In February 2014, Thalian Association posted a job offer on a national database in search of a new artistic director for both its main stage series and its children theatre, TACT. Its current leader for the main series, Tom Briggs, received a phone call from a friend in New York who inquired whether or not he should apply for the job. Briggs had no idea his position was up for grabs. Essentially, he found out Thalian Association wanted to consolidate his job and that of TACT’s artistic director, Jason Aycock. Though the association confirmed they were taking the part-time jobs and centralizing them into one, the board noted the announcement came out earlier than they anticipated because of a computer error. They maintained they had no intention of blindsiding either employee, and encouraged both Briggs and Aycock to re-apply.
Yet, the aftermath of the situation has resulted in a multitude of words and actions between the association’s members, actors, board members, and the community at large. Over the last three months, a divide between artists and board members has ensued. Folks can read up on it to conclude their own opinions from reports made by local media and even posted to Facebook groups, like “We Can’t Lose Tom Briggs & Jason Aycock at Thalian Association” and “Thalian Association—The Official Community Theater of North Carolina.” As the newly hired artistic director, David Loudermilk, prepares his entry, Tom Briggs will be making his exit with Thalian Association this weekend.
“I wish this whole situation could have been handled in a more friendly and professional manner,” Briggs admits. “I regret that our current board of directors could not embrace my vision for the theatre company the way the community has. Despite the unseemly way in which my tenure is ending, I know in my heart I am leaving the company in a better place, artistically and financially, than when I arrived. I will always take pride in that.”
“Wonderful Town” will be Briggs’ swan song, so to speak. The classic show appropriately features themes of making a new life for oneself in a new city and facing challenges along the way. It’s perhaps a foreshadowing of Brigg’s arrival to Wilmington in 2006—when he came to fill the association’s artistic director position after 18 years of directing the theatrical division of The Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization in New York City. He had overseen 25 productions at St. Bart’s Playhouse, and culled Broadway credits by adapting “State Fair” to the stage—the final show produced by Tony Award-winner David Merrick. Briggs also did Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Cinderella,” which starred Eartha Kitt and Jamie-Lynn Sigler.
Briggs’ time here is marked by an impressive roster as well. He completed eight seasons and during his reign, he brought an astounding 27 premieres to our hometown. From “The Buddy Holly Story” to “All Shook Up,” “Willy Wonka” to “Other Desert Cities” (which debuted at Thalian Association’s intimate theater, Red Barn Studio, last November), Briggs has worked constantly and vigorously with literally tons of actors, set designers, musical directors, costumers, and the like.
“After many years in the professional arena, it has been so refreshing to work with folks who do theater just for the love of it,” Briggs says. “There’s no fame, no glory, no fortune involved. We do it because we know it feeds the soul and illuminates our emotional lives. That in itself is the reward. The lifelong friends I’ve made and the tremendous love and support they’ve shown me [has been humbling.]”
Briggs has overseen more than 40 productions locally, and, alongside other TACT directors, including Aycock, he’s helped with children’s theatre. Passing on his love of the stage to younger generations always remained important. Aside from working with them on main-stage productions, he also created two revues specifically for TACT at the Hannah Block/USO Community Arts Center, which Thalian Association runs for the City of Wilmington.
“Our kids are just amazing, as are their parents,” Briggs says. “Working with them, and watching them grow as performers and human beings has been beyond gratifying. It’s crazy to realize the kids I met at 8 years old are now driving cars.”
Briggs’ love of classic musical theatre spurred his desire to put on Joseph A. Fields and Jerome Chodorov’s “Wonderful Town,” which won five Tony Awards in 1953, including Best Musical. Though Briggs didn’t actually see the show for the first time until its 2003 revival, the sheer entertainment value it impressed upon him was inspiring. Set in the ‘30s, it tells the stories of two young sisters who move from Ohio to Greenwich Village during the Great Depression to find success and romance.
“It’s based on the true stories of Ruth McKenney,” Briggs notes of The New Yorker-published stories. “[They also] were adapted as the hit play and movie, ‘My Sister Eileen.’ Ultimately, it’s about learning to believe in yourself and having the courage of your convictions. We can all use a reminder of that every now and then.”
With music by Leonard Bernstein—another hero Briggs fancies from the Golden Age of Broadway—Amanda Hunter will lead a 12-piece orchestra for the show. The score mixes jazz with Broadway ballads and dance numbers.
“The intricate Bernstein score is no walk in the woods, and Amanda handles it with great aplomb,” Briggs says. “‘100 Easy Ways (To Lose a Man)’ [is a favorite] for its character-defining and hilarious lyrics by the masters of the genre, [Betty] Comden and [Adolph] Green. It’s really like a little one-act play all on its own.”
Through the characters’ numerous plotlines, comedy carries the show. Most of it comes from all the colorful people the sisters encounter along the way. Briggs says it still manages to captivate audiences even 70 years after its inception.
“The characters are all so distinctive and engaging,” he explains. “I really like the secondary characters—Frank Lippencot, the manager of a Walgreens Drug Store. He’s so sincere and never pretends to be anyone other than who he is. He is totally at home in his own geeky skin and, as embodied by Michael Savas—a terrific character actor—he’s utterly endearing. I love characters who are absolutely what they appear to be.”
Briggs cast newcomers in the Thalian Association show, something he’s been known to do in past productions. The lead role of Robert Baker will be played by Justin Xavier Carteret, and Eileen will be enacted by Tatiana MacMartin. “Carteret is a fantastic singer, with an effortless, easygoing demeanor, and he’s not hard on the eyes, either,” Briggs says. “MacMartin has a gorgeous, trained voice, is as pretty as a picture and has great warmth—everything the role requires.”
Two co-directors have helped lead the show. Laurene Perry and Mike Thompson remedied scheduling conflicts by sharing directing duties, as neither could oversee the entire production from start to finish. “But it has worked out beautifully because they have a unified vision for the production, and one can pick up right where the other left off,” Briggs assures.
While Briggs doesn’t know what’s next on his agenda, the outpouring of support he’s received throughout the end of his time at the association has been mesmerizing. He says too many names make up the list of people he should thank, even though they know who they are.
“But I’ll give a shout out to our audiences,” he says. “I am constantly approached at the theater by people (including our invaluable ushers) thanking me for what I’ve brought to the theatre scene, which is really humbling. If not for those dear people, there would be no scene. Of course, to the extraordinary actors in this town—I have had the privilege of working with the best, who volunteer hundreds of hours on each production. The relationship between an actor and director is extremely intimate, and to have these brilliant artists trust and believe in me and my vision has just meant everything. I really feel like the luckiest guy in the world. I have no earthly idea what’s in store for me, but what I have learned during this recent time is that I am loved and respected. Just knowing that will carry me a long way.”
Thalian Hall • 310 Chestnut St.
Thurs.-Sun., May 15-25, 8 p.m. or 3 p.m., Sundays
Tickets: $15 (Thurs. only) – $30