A new world, a new town and new opportunities. In 1740 Wilmington was incorporated. The port was booming, houses were going up, and, less than 50 years later, in 1788 we founded a community theater: Thalian Association. It’s not surprising that an 18th-century audience would look for a classical allusion and name the group for the Greek muse of comedy, but what is surprising: Of all the priorities that could be set in the new world, theatre would rise on the list.
This early cultural priority set the tone for this community. Now 225 years later, the current incarnation of Thalian Association will celebrate an anniversary and over 200 years of theatrical delights enjoyed by of Wilmingtonians.
“I hope the community takes due pride in hosting one of the oldest—if not the oldest—theater traditions in America,” Thalian’s Artistic Director Tom Briggs says. “It’s rather extraordinary: the vision our forefathers had of integrating the arts and arts education into the then-burgeoning City of Wilmington.”
Though a host of events are planned throughout the year to celebrate the anniversary, their birthday party will take place February 9th, after a performance by Thalian Association Children’s Theatre (TACT) of “Romeo & Juliet.” It’s a fitting pairing because all the history in the world won’t carry us into the next 225 years; only the next generation can. That’s where TACT comes in. “We have a long history, but I also hope it means we have a bright future!” Jason Aycock, Thalian Association Children’s Theatre (TACT) manager, says.
Briggs came of age in community theatre in Wisconsin. “Then, in the 1980s, I ran a community theater in New York City, so I’ve always had a connection to and great respect for those who do theater just for the love of it,” he explains. “And that’s what community theater is all about. Nobody’s in it for fame or fortune, so there’s a sort of purity in the process that you don’t necessarily find in professional theater.”
Aycock grew up in Pender County and, outside of church choir and dance class, didn’t have an expression for his theater ambitions until he reached high school. Then, the world opened up for him. He hopes TACT can make that happen for the next generation, as well.
“I wish people would come to see the shows and how talented these kids are,” he laments. At StarNews’ Wilmington Theatre Awards, TACT preformed “It’s A Wonderful World” in honor of the late, great, community theatre supporter Donn Ansell. Afterward Aycock found himself swarmed by people, raving about the kids’ performance.
Aycock points out the great opportunity to see them perform in “Romeo & Juliet.” “The language might be a bit difficult for kids younger than middle school to follow,” he says. But seeing the show live allows even younger children to follow the action visually and put together the story themselves.
Aycock has been busy since becoming manager of TACT in August. TACT’s program of classes has expanded and now includes a playwrighting component. Aycock hopes one day the children’s theatre will be able to pick up the mantle of The Youth Play Festival that has existed in several forms locally, most recently through Big Dawg Productions.
“It is something I am interested in, and it might be a while before we work up to it,” Aycock explains. “Five shows a season and the academy is a lot.”
His boyish grin breaks through. “And all the performing I do, too.” He alludes to a heavy performance schedule, taking on The Cripple Creek Cloggers, as well as productions for local companies like Opera House, Thalian Association and City Stage. In short, he teaches and leads by example.
Children’s theater is a beautiful illustration of the process of growing as an artist: When children start out at very young ages, they will be part of big group scenes with little or no individual dialogue. But, as they mature, slowly they will be given dialogue, more responsibility and larger parts.
The Basquill brothers are a nice example: Four years ago during a Cape Fear Shakespeare Youth Company performance, Patrick Basquill played Romeo. Now, his younger brother Joesph (who played Romeo’s slave in the earlier production) is bringing Romeo to life. Children’s theatre presents a fascinating opportunity to truly see young artists blossom and develop.
On January 22nd a town-crier officially declared 2013 for the City of Wilmington “The Year of Thalian Association.” The festivities continue all year and include a gala in September at the opening of the 2012 season. Hopefully, this will encourage another 225 of prolific arts activity.
“Of course we need the continued support we’ve enjoyed throughout the years, and we need to grow that support,” Briggs observes. “Over the past few years we’ve brought more local businesses onboard, and that’s important—for us as well as for them. The more savvy, civic-minded businesses are mindful of the many advantages of aligning themselves with the arts community. They realize that the way in which a community supports and reaches out to the arts says a lot about its community.”
In 2012 there was a show playing every weekend in town—something many will find unexpected in an area that’s not a convenient stop on a map between travels. More so, with a population of less than 150,000. It is completely remarkable.
“Here in Wilmington we have a true theater community and Thalian Association is the grandfather of that community,” Briggs proclaims.
Truer words have never been spoken.