts Council for recommendations. “A Guide to Reopening the Arts” has been helpful (files.nc.gov/ncarts/guide_to_reopen_the_arts.pdf).

e: What’s coming up for the rest of 2020?

AG: We are reconfiguring our exhibits and events planned for 2020 and 2021. For example, we had planned an art exhibit in honor of the 40th Anniversary of the Lower Cape Fear LifeCare (aka Hospice) in July. We also had planned an exhibit about the Hidden History of Princess Street with Mike Williams of the Black on Black Project (https://www.blackonblackproject.com/) in November.We are rethinking what we might be able to display virtually.

At this time, we do not know if the American Craft Walk Wilmington will take place or if it will be virtual. It is scheduled for September 19 along Front Street. We have two booths scheduled to feature Bradley Carter (acrylic and mixed media) and Debra Bucci (oil on canvas and archival prints).

Our artists have also been flexible to meet customers during the appointments.Many have led to new connections, joy, and wonderful conversations.

Due to logistics and safety issues, we have ended our partnerships with other locations where we installed art and held receptions. We are working with several community partners to offer gift certificates for purchases of art over $200 from AIB Gallery. We are currently offering $25 gift certificates to Foxes Boxes Restaurant (takeout), Flytrap Brewing or The Basics Restaurant.

e: How many shows do you normally host a year? Are they typically group shows?

AG: AIB Gallery normally hosts about 25 shows a year counting art exhibits at 210 Princess Street (permanent gallery) and other locations, such as 216 N. Front Street, The ArtWorksTM, Ethan Allen Showroom, and various restaurants.Since the pandemic, we have hosted only group shows so far.

e: What is your most memorable show to date and why?

AG: It’s hard to pick one. Each art exhibit has something in common: original art by artists who are experimenting and willing to take risks. Each artist is evolving in his or her own way. Each artist is connected to the community in some way.

I will always remember our first art exhibit and opening reception on Friday, October 2nd, 2015 with Elizabeth Darrow’s original art (oil and oil and collage on canvas), Debra Bucci’s original art (oil on canvas), and Traudi Thornton’s stoneware and raku ceramics. I am grateful the artists took a chance on our start-up gallery. I am also grateful that over 100 people visited the gallery during the opening reception, despite the cat 1 Hurricane Joaquin.

I started to realize how much people love art in our community when people called the gallery to see if we would still be open during the hurricane. Other galleries had closed, and a lot of people told me that they had to see art!I lived a few blocks away from the gallery and had worn my rain boots and raincoat to walk to the gallery not knowing what to expect. When people called, I asked them to use their best judgment and not to drive during flood watches or warnings. The reception was a full house, and we sold a lot of art that night and the next day, Saturday in the middle of the hurricane.

e: Has art helped you get through this time (pandemic, racial injustices, economic shutdown)?

AG: Yes. In many ways, we are forced to be more creative and thoughtful. Working with original art has been good for everyone, including our families, staff, artists, customers, and colleagues. Art is a wonderful way to build stronger relationships and to enhance our skills including seeing, listening, and communicating, resulting in meaningful conversations.

I participate in Zoom meetings with the Arts Council of Wilmington and New Hanover County, and stay in touch with owners and managers of other art galleries and art spaces. Art is helping us stay connected and making us stronger. I also participate in Zoom meetings with an Arts Advocacy group via the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE) at UNCW. Last year and earlier this year, I participated in an Arts Equity 2020 project, supported by the Cape Fear Collective.I believe that project will reactivate in 2021.

I am sad and horrified at what is happening with the COVID-19 pandemic and with the struggle for justice and equity [among black Americans]. AIB Gallery and our gallery team support the Black Lives Matter movement.

I believe art has the power to change our community and improve the lives of our current and next generations. I hope what we are doing may contribute to the collective effort to improve our community. We strive to be the change we need to see in our local, state, national, and international communities.

e: What’s your favorite part of living in Wilmington?

AG: The Cape Fear River. I treasure early morning walks in downtown along the Riverwalk and have seen dolphins and other wildlife in and around the river. The water is brackish (saltwater and fresh water mixed together).

AIB Gallery partnered with the Cape Fear River Watch a few years ago during an art exhibit by the wonderful artist, Janette Hopper. There is so much to learn about the river. The work of the Cape Fear River Watch is important and reminds me not to take the river for granted.

Another favorite part of living in Wilmington is all of the nonprofit and commercial groups and individuals working to help people in our community.When I moved to Wilmington in late 2014, I started volunteering with DREAMS Center for Arts Education, an afterschool and summer camp arts program, and with Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard, an emergency food pantry.

Both organizations work closely with other groups in our community, and I like the way people work together without reinventing the wheel. DREAMS will be 25 years old in April 2022. And Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard is over 30 years old. I believe the work of these nonprofits and other groups are bringing us to a tipping point for real change, social justice, and equity.

e:What do you think our city should do to help evolve into a true artistic hub? What do we need to take it to the next level?

AG: [We] need to increase support of the Arts Council of Wilmington and New Hanover County (NHC), both financially and in other ways, such as partnering, raising awareness, volunteering time, and supporting arts programming. The mission of the council is to support artists and art organizations through innovative public/private partnerships that support jobs, stimulate commerce, and showcase the region as an arts destination.

The council works in partnership with the North Carolina Arts Council and with partners in Brunswick, Pender, and Columbus counties. Executive director Rhonda Bellamy also works with the Airport Authority, Chamber of Commerce, Wilmington Downtown Incorporated (WDI), the Greater Wilmington Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB), the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE) at UNCW, The Wilson Center at Cape Fear Community College (CFCC), Cucalorus Film Festival, WHQR Public Radio, the Wilmington Rail Trail, the Pedestrian Art Walk (Public Sculpture Program), the City of Wilmington, New Hanover County, and many other organizations and projects to make our area more visible as an arts destination.

I believe Wilmington is evolving into a true artistic hub in our own, unique way. From a visual art perspective, I believe we will see more public art, including murals. Dumay Gorham, III, the sculptor told me he would like to see public sculpture on every other block. I agree! I would like to see more art galleries and more spaces for artists to display and sell their art. Also, the visual arts rely on the culinary arts (restaurants), film, music, dance, theatre, literary, etc., to make our area more visible as an arts destination and hub.

Best Museum: Cameron Art Museum

Cameron Art Museum is one of many artistic pillars holding up Wilmington’s creative power. Each year the museum welcomes 60,000 visitors through its doors, as staff and more than 100 volunteers present numerous exhibitions, performance art pieces, classes, programs and even concerts in CAM Café.

We interviewed deputy director Heather Wilson, director of development John McDowell, curator of exhibitions and collections Bob Unchester, director of lifelong learning September Krueger and director of community engagement Nan Pope about how the museum has kept up its artistic output through the pandemic.

Durham-based artist Stephen Hayes cast the features of descendants and United States Colored Troops re-enactors for a sculpture, to be unveiled on CAM grounds in November 2021. The sculpture commemorates the 1,600 brave African-American soldiers who fought for their freedom and the freedom of their families at the Battle of Forks Road of the Civil War. Photo by Heather Wilson

encore (e): Clearly, the pandemic has really changed life at CAM. Give us an idea of how you’ve adjusted.

Heather Wilson (HW): We’re doing the best we can to stay connected with our community through our online offerings—virtual Art Explorers for children 0-5, lesson plans for students, Live@CAM music on Thursday nights, Escape Into the Vault Facebook Live programs with executive director Anne Brennan, member Zoom calls with curators and artists, and weekly meditation sessions. Our curator of exhibitions and collections, Bob Unchester, also launched six virtual exhibitions on our website to give our community a chance to visit the museum, virtually.

Of course, a big part of our relevancy strategy is our art park, Pyramid Park. During this time, the ducks on our grounds—and looking out through the window—have really inspired visitors. Our community has loved walking the grounds and visiting with and discovering the ducks, who remind everyone to wash your webs.

e: Do you guys have a date slated to open back up? When and what will that look like per following social-distancing measures and public safety rules?

HW: We will open when the state gives us the OK to do so—hopefully, in the next phase at the end of June. We will be embracing social distancing, hand-washing, and mask-wearing, and new plexi-glass shields will be installed at the visitor services desk, the shop and the café.

The café will reopen with a new menu and a newly renovated courtyard for outdoor seating. The café will also have curbside pickup.

e: When you do reopen what will be in store for visitors?

HW: We are so excited to welcome our community back to CAM. In July we’ll have a new exhibition, “She Persists,” showcasing women artists in our collection that connects with the women’s suffrage centennial and the idea of persistence in women’s lives.

e: What other fun stuff do you have planned for us, through all your outreach sectors, for 2020?

