Arts & Culture

Dicks: The play’s the thing in the theater-rich Triangle

Foreground from left, Dorothy Recasner Brown, Fred Corlett, and Maryanne Henderson, background, in Deep Dish Repertory’s production of “The Cherry Orchard.”
Foreground from left, Dorothy Recasner Brown, Fred Corlett, and Maryanne Henderson, background, in Deep Dish Repertory’s production of “The Cherry Orchard.”

When I moved to the Triangle area in 1970, there were just two community theaters and a half-dozen college theaters. Today, by my count, there are at least 50 separate live theater organizations.

That surprising number includes tour presenters and professional theaters, along with independent, community and university theaters (and the count would be even higher if children’s theaters and improv troupes were included). The count is an ever-moving target with companies seemingly being formed every week. That’s because the Triangle has long been a welcoming area for experimental and innovative theater. New companies that find a viable niche join the substantial competition, fueling a high level of professionalism in all the categories.

The presenters I count have regular seasons, most producing three to six shows a year, making the annual total well over 150. October saw 31 shows running, with a typically wide range of choices. There were classics (“The Rivals,” “The Cherry Orchard”), recent Broadway plays (“Seminar,” “Outside Mullingar”) and new off-Broadway fare (“Mr. Burns, a post-electric play,” “Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom”).

Fans of musicals were offered beloved favorites (“Fiddler on the Roof,” “Into The Woods”), edgier works (“Violet,” “Assassins”) and tours of current Broadway shows (“Beautiful,” “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder”). Audiences could choose the familiar (“Dracula,” “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”) or take chances on local original works (“Brabo,” concerning colonial slavery in the Congo; “Infinity Loop,” about the personal side of dance-floor DJs).

The range of company categories means there’s something to appeal to every taste and budget. The Durham Performing Arts Center and Raleigh’s Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts bring full seasons of A-level touring productions, while university performing arts series regularly host intriguing and unusual presentations, often with celebrity artists (last month brought Juliette Binoche in “Antigone” and Julian Sands in an evening of Harold Pinter). North Carolina Theatre, PlayMakers Repertory Company and Theatre Raleigh produce seasons of musicals and plays that combine Equity guest performers with area talents.

A number of independent theater companies have long existed in the Triangle, their intriguing names, such as Little Green Pig, Manbites Dog and Burning Coal, hinting at productions that re-imagine classics, promote original works and stage pieces in unconventional spaces. Community theaters have shed their amateur stigma by casting from the high-quality talent pool available now, and the respected theater departments at local universities offer productions featuring gifted students led by experienced faculty.

The Triangle is able to sustain so many works because its populationresides in several cities rather than one big metropolis. Defined by the U.S. Census Bureau as a Combined Statistical Area (characterized by strong economic ties and commuting patterns), the Triangle’s current population estimate is just over 2 million, putting it 30th in the nation between the Nashville and Milwaukee CSAs (and my research shows that both those locations have no more theater presenters than here). The Triangle’s population is also highly educated and diversified, allowing for a variety of theatrical interests.

Those interests can be largely fulfilled right here. Trips to New York City for theater are still special events, but commercial pressures there continue to limit what can be presented. Here there’s a smorgasbord, particularly in new and inventive productions, making the Triangle a theater destination. That designation deserves to be touted by local boosters along with the many “best places” accolades regularly bestowed on the area.

Roy C. Dicks has been a freelance performing arts critic for The N&O since 1997. Dicks: