Best-Kept Secrets

Best-Kept Secrets: Live theater in NC

Travel guides are full of suggestions on how to make vacation dollars go further, but the savvy traveler knows that for the price of a ticket – often less than $10 – it’s possible to go almost anywhere through the magic of live theater.

This summer, North Carolina audiences have gone to medieval England by way of Wilmington through a local production of “Spamalot;” to rural Texas from Kernersville with “Leap of Faith;” and to the early-20th-century Iowa of “The Music Man” from a train stop on a stage in Flat Rock.

Live theater is like a secret door at the back of a hotel room; travelers can land in a city or town at the coast, in the Piedmont or the mountains and then, for a couple of hours at least, be transported to another time and place by some good set pieces, clever costuming and skillful performing.

North Carolina, said to be the first in the country to have established a state-supported theater, at UNC-Chapel Hill in 1923, is full of drama yearround, and we’re not talking about politics. Professional actors in off-Broadway tours seem to parade constantly through the state’s larger cities, filling big venues at big ticket prices.

But as the sun sets on summer evenings, curtains rise on a busy schedule of mostly volunteer theater productions – most of the actors and crews don’t get paid, but the word amateur understates the quality of their work – that give theater company members a vital creative outlet and grant audiences the chance to see classic drama and comedy for the price of a bottle of sunscreen.

Across the state, dozens of theater companies (many of which are listed geographically here www.jnctg.com/) put on hundreds of shows featuring the tireless work of thousands of actors, directors, musicians, set-builders, costume designers and car-parkers. Some perform in theaters that can hold more than 500 people, and often fill every seat. Others leave it all on the stage for audiences of fewer than 100.

Some perform in extravagantly renovated historic buildings that saw their first heyday in the early 1900s, when vaudeville acts came into the state on trains, unloaded their gear into theaters near the railroad tracks and performed for a few days before moving down the line. Some companies perform in school auditoriums or outdoor amphitheaters. One uses a former post office. Except for the rare company that is able to hire one or two professionals, most actors are local residents, performing for their neighbors, co-workers and relatives who get a seat on the front row to applaud the results of all those weeks of rehearsals.

“I ask myself all the time why people continue to do it,” said Alice Sherwood, artistic director for the Opera House Theatre Company, which staged a rousing “Spamalot” at downtown Wilmington’s Thalian Hall in June and will perform “1776” at the historic theater building for the next two weekends. “Almost everyone who performs with us has a full-time job, so they work all day, come to rehearsals at night and on weekends, and then do multiple shows on the weekends. It’s a lot to ask of people, and yet, they continue to give it. It’s amazing.

“It fills a need for them that their regular day jobs do not.”

Like others across the state, Opera House Theatre Company relies on individual and corporate donations to help with the cost of sets, costumes and other expenses so that ticket prices can remain affordable. Donors often are named in the playbill.

Whether they give $50 or $500,000 or pay nothing more than their face value of a ticket, audience members contribute something to every performance, said Sherwood, whose mother and stepfather launched the company in 1985, and who grew up working backstage.

“The energy from the audience affects the show immediately,” she said. “So every show is different.

“Being in the room with a live performers is a unique experience that cannot be replicated by movies or TV or anything else. It’s interactive in a way that almost nothing else is.”

After a day at the beach, consider an afternoon or evening at Thalian Hall in Wilmington, where the Opera House Theatre Company will perform “1776,” the musical that tells the story of America’s first steps as a nation, July 22-24. Sunday shows are matinees. Tickets can be purchased at the box office in the lobby of Thalian Hall, by phone at 910-632-2285 or online at www.operahousetheatrecompany.net/. Tickets are $24-32, with discounts for students, senior citizens and groups of 10 or more booking in advance.

