The last time I stepped foot into a theater was at Thalian Hall during the Star News Wilmington Theatre Awards in mid-March. The annual event celebrates the theatrical achievements of Wilmington’s theatre community. It’s a fun time (I’ve won, I can say that) and is a wonderful measure to the scope of talent here in Wilmington.
At the awards show, I ran into Hannah Funderburke, a staple within the tech side of our theatre world. Her fledgling company, Wilmington Technical Foundary, was keeping the metaphorical ship afloat that night and doing a brilliant job. We spoke about projects coming down the pipeline and such, and it was all smiles and chuckles—nary a mask in sight. It was the last good night of theatre in town.
That was all the way back when COVID-19 was only a whisper in our conversations before we all got to watch the first chapter of Stephen King’s “The Stand” play out in real-time. We have since been through some dark days in theatre here in the Cape Fear. The ghost lights are burning, but the marquees are turned off, with no sign of them illuminating anytime soon. Every company in town is chomping at the bit to get back on stage, to bring some sense of cheer and normality back to audiences—and, especially, for their own survival.
Artists are primed to create. Our theatre scene has been a respectable-sized pond with its own carnivorous species that inhabit it. Like any eco-system, it has fluctuated in size throughout the years. My biggest fear now revolves around one question: Has the pond finally dried up? I don’t have an answer yet, though, players in town certainly are fighting against it—which brings me back to Hannah.
“One rainy day, as I was listening to music, I began monologuing the lyrics and trying to take it in and out of its context,” she explains of how she was struck by inspiration, and with a plethora of Wilmington’s finest to form a powerhouse cast, she birthed “Avant! Avant! Avant!”
The spoken-word series features monologues made up of song lyrics that have their lulling tunes removed. It focuses on words and context behind the music, a neat concept for sure but one which has a deeper meaning. Compiled into a virtual video, it is tied to a GoFundMe page to benefit local theatre companies—all of them, including Techmoja Dance & Theatre, Panache Theatrical Productions, Big Dawg Production, Opera House, Revelry Players and The Thalian Association. The video aired last weekend and can be seen still at the Wilmington Technical Foundary Facebook page.
“Avant! Avant! Avant! The Words Behind the Music” owes its name to “avant-garde,” meaning new and unusual or experimental ideas. Funderburke’s experiment is a success and should continue to champion. It embodies the spirit of Bill Withers’ famed song, “Lean on me / when you’re not strong / and I’ll be your friend / I’ll help you carry on.”
The tone and song selection featured across the show is vast, ranging from gospel to rock, ’80s pop to pirate sea shanties. It’s eclectic, in that the tragic nature of peppy songs is uncovered and the humor of sorrowful numbers is brought out.
Amanda Wilson’s interruption of The Smith’s “There is a Light that Never Goes” sounds fresh, as if she was creating the words from her own imagination. “This song has always held a special place in my heart, and not for any specific reason,” Wilson says.
She fully mines the “die by your side” love context.
“I think it is the epitome of desperate (albeit typical Morrissey-level dramatic) love,” Wilson continues, “like having a person that always has your back when you’re a mess.”
“I love anthologies like [‘Avant! Avant! Avant!’],” Randy Davis says, “different creative types tackling a project with so wide a spectrum of possibilities.”
Davis embraces the fright with Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” turned into the B-movie prologue it was always meant to be. “I knew funny and sappy would be more than covered but creepy?” he asks rhetorically. Only supplying a blank screen to accompany his vocals, Davis crafts a narration that matches that of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”—or at the very least a skit that would make Andy Kauffman proud.
Bringing more humor to the show is Steve “Hey Baby” Vernon, who dusts off his go-to “Ray” character. A redneck Ray hoots and hollers his way through a drunkard’s karaoke cover of Queen’s “Fat Bottomed Girls.” Vernon wanted to suggest a character and location to give the piece an “anchor.” It certainly sets a particular Tom Waits-vibe in a redneck “Twin Peaks” noir.
“It was a process of trial and error,” Vernon tells in choosing from Queen’s rife catalog. “I recorded seven or eight takes of ‘The Show Must Go On,’ but they all felt too somber. I wanted to hopefully add some humor to anyone’s day who watches. This was Ray’s first time reciting the lyrics to ‘Fat Bottom Girls’ in a public forum, with the exception of one late-night conversation with a fellow inmate at a county jail while high on cough syrup.”
Ever the showman, Zach Hanner brings full theatricality to his bit, Stan Rogers’ “Barrett’s Privateers.” He added a sepia-tone filter on top of his video and sea-roaring sound effects in the background. “I do love pirate stories a great deal!” Hanner admits. “I feel like they have a certain romance and flair to them. The truth is, I really love songs that have a narrative. . . . These young sailors had to sea with grandiose ideas of coming back rich and then they end up cut to pieces in the middle of the ocean. It’s a story of lost promise and tragedy.”
LaRaisha DiEvelyn Dionne chose Bjork’s “Hyperballad.” A stunning singer in her own right, Dionne dominates the powerful ballad. “Bjork is one of my favorite artists,” she says, “nuanced and delicate but also carries the fire of a thousand suns. I was going to do a song that reflected the state of current events but my heart was feeling too heavy so I tried to remember a song that really transported me to another time and place. ‘Hyperballad’ was always one.”
Rounding out the cast is Rebekah Carmichael, making “Run Away with Me” by Michael Arden into a beautiful soul-baring confessional, a proclamation of love. She’s also the only person who does a two-camera setup … fancy. Holli Saperstein is always reliable with (Indigo Girls’ “Closer to Fine”), as are Chandler Davis (The Foo Fighter’s, “Pretender”) and Jeff Phillips (“This Too Shall Pass” by Yolanda Adams).
The video and GoFundMe page will be up through July 25-26, though Funderburke says she may extend the fundraiser. The video will be sent to local companies to use as they wish after the fundraiser ends.