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Tides of Change: New ILM-based theatre companies form and old ones alter their staff

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“It’s starting to feel like the ‘90s around here again,” Steve Vernon, artistic director for Big Dawg Productions and founder of BUMP Productions, commented.

We were talking about the changes in the theatre scene around Wilmington. There is a proliferation of new companies forming and established ones are changing staff. Vernon and I had watched the mushrooming of local theatre in the mid-‘90s when it felt like every month a new group started. Thalian Association and Opera House were the long-established players. With the creation of Five and Dime Theatre Co., a multitude of companies began to sprout up,  including Cape Fear Shakespeare on the Green, BUMP and Big Dawg, among others.  

Change is a subject that’s a little touchy for many people—especially after the debacle with Thalian Association’s board earlier this year. It seems to have had a happy ending with the hiring of David Loudermilk as Thalian Associations’s artistic director. 

“I was still completing my year at Cape Fear Academy as I was starting to get my feet wet with our first production at Red Barn Studio,” Loudermilk notes. “Without sounding totally  cliché, everyday is a pleasant surprise. Just being able to be employed in a job doing what I love to do is wonderful.” 

The current Thalian season was chosen by the play selection committee and former artistic director Tom Briggs before he departed, but Loudermilk dubbed it: “An Iconic Season.” 

“I felt that each of these productions has a particular element that is iconic to a specific story, holiday, person, or work of literature,” Loudermilk explains. 

Loudermilk also ushered in the opening of the first summer season at Red Barn Studio.  Thalian Association used to produce a second-stage summer series in the studio theatre of Thalian Hall. (It’s where I saw my first Tennessee Williams play.) Their new lease on Linda Lavin and Steve Bakunas’ Red Barn Studio Theatre intends to revive that series’ spirit. 

“Our first summer season at Red Barn has been extremely successful,” Loudermilk details.  “The season was chosen with three groundbreaking Tony Award nominated/winning scripts [‘Good People,’ ‘Red’ and ‘Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike’] that were very recently on Broadway. Our hope is to continue doing new works in this space, as well as reviving some popular titles. I love the intimate theatre setting, and I am looking forward to directing a show in there myself, because I have some nonconventional ideas for that space.”

Likewise, Nicholas Gray and Rachel Moser have moved into a shared artistic director position with City Stage Co. Chiaki Ito and Justin Smith have taken a step back after years of producing musical hits like “The Rocky Horror Show,” “Tommy” and “American Trailer Park.” Their new season opens with “Carrie: The Musical” on October 16th.  

City Stage’s inaugural Fringe Festival will take place in early 2015, too. They are now accepting submissions for one-act or full-length plays, three of which will be chosen. Gray says he hopes it will become an annual event. As well, they’re seeking 10 10-minute plays colored with themes of manipulation, murder or money for the festival’s How-To-Make-A-Killing-in-10-Minutes-or-Less play series. Playwrights must be a Wilmington resident or have previously lived here for a year or more. The deadline for submissions for both series is October 15th, and entries can be emailed to (Full details can be found at

Besides changes of staff, there have been an assortment of new theatre companies in town, including an opera company: Opera Wilmington. Artistic director Nancy King sang the title role in an English translation of  Franz Lehár’s “The Merry Widow” for Opera Wilmington’s premiere production this summer. The group was thrilled to sell out the show’s first run and are busily preparing for “Aria Night” at Beckwith Recital Hall on October 12th, and “Pasta & Puccini” at Osteria Cicchetti on February 8th. 

Up All Night Theatre Company debuted this summer with an original work by Zeb Mims. Liz Bernardo reports that the group has some late-night shows planned at TheatreNOW. As well, they are working on another full-length production for early next year. As their name implies, the group is composed of the young and sleep-challenged. Their first show, “Forget About It,” was performed at Browncoat Pub & Theatre, which has made a reputation for producing original works. Like many arts organizations, Browncoat is going through a phase of re-evaluation. 

