Fans of Stephen King’s Misery know well the moment of dread when best-selling author Paul Sheldon realizes that his psychologically unstable “number one fan,” Annie Wilkes, plans to do him harm.
But can they guess the horrors that regional theater executives Vivienne Benesch and Heather Strickland felt when they learned their companies were both staging Misery—and all but simultaneously, just over 20 miles apart?
At Raleigh Little Theatre (RLT), then executive director Strickland had a mandate to produce departing artistic director Patrick Torres’s vision of a version whose intimacy, in the company’s Gaddy-Goodwin black box theater, would reinforce the chills in William Goldman’s script.
But unbeknownst to Strickland, Benesch, PlayMakers Repertory’s artistic director, had already planned her Misery to be a Halloween blowout in the 500-seat Paul Green Theatre, a valedictory victory lap for retiring scenic designer McKay Coble, and one the biggest sellers of its current season.
Then everyone learned that the licensee, Dramatists Play Service, had given PlayMakers the professional rights to the show, while its amateur rights division was licensing an overlapping production at RLT. No one caught the snag until the companies discovered it on their own.
“The morning after our announcement,” Strickland says, “Viv called me and said, ‘We’ve got a thing.’”
“My first response was ‘Oh no, what are we going to do?’” Strickland recalls. “But the theaters in the Triangle area are so collaborative that I realized that Viv and I could just have a conversation about this, and it’ll be fine.”
In a time when most theaters are still reeling from the slow return of audiences after a two-year hiatus due to COVID-19, the circumstance could have redefined the term “box office thriller” in the worst possible way by splitting the show’s potential audience in two and ticket sales in half for each company.
That, however, wouldn’t take into account the strange migratory patterns of Triangle theatergoers and the invisible line that still largely keeps Chapel Hill and Raleigh audiences on their respective sides of RTP.
“It’s hard enough to get people off their couches, much less to drive 40 minutes one way or another,” says Michele Weathers, who once worked at PlayMakers and now is interim executive director at RLT. “They just don’t cross.”
“It feels like we can actually support each other in this sort of creative zeitgeist moment of doing it,” says Benesch. “We don’t believe either theater will take an economic hit on this.”
According to longtime theater practitioners, the fallout is greater when duplicate productions take place on the same sides of those county lines.
“2010 was our lesson learned,” says Justice Theater Project’s managