Reflections On and Offstage: A year in review of local theatre

Jan 22 • ARTSY SMARTSY, TheaterNo Comments on Reflections On and Offstage: A year in review of local theatre

Looking back on a year of theatre in the Port City is like trying to deconstruct a cubist painting for re-assembly: It’s overwhelming and virtually impossible to get a handle on. I’ve spent a lot of time reviewing the year and have culled together a list of our unforgettable moments.

There really is no way to look at this year without talking about the shake-ups in the arts community. UNCW’s Theatre Department and Cultural Arts Program turned the wheel of time and transition. Professor Thomas Salzman joined UNCW as the new chair of the theatre department. He already is dazzling people with his thoughtful lighting design, and I hope he decides to stay for quite some time.

Shane Fernando of UNCW Presents resigned his position last spring to become the first director of the CFCC’s new Humanities and Fine Arts Center. A few months later, noted pianist, cultural treasure and head of UNCW Cultural Arts, Norman Bemelmans, resigned his position in a letter that clarified how the university’s treatment of the arts staff was far from considerate. UNCW’s loss will hopefully be the gain of music-loving audiences across the region.

Thalian Association’s Board of Directors made multiple headlines in their quest to switch out the changing of the guard. Artistic director Tom Briggs and Thalian Association Children’s Theater (TACT) artistic director Jason Aycock were caught off guard about their forced resignations. Though furor has died down with the investiture of new artistic director David Loudermilk, the transition could have been handled with more grace (and, frankly, kindness).

In a peaceful transition of power, Chiaki Ito and Justin Smith handed over the reins of City Stage to Rachel Moser and Nick Gray. So far the new incarnation of City Stage Co. has produced “Carrie the Musical” and “A Christmas Story the Musical.”  As well, they’ve announced plans for a Fringe Festival in January of 2015.

We also lost stalwarts of the theatre community in 2014: Donna Green, the co-producer of Techmoja Dance and Theater Company, passed away during the summer. She and her son, Kevin Lee-y Green, founded Techmoja, which continues to present shows. Green was a big presence in TACT and at the Community Arts Center, as well. She has served at least two generations of children’s theatre and will be missed dearly.

The recent passing of Lou Criscuolo, who founded Opera House Theatre Company, will leave a hole in our community for quite some time. His three decades of local guidance and work touched the lives of many on and offstage. He will be forever embedded in the trenches of local theatre. More so, his legacy will ensure the Opera House shows always go on!

On a happier note, this was a standout year for the birth of new theatre companies: C’est La Guerre debuted with Charles Busch’s “The Lady in Question,” Up All Night Productions opened with Zeb Mims’ original script “Forget About It,” and Outrageous Pelican Productions—a group focusing on women artists and issues—produced “What Doesn’t Kill Me” (an evening of one-acts by Susan Steadman). Dram Tree Shakespeare gave audiences a taste of The Bard and what is to come as they performed scenes and monologues during the 2014 Riverfest. In July Opera Wilmington sold out every performance in their premiere offering of “The Merry Widow.” Improv fans cheered at the opening Dead Crow Comedy Room (which came from the ashes of Nutt Street Comedy Room) and the resurrection of their weekly improv show. They’ve also introduced a new late night talk show, “Late Fear,” courtesy of Willis Maxwell.

Big Dawg Productions probably took the cake this year with their run of “The Hermit of Fort Fisher” by Burlington playwright David Wright. The play looked at the life of Robert Harrill, Carolina Beach’s most famous resident. Harrill was known to most of the world as “The Fort Fisher Hermit.” He died under mysterious circumstances over 30 years ago, but his common-sense philosophy and the impact of his life is still clearly felt in our area. Big Dawg sold out almost as soon as the show opened, so they extended the run and actually had people looking for tickets on Craigslist! Following the initial success, they moved the show to Brunswick Little Theatre in Southport for a second sold-out run! Anyone in the production side will admit how difficult it is to make money in theatre, much less sell out a show—multiple times! Much praise and admiration goes to their success!

When most people think of theatre, they think of the performers onstage. Technicians and designers struggle to remind us how vital their roles are, too. Writers also tend to be largely ignored by the public. Few communities boast as robust a playwrighting community as we do. Over 30 original scripts debuted here this year, not including Super Saturday Fun Time—the weekly children’s theatre show written by Zach Hanner—or Pineapple-Shaped Lamps’ (PSL) monthly sketch-comedy shows, or any episode of the “Sketch-22” TV show that PSL aired on WWAY at the beginning of the year. If we added those in, the number would be pretty close to 100. Just think about that. We actually had one weekend in 2014 with six original scripts onstage in our fair city. Big Dawg even hosted the first 24-Hour Play Fest. Some highlights of the year include “Baring It 2” (the monologue showcase/fundraiser for Susan Auten at The Browncoat Pub and Theatre), Penny Khout’s “MacDeath” (an adaptation of the Scottish tragedy for young audiences),  “Bare Bones” by Liz Bernardo, Richard Fife’s fantasy adventure “Sunchasers,” and two hours of inside jokes about Shakespeare thanks to Anthony Lawson’s “The Bard’s Broads.”

While he was settling into his new job at CFCC, Shane Fernando also was directing “Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson” for City Stage. The last show of Smith and Ito’s tenure with the company, it was a hell of a high note to go out on and remains one of two of encore’s favorite musicals of the year. The script, music, performance, direction, choreography, and design elements all came together seamlessly. “A Christmas Story the Musical,” the second show of City Stage Co. under the auspices of Moser and Gray, is our other favorite musical of the year. But credit should also be given to the unmatchable chemistry of Nygel Robinson and Kendra Goehring-Garrett onstage as leads in Opera House Theatre Company’s “Kiss Me, Kate”; it was a high point of the summer.

Though big-name musicals might be crowd-pleasers, it’s the lesser known, more-challenging dramatic roles that attract actors and showcase some of the best work onstage. Part of the role of art in society is to provide a forum and lens through which the discussion that moves us as humans can happen. “Red,” Thalian Association’s offering about the life and death of Mark Rothko, and the first show under Loudermilk’s direction and with Sam Robison as director, was a hit. It starred Robb Mann and Patrick Basquill, and was some of the best work of either actor. Likewise, UNCW Theatre Department’s production of the groundbreaking work by Jackie Sibblies Drury, “We are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, From the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915” defied description. It showcased not only a pertinent and timely script, but a group of performers who bared themselves and explored the human psyche in ways that would be difficult even for seasoned professionals.

On a similar-yet-different note, the cast of Jim Leonard Jr.’s masterpiece, “The Diviners,” at City Stage touched truth in its portrayal of a small town wrestling with its faith during The Great Depression. Kenneth Roseander’s creation of Buddy Layman, the boy who could feel water, as a real person and not a caricature was a marvel to behold.

The Browncoat Pub and Theatre also produced two shows that were especially noteworthy. They debuted an unexpected commercial success in the early part of the year with “Gallery” by CJ Tour. Directed by Caleb Andrew Ward, it was essentially Sartre set in a comic-book universe. As well, their production, “Boy’s Life,” came about as a passion project for performers Hank Toller, Chase Harrison and Brendan Carter. It explored the sadder aspects of arrested development and narcissism.

Though far from a complete view of the year, it represents the highlights that stand out in making our theatre community so prominenet. If you only have one New Year’s resolution for 2015, perhaps exploring the amazing world of live theatre will top it. These talented folks can only work on their craft if they have audience to support it.

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