This summer much of the drama and some of the biggest battles at Snow Camp Theater have happened offstage.
The conflict has centered on the hiring of a pair of new executive producers with decades of Hollywood experience who ordered a rewrite of the script so thorough that it forced a name change for the long-running outdoor drama. “Sword of Peace” is now “American Patriots.” The new show moves faster and is flashier, with pyrotechnics, gunfire and sword play. A soundtrack adds music, and a new narrator helps the audience keep up.
The drama tells the story of local Quaker settlers’ involvement in events leading to the Revolutionary war, and longtime fans of the original, including some descendants of the theater’s founders and members of some of the five Quaker churches in and around Snow Camp, complain that the new one tries too hard to dazzle, detracting from the original theme of a religious community’s conflict of conscience.
Others, including a majority of the nonprofit Snow Camp Historical Drama Society’s board of directors, say the changes were necessary to keep the theater alive.
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“We knew we had to do something different,” said Dr. William Heizer, a Chapel Hill physician and chairman of the 21-member board. “Tweaking the old way of doing things just wasn’t going to work anymore.”
Heizer said he believes that without major updates to “Sword of Peace” and Snow Camp’s other Quaker drama, “Pathway to Freedom,” about the Underground Railroad, the theater would continue to see a decline in attendance. From 1990 to 2000, Heizer said, average attendance at the theater was about 9,600 people per year. For the past five years, he said, the theater has seen about 3,200 people per year. There have been times when the cast played to fewer than 10 people.
Even with a budget of just $100,000 per year, Heizer said, ticket sales were only covering about a fourth of what the theater needed to run each summer. The rest came from small grants and corporate and private donations. About half the actors worked for free; the rest got token salaries.
In that respect, Snow Camp is little different from other outdoor theaters across the country. They are notoriously underfunded, relying on gifts and the resourcefulness of their actors, costumers and set designers.
Michael Hardy, executive director of the Institute of Outdoor Theater at East Carolina University, said some like “The Lost Colony” benefit from being set in a major tourist destination – and even that production has had to reinvent itself a few times. Snow Camp, a crossroads farming community 50 miles west of Raleigh, has only the theater, a restaurant, a collection of historic Quaker buildings and its proximity to the outlet stores in Burlington and Mebane to offer travelers. And the show itself was essentially the same presentation as when then-UNC professor and prolific playwright William Hardy – Michael Hardy’s father – was commissioned to write it in the early 1970s, as the U.S. bicentennial approached and the nation took an interest in its history.
“When many of these dramas started, it wasn’t that hard,” Hardy said. “There was no Disney World, there were no elaborate technical theme parks. So the production values have had to catch up a bit, along with the restrooms and gift shops and concessions. You need a slick operation.”
When the board decided to update the show, they turned to Dean Jones and his brother, Starr, who both had had parts in the theater during or after their high school years in the late 1970s and early ’80s. Both studied theater at UNC Greensboro and then went to Los Angeles, where they have worked together in a series of ventures.
Their specialty is stage makeup, which they have done for hundreds of TV shows and movies, including three of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” films. They also parlayed the craft into a popular annual haunted-house attraction in Snow Camp, “The Original Hollywood Horror Show,” which has operated every October for more than 25 years.
They were just finishing up last year’s haunt when Heizer and another Snow Camp board member asked if they would consider working with the theater.
It was a tender time for those who had been involved at Snow Camp. Founder James Wilson, who continued to manage the theater years after there was any way for it to pay him a salary, had died unexpectedly in 2013. Last year, his granddaughter, Chelsey Wilson, a member of the board, agreed to act as general manager for a season but told the board it would have to get someone else for 2015.
I told them I wouldn’t even think about it unless they would allow me a page-one rewrite.
Dean Jones, one of two brothers brought in to revive the drama
“I told them I wouldn’t even think about it unless they would allow me a page-one rewrite,” Dean Jones said, “where every bit of everything gets redone.”
The Jones brothers agreed to work on the play for little or no money, staying in Snow Camp through the winter and spring instead of going back to California when the haunted house closed down.
Working with a writer, Jones submitted revision after revision of “American Patriots” to the theater board before finally getting a script approved a few weeks before the summer season was to begin. It left little time to audition and hire actors, and to repair rotting sets and build new ones. There was no money for new costumes, so the cast worked with what they had, and they borrowed a sound system from a local company.
