Alisa Harris, owner of Wilmington’s premier dinner-theater venue, TheatreNOW, announced on Wednesday, May 29, she would shutter the doors after “Clue, the Musical” closes on August 24. The news shocked many.
Alisa and her mother, MC Erny, have been pillars of Wilmington’s theatre and arts community for almost three decades. When walking into the lobby of Big Dawg’s Cape Fear Playhouse, MC’s picture shines bright. The Green Room backstage at Thalian Hall is dedicated in her honor. And of course, WHQR’s art gallery is named in MC’s honor.
Both MC and Alisa have appeared on stage in town for years, and Alisa was one of the early founders and board members of Dram Tree Shakespeare, which was fitting. Prior to moving here, she was involved with North Carolina’s longest running Shakespeare company, Montford Park Players. The connection with Cape Fear Shakespeare, which oversees Shakespeare on the Green productions at Greenfield Lake (see page 27), was an obvious transition for mother and daughter.
At TheatreNOW Alisa continued to introduce Shakespeare to audiences through staged readings during Sunday brunches once a month. The last two will be on July 21 with a reading of “Midsummer Night’s Dream” and August 18, featuring “Romeo & Juliet.”
She also hosted locally written dinner-theatre shows based around his work: “Bard’s Broads” and the sequel, “Bard is a Broad,” by Anthony Lawson, and “Shakespeare, Inc.” by Don Fried.
In 2012 Alisa opened TheatreNOW on the corner of Dock and 10th streets at the site of a defunct restaurant. She had been working with dinner theatre in the area for a few years and commented to me at the time, after some trial and error and a lot of observation and thought, she figured out a model that would provide performers a paycheck—something sorely lacking in our area.
And she followed through on her plan.
Over the years TheatreNOW has produced 39 original productions in addition to Super Saturday Fun Time, the ongoing originally scripted kids show that artistic director Zach Hanner developed for TheatreNOW.
“Zach was hired as artistic director in 2013 but he wrote Super Saturday Fun Time, which opened the first weekend [in 2012],” Alisa confirmed.
The space is beautiful with a projection screen, luxurious purple velvet drapes, a trap door down to “hell” (the area below the stage), a lighting package, a beautiful bar, and a full commercial kitchen. There is a lot of vision and attention to detail that went into developing the space. In seven years it produced a lot of joy, laughter, and a few moments of sublime beauty. In other words, it was a home filled with messy, wonderful, joyful art. It has been a wild ride. In the midst of it all, Alisa was kind enough to answer encore’s questions about her time with TheatreNOW and what her plans for the future look like.
encore (e): This seems sudden. Is it sudden? What led to your decision?
Alisa Harris (AH): To everyone else it must seem sudden, but to anyone close to me, they would know I have just been overwhelmed and with little relief for some time. It’s really not any one thing but an accumulation of a lot of different things. Personally, it’s taken a toll on me and after about a $20,000 loss because of Florence, there’s been a financial loss as well.
I had been thinking of closing at the end of this season and to let everyone at TheatreNOW know about now any way, with the hope everyone would stay to finish the season. Recent events made me go ahead and close after “Clue” rather than find a new show to replace “Jitney” in September—which we had to cancel because of a competing production. There seemed to be certain symmetry to closing right around our seventh birthday and with a fun, interactive murder mystery.
e: Why did you select “Clue” as the last show?
AH: Well, I picked “Clue” to be part of the season last summer. I directed it many years ago for Big Dawg and know it is a fun, family-friendly show that would carry us through the summer. It just wound up being our final show. We opened TheatreNOW with interactive dinner shows so it makes sense we close with one.
e: You said the building will be available for lease. As an event space? Will you staff it? Will you sell the building?
AH: I will lease the building to a business or not-for-profit group that will manage the entire space. I will just retain ownership of the building and maintain the property.
e: What would you like to see happen to TheatreNOW and the building? What would make you happiest?
AH: Ideally, I’d love to see the space maintained as a performing arts center.
e: What is your favorite memory from TheatreNOW?
AH: I think my favorite memory was a few years ago. I was on the stage rehearsing a staged reading of “Macbeth” for Dram Tree Shakespeare. The kids from an afterschool class were just leaving the space. I could hear some singers rehearsing upstairs for “Blue Velvet, the Musical Concert” and another group heading into our lounge space for a read-through for the next dinner show. The place was packed and I provided that space for everyone. I also just heard from my agent I’d booked a role in the last episode of “Secrets & Lies” filmed here. Made me happy.
e: What are you going to do now?
AH: Breathe. Be present with my kid. Take care of my health. Perform in an adult theatre show for the first time since 2011—”Shakespeare in Love,” my first Opera House show since 2002 (“Whorehouse” as Doatsy Mae). Work on my historic downtown house, which needs some work after the Florence. I’ll still be involved in theatre, for sure.
e: What can we do for you?
AH: It’d be great if encore could give TheatreNOW a cover before we close. We’ve never had one.
e: Any advice to other entrepreneurs in the arts?
AH: If you aren’t business-minded, make sure you can afford someone who is to do all the things that will suck up all your time and energy, so you can’t enjoy the thing you were passionate about in the first place (or do the things you are actually good at).
On another but similar note: I’d really, really like to see some groups in town put some shows on around the 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment for next year. I’ve found a couple of shows and think the story of Charley Parkhurst would make an incredible show (“The Whip” is the novel I’ve read about her/him). Just putting it out there into the universe.