As the lights began to dim, a musician climbed a ladder and sat down in a small room overlooking the set. Three women stepped onto the stage and took their place. As the play began, they celebrated a birthday and spoke of their desire to escape their current circumstances.
So began Playmakers Repertory Company’s (PRC) recent productions of Anton Chekhov’s “Three Sisters.” As I watched the play several weeks ago, I was connected to a family on the edge. While yearning to return to a life they once had in Moscow, Olga, Masha, and Irina weren’t always prepared for the changes, be they personal or political, happening around them.
In Adam Verseyni’s dramaturgical notes on “Three Sisters,” he argues that the world of Chekhov’s play has much to tell us about our society today. Be it Russia in the late 1800s or America of today, we view a world “of changing values, of great social and spiritual stress.” Reflecting on “Three Sisters,” I couldn’t help but think that the shifts and circumstances apply to the changing landscape of cultural arts in our community, currently on the “edge” of something too.
“Three Sisters” was the first production directed by Vivienne Benesch in her new role as artistic director of PRC, and I expect we’ll see big things from her during her tenure. Joe Haj was recently hired as artistic director at the Guthrie Theatre, arguably the nation’s leading and most significant regional theatre company. His hire is a credit to the work he’s done in Chapel Hill, but it’s also a reflection of PRC’s increasing stature in the regional theatre scene in our country. I’m calling it now, PRC will have a Regional Tony to its name in the next five years. PRC’s mainstage season next year is as ambitious as it is relevant, and includes several classics while also challenging us with three contemporary plays all written by women.
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These changes aren’t just limited to PRC. Last year, Carolina Performing Arts announced the building of a new performing space in the middle of downtown Chapel Hill at Carolina Square. The green space at Carolina Square will be anchored by a signature piece of public art created by Robert Winkler. The Chapel Hill Public Art Commission is leading a community conversation about the future of arts in our community, holding public outreach events in non-traditional places like FRANK gallery and Flyleaf Bookstore. The Ackland is on the verge of hiring a new director and recently moved their store to a new space on Franklin Street.
Changes in the arts scene are not just limited to Chapel Hill; shifts are happening across Orange County.
Multiple UNC-arts organizations are using The ArtsCenter in Carrboro for musical theatre performances this spring. Carrboro and Chapel Hill collaborated recently on “Shimmer,” an outdoor art exhibit focused on light. The evening was well attended, even though it occurred on a frigid night in February.
Hillsborough’s arts scene is rooted in its rich history, but they’re not afraid to take risks or try new ventures. Three years ago the Hillsborough Arts Council moved from an out of the way office to a renovated historic building on the main drag of Churton Street. The council took a risk to move into the space, and didn’t know if they’d be able to consistently generate the revenue to afford the rent. In 2016 it’s been a great success, and they recently extended their lease. At the end of last year, the Arts Council began new, aspiring programming, including a solstice celebration lantern walk. Initial attendance estimates were blown out of the water, with hundreds of people attending the evening walk along River Walk. So much is happening across the entire county that I couldn’t possibly name it all.
At the same time that these changes pose exciting opportunities for the future, there are also risks involved. In “Three Sisters,” the birth of new children and the closing of the local military base put a strain on the family. We’re facing similar growing pains and shifts in significant institutions here in Orange County.
Earlier this year Deep Dish Theater ended its 15 year residency at University Place with a production of Chekov’s “The Cherry Orchard” (performed in repertory with “Outside Mullingar”). We’re still awaiting news on the next steps for the theater. The future of The ArtsCenter also seems up in the air as community leaders think about the changing priorities for their downtown. As an entire community, we continue to struggle with recruiting diverse audiences and supporting artists with affordable creative and living space.
We’re on the verge of something exciting, and I hope opportunities with new space, new leadership, and new energy propel the arts forward in our community. We’re at a moment for renewed collaboration, especially between organizations that bridge the campus divide. Conversation this year provides an opportunity to make sure the arts are accessible to all, be they artists trying to make a living or patrons looking to challenge their understanding of the world. Let’s not ignore these changing circumstances the way Chekhov’s characters are apt to, but embrace them.
Readers may write to Lee Storrow at LeeStorrow@gmail.com.
The Chapel Hill Public and Cultural Arts Commission will hold its third community meeting from 5:30 to 7 p.m. (March 14 at Flyleaf Books, 752 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. An arts survey is available online at www.townofchapelhill.org/artsurvey.