HW: All kinds of things! Anne Brennan will continue to bring us closer to the collection with her “Escape Into the Vault” series on Facebook Live; feminist artist Audrey Flack, whose work “Medea” is featured in She Persists, will join us for a member Zoom call in July; and our online youth and family programs will continue with Art Explorers on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 10 a.m., and two new lesson plans for teachers and families each week.

We’re working with local schools on preparing virtual field-trip options and outreach sessions for school children. The Come Hear NC music series is also slated for fall 2020. Elizabeth Bradford’s beautiful exhibition, “A House of One Room,” will open in the fall as well.”

e: Have there been any silver linings for the museum during the pandemic?

HW: Our community has really rallied around us online. It’s been gratifying to see our online community grow and stay engaged.

e: What’s your favorite part of living in Wilmington?

John McDonnell (JM): My two favorite things about Wilmington are the ocean and our amazing, vibrant arts scene. The ocean is good for the soul and has the power to heal, just like the arts. We are blessed to have both.

e: What’s the best visual art and/or performance art event you’ve ever been to here?

Bob Unchester (BU): I would consider State of the Art: Art of the State to be my favorite [held at CAM]. I feel the entire event is a performance piece for 24 hours straight, [artists line up to meet with curators for feedback on their art and then to hang their works in CAM]. We all performed: the museum staff, guest curators, the volunteers, community members and, of course, the artists.

September Krueger (SK): The current exhibit of Belden prints is so fresh and powerful in my mind.The Big Print event at Carolina Beach had that same kind of memorable energy and great work. 

In terms of performance, Mark Morris’ group at the Wilson Center (I think a year ago) for Veteran’s Day had a piece that took us back to WWII and another for 9/11. The works really captured the contrast in events in our military history and expression of patriotism.

e: What do you think is our town’s best hidden secret? Why?

HW: The CAM Café is a hidden gem and it delivers fresh, creative cuisine in the heart of the museum. We host Thursday nights at CAM Café with half-price bottles of wine, delicious food, and live music is the city’s best secret. With our newly renovated courtyard for outdoor dining and new menu focusing on high-quality fresh local ingredients, I’m afraid it won’t be a secret for long.

e: If you were granted one wish for ILM, what would it be? How would you like to see our city grow?

Nan Pope (NP): A bridge. Not the bridge that will get cars back and forth across the river (but that is desperately needed and I hope we see its construction), but the bridge we need to build is one that will foster healthy and healing dialogue between all citizens of our community. Passionate, yes, but peaceful. Let us understand each other and each other’s needs. Let’s talk! Together.

My wish for the world is a safe vaccine—soon!

Looking to the future of our area, I dream of more green space and green endeavors and public squares, more affordable housing, and a long break from hurricanes.”

e: How are you processing the uproar of voices being heard worldwide in the aftermath of George Floyd’s brutal killing?

HW: The killing of George Floyd and the protests in the aftermath have again laid bare the stark inequalities that exist in our nation. Of course, this is not new—systemic racism is deeply ingrained in our society. We at CAM acknowledge we are part of the problem; we need to hold ourselves accountable in tangible ways, and we are a viable part of the solution as well.

We know art—visual arts, music, dance, literature, and theater—help us to process, heal and find common ground. CAM is committed to helping our community to use art as a way to process this and to create dialogue to bring about an understanding of our common history and humanity, and to bring about change. Our advice to artists: Use your art as a means to process what is going on in the world right now and speak your truth. This experience will bring needed change at CAM and in the community, and we feel that our upcoming United States Colored Troops Public Sculpture Project by NC artist Stephen Hayes is more important now than ever before. —Shea Carver

 

Best Female Artist: Sarah Rushing Doss

Art, family, business and community or intricately intertwined for 2020’s Best FemaleArtist,Sarah Rushing Doss. With her husband Chef James Doss, she is in charge of food photography, art curation and marketing at his Castle Street restaurant Rx. Her bold and bright works have been seen all over ILM, including her 2019 exhibit “Choosing Happiness” at Flytrap Brewing and her murals, as seen on Benny’s Big Time and Rx. While social distancing has kept her more separated from the arts community she holds dear over the last three months, she tells encore how she’s staying involved regardless.

Sarah Rushing Doss paints a mural on the side of the restaurant, Rx, which she and her husband/chef James Doss own. Courtesy photo

encore (e): Have you been working on new art projects through the pandemic? Tell us about them.

Sarah Rushing Doss (SRD): I have done some painting and drawing, but I’ve really been grateful for the time to focus on observing and tucking away bits of inspiration, a necessary part of the artistic process.

e: What else have you done in the last year to help advance your artistic journey?

SRD: I began taking wheel-throwing classes and fell in love! I have professional potters in my family (my aunt and uncle make all of the pottery we use at Rx), so it’s always something I’ve been exposed to and interested in. I only wish I had pursued it sooner. There is something about finding that perfect balance with the clay that is so meditative to me.

e: Though it’s been a wild 2020 thus far, do you have plans for the rest of the year per any shows or sales, exhibits or classes, techniques you want to try or new media—tell us everything.

SRD: I went into this year thinking murals and ceramics would be my focus. My ceramics class is still not being offered due to the pandemic. In its absence as a meditative outlet, my interest has been shifting back toward drawing. I anticipate lots of pen-and-ink drawings in my future. I’m not quite sure what this year will hold, so I’ve been planning only for the short term.

I’m involved with No Boundaries International Art Colony, and we recently hosted an outdoor drive-by art show in the Chestnut Heights area, benefiting Good Shepherd and Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard. The show was a success and every participating artist sold work. It was so nice just seeing people walk, bike, and drive by and come together (at a distance) to spend time visiting, and feeling a little bit more normal for those two hours. We’re working to plan another outdoor art show for July. And then one of these days I’m going to finish up at Rx; I still want to paint the backside of the building by our parking lot.

e: What are you finding inspiration from nowadays per your artwork?

SRD: My plants! We’ve had the most beautiful spring I can remember; the weather has been perfect. My husband and I put in five new raised beds and filled them with vegetables, herbs, and edible flowers. It’s so fun putting together salads from our yard and constructing them using principles of design. I imagine more garden-inspired paintings or drawings will emerge sooner than later.

e: Have you had any new and exciting commissions you can tell us about?

SRD: Yes, I’ve been working with the Residents of Old Wilmington, who are interested in commissioning at least one mural for the downtown area. We’re still in the developmental phase of the project, and I’m still creating sketches and getting close to a final design—location to be determined.

e: What’s your favorite part of living in Wilmington?

SRD: The people. I love our community—there are so many kind, funny, interesting, creative folks here.

e: What do you think our city should do to help evolve into a true artistic hub? What do we need to take it to the next level?

SRD: I think we need to have a serious discussion about how to beautify our city through public art. I think we need an organized selection committee with a clear vision, and I think at least half of that committee should comprise folks with design experience.

We need our leaders to approach this with an open mind and get creative in their thinking—leaders who understand support of the arts can enhance our local economy, drive foot traffic and foster pride within our community. Kinston is a great example to look to: Their smART Kinston City Project Foundation is committed to growing Kinston’s economy through the arts and recruit artists by offering incentives such as affordable housing, fellowships, and community arts development.

e: Let’s say COVID-19 suddenly disappears and all of Wilmington is reopen. What does your first day back in the world look like?

SRD: Ideally, live music and lots of hugging!

e: Have there been any silver linings for you during the pandemic?

SRD: Absolutely, the biggest one being the forced slower pace of life and the extra time with my husband, dogs and friends (outdoors and at a distance, of course).

e: How are you processing the uproar of voices being heard worldwide in the aftermath of George Floyd’s brutal killing? How has it affected you toward personal change? Inspiring community change? Your art?

SRD:It has been so difficult to process the brutal murder of George Floyd. I understand that I can never fully comprehend the fear and oppression faced by generations of black people in America. Despite this, countless men and women of color have dug into their own pain and have lent their voices to shed light on their experiences, inspiring change in communities across America. We must honor these voices and work to create change in our own.

On a personal note, I feel it is my responsibility to help lift others up. James and I are donating 5% of total sales at Rx to one local charity committed to equity per week, for the next three weeks. The first charity we’ve selected is DREAMS of Wilmington, whose mission is to provide equitable access to arts education for children and teens.

I’m also working with my fellow No Boundaries board members to plan another outdoor, drive-by art show for July, which will benefit the Brigade Boys and Girls Club.

As for the future, I feel we must collectively and unwaveringly commit to making this world a safer and more hospitable place for everyone. —Shea Carver

Best Male Artist: Mark Herbert

Most families recognize Mark Herbert as a musician in the Broccoli Brothers Circus—a kids friendly local band that entertains at preschools, festivals and venues all over town. As a music teacher, Herbert gets to share the joy of performance art with kids daily. However, his artistic influence goes back two decades in ILM: as a founding musician of the funky rock outfit, Cosmic Groove Lizards, but also as a UNCW art school grad and visual artist, who has participated in a variety of exhibits, markets and fundraisers throughout the years.

It’sHerbert’s first time making an appearance on our readers’ poll. We spoke to him about his work and win as Best Male Artist 2020.

encore (e): Have you been working on new art projects through the pandemic?

Mark Herbert (MH): I have! I have been working on a lot of new projects, including some animation and music video projects. As an educator musician and visual artist, I have been spending a lot of time learning new skills in digital art, video editing and lots of animation techniques.

e: What else have you done in the last year to help advance your artistic journey?

MH: I have consolidated my websites all into a central platform at portcityart.com and have been cataloging my works. It’s quite a job in itself, and I also have been doing a lot of research about techniques to increase traffic and sales

e: Though it’s been a wild 2020 thus far, do you have plans for the rest of the year per any shows or sales, exhibits or classes, techniques you want to try or new media—tell us everything.

MH: Still doing a few limited socially distant markets but really trying to make my online presence a priority these days, taking a wait-and-see approach on some events scheduled for the fall but was actually trying to transition away from so many markets and shows and make things a bit more simple and streamlined

e: What are you finding inspiration from nowadays per your artwork?

MH: I have noticed I tend to go in cycles of being uninspired then inspired, and then somewhat overwhelmed with creative possibilities—drawing from nature and imagination, as well as[inspired by] the many creative folks around me. I consider myself a forever student, so there is always something new to learn about, and it usually leads to inspiration. Lately, I have been really fascinated with bugs

e: How have you etched out a living as an artist in the middle of the pandemic?

MH: I have was blessed with a lot of commission work right before the pandemic hit and was able to save a little back. I also got to work with the set decoration department on “The Lost Boys” right before.

I have always enjoyed giving to the community and started a weekly online 50/50 auction, with a different nonprofit each week (four in total). I was able to raise over $1,000 collectively, and I think it will get even better with consistency and momentum. A full schedule of upcoming auctions is on my website

e: What’s the best art show you’ve ever been to here?

MH: A lot of great ones. I really enjoy having a booth at Hugh MacRae park for Earth Day, and I enjoy Fermental’s Arts and Drafts. UNCW’s Art for the Masses was good the last time I was there and Poplar Grove Plantation [markets] are always fun, as well as Carolina Beach Farmers Market—so many to choose from.

e: What do you think our city should do to help evolve into a true artistic hub? What do we need to take it to the next level?

MH: I would love to see more murals in this town; it has started to progress, but I’d love to see lots more where that came from

e: Let’s say COVID-19 suddenly disappears, and all of Wilmington is reopen. What does your first day back in the world look like?

MH: That’s a tough one! Coming out of the COVID cave has been a lot more difficult than I ever imagined. I seem to have introvert tendencies these days, but I do miss some of the large-scale shows, especially with my band Broccoli Brothers Circus. I was really bummed we were not able to play Shakori Hills this year and UNCW Kenan Auditorium.

e: What do you think is our town’s best hidden secret? Why?

MH: Definitely the people—we are lucky to have so many artists who want everyone to succeed, and there is a great network of folks who share info about upcoming shows, tips and techniques

e: How are you processing the uproar of voices being heard worldwide in the aftermath of George Floyd’s brutal killing? How has it affected you toward personal change? Inspiring community change? Your art?

MH: Definitely doing a lot of learning and listening. I want to advocate for my brothers and sisters out there in pain, and have been feeling a lot of sadness and anger toward the system. But I am heartened by the peacefulness of protests and resolve our community has.

I’m educating myself as much as I can about history of oppression and trying to offer my support through organizations that promote equality.

e: What’s your one wish for Wilmington?

MH: Wilmington has been through a lot—just to keep staying strong and building up our outreach programs and to keep an open mind, be less quick to react and pass judgment.

e: Anything else you want to share?

MH: Just want to say thanks for the continual encouragement and support and to those aspiring artists out there. Make sure you keep it up and don’t get discouraged as obstacles present themselves because they inevitably will. I am happy to help with advice on things that work stay tuned for lots more and wishing everyone a safe healthy summer. —Shea Carver

 

Best Band: L Shape Lot

Does anyone remember life before everything shut down? You know, before Zoom meetings, Zoom social parties, Zoom appointments, Zoom classes, Zoom concerts…

“Hugging and shaking hands.” It’s what L Shape Lot’s Mykel Barbee misses most. According to his bandmate Alex Lanier, their last live showwas March 13 in Beaufort, NC.

“Friday the 13th of all days,” he punctuates. “I’m not superstitious, though [it’s] crazy to think it’s been three months since then!”

L Shape Lot was able to make a three-song performance during encore’s Bestival livestream on May 16, a fundraiser for Nourish NC. They also secured, once again, the award for Best Band in 2020. Hopefully, Wilmingtonians will get to see Barbee and Lanier alongside bandmates Rick Williams and Eric Miller on the live stage again soon.

encore (e): What’s your favorite part of living in Wilmington?

Rick Williams (RW): Just the awesome variety it offers for a mid-size city. I feel so fortunate to have access to such incredible natural beauty, great dining, a variety of breweries, and a smorgasbord of quality entertainment, without all the traffic, pollution, and cost of living that typically comes along with major U.S. cities. Wilmington is truly the best of all worlds.

Mykel Barbee (MB): Talent, food, beaches.

Alex Lanier (AL): Definitely the community. This place and the people in it felt like home the first time I came here to visit back in ‘99.

e: What do you think is our town’s best hidden secret?

AL: If I told you, it wouldn’t be a secret anymore.

MB: Mad Mole Mole Party.

RW: It’s the talent within our musical community. Under normal circumstances, I get really excited about having a weekend night off where I can pop in on two or three different live performances downtown, and many of the breweries will start live music in the afternoons or early evenings, so this old guy doesn’t have to stay up late, either. I’m always inspired by and learning from the talented musicians of Wilmington. I won’t even start naming names, because there are too many to do that without leaving someone out.

e: What has this pandemic taught you about yourself? About your community? About the world at large?

RW: It’s taught me to slow down. I needed that, and I needed that extra time with my family. Kids grow up fast, and it’s been like hitting the pause button right in the middle of my son’s childhood. That part has been great. It has also reminded me that playing music with these guys is infinitely more fun than playing music by myself. The range of impact of the pandemic on different folks has been so broad, and I have loved seeing the kindness that our community has shown to those who are suffering. There are always a few bad apples out there who will take advantage, but for the most part, we all care about each other.

AL: Pajama pants should be worn for more than just sleeping! [laughs] I think the shutdown has shown us that humans are not meant to be separated. I miss playing music with my friends. I miss the people that come to see us that are like family to us now. I miss the feeling of a good fist bump or a hug from a perfect stranger!

e: What’s the best concert/theatre event/art show you’ve ever been to here?

MB: Helmet l’ve at Soapbox Lounge.

RW: You are just a mean person for making me pick just one! I guess I have to go with Willie Nelson and Family at Greenfield Lake. The whole thing just felt surreal. I had been wanting to catch a Willie show for many years, and then for the opportunity to be at GLA just made it perfect.

AL: Greenfield Lake is a pretty special place. Lots of great shows and musicians have graced that stage and we’ve been fortunate enough to share it with some of the best. I think I’d have to say Umphrey’s McGee in 2019 was probably one of my favorite shows I’ve been to there, but it might be something else if you ask tomorrow.

e: If you were granted one wish for ILM, what would it be? How would you like to see our city grow?

RW: Right now I would just wish for this pandemic to be over so that folks around here could have some more of their suffering alleviated. So many folks are just getting by during what is supposed to be peak season for business in this area. We need jobs. We need hugs and high-fives. We need our people.

AL: Considering I live in Brunswick County, my wish for ILM would be a nice skyway bridge like they have in Charleston. Traffic is a lot better than it used to be, but I think everybody would appreciate that.

MB: Safe. Happy. Healthy. A community united.

e: Any new music in the works?

RW: We are finally making some progress on a new recording with Trent Harrison at Hourglass Studios. No projected release date. When we have one, we will announce it on our Facebook page. —Shannon Rae Gentry

Best Comedy Troupe: Pineapple-Shaped Lamps
Best Play: Wolfcrush

Pineapple-Shaped Lamps have hosted encore’s Best Of awards for the last six years. 2020 proved to be a tricky bastard, turning our Bestival and fundraiser for Nourish NC into a livestream event, wherein PSL announced all our winners in between comedy sketches and live music from local nominees. It was a blast—especially for the hosts, who scored two awards: Best Comedy Troupe and Best Play for “Wolfcrush.”

We interviewed a few PSL members and the director of “Wolfcrush” about their wins.

“Wolfcrush” takes the win for Best Musical 2020. Photo courtesy of Pineapple-Shaped Lamps

encore (e): What do you love most about Wilmington’s theatre scene?

Wesley Brown (WB): How much of a living organism the theatre scenes seem to be. We are constantly evolving, adapting and trying to move forward. I’ve only been around a little over 10 years, which is relatively new compared to some. I really look forward to what happens next for us as a whole; I know we will get through this and come out on top, even if we have to evolve again to do so.

e: Why did you want to do “Wolfcrush” in 2019?

Matt Carter (MC): I felt like it was the natural next step. In a way, “Wolfcrush” fell into my life. We had a meet-cute, you could say! Pineapple-Shaped Lamps announced they were accepting submissions to direct for their upcoming season in January of last year. A few weeks later, I came across the queer little nightmare that is “Wolfcrush” while scouring the internet for plays. I was delighted because I really wanted to direct something that spoke to my identity as a gay person. This show felt dangerous, messy and very fun. It embodied everything I love about theatre.

Theatre is a world of impossibilities made possible right in front of the audience. There is always a risk involved with selecting potentially divisive or unknown shows, but I hope by taking risks that pay off it encourages more shows like “Wolfcrush” to get produced. I’m so grateful it was recognized!

e: What did you love most about doing this show?

MC: It was the most difficult thing I ever had to do. We had to implement intimacy choreography, an original soundtrack, and a werewolf transformation. It was incredibly hard, and it was awesome.

Other than the challenge, I’d say the cast and my assistant director (Lucy O’Brien) and stage manager (Azaria Ross) [were] so dedicated to making this show work. I couldn’t have asked for a better group in the rehearsal room.

e: What’s the crux of the show, and how do you think its message resonates with viewers?

MC: This script speaks, in a grander sense, to the confusion and horror of one’s body changing in adolescence. You start to develop carnal desires, and everything is scary and new.

On a deeper level, this was a show that spoke to a uniquely queer experience. It encapsulates the fear that comes from realizing something inside you is different. You feel like you are transforming into some kind of monster just beneath your skin. You worry every can see underneath, that they can tell there is something wrong with you.

Wrestling with those feelings is illustrated so viscerally in “Wolfcrush.” I cried when I read it the first time. Becoming queer involves quite a bit of growing pains, more often than not. What the show says is, once the pain is over, a beautiful new creature is born. Someday it will not hurt so much. Someday you will still be that monster you are worried to become, and it will feel incredible to finally feel comfortable in your monstrous, beautiful body.

In the end, “Wolfcrush” is about realizing that monstrous doesn’t mean ugly, and those feelings inside can’t hurt you once you learn to love them.

e:Can you share with us the funniest behind-the-scenes moment?

MC: There are so many. I love this group of people so dearly and they crack me up, even the run crew. I’m not sure how “blue” I can get with these responses, but needless to say a show about sexuality produces a lot of notes that are pretty absurd out of context. My favorite thing about the literal behind-the-scenes, as in backstage during the show, was that our SFX designer Nicole Horton would have to lay on her back just out of view to help Daniel transform into a werewolf, while he was still onstage. It was a funny and impressive feat.

e: What’s the best theatre production you’ve ever been to here? Why does it stand out to you?

Devin DiMattia (DM): I saw City Stage’s 2014 production of “Assassins” and was (forgive the pun) blown away by it. It captured what the Wilmington theatre community does best: an exceptionally well-cast show with actors playing to their strengths; a versatile set that made the most of the quirks and limitations of the Level 5 stage; and, of course, “Assassins” itself is Sondheim at the height of his power.

e: Do you have a bucket-list show you want to produce?

WB: We started out as a “Rocky Horror Picture Show” shadowcast before we ventured into theatre, and it has always been our dream to perform the musical live. For our 10-year anniversary as a company this year, we plan to produce “The Rocky Horror Show” at the USO/Hannah Block Theatre this October. However, this may be postponed with the current pandemic. Only time will tell.

e: How has the pandemic affected PSL, good and bad?

DD: We’ve used our now-copious amounts of free time to delve into the weird, wild world of Twitch. PSL already had a Twitch channel for the past year, but it mostly lied dormant, so to be able to use it as this avenue to experiment with streaming comedy content has been a godsend. I have used our Twitch to try different live show formats, including “PSL Unstaged,” which is where we do live readings of sketches we have yet to put onstage. (Turns out there’s quite a lot of those!)

e: What do you miss most about pre-pandemic life here?

Holly Cole Brown (HCB): I miss the live entertainment. I’ve watched TV until my eyes have bled, but it doesn’t compare to the feeling you get sitting in an audience and watching a live performance. The give and take between the crowd and the performers onstage is an electric energy; nothing beats it.

e: What are some of your favorite ILM attractions?

HCB: Downtown Wilmington as whole is one of my favorite places to be in this city. Standout favorites of downtown are the Ghost Walk of Old Wilmington, Thalian Hall and the Riverwalk.

e: You get one meal to eat whatever you want from businesses across Wilmington. What are you eating/drinking?

WB: I would probably say Detour Deli. I would go there all the time to have lunch meetings for PSL. So I think part of me just misses that, but also their sandwiches are amazing!

e:If you were granted one wish for ILM, what would it be? How would you like to see our city grow?

WB: When this is all said and done I hope people will continue to support local Wilmington business as fiercely as they are now. Especially hoping that people return to live events, be it theatre or music. —Shea Carver

Best Musical: La Cage aux Folles

Opera House Theatre Company has been bringing live musicals to Wilmington since Lou Criscuolo founded it in 1985. Though Criscuolo passed away in 2014, the company carries on his creative vision, thanks to artistic director Justin Smith, associate producers Ray Kennedy and Tina Leak and company manager Alice Sherwood.

We interviewed Ray Kennedy, who directed “Las Cage aux Folles,” about the experience and what’s ahead for him and OHTC in 2020.

encore (e): How do you think you guys are carrying on Lou’s vision? 

Ray Kennedy (RK): I think Lou’s vision has always been to produce excellent theatre and produce seasons that had variety and not be afraid to take risks.

I think we are true to his vision, and with Justin Smith at the helm [as artistic director], I think we have elevated the theatre experience at Thalian Hall.

e: How many plays would you say you’ve directed for them?

RK: I tried to count that one day and with the holiday cabaret shows added in, I think it’s over 75. Remember, my first show with OHTC was “Company” in 1987.

e: What did you love most about doing “La Cage”?

RK: The mix between the story of the men in the heart of the show and the wonderful dancing by the Cagelles.

e: Do you think its message resonates with viewers?

RK:Yes. I especially loved the review by Gweynfar in which she really got that the show was about Georges [being] caught between his husband, Albin and his son, Jean Michel.He loves both so much and is trying to please both. The story prevailed amidst all the glitz and glamour.

e: What feedback did you hear from folks? 

RK: They loved it all: Jerry Herman’s score, the costumes and most of all the performances!

e: Can you share with us the funniest behind-the-scenes moment?

RK: Two words: Cullen Moss. Anything he does off or onstage is always hysterical.

e: How has the pandemic affected OHTC? 

RK: We’rerethinking the summer—but it has not gotten us down!We added a webcam show, “Musical Theatre Mondays,” and got creative!

e: What’s your favorite part of Wilmington theatre?

Ray Kennedy (RK): The wonderful talent represented in the actors/actresses/and creative team. A real family.

e: What was the last thing you remember doing before things shut down?

RK: I was in Florida seeing friends and enjoying restaurants on the water.

e: Let’s say COVID-19 suddenly disappears and all of Wilmington is reopen. What does your first day back in the world look like?

RK: The theatre—live music! Something creative!

e: Have there been any silver linings for you during the pandemic? 

RK: Yes, with all the time, I finally got serious and sat down and wrote a play! It has been rattling around in mind for 25 years and I finally just said, ”It is now or never. Just do it!”

e: What’s it about?

RY: It’s a Southern play, based on truths from my childhood. It takes place in La Grange, NC, in 1970 at the beginning of desegregation. The cast is 11 women and is at times very funny. Other times, it explores some of the ugly truths of segregation in the ‘60s and ‘70s.

e: What has this pandemic taught you about yourself? About your community? About the world at large?

RK: I can be by myself and I can cook! About the community? We need each other, [whether] that is through the phone, text, social media. When we connect, we are stronger.

About the world at large? Good and Bad. Good: the medical community—unbelievable nurses and doctors putting their lives at risk daily. Bad: Some people are really selfish. They do not care about others and do not realize how their actions can make someone become sick and die.

e: What’s the best theatre production you’ve ever been to here?

RK: That is a very hard question. I am very proud of Opera House’s production of “Cabaret”—it was bold, and Cannon Starnes was an amazing MC. ( Full disclosure: I directed it, lol.)

I also was blown away when I saw my first OHTC production: Clifton Daniels in “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.” And I loved “The Women” by Minerva Productions.

e: What are some of your favorite ILM attractions? 

RK: Thalian Hall, the entire [downtown] historic district, the Blockade Runner, CAM.

e: What do you think is our town’s best hidden secret?

RK: I can’t tell you! It might be discovered—but it revolves around sports and food.

e: If you were granted one wish for ILM, what would it be?

RK: Better water. Better infrastructure.

e: How would you like to see our city grow? 

RK: Smartly—do not take away character for more people. —Shea Carver

 

Jeff Phillips played Albin/Zaza in “La Cage aux Folles” at the beginning of 2020. Courtesy photo

Best Actor: Jeff Phillips

Earlier this year, Jeff Phillips fulfilled one of his lifelong acting goals: playing Albin/Zaza in Opera House Theatre Company’s “La Cage aux Folles.” Now that he’s checked the role off his bucket list, he’s dreaming of the day he can play Marvin in “Falsettos,” Barry Glickman in “The Prom” or—for a real treat—Julia Sugarbaker in “Designing Women,” scheduled to premiere mid-August in Arkansas before moving on to the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. The latter role would be a (high-heel) shoe-in for Phillips, as the actor demonstrated his ability to turn up the sass in depicting the larger-than-life Zaza. The performance earned him Best Actor in a Musical at the Wilmington Theater Awards in March, as well as encore readers’ choice for Best Actor.

“Albin/Zaza is a huge and physically demanding part,” Phillips says. “It took a village to bring it to light. The dressing and tech crew carried me through it. As much as I loved being onstage, I enjoyed just as much the one-and-a-half hours in the makeup chair with Sarah Holcomb; discussing preset with my dressers Denise Bass and Terrill Williams; and the sweet care Krista Leigh Rivenbark took to make sure that I stayed hydrated and had my Biotene sprays.”

COVID-19 brought a halt to Phillips’ momentum, canceling both his cameo as Florenz Ziegfeld in “Funny Girl” and another role he isn’t able to disclose, but it hasn’t dampened his enthusiasm. We interviewed the local actor about performing in “La Cage” and his love for community theatre.

encore (e): When we spoke about your Best Of win last May, you said your dream role was to play Albin in “La Cage.” Tell me about fulfilling that dream.

Jeff Phillip (JP): Isn’t that crazy? “La Cage” was not even on the radar then. There were at least three other shows being discussed that were in the front-runner positions to be produced. “La Cage” had been tossed around in conversation for about five years. I pitched it in February of last year and never gave it much thought after that. I received word [OHTC] was moving forward with it the day my husband, Andy, found out his cancer had come back and would be restarting chemo. We were sitting in the parking lot of the Zimmer Cancer Center, shell-shocked, and the message came through. I was about to reply I would not be able to do the show, but Andy grabbed my hand and told me he wanted me to do the show and he needed to see me onstage again. My mindset was: If it is meant to be and meant for me, it will happen.

e: How many years have you been doing theatre in Wilmington? Tell me about your fondest memories.

JP: I have been performing in Wilmington and working for Opera House for 29 years. The memories are vast; the people and shared experiences are priceless. I remember the first laugh I got from [now-deceased OHTC founder] Lou Criscoulo. But what I really recall is how the Wilmington audience has grown with us and how they have trusted our choices.

When I first started doing theatre in Wilmington, [Stephen] Sondheim shows were box-office poison. Over time our audience taste levels have grown as a result of people moving in and [the company getting] exposure. I have now done three Sondheim shows on the main stage: [playing] Bobby in “Company,” Sweeney in “Sweeney Todd” and Baker in “Into the Woods.” Each was commercially successful.

Also, the audiences have accepted more “controversial” subject matter. In the early ‘90s, I did a show called “The Lambda” about a Southern gay bar in the 1970s. It was done in the Thalian Hall studio theater and was a huge cult hit. But I remember straight “church people” were sneaking in up the backstage entrance stairs because they were afraid their friends would see them coming to the play. Funny thing was their friends were sneaking in, too.

Flash forward to March 2017 and “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” was so popular on Thalian’s main stage that we revived and remounted the production nine months after its initial closing. No other main stage show has ever done that. Then to do “La Cage,” where high-powered Republicans were driving down from Raleigh and sitting beside drag queens and having a blast—better still, seeing parents bringing their 6-year-old sons, sitting front row, dressed in their Elsa dresses, cheering on Miss Zaza! No one can ever tell me the arts don’t matter—that the arts don’t change the hearts and minds of people.

How lucky and blessed I have been to be part of productions that helped move the needle of acceptance and understanding. I will forever be proud of that.

e: What’s the best theatre production you’ve ever been to in ILM?

JP: As an audience member, three shows come to mind: Opera House’s production of “Oklahoma,” City Stage’s production of “Assassins,” and Thalian Association’s production of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”

e: What has this pandemic taught you about yourself? About your community? About the world at large?

JP: The coronavirus pandemic has reminded me to stop waiting to live my best life—live it now while you can. Don’t put off those trips. Don’t put off that hug. Do it! You never know when you might not be able.

I think for the community it has demonstrated how clever and resilient we can be.

I am hoping the lesson for the world is no country or person is independent of the other. Everything we do has an impact on someone or someplace else. The world truly is smaller than we realize. We cannot be isolationists. Everyone’s actions matter.

e: What appeals to you most about life in Wilmington? 

JP: Wilmington has helped provide me the life I have always dreamed. I never really dreamed of fame or fortune. I dreamed of living in place where I could have family and friends that loved and nurtured each other. A place where I could have a job that intellectually and financially fulfilled me. A place where I would be accepted and be able share what talents I might have to, hopefully, make someone’s day or life a little brighter. Wilmington has been that place for me.

e: What do you think is our town’s best-kept secret?

JP: The talent in the artistic community. I don’t think even Wilmington folks realize the depth and quality of talent found here. When I have friends from LA, Chicago, NYC or Atlanta come see a show, they are always gobsmacked by the talent and production levels. Wilmington is my Broadway.

Give money, people! Support higher ticket prices for locally produced events.

e: If you were granted one wish for ILM, what would it be?

JP: My wish would be for better urban planning and local leadership with a greater creative vision. I think we are missing the mark with how we are developing downtown and not nurturing the character that is here. We need more dynamic green spaces across the city, like Smith Creek Park. We also need several 200-250 seat theaters built so theatre companies can produce smaller and cost-efficient programming. —Shea Carver

 

Best Film: What the River Knows

Last fall the annual Cucalorus Film Festival got underway during the second week of November. Local filmmaker Alicia Inshiradu (featured left) was ready to debut a shortened director’s cut of her longer feature film, “What the River Knows,” alongside a stage reading, as one of the festival’s works-in-progress. The passion project had been a 20-plus-year endeavor for the creator, writing and rewriting a fictionalized story based on the Wilmington Massace of 1898, wherein an African American-led government in Wilmington, NC, was overthrown by white supremacists in a coup d’etat.

“The crux of the film is that a man was secretly murdered and buried a 100 years ago and still no one knows—not even his family—and no one has had to answer for the atrocious crimes of domestic terrorism to date,” Inshiradu explains. “I chose to make it a fictional narrative instead of a documentary so as to take creative license to imagine an undocumented, unproven act by creating a character who actually witnesses the bodies of innocent dead black men being thrown into the Cape Fear River, then he is murdered and secretly buried where that information was never known before, hence the title ‘What The River Knows.’”

Inshiradu sold out the Cucalorus event and garnered so much praise, “What the River Knows” became the repeat final screening of the five-day festival. By heavily organizing the event with top-notch marketing, the feedback was overwhelmingly positive, despite the content being so heartbreaking.

“I think [Cucalorus executive director] Dan [Brawley] chose the film as the final repeat because he realized how important the story was to the community,” Inshiradu says. “Also because the community felt betrayed to just be finding out about this auspicious event after over 100 years, they were thrilled and fulfilled to finally see an inspired, personalized story revealing the history.”

We interviewed Inshiradu about “What the River Knows” and what’s next for its larger release.

encore (e): So, tell us where you are with “What the River” Knows since we last spoke for Cucalorus coverage.

