By definition live theatre is an ephemeral experience. To look back at a decade of theatre in Wilmington, and try to articulate on the page what those experiences look like, will fall drastically short of a real-life journey. I can’t really pick a top 10 list of shows from an average of 72 shows produced here each year (some years more, some years less), over the last 10 years. That number does not include children’s theatre productions (either theatre by youth/children or theatre for children, i.e. Pied Piper at Thalian Hall or the Super Saturday Fun Time shows that were staged at TheatreNOW). Indeed, our readership can’t really go back and see the live performances from eight years ago (or even this summer). So what I am doing instead is telling you what it has been like to work as a theatre reviewer here for the last decade.
I have seen over 600 shows for encore over 10 years—from the big-budget spectaculars like “Les Mis” to original works by local playwrights. I have watched Tony Award winners and Emmy nominees on stage alongside teenagers treading the boards for the first time. I have seen touring productions that, though they had big budgets, fell short of the energy, vivacity and talent I’ve seen in community theatre. I’ve walked out of shows with tears streaming down my face, and spent hours crying over a keyboard trying to articulate the power and majesty of what I had seen. I also have walked out with my heart in my stomach, wondering how a script I loved so much could be hopelessly butchered, or how performers I admire and respect could miss the mark so widely. Because that is art and every person experiences it differently.
Reviewing a great show is wonderful. Reviewing a flop is painful because I still respect the performers, even if I didn’t like the choices or see the pieces didn’t come together. The hardest thing is reviewing a mediocre show. Yeah, it was all fine; the dancing was good, the singing was OK, but nothing really blew my hair back; those are reviews I dread most. I know, and you know, I just don’t care about the show, and that’s upsetting.
It’s amazing to see stunningly talented people make the leap to the big cities to expand their talents. Watching Maddie Hasson kiss Tom Hiddleston on screen in “I Saw The Light” brought me sheer joy. The last time I had seen Hasson’s face was in “Best Little Whore House in Texas” at Thalian Hall. I cried through almost the entire first act of the national tour of “Motown” at The Wilson Center. At intermission the lady next to me commented on how she always considered the music to be happy songs. I blew my nose and confessed I was crying because it meant so very much to see Tracy Byrd in the show, after years of watching him onstage in our community theatre. And do I need I tell you how incredible it was to hear the news that Colby Lewis was playing Lafayette/Jefferson in the Chicago production of “Hamilton”? He’s part of what made Opera House’s “Five Guys Named Moe” such a gift last summer, along with the reunion of such a talented group of men that have been loved and adored by Wilmington audiences for years.
Part of what I am getting at is people who put together the shows are the elements that make the magic happen. I feel like I have a tremendously unfair relationship with a couple hundred people whose creative work I watch on a regular basis. You might not know who I am, but I have cried with you, laughed with you, cheered for you, (sometimes cringed for you), and always been amazed at your courage. Jock and I have conversations like, “How many times have we watched Kendra (Goehring-Garrett) get married?” or “Have you, in fact, seen Jef (Pollock) of Changing Channels dressed more times than you have seen him in his underwear?” or “Of all the Scrooges you have seen, who is your favorite?” And there is my personal favorite, “Who has the best death scene on stage this year?”
The cast of “Other Desert Cities” doesn’t know how every few months I sit down and cry because the emotion they created on that stage still resonates. Nygel Robinson and Kendra Goering-Garrett transformed a show I thought I knew, “Oklahoma!”, into a contemporary comment about life, love, community and justice. Jock and I still discuss their performances weekly. I have told Paul Teal in print many times (though I don’t know if he believes me) how his performance in “Memphis” outshines Chad Kimball—the role’s originator. I also loved every moment of “Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson,” wherein Teal played Jackson.
StarNews arts editor/theatre reviewer John Staton and I also spend a lot of time thinking about and discussing local shows. To that end, John deserves credit for putting together StarNews’ annual Wilmington Theatre Awards. It is a wonderful evening to get together passionate artists and praise their accomplishments of the previous year. One of my favorite memories from the awards was when everyone sang happy birthday to Opera House Theatre Company founder Lou Criscoulo the spring before he passed. Anyone who has been on stage in Wilmington since 1984, or has seen a live show in Wilmington since 1984, is the beneficiary of Lou’s vision and giant personality. Unfortunately, he’s not the only one we lost in the last decade: Donna Joyner Green of TechMoja Dance and Theatre Company was the stalwart of the Hannah Block USO/Community Arts Center. Many kids got a good dose of Donna’s wisdom when they were at rehearsal or camp or classes. Sam Garner and Donn Ansell’s deaths also were heavy losses. Both men gave generously of their experiences, kindness and insight, to inspire more generations of theatre artists to come.
Not only was it a tectonic shift in losing powerful people on the scene, there were triumphs and losses in local venues. Wilson Center at Cape Fear Community College opened and began bringing national tours to our fair city. Alisa Harris both opened and closed TheatreNOW, a dinner theatre that paid performers and writers (almost unheard of here). The Browncoat Theatre and Pub, a long-time incubator of original material, closed and left a real gap for the sort of “Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland energy” of getting together a bunch of excited young people and putting on a show that one or several of them wrote. I saw a lot of shows with great heart at The Browncoat over the years, and Aaron Willings’ magical set designs routinely challenged my idea of what an inflexible space could offer.
City Stage also ceased operation. There are rumors the space itself might re-open after hurricane repairs are completed, but the energy of the company that produced “Debbie Does Dallas,” “Tommy” and “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” is missed. However, Panache Theatrical Productions seems to have grabbed that torch, thanks to edgy productions like “Heathers,” the Lizzie Borden musical and “Fun Home.”
Of course, there is always the wonderful irony of our 120,000 population supporting three Shakespeare companies, two of which were birthed from spite. Somehow, I think the Bard would appreciate it. Michael Granbarry’s production of “The Tempest “with Dram Tree Shakespeare was a visually powerful and striking show. It was “The Tempest” I had longed to see. Yet, I was most surprised by Thalian Association’s “Bridges of Madison County”—a show I walked into prepared to endure and ended up loving every minute. And it wasn’t just because of Heather Setzler’s powerful voice, though she was a big selling point.
Perhaps the best compliment I can give, and one I mean most sincerely, is for the last 10 years Wilmington’s theatre community has continued to challenge and change my perception of performance art. Actors, producers, directors, choreographers, designers, writers and all others have seared moments in my mind that will live with me forever. So to that end, I thank you for letting me share this magical and beautiful decade with you; your work has transformed me more than you may ever know.