Small Towns Growing Theatres

If you live in New Hanover county, a night out at the theatre usually means a quick drive to downtown Wilmington or UNCW. But increasingly, the residents of surrounding counties are finding the footlights shining in their own backyards. WHQR's Megan Williams has this report.

Southeastern, NC, March 15, 2006 – Last year, the Sneads Ferry Community Theatre had to cut its season short... The hall they use for performances was all booked up by the annual Shrimp Festival. Playing second fiddle to a crustacean doesn't bother theatre head Julia Eller though. She's thrilled with how far her group has come since the head of the community council asked her five years ago if she?d be interested in starting a theatre. She says she jumped at the chance, ?but it was not going to be, ?how fast can you put on a show?? I said, ?I?m going to build this with a good foundation, as well as I know how.??

Eller?s company has produced more than a dozen shows since they started, and branched out into play readings and, a major milestone, their first musical. The Sneads Ferry theatre is one of a growing number of small-town groups in the region. They call themselves ?community theatres.? It?s a broad term and technically just means no one's getting paid. But these groups are also outgrowths of their communities ? fostered by local governments or arts councils, and drawing their talent from local sources.

Eller trained most of her helpers from the ground up. ?For instance,? she says, ?the first show, there was nobody here who knew anything about being a stage manager. Well, I?ve got ten great people who are great stage managers, but they?ve learned how to do it.?

She?s still searching for a costumer, though; right now she has to stick to modern plays, so the actors can wear their own clothes, or they hunt for costumes at Goodwill.

Its no accident Eller is running this show; she spent 15 years working with theatre companies in Raleigh before her husband retired and they moved to the coast. The region's influx of new residents has served smaller theatre companies well. Just ask the Brunswick Little Theatre.

On a Sunday afternoon on the campus of Brunswick Community College, actors with the Brunswick Little Theatre prepare for a run of Arsenic and Old Lace. The director, a veteran of Long Island regional theatre, explains, amid giggles, the timing for one character to pat his girlfriend?s butt, while simultaneously hugging his murderous aunt. The actor jokes that he?s glad his wife ? the show?s stage manager ? isn?t there to see this particular piece of blocking.

Last season the company moved from Southport to the college's Odell Williamson auditorium. While their audiences don't exactly fill up that 1500-seat venue yet, board member Judy McNally says the county's growth has definitely changed her group, in terms of the talent they attract, and audience?s expectations.

"We?ve become more organized. Everything?s become a little bit sharper, a little bit better. Our experience level is better, because we have so many people from different parts of the country, [which] I think, again, is a big plus for us."

While community theatres provide audiences with a local source of entertainment behind the scenes, they?re also bring together people who wouldn?t normally see a lot of each other, in a society where those opportunities can be rare.

Adrian Iapalucci is a board member, and plays Mortimer in the upcoming production. He explains that unlike many other social groups, like bridge clubs or dance classes, theatre crosses age lines. ?A 15-year-old girl could have a conversation with a 68-year-old man about the show and it?s like equals, it?s not like, ?oh, nice little girl.? You know what I?m saying? You?re just all trying to work for the same goal.?

Pender is the latest county to give theatre a try. Joyce Harrell runs the county's Arts Council, which decided to put a windfall of state money this year toward a first-ever theatre production... the show, called Color Goblins opens next month. Community response will have a lot to do with whether this is the start of a new company, or a one-time affair.

Harrell says, ?It is bringing in people that normally, they participate in the arts, but not on a real active... I think it will interest people. All you can do is reach out and try to find the root or the answer. In hopes that it expands.?

If Pender county?s inaugural production does succeed, any future theatre group that grows out of it will find it has lots of neighbors to lend advice.

Megan Williams, WHQR News.

Support for local arts and cultural programming comes from WHQR members, and Landfall Foundation, an organization of residents who support projects enhancing health, education and the arts in New Hanover, Brunswick and Pender Counties.