AI: This year when COVID-19 hit America in early March, I hadn’t yet had a lot of quality time to turn the rough cut at Cucalorus into the next phase of the project: a final industry-standard director’s cut, which needs to be completed in order to begin submitting the film project marketing package. That will include the film and an updated rewrite of my original 100-page feature script, from which the short script was excerpted. The goal of the project is to create a proof-of-concept film highlighting the feature-length script in order to attract an agent, studio, producer and/or investors interested in producing the feature itself.

The success of the staged short film and script reading, followed by the rough cut viewing at Cucalorus, showed me the story of the massacre needs to be resurrected and redeemed. Wilmington deserves to know the impact that historic event has had on its community and on our shared national history. So many viewers thanked me for telling the story and are eager for the community and the country to see it in its entirety.

e: What did you hear back during Cucalorus, per the film’s reception?

AI: They loved it, despite a few issues with sound, pixelations. I included the staged reading to ensure the audience left having a clearer sense of what actually happened in 1898.

After the screening, I met with my executive producers, and one suggested we consider adapting the feature script as a stage play. It takes years sometimes for a feature script to make it to the silver screen—and we want to give this story to the residents of Wilmington and to America who was affected by the historical event as soon as possible. So a stage play is being considered, and we hope to meet with local theater houses to discuss the idea.

e: What has the most rewarding part of making the movie so far?

AI: Seeing my script come to life on the silver screen! The short excerpted script went through several rewrites, including during post production. Advancing my skills as a director also was beneficial.

Also, selling out the successful Cuc event and winning encore’s Best Independent Film. That win was a result of the marketing work I did once I was nominated. I organized a Facebook Live viewing of the rough cut and offered private viewings via email. I had to make sure folks got to see the film in order to vote for it.

e: Do you have plans to submit it to other festivals soon?

AI: Although the film was created as proof-of-concept piece to be sent as a marketing package for potential production investors of the feature script, we probably will utilize film festivals to expose it to potential producers once we have a completed director’s cut. But, because of several technicalities, the finished product may end up feeling like more of a glorified trailer and would probably be more effective going directly to agents, producers, investors, as opposed to film festivals.

e: So I have to address the obvious: You’re in the trenches of doing a movie about white supremacists murdering a black man and its aftereffects on a family 100 years apart (1898-1998). How are you processing what’s happening now (and has been for centuries) with the nationwide/worldwide protests in response to the brutal death of George Floyd?

AI: It’s ironic. We have had to live with a white supremacy mindset since slavery was abolished in 1865. In the feature script of “What the River Knows,” a full-scale riot almost breaks out in 1998 when a black teenager is brutally beaten by a gang of whites for dating a white girl. I say “almost” because the black community had to be “talked down” from taking matters into their own hands. I included this because the possibility of racial unrest will always become a reality in modern-day America, until the issue of racial reconciliation and institutional racism become a national priority, and until some level of national racial reparations is thoroughly addressed. For most blacks in America have lived in a state of domestic terrorism since the Emancipation Proclamation was signed by Lincoln.

Also, here is a Facebook post I wrote on 1 June 2020: “Ok, so they’re deploying the National Guard. Let’s hope they will do their job and provide protection to peaceful protesters who have the Constitutional right to protest—especially, if outside instigators are coming in and initiating the violence and looting and burning. But there’s an agenda out there (one that might even have infiltrated the National Guard, the police force and state patrols) that wants you to loot and burn, that wants to agitate violence, that wants to start a race war. (Trumpism has been blowing that dog whistle since 2016.) But then there’s so many of my white friends and other whites who are finally stepping up, saying “Enough.” Thank you my friends, black and white, for your show of solidarity. And sending love and light to martyr George Floyd and his family. And to all people of color who have to live under racist white supremacy conditions. Stay safe. Stay healthy. Don’t stoop down to their level of hatred and evil. It will make you physically ill. Instead, educate yourself. (Ignorance is harmful.) Join progressive groups (that get things done). Express your emotions through writing and other poignant creativity. (Make a movie.) Attend peaceful protests (if you feel moved to do so). I love you all.”

e: What do you miss most about pre-pandemic life in ILM?

AI: Drumming and dancing, eating out, going to the movies, hugging and kissing my friends and family, making my next short film, “Meltdown,” in which a female filmmaker has a meltdown in a bathtub. Haha!

e: So has the pandemic been a creative time for you?

AI:  Yes! I have been developing my next feature-length script, “The Last Fear,” set in the present (so COVID-19-related issues will be there). It’s also set in the ‘70s. about a young artist and her spiritual and healing journey. I am in a position, from now on until I die, where I won’t have to work outside my home in a job not related to what I love to do: make short films and write feature scripts. So, moving forward, I will do remote online work, scoring essays and tutoring, and will be able to have control over my own time in terms of serving my passion as a filmmaker and screenwriter.

e: What has this pandemic taught you about yourself? About your community? About the world at large?

AI: It has reinforced my spiritual beliefs, as well as the importance of self-care, respect and compassion for others. It has taught me it’s up to me to be healthy, and it’s up to me to go after what I want—not to sit around and wait for things to happen. You have to make things happen. I early retired and paid my dues. People should be in a position to pursue what they are passionate about, as well as do what they can to serve and support the whole. If one part of our community is weak, the whole community suffers.  People now have the time to reflect on what it is they want to do for themselves and for their community and our world.

e:  What appeals to you most about life in southeastern NC?

AI: Coming from up north, I appreciate the  slower pace, the proximity to the river and beaches, an established film community, and the loads of multi-talented people who live here.

e: What do you think is our town’s best hidden secret?

AI: Talent, spirituality and natural healthy living. There are so many multitalented people, and we are seeing they are coming out of the woodwork when offered forums and opportunity to do their talents.

There are also many natural health practitioners because in post COVID-19, it will all be about self-care, self-healing, and self-love, which transforms into compassion and service to the communities to which we belong.

e: How would you like to see our city grow?

AI: I’d love to see city leaders realize it takes dedication to all of its people/residents, and not to corporations and builders, to have a healthy, vibrant and thriving community. I hope it opens the eyes and hearts of our city leaders to realize the entire population needs to be nurtured and uplifted if the city is going to be strengthened.Sustainability, equality, sincere and selfless leadership. —Shea Carver

 

Best Female Musician: Jenny Pearson

Singer-songwriter and guitarist Jenny Pearson was born and raised in Wilmington. She currently balances music in ILM while completing her master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling at UNC-Pembroke. Despite a heavy schedule, Pearson says she looks forward to finally recording some of her original music to share with Wilmingtonians, who voted her Best Musician – Female in 2020.

“I have been playing around in Wilmington since I was 16 years old, and winning this category made me feel very accomplished and privileged to even be considered,” Pearson says. “It truly means a lot.”

Pearson’s sound and style marry her lyrics with acoustic-pop vibes, a la Jack Johnson, John Mayer or Jason Mraz. Her songs are relatable, often written about falling in love, breaking up, personal struggles, or lifting oneself into a better state of being.

Pearson mixes originals with crowd-pleasing covers and showcases some of her work on Facebook (@JennyPearsonMusic).

encore caught up with Pearson about her win and what’s to come in 2020.

encore (e): What do you think is our town’s best-kept secret?

Jenny Pearson (JP): When one does their research on the town’s history, it is a very unique town. For example, the downtown area is my personal favorite for the culture and history that has been built in this town.

e: What was the last thing you remember doing before things shut down?

JP: School and playing shows were very consistent in my life before the pandemic. Looking back, I remember playing many shows and not having [any concern] of the pandemic on the mind. Looking forward, all of this will be a learning experience.

e: What has this pandemic taught you about yourself? About your community? About the world at large?

JP: I am religious person, so I believe that God needed to slow us down a bit and give us more of a reality check.Before the pandemic, I was so fast-paced and never made time for myself. So, staying home for two months gave me more time with my fiancé and I even started cooking more. I imagine that the community and the world at large is taking this time to take better care of themselves and the people around them.

e: What’s the best concert/theatre event/art show you’ve attended here?

JP: Man, this is a hard question. I really enjoy going to Thalian hall shows. The building speaks for itself—it has so much history and I think they give the best shows for sure.  —Shannon Rae Gentry

     

Best Radio Station: Penguin 98.3
Best Radio Personality: Beau Gunn, Penguin 98.3

Beau Gunn has been with 2020’s Best Radio Station, Penguin 98.3, for more than a decade now, overseeing tunes that spin on the Triple A station by some of ILM’s fave DJ personalities. Gunn himself won encore’s Best Radio Personality for 2020 and can be heard Monday through Friday, from 3 – 6 p.m., along with fellow DJs Kim Swinny (7 a.m. to noon) and Eric Miller (noon – 3 p.m.). We spoke with Gunn about the wins and what he loves most about living in Wilmington.

encore (e): How many times have you won radio station/radio personality?