They managed to open on Independence Day.
It’s too early to tell whether the new production will fill the theater or draw new benefactors whose donations could help pay to patch the leaking roof on the shelter where theater patrons huddle in a sudden rain, or to buy more explosives for the fight scene between the governor’s troops and the patriots.
On a good night, there are 115 people in a theater that could hold hundreds more.
For a performance last week, when it came time to open the theater for the night, Dean Jones emptied his pockets so the box office would have cash to make change. The 8:15 p.m opening was delayed several minutes while Starr Jones worked to get the sound system running.
Though the brothers had hoped to stage an updated version of “Pathway to Freedom” this summer along with “American Patriots,” last week they and the board said they can’t afford to do it this season.
“Next year,” Dean Jones promised.
This one is too much Revolution and not enough Quaker.
Bryan Wilson, whose father commissioned the original “Sword of Peace”
Instead, the troupe will give additional performances of “American Patriots,” going on stage Wednesdays through Sundays through Aug. 16.
When she first saw it, Chelsey Wilson said, the new show seemed like such a radical departure from the original play James Wilson commissioned that, “In a way, it was like losing my grandfather all over again.”
But having grown up around the theater and run it for a year, she knows how hard it is to try to change the smallest detail.
“I know what they’re going through,” she said of the Jones brothers.
Her uncle, Bryan Wilson, one of James’ sons, runs Ye Olde Country Kitchen, a buffet-style restaurant adjacent to the theater. How much fried chicken and banana pudding he sells depends largely on how many people come to the theater, so he hopes the Jones brothers succeed. A Quaker minister himself, his criticism of the new drama is that, “If the old one was too much about the Quakers and not enough about the Revolution, this one is too much Revolution and not enough Quaker.”
At intermission that night, the stage went temporarily dark as the 27 cast members took a break and the four dozen audience members stretched their legs. Standing near the concession trailer, Starr Jones pondered what it might mean if he and his brother – or someone else – can’t garner enough support to keep the theater’s two dramas in production.
“I think this community would lose a lot of its history,” Jones said. “The things that happened here would not be told anymore.
“The story would fade away.”
Want to go?
“American Patriots” has five more shows this season, 8:15 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday.
The theater is at 301 Drama Road, Snow Camp. It’s about 50 miles from Raleigh, west of Chapel Hill.
Info: 800-726-5115 or www.snowcamptheatre.com/shows.html
Other N.C. outdoor dramas
This summer, at least eight outdoor theaters are running in North Carolina, and all but one feature historical dramas. The most popular shows are:
“The Lost Colony” performed at Waterside Theater in Manteo
“Unto These Hills” in Cherokee
“Horn in the West” in Boone
Did you know?
“The Lost Colony’ is the oldest and longest-running outdoor drama in the whole country.
“Tom Dooley: A Wilkes County Legend” is the newest in the state. It started 15 years ago in Wilkesboro.
William Hardy wrote “Sword of Peace” for James and Bobby Wilson, Quaker brothers who grew up around Snow Camp in southern Alamance County. The Wilson brothers wanted to popularize the story of Simon Dixon, a settler who had moved from Pennsylvania around 1750 and established the Cane Creek Friends Meeting, the first Quaker, or Friends, community in the North Carolina Piedmont.
Though frustrated by the graft and corruption of local politicians in what was then Orange County, the Quakers were bound by their pacifist beliefs to seek relief through the courts and written appeals to the colonial governor, William Tryon, who did nothing to stop unfair taxes and illegal land grabs.
Some of the Quakers’ neighbors, not committed to nonviolence, favored physical resistance to the thieving tax collectors and those in the government who enabled them.
Eventually, Gov. Tryon himself would lead troops against what became known as the Regulator Movement, a farmers’ rebellion that preceded the Revolution by a decade. Local Quakers who held to their pacifism found other ways to support the Regulators, such as providing them supplies.
Their story first hit the stage in 1974, in a semicircular clearing amid the hardwoods less than a mile from the community of Cane Creek where Simon Dixon ran his grist mill. “Pathway to Freedom” was added 20 years later.