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Family Tradition

19 S. 10th Street
Grand opening: July 20th

Though construction still kicks up dust in the soon-to-be finished TheatreNOW building, Alisa Harris beams with pride at her most recent endeavor. Photo by Bethany Turner

Alisa Harris proudly admits her predisposition to theatre arts. Her mother, MC Erny, played many a leading lady in Asheville, NC, where Harris spent her childhood days learning how to mend costumes—maybe even before understanding how to multiply.

“I was onstage in utero and spent many evenings backstage when a sitter wasn’t available,” she remembers. “I was a precocious reader and remember helping Mom with her lines from a very early age. She did a lot of British farces and adult comedy-type shows, so I vividly remember spelling out all the ‘bad words’ when I was I cuing her.”

By ages 6 and 7, Harris had embarked on kid’s theatre and even played the lead role in “Heidi.” At 10 she found softball, but managed to juggle her love for both sports and arts seamlessly. It’s something which continues in her adult life, only today she’s done over 100 shows locally, in practically every theatre company, along with commercial and film work, most recently including “Piranha 3DD,” “Eastbound and Down” and “The Bay” (to be released in 2013). It can only be matched by her adoration for the Red Sox (she graduated from Boston University) and especially her newfound love in Mommyhood. Just four months ago, Harris adopted a baby boy, all the while constructing her newest business venture, TheatreNOW.

“It’s all wonderful and incredibly stressful at once,” Harris says. “I could go on and on about it, but what I really want is five to eight hours of uninterrupted sleep. Maybe sometime in August.”

Or at least after TheatreNOW opens on July 20th to the public.

The dream to build the venue came to Harris in 2008. She was on a break from work, trying to make time for her social life and family rather than honing in on her career, as she had done for so many years. However, unable to pry away from the stage, she did a few dinner shows with Wilmington’s Porch Theatre Company, as well as aboard the Henrietta and as part of Browncoat Pub and Theatre’s weekly sitcom series, “Sides.”

“All of these shows paid a little money—not a lot,” Harris clarifies, “but it was the first regular income I’d ever experienced as an actress locally. Then, in 2010 I experienced the death of my mother, who was a huge supporter of the arts locally.”

Well-known throughout town, the blow hit Harris and the entire community hard. To do something to continue MC Erny’s legacy in the arts—she left over $350,000 to 10 nonprofits across our city, including Big Dawg Productions and Cape Fear Shakespeare on the Green—Harris toyed with the idea of opening a full-fledged theatre venue. More importantly, she wanted to pay actors for their tireless work, after understanding first-hand everything they endure.

“Dinner theatre isn’t a unique concept,” Harris admits. Yet, the payoff makes its broad commercial appeal worth it. “Even in a depressed economy, people still want to be entertained,” she continues. “The movie industry is a prime example of that.”
While Harris understood her main goal was to entertain, she also considered the community for which she serves. Thus, she decided to have a nonprofit sector known as Theatre Network of Wilmington (TNOW) to focus on arts education.

“Doug Swink, Charlotte Hackman, Marjorie McGivern, myself and quite a few others started TNOW years ago, and we were just on the verge of making it an official nonprofit when the crisis with the arts center and eventual formation of the Community Arts Center Accord was formed to ensure the salvation of the now Hannah Block Historic USO Building from demolition.”

Serving as its executive director, Zach Hanner will guide the nonprofit’s mission of ensuring free or low-cost education in theatre arts to local school-aged children. TNOW also will act as a resource to other organizations, while allowing thespians, tech crews, musicians and others to interconnect.

Currently, Hanner and Harris are hosting a fund-raising campaign on the crowd-sourcing platform, IndieGoGo, to help with the upstart of the TNOW. They have a $10,000 goal to help fund theatre instruction classes.

“Plans are to have after-school and summer-camp programming for students,” Harris says, “as well as hold monthly play readings and networking events, and to be a general resource for the theatrical community.”

In order for TheatreNOW to meet the needs of Harris’ plans, the perfect space had to be found. So, she enlisted the help of realtor Amy Holcomb for leads on downtown spaces. The prime real estate came with a hefty price tag, not to mention renovations that would need to be done in order to complete the all-encompassing structure. Thus, she began looking on the outskirts of the central business district.

“The corner of 10th and Dock streets was the first place we looked,” Harris says of the old Green’s Restaurant building. Theatre colleague, contractor and current county commissioner candidate Rob Zapple helped assess the structure and the lot. “He said the space wasn’t salvageable,” Harris says. “I realized I’d have to build from the ground up.”

She and Zapple devised separate sketches as to what TheatreNOW’s design would be. When they met back up, they were on the same page. Harris welcomed architect Jay DeChesere to the team in order to determine code and green building techniques. Harris’ only mandate for the structure was to pay tribute to its previous inhabitant, so “the outside façade of the building mimics the look of the old restaurant.”

Inside TheatreNOW, a 24’ quarter-round stage welcomes versatility to accommodate many functions simultaneously. “We’ve also designed the stage with a pivot point to revolve for quick set changes,” Harris says.

There will be a four-foot basement area for storage (much-needed in the theatre world, per props, costumes, sets, etc.), which can also act as a possible trap-door access and for special effects. LED lights help with energy efficiency of the blaring theatrical lighting, and data connections, along with audio and visual outlets, have been included to usher multi-media events. “There are two projectors and screens for movie nights, staged projections and special effects as well,” Harris notes.

The split level provides the commercial kitchen, box office, stage manager control center, bathrooms and bar downstairs. Upstairs resides a large rehearsal room with a floating dance floor and mirrored wall, a mezzanine walkway overlooking the stage and administrative offices. “Basically, it’s a space where there can be a show going on downstairs and rehearsals going on upstairs at the same time,” Harris says.

As of now, Harris plans on a bevy of revolving productions and activities to keep the venue bustling in community appeal. Super Saturday Fun Time for children will use local history and findings to help solve mysterious storylines in a variety-show setting, all served with a light lunch. New shows will play weekly and include returning characters like Dock the Dog and the Dock Street Kids (Harris says to think of it like a live, local version of “Scooby Doo”). She’ll also have movie nights, jazz and gospel Sunday brunches served by Chef Denise Gordon and Food and Beverage Manager Paul Obernesser, and, of course, interactive theatre shows.

“They are basically custom-created, one-act plays coupled with dinner,” Harris notes. “The conditional rezoning requirements for the property stipulate that food and beverage service can only accompany a cultural activity.”

Fridays will feature “Dawson Hill’s Miracle Workers,” a comedy about the tech crew putting on a show when actors from the famed “Dawson’s Hill” (yes, the lovechild of locally filmed “Dawson’s Creek” and “One Tree Hill”) go missing. Saturday’s “Murder at the Bellamy Mansion” takes on more local lore and history as audience members become detectives who solve the case.

Harris will change shows seasonally and is always looking for locally written and produced productions. Already, a new one near to her heart is in the works.

“Look for a baseball-themed show next, penned by local writer Tony Moore,” she instructs. “We’ve established including full-scale productions, musical revues, and I also hope to get back to developing ‘Blue Velvet, the Musical,’” something Harris debuted as a works-in-progress at Cucalorus 2011. She would like to see TheatreNOW partner with the likes of the film organization and become a hub for other special events. “We’re versatile enough to manage a lot of variety,” she explains.

Days away from opening, Harris chuckles at the thought of maintaining a modicum of sanity while in the throes of this vortex she’s created in her professional and personal life. Yet, her outlook is as optimistic as ever.

“I let things roll off my back a little easier now that I have the baby,” she admits. “This newborn creature has his own schedule—no matter what mine is. At this most stressful and time-consuming part of opening TheatreNOW, I’ve often wondered why I ever attempted to do this at all when I’d rather just spend 24/7 with him.”

One word stands for reasoning on all fronts: love.

“My son will grow up kind of like his mom,” she muses. “My mother was an actress and my dad was a nightclub and restaurant owner-manager—I think I turned out OK.”

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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, Print and online editions are updated every Wednesday.

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