Beau Gunn (BG): The Penguin has won best radio station for the last 15 years. I have won radio personality four times total—all of which I am grateful for.

e: What do you love most about your job?

BG: Turning people on to new music or new artists. To me, that never gets old because it’s like opening up the door to a new universe for someone to explore.

e: How has the pandemic affected your job—per content and in general?

BG: Like many other people, I have been spending much of the day working from home. That can be a tough balancing act with two kids under 5 at home as well. As for picking/programming music, it’s impossible not to listen to music through the lens of current events. The “temporary normal” is all around us, so naturally it permeates our decisions when choosing what songs to play.

e: What’s your favorite part of living in Wilmington?

BG: Living in a city that is so close to the water. Oh, and the music scene.

e: What do you miss most about pre-pandemic life here?

BG: CONCERTS!

e: What’s the best concert you’ve ever been to here?

BG: Lukas Nelson & Promise Of The Real at the Hurricane Florence relief show.

e: What, if any, silver linings have you found during the pandemic?

BG: I was able to convince Eric Miller to shave his beard for the first time in 25 years.

e: How have you been spending your free time? Have you had more during all this?

BG: I’ve been spending a lot of time with the family. Our 4-year-old officially learned to ride a bike, so we’ve been going on a lot of bike rides.

e: You get one meal to eat whatever you want from businesses across Wilmington. What are you eating/drinking?

BG: The duck from RX, along with a Waterman’s Sandblaster beer.

e: What are you most looking forward to for when this is over?

BG: The return of shows at Greenfield Lake Amphitheater. —Shea Carver

 

Best Website
PortCityDaily.com

Port City Daily has become the go-to news source for folks looking to get the hard details on news stories locally that otherwise wouldn’t be revealed.

“I think we do actually get to move the needle on the issues sometimes,” managing editor Ben Schachtman says, “and give people a voice who might otherwise not get a say in what’s going on.”

Case in point: Recently, in Rocky Point the Kita family made national headlines when their daughter went missing and was suspected to be seen last with a young man named Josiah. A makeshift search party went to the wrong home, where African American, 18-year-old Dameon Shepard, answered the door to a group of armed vigilantes, including a New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office detention officer, Jordan Kita

The story stands out to Schachtman as PCD doing what it does best. “It was complicated and controversial,” he says, “and pushed us all to do our best to dig in. We got some hate mail, but more positive feedback, which is always a good sign.”

e: What has been your favorite story you reported?

BS: I think the incident in Rocky Point—though I don’t know that “favorite” is quite the right word. It was ultimately a sad and frustrating story all around, but at the same time that’s the job.

But if someone wants to open a pup-petting taco’n’taproom in my neighborhood, that could steal the crown

e: How has the pandemic affected your job—per content and in general?

BS: A lot of what we do isn’t immediately apparent in the reporting: it’s being out and about and talking to people, seeing what’s going on or hearing about it from people. Some of that has been happening with online communities—and we’re grateful for all the people who have reached out to us during this—but it’s definitely been trickier.

e: Have you noticed any trends in news since the pandemic hit?

BS: There was definitely some desperation for content on a few days. Press releases and low-hanging fruit got more prominence than they might otherwise have. Honestly, we’ve been busier than ever, and the news has been as weird and unpredictable as it always is.

e: What do you love most about living in Wilmington?

BS: Wilmington has potential. It’s big enough to matter and small enough to change.

e: What, if any, silver linings have you found during the pandemic?

BS: By and large, the weather was astoundingly nice. On the few rainy days, the “stay-at-home” really sank in and felt like lockdown. My wife and I spent a ton of time outside, jogging or walking around, so that was nice.

e: How else  have you been spending your free time? Have you had more during all this?

BS: I’ve had less free time, actually, but again, that’s the job. I did spend a lot less time in the community, since most of our interviews were by phone, Zoom, etc. I think I spent that time cooking more!

e: Speaking of food, you get one meal to eat whatever you want from businesses across Wilmington. What are you eating/drinking?

BS: This is an evil question. There are so many talented cooks and brewers. But here’s my best shot: all of my favorite cooks make their best single bite—it could be ceviche, the tiniest taco, the perfect bite from the perfect steak and local arugula, a spoonful of grits. In fact, all of that—and then I’d pair it with a ridiculous flight of local beers, like a 6-foot-long liquid smorgasbord.

e: What’s the best concert/theatre event/art show you’ve ever been to here?

BS: That’s hard. C.O.C. at Mars? The Sword at Blue Eyed Muse? Jake and the Evil Redneck at Soapbox? ASG … all over the place?

Honestly, though, I think my favorite was sometime in 2004 or 2005 at Lucky’s. My girlfriend (now wife) and I saw this band whose name you might not be able to print in most outlets (The Twats). They closed out the show with a cover of Jethro Tull’s “Locomotive Breath” that was one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen. We did shots with the singer, who went by another unprintable name, after the show. She was, I think, a kindergarten teacher. Her husband was the drummer. They were the sweetest, nicest people. We still talk about that show, 15 some years later.

e: What are you most looking forward to for when this is over?

BS: High-fiving the shit out of people. And petting other people’s dogs. —Shea Carver

 

Best Female Newscaster: Ashlea Kosikowski
Best Newscast: WECT

It’s been two months since Ashlea Kosikowski last sat at her desk in her office proper at WECT studio’s on Shipyard Boulevard. Since March she and other newscasters have been covering our local news from makeshift studios in their living rooms.

“Our viewers trust us,” Kosikowski says, “welcoming us into their homes every evening. Now, I’m welcoming our viewers into my home for a change.”

Ashlea Kosikowski has been delivering the daily news from home since the COVID-19 pandemic put the majority of the country under governors’ stay-at-home orders. Photo by Brian Parke

Among items that pepper her desk at work is the Best Of award Kosikowski took home for Best Newscaster in 2015. Five years later, she is building her collection with 2020’s Best Female Newscaster (encore split the category into two this year to recognize both male and female broadcast journalists).

“I’ve been at WECT for 10 years come October,” Kosikowski adds. The newsroom took home Best Newscast for 2020, too, keeping the station’s streak of consecutive wins at well over 20 now.

We interviewed Kosikowski about her love of her job and Wilmington.

encore (e): How have you been spending your free time? Have you had more during the pandemic?

Ashlea Kosikowski (AK): I don’t know if I have more free time, but I’m certainly spending more time with my husband and our dog, Archie. We are making more home-cooked meals and eating dinner together every night, which I love. Brian’s been working to transform our backyard and I’m supervising his “honey do” list.

e: What do you miss most about pre-pandemic life?

AK: Uninhibited laughter and closeness with family and friends.

I keep reflecting on two moments before the pandemic began. We got together with our closest friends for a dinner party; we ate and drank ourselves silly and it turned into a dance party. We were so carefree that evening. A few days later, I emceed the Power of the Purse event; my mom and cousin, Kathy Merlo, [WECT newscaster] Frances Weller and several of my closest girlfriends were there. We greeted one another with hugs, stood in close groups, put our arms around one another for pictures and laughed together. The next day, the NCAA canceled its tournament, Tom Hanks announced he was positive for COVID, and the president had his Oval Office address. It felt like whiplash.

I look forward to a time when we can have late-night dance parties and charity events again.

e: How has the pandemic affected your job—per content and in general?

AK: I’ve been broadcasting from home for two months now and I’m grateful for the ability to do so. Newscasts are a team effort. This experience reinforced what a strong team we have at WECT—our production staff, producers, engineers, reporters and managers—all working together while apart to get vital, important information to our community. 

e: What about your coworker, Jon Evans, is most deserving of the Best Male Newscaster?

AK: Jon is a newsroom leader and a great mentor to our young reporters. He is a serious journalist who is passionate about our community. He gives 100% always, which sets the standard for the rest of us.      

e: What do you love most about your job?

AK: I love telling stories—talking to people about their lives, their challenges, their joys and, then, writing what I found out and sharing their stories with our community. I learn something new every day, and no two days are the same—well, at least until recently. I’m also lucky to work in a newsroom with people who are like family to me.

e: Best story you ever reported on? 

AK: Our chief photographer, Ryan Koresko, and I traveled to L.A. to cover the Hollywood premiere of “Iron Man 3,” the culmination of the hard work of Wilmington’s talented film crew and the largest production to ever come out of our city. Crammed in with 100 other news crews representing outlets from L.A. to China, we had to fight for the attention of the stars on the red carpet. I made a sign that stated we were there from Wilmington and Robert Downey, Jr., Don Cheadle and Gwyneth Paltrow spotted it and beelined to us to sing the praises of Wilmington.

e: What’s your favorite part of living in Wilmington?