“My wife, Amber, was unexpectedly diagnosed with a very serious medical condition that, frankly, the best doctors in the world aren’t entirely sure how to treat,” Browncoat co-owner Richard Davis explains. “We’re very lucky that, thanks to the Affordable Care Act, we were able to purchase private health insurance. Had this happened 60 days earlier, I can tell you exactly where the Browncoat would be today: gone. We’d be bankrupt.”

 For the Davis family this is an adjustment. They’re trying to see what Browncoat’s next phase will look like. “We were able to enter into more co-producing arrangements with some very talented people,” Davis notes. “These were folks who were a lot like us five or seven years ago. They had all the talent, drive and ingenuity in the world but lacked the experience and financial resources to really maximize those gifts. I was able to marshal the Browncoat into more of a mentor position, which I think helped them flourish. I wish we would have had something like that available when we were starting.” 

Reflecting back on the journey of the last few years, Davis remains uncertain of Browncoat’s future amidst all the local changes. “I‘m worried about the impact the loss of film incentives will have on theatre in Wilmington,” he says. “[It] drew a lot of talented actors, designers, technicians, and others to the area. If that industry goes away, much of that talent will, too.”

Davis set out provide a platform for new writers and actors to fulfill their dreams. Now, he reflects on his legacy. “Did we help it change or did that change come about on its own?” he ponders. “I don’t know. I’d like to think we had some positive impact, but I really can’t say for sure. I once believed we were doing something good and that we were providing real opportunities to people who wouldn’t get a chance anywhere else. Today, I don’t know if that was truth or pride.” 

Additionally, longtime theatre stalwart Mike O’Neill is producing “12 Angry Men” this fall with a new company called Vanity Productions. Imaginary Theatre Company—a project he has worked on in the past with Lee Lowrimore and Dorothy Rankin to produce “Venus in Fur” and “Yankee Tavern”—is currently on hiatus. 

C’est La Guerre (a French expression that translates “it’s the war”) is another new theatre company that hopes to focus on more avant-garde material. They will produce their first show, “The Lady in Question,” by Charles Busch. Busch is well-known for “Psycho Beach Party,” “Die, Mommie, Die,” and “The Allergist’s Wife.” The latter of which he wrote for Linda Lavin. “The Lady in Question” opens September 19th at The Blind Elephant on Front Street. Tom Briggs has joined the cast for his first time onstage since “The Diary of Anne Frank” at Big Dawg in 2011. 

“He will be playing a dual role as Augusta (the Baron’s mother) and Raina Aldrich (the aging starlet that has been captured by the Nazis),”co-producer  Nina Bays-Cournoyer confirms. “We especially are lucky to have him, as he’s seen the original Busch production of ‘The Lady in Question’ and will be able to really help us capture the spirit.”  

Dram Tree Shakespeare incorporated as a nonprofit this month. They intend to produce Shakespearean plays in our area. Two decades ago Cape Fear Shakespeare was formed and has grown into the Shakespeare on the Green, the Port City’s annual celebration of the Bard, which features a children’s production and an adult play. It is gladdening to know that a Shakespeare festival can thrive in this area; so much so the city can entertain a second one. It speaks volumes to the artistic growth of our community.  

“Wilmington has a huge and diverse theatre community and there is certainly room for an infinite number of organizations,” Cherri McKay, director of Shakespeare on the Green, observes. “Best of luck to the newcomers. I hope that an additional Shakespeare group might open the way for the production of some of the [Bard’s] histories and lesser-known plays.”

McKay notes that her focus is currently a joint project with Journey Productions, the youth theatre group for which she also serves as director. “We are excited and have begun work on a new project (Supporting Teachers Through The Arts) created for Cape Fear Shakespeare/Journey. ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ will be our late-fall production.”

If anything, the excitement and growth, evidenced by Wilmington’s theatre community, is a gift we are very lucky to have. Whatever the outcomes of these revelations, 2015 promises to be a year filled with enthusiasm and creativity.

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