I think we can safely say that Wilmington has positioned itself as an arts-driven city. Our rewards from the film industry are numerous, and among them are the explosion of live theatre that happened here in the early and mid-‘90s. Twenty years later, theatre is an economic driver: Almost every single weekend there is live theatre on stage in this town. Theatre companies vie for audience and box-office dollars as multiple shows overlap their runs. With well over 30 theatre companies in town and the coming excitement of the CFCC Humanities and Fine Arts Center opening, theatre is firmly part of this community.
This year has seen the addition of two new companies and one more has announced a season to begin at the end of 2015 and run through 2016. Probably the biggest undertaking of the three is Dram Tree Shakespeare’s “MacBeth,” which will come to life in the fall. The formal announcement came at a fundraising party a few weekends ago in Dennis Hopper’s old apartment (currently, the Lashley residence). It was straight out of Stoppard’s “Shakespeare in Love.”
Every nonprofit needs to fundraise, and I have spent the better part of the last two-thirds of my life at such events. Far and away, this was one of the more imaginative fundraisers I have been to in years. While sipping a stunning craft cocktail by the talented mixologist Joel Finsel (and I am a light weight, so with one I was ready to fly) and catching up with our local celebrities, suddenly a Shakespeare scene erupted in the middle of the party: Nurse (Alisa Harris) and Juliet (Ashley Burton) laying plans for her elopement with Romeo, Katherine (Kat Vernnon) and Petruchio (Justin Smith) examining their relationship, and of course constant crowd-pleasers, The Rude Mechanicals from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Jon Stafford has replaced James Cagney as my favorite Bottom of all time. But Bob Workman’s performance of Snug the Joiner singing his monologue to the tune of “Memory” from “Cats” probably was the high point of the evening. About every 8 to 9 minutes another scene would emerge from the crowd; the only warning was Jacki Booth (stage manager of the evening), who circulated the room to let the next group of actors know it was time for their “places.” Just to underscore the importance of theatre in Wilmington, Mayor Bill Saffo spoke at the event and officially welcomed Dram Tree to the city.
Dram Tree has booked an unusual facility to launch “MacBeth”—the old fruit and vegetable storage facility on South Front Street known as McEachearn’s. It came to be through an unexpected path. Tamara Mercer, the secretary for Dram Tree, also works in the City of Wilmington Planning Department. Robinson Brown, the current owner of McEachearn’s, has been renovating the space, and Mercer has worked closely with him.
“He is extremely meticulous with his historic renovations,” Mercer confirms. “Dram Tree Shakespeare had been scouting possible spaces for over a year and none were quite right for our first production. David Zukerman, myself and Christopher Marino met with Rob in the warehouse, and right away we could envision its potential to marry well with the scope of the Scottish play.” (“The Scottish Play” is one of many nicknames for “MacBeth.”)
Brown quickly grasped Dram Tree’s vision and is enthusiastically working with them to upfit the building for the production. “We will use the architecture of the warehouse as our touchstone,” Dram Tree’s artistic director Chris Marino says—“raw, angular, dangerous, moody, metal, and primal.”
In addition, the company has some unorthodox and intriguing plans for the battle scenes of “MacBeth.” “They will serve as Dram Tree’s outreach to utilize recently returned veterans and teach them to fight in a choreographed battle,” she explains. “The fight will be gender blind, because women are warriors, too. It will be an expense, but this could be a great asset to the production. It also will serve our veteran community that no one thinks to engage with art.”
At the opposite end of the spectrum from performing 400-year-old plays, a new group, Page to Stage, formed with the intention of fostering emerging playwrights. This summer they are presenting staged readings on the last Wednesday of the month at the Cameron Art Museum. I felt like I stepped back in time to the old Playwright’s Producing Company. (I could almost hear Ginny Davis’ voice over my shoulder; it was wonderful!). Each evening seems to build around a theme—the most recent one was work-related to the coast and beaches. One-acts, works-in-progress, scenes, and monologues are all read and followed by a question-and-answer session with the author.
The first piece, an excerpt from a work in progress by Josh Bailey, had been re-worked since its first reading earlier this year. With well over 30 original scripts produced here in 2014, original writing is on the ascendant. Page to Stage brings a wonderful outlet for aspiring and established writers to explore their works.
On a future note, Panache Theatre Co. will revive the holiday tradition of “Santaland Dairies” (by NC writer turned superstar David Sederis) this winter as their premiere production. Artistic director Anthony Lawson promises a different take on the show that still honors the spirit with whom audiences identify.
With the NC General Assembly now collecting sales tax on tickets for events, theatre does not just deliver economic returns in our city (funding jobs at Thalian Hall, CFCC, UNCW, Scottish Rite Temple, TheatreNOW, etc.), but also across the state through sales-tax collections. What began as passionate hobbies years ago have become serious businesses around here, and our state owes a debt to all who continue to find joy while generating revenue. It benefits the rest of us: street improvements, education municipal salaries and more.
Though we tend to discount the arts when we think of money-making ventures, one of the unintended consequences of the new sales tax on tickets is that we now know the arts produce significant revenue for the entire state. How wonderful that, by going out to enjoy live theatre, we can contribute to our state’s bottom line—and the support of our community. Perhaps, eventually, the line will be drawn between the financial and cultural contributions of our theatre community, and the financial and cultural contributions of film. One owes debt to the other, and perhaps it can be repaid in unexpected ways. In the meantime, I urge everyone to get out and enjoy the offerings of our ever-growing group of theatre companies. Be a part of making our infrastructure better!