AK: Everything. My husband and I moved here because we love Wilmington.

e: Let’s say COVID-19 suddenly disappears and all of Wilmington is reopen. What does your first day back in the world look like?

AK Smiling at people and seeing them smile back. On my few ventures out, I smile at others and then realize no one can see me smiling because of the mask. Der.

e: You get one meal to eat whatever you want from businesses across Wilmington. What are you eating/drinking?

AK: One meal? One?! This is tough. If it has to be just one, we would have to head to Port Land Grille for a splurge. We had our rehearsal dinner there, and Anne [Steketee] has always been so good to us. It’s a place we go for special occasions. We’d sit at the bar first and have a Hendrick’s and tonic, and then head to our table for a rare steak, paired with a big, bold cab. I’ll just have to save room after having Baja fish tacos and all that addicting salsa from Tower 7 for lunch… 

e: What’s the best concert/theatre event/art show you’ve ever been to here?

AK: My best friend, Edie (DJ Milk), is a DJ in Wilmington. She opened for Ice Cube at the Azalea Festival concert last year. To see her on the stage with the crowd in the palm of her hand was exhilarating. And, then, Ice Cube! You can say it was a good day.

I also laughed until my face hurt at Opera House Theatre Company’s recent production of “La Cage aux Folles” (Best Theatre Production—Musical 2020). Jeff Phillips (Best Actor, 2020), Cullen Moss, they were brilliant in it. And the choreography and costumes … fabulous!

e: What, if any, silver linings have you found during the pandemic? 

AK: A silver lining is having my parents close by; they moved to Wilmington a few years ago. I know they are safe and healthy. My cousin also moved here with her husband a few months ago. I’m very fortunate to have family nearby, in a time when travel is not ideal. 

In news you see the best and worst in humanity. I try to focus on the good—and there is a lot of generosity in our community. Like my childhood hero, Mr. Rogers, said: “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” Seeing the goodness that’s out there is a silver lining. 

e: What are you most looking forward to for when this is over?

AK: We will want to travel to Ireland as soon as we can. My husband’s parents live in Co. Donegal, a beautiful place. We love spending time with them. It’s been difficult not knowing when we will be able to get over there again. —Shea Carver

 

Best Male Newscaster
Jon Evans

Jon Evans has been a Wilmingtonian for 28 years. As a news anchor, he has spent 12 years reporting the nightly news on WECT. However, 2020 is his first year winning encore’s Best Male Newscaster, as he shares the spotlight with Best Female Newscaster Ashlea Kosikowski, also from WECT.   

“The one thing about Ashlea that amazes me is how good she is at doing every kind of news story: breaking news, crime news, investigations, or the feature story that makes you laugh or get emotional,” Evans praises. “She’s such a huge part of our success at WECT.”

Evans added his own touch when he joined the news team in 2008 after 14 years at WWAY. In addition to delivering the news with a calm, friendly voice, he also hosts the “1on1 with Jon Evans” podcast, which has been going strong for three years now.

We spoke with the anchor about the podcast, the news and the community he loves to call home.

Jon Evans has been a large part of Wilmington’s broadcast news reporting for almost three decades and takes home his first Best Of win this year. Courtesy photo

encore (e): What do you love most about your job?

Jon Evans (JE): It’s never the same from one day to the next. Sure, we do some of the same things every day, but the stories are different. The people are different. How an event will impact lives in southeastern North Carolina is different from one day to the next. Especially now with new information about the pandemic coming out almost minute-by-minute, our job is to find out how these details will affect the people who watch our newscast. It’s challenging, but rewarding when someone asks a question and you can provide the answer.

e: Best story you ever reported? 

JE: It would be the stories with Elnora Mills of Brunswick County, who was a victim of North Carolina’s eugenics Program. Elnora heard me talk about the eugenics issue on a newscast and called, telling me she was sterilized as a child and did not know it until she tried to have children later in life. She actually had the paperwork and showed it to me!

I reported Elnora’s tragic story and put her in touch with the NC Industrial Commission, which later confirmed her a victim. It took a couple years of reporting, but Elnora, ultimately, received more than $35,000 in restitution payments from the state for her suffering. She was so grateful it moved me to tears several times. It’s easily one of the best series of stories I’ve ever done.

e: How has the pandemic affected your job—per content and in general?

JE: This is the one story in my career that impacts everyone. The information we are delivering every day related to COVID-19 is as vital to the Gen-X viewer in Wilmington as it is the baby boomer in Whiteville. This situation is constantly changing. With this pandemic presenting such a threat to at-risk members of our community, lives can depend on our reporting.

e: You also started a podcast, in addition to anchoring the nightly news. Tell us about it.

JE: It’s called “1on1 with Jon Evans,” and we launched in April 2017, so this is our fourth season. I did it as a way to augment our news coverage, but it allows for longer-form interviews and deeper dives into issues and people with ties to southeastern North Carolina.

With no time constraints, I can give listeners a chance to get to know people who they see and hear about on our newscasts. We post audio versions of the interviews on all the major podcast apps (Apple Podcasts, Spotify, iHeart Radio, etc.), but I also post a video version of the interviews on WECT.com and our mobile news app. We run short interview bytes inside our newscasts, too, giving us content on several platforms.

e: What has been your fave show so far and why?

JE: I don’t know that I have one favorite. You know, we’ve done several this year related to the coronavirus pandemic, and I think that’s given us the opportunity to ask a lot of questions we’ve heard from our viewers. That’s been good.

The episode I did last year with the Wilmington firefighters, about the rescue on Mercer Avenue during Hurricane Florence, was emotional. I was proud of that one from a storytelling standpoint.

e: When do new episodes air and how do you choose your guests?

JE: I try to release audio episodes every two weeks, on Friday mornings, and then I post the video versions online a few days later. I look for guests who have some tie to southeastern North Carolina, so there is a basis on which to build the conversation. I do a lot of research, and try to broach topics I find interesting, or that I think others will find interesting. It’s been successful so far; I hope to keep it going.

e: What’s your favorite part of living in Wilmington?

JE: I can play golf 365 days a year, unless it snows.

e: What do you miss most about pre-pandemic life?

JE: [My wife] Sheila and I would go to PT’s Grille on 17th Street for our regular Sunday afternoon visit with the workers we know so well. I get an 8-ounce burger, Jack cheese, jalapeños and ketchup, with crispy fries and a cold beer. That has been our routine for about 10 years.

e: Let’s say COVID-19 suddenly disappears and all of Wilmington is reopen. What does your first day back in the world look like?

JE: I go to the gym and work out in the morning, meet my wife for lunch at one of our favorite places, go to work and see my two co-anchors Ashlea and Fran next to me on the set.

e: What, if any, silver linings have you found during the pandemic?

JE: That people have come to better respect workers they may have taken for granted: doctors, nurses, first responders who are on the front lines of fighting this pandemic. They’ve put their lives on the line in the face of this unknown to save patients battling this horrible virus. I think people respect teachers more now because parents and grandparents are having to teach at home and see how difficult it is. We should also thank grocery store workers who are keeping the shelves stocked after cleaning overnight to keep us safe.    

e: How have you been spending your free time? Have you had more during all this?

JE: My front yard has never looked better! Sheila and I are both working out more around the house and riding our bikes. I’ve also played more golf than usual—even shot my career’s lowest round at the Muni. Even par 71. I kept the scorecard as proof!

e: You get one meal to eat whatever you want from businesses across Wilmington. What are you eating/drinking?

JE: Jackson’s Big Oak Barbecue. I get a medium barbecue combo plate with Brunswick stew, collard greens and green beans.

e: What’s the best concert/theatre event/art show you’ve ever been to here?

JE: Wow, that’s tough. Can I say a tie? Mannheim Steamroller’s Christmas concert at Wilson Center was a bucket list item for me. Loved it!

Sheila and I really enjoyed the Eddie Money concert last year, also at Wilson Center.

Edwin McCain playing with the Wilmington Symphony Orchestra for the “Chords for a Cause” event at UNCW was also pretty special. 

e: What are you most looking forward to for when this is over?

JE: Being able to hug my family, especially my 8-month-old grandson Jack. We’ve had daily video calls and been able to see him growing up. I want to be with my son, Jonathan, his wife, Mary—same with my daughter Monica and her husband James, and my daughter Abby. I will never take a hug from them for granted again.  —Shea Carver

Encore Magazine regularly covers topics pertaining to news, arts, entertainment, food, and city life in Wilmington. It also maintains schedules and listings of local events like concerts, festivals, live performance art and think-tank events. Encore Magazine is an entity of H&P Media, which also powers Wilmington’s local ticketing platform, 910tix.com. Print and online editions are updated every Wednesday.

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