Morehead City and New Bern

Carteret Community Theater in Morehead City will perform “Hands on a Hard Body,” about a contest to win a truck by being the last one standing with a hand on its skin, July 21-24. Sunday shows are matinees. Tickets are $15 to $22 and can be purchased online at www.carteretcommunitythreatre.com, or call 252-497-8919. New Bern Civic Theater will perform Shakespeare’s comedic quartet of short pieces on marriage, love and physical attraction, “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Aug. 5-7. Tickets are $10 to $20, with discounts for students and active-duty military. Next up at the theater is “Death Trap,” opening Sept. 16. Tickets are available online at www.newberncivictheatre.org or through the box office at 252-634-9057.

Temple Theatre, Sanford

Sanford is home to the 330-seat Temple Theatre, www.templeshows.com, opened in 1925 to host traveling vaudeville shows. When vaudeville went out of fashion, the theater added a movie screen, but it all went dark when Temple closed in the late 1960s, allowing the building to fall into disrepair. A community group raised money for restoration and a reopening in the 1980s, and Temple now hosts professional performances year-round, and youth conservatories in the summer. “The core of what we do is musical theater,” said Chris deLambert, Temple’s director of business development. Last year, nearly 300 children and youth participated in programs and shows. “I think that for the kids that are engaged in the arts, that filters into other parts of their lives: the positive energy and the positive reinforcement they get back from being a part of something so creative and so big,” deLambert said. “It’s almost magnetism. They’re drawn to perform. They want to sing and dance. They want the spotlight on them. And the audiences, especially with the kids programs, more than anything else, there is a sort of civic pride and optimism about what we’re able to do.” This summer, Temple is hosting four youth conservatories. They will perform Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” Aug. 4-7, and “Seussical Jr.” Aug. 12-14. Tickets are $7-$13.

Kernersville Little Theatre

Kernersville Little Theatre (kltheatre.com) has finished its run of “Leap of Faith,” a fast-moving musical about a fake faith healer whose real calling seems to be swindling the believers of every town where he and his entourage park their bus. The nonprofit theater company, which recently outgrew its original performance space in Kernersville’s most notable historic home, Körner’s Folly, features cast members from age 8 to 80 in four shows a year. Beverly Fry, vice president of administration, has volunteered with the group for about 30 years and says some of the actors have served for decades as well, and some have roped in their children and grandchildren. The company includes a live orchestra whose members perform while perched on a ledge at the back of the stage. The hours and hours of practice and set construction all pay off on opening night, Fry said, “When you see what a great production we put on. It’s mesmerizing,” she said. The company will kick off its 40th season with “Route 66,” with performances Sept. 16-18 and Sept. 18-24. Sunday shows are matinees. Tickets are $13 to $15 and are available online and at the door of the James Fitzpatrick Auditorium of Kernersville Elementary School, where performances are held.

Flat Rock Playhouse

It’s been a busy summer as always at Flat Rock Playhouse, which traces its roots to a group of traveling performers who landed in the region, near Asheville, in 1940. Designated by the legislature as the official state theater in 1961, Flat Rock now operates nine months a year and still features college students who live on the property and apprentice in the theater. The troupe recently finished “The Music Man,” and opens “9 to 5,” based on the 1978 movie launched by the Dolly Parton song of the same name, July 28. The show runs through Aug. 20. Tickets are $15 to $40 and are available at www.flatrockplayhouse.org.

The Green Room, Newton

Established in 1987 as an outlet for the creative arts in Catawba County, The Green Room in Newton moved several years ago from a local auditorium to a renovated post office. The theater offers more than two dozen performances and programs each year and encourages diversity in casting and attendance. The theater will offer Shakespeare’s comedy of mistaken identities “Twelfth Night” Aug. 7-8 and 14-15. “West Side Story” will run Sept. 9-11, Sept. 16-18 and Sept. 23-25. Tickets are $8 to $16 and are available through the box office at 828-464-6128. More information is at thegreenroomtheatre.org/.

Martha Quillin: 919-829-8989, @MarthaQuillin

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