Curtains are closing for Manbites Dog Theater in Durham. What's next for the theater scene?

Manbites Dog Theater ends its 31st and final season with performances of “Wakey, Wakey” through Sunday, June 10.
Manbites Dog Theater ends its 31st and final season with performances of “Wakey, Wakey” through Sunday, June 10. Submitted photo.

The days grow short at Manbites Dog Theater — the physical manifestation, at least.

After 31 years, the long-running Durham theater institution will close its curtains for the final time Sunday night after its current show "Wakey, Wakey" concludes. Manbites management has sold its building for $1.1 million.

Many are lamenting the loss. Since forming in 1987, the company has gained a solid artistic reputation for its willingness to take on new, edgier work. When it moved to 703 Foster St. a decade later, it also became a focal point for other theater companies to stage their productions.

But Manbites' spirit will live on in new ways. The company's management has started a "Manbites Dog 3.0" fund, which will underwrite other theatrical efforts in the area. And Bulldog Ensemble Theater, a new company with connections to Manbites, is also starting up.

"I don't think people realize just how hard it is to pull off what they've done, sustaining something that long at this small-budget level," said Bulldog spokesperson Akiva Fox.

Specifics for how the Manbites fund will work remain up in the air. Management has partnered with Triangle Community Foundation and rented office space. After the company's accounts are settled, the remainder will go into the fund.

"What's coming next is us figuring out what comes next," said Edward Hunt, Manbites managing director. "We'll be very busy the next few weeks, distributing equipment and materials that are here and clearing out before the end of the month. Then we'll take some time to catch our breath before buckling down to do some planning."

70 Scenes 1987
Manbites Dog Theater's first production, "Seventy Scenes of Halloween" by Jeffrey Jones in December 1987, was directed by Jeff Storer. From left, Patricia Esperon, Michael Hayes and Barbara Dickinson. Courtesy of Manbites Dog

Modest beginnings

When Manbites Dog Theater Company started, its first production was staged in a converted shoe store. Despite the modest surroundings, the company staged ambitious productions such as "Indecent Materials," a work based on the Senate testimony of North Carolina's then-Republican Sen. Jesse Helms.

By 1997, the company was established enough to buy a $205,000 building in downtown Durham and turn it into Manbites Dog Theater.

Durham has boomed in recent years, driving up the price of real estate throughout the city, but especially downtown. Co-founders Hunt and Jeff Storer made the decision last summer to bow out of running a theater, sell the Manbites Dog building and put the money into theater efforts elsewhere in the area.

Modern Energy, a Durham-based green-energy investment firm, bought the property last December to use as its new headquarters, paying $1.1 million. Manbites has been renting the space back to finish out this season.

"We are so grateful to the Manbites board for selling to us," Modern Energy founder Benjamin Abram said at the time of the sale. "Change is hard, but I am so impressed with the way that the team and leadership of Manbites … really created an opportunity for their community by buying the building 20 years ago. I feel fortunate to be a small part of their next phase with these funds going to their roving community theater model."

Hunt said they'll make "a few small-scale announcements" late this year about some initiatives. But they still have to figure out the mechanics of issuing grants, as well as a long-range timeline.

"Will this be indefinitely sustainable?" Hunt asked rhetorically. "Can we keep this going, or is there a sunset where we just give it away until it's gone and that's it? At this point, we just don't know."

manbites dog
Jeff Storer and Ed Hunt, founders of Manbites Dog Theater, in the lobby of the theater off Foster Street in Durham. Contributed

Successors beyond Manbites?

With the clock ticking on Manbites, at least one potential successor has already emerged. A group of 20 local theater artists recently banded together as Bulldog Ensemble Theater, with a similar mission of producing "daring and of-the-moment plays."

While Bulldog is not an officially sanctioned successor, its directors, actors, playwrights and designers have worked extensively at Manbites productions as well as at Justice Theater Project, PlayMakers Repertory Company and numerous other area groups. The Bulldog name pays tribute, too, combining "Bull" for Durham with "dog" as a nod to Manbites Dog.

"We wanted to tip our hat to the work Manbites has done," Fox said. "We were really struck by the void their absence will leave and wanted to continue what they started."

Bulldog will be among the area theater groups applying for financial support from Manbites 3.0 grants. Plans call for an initial four-show season starting this fall, with Durham Fruit & Produce Company as venue.

Meanwhile, Hunt and Storer have been contemplating life beyond Manbites. They've had some gatherings of alumni from over the years, leaving them "astonished," Hunt said, at how many couples have met through the theater.

"We might be a small but significant factor in Durham's population growth," Hunt quipped.

Then he turned serious.

"Sometimes, these 31 years seem very short and sometimes they seem like an eternity," he said. "We haven't yet wrapped our heads around what the other side of this will be like. The blessing of having wildly over-scheduled these last few weeks is there's been no time to slow down and get depressed. A lot of patrons have come in with that sad face. But we just tell them it's going to be fine. We'll still be around."

David Menconi: 919-829-4759, @NCDavidMenconi


What: “Wakey, Wakey”

Where: Manbites Dog Theater, 703 Foster St., Durham

When: 8:15 p.m. June 6-9; 2 p.m. June 10; 7:30 p.m.

Tickets: $10-$20

Info:919-682-3343 or manbitesdogtheater.org

What critic Roy C. Dicks said: Will Eno’s “Wakey, Wakey” follows one man’s humorous and unsentimental reflection on life as he prepares to exit it. It doesn’t take long to realize that what seems to be taking place in a rest home with a resident and a staff member is also a metaphor for the way any of us might take stock of life as we prepare for death. Eno gives Guy many clever, insightful observations that can induce big smiles and a few pangs.

Although this is not the playwright’s best work, it’s a perfect way to say goodbye to an institution that has given its audience so much to ponder about life. The cast includes longtime favorites at Manbites, whose fine work is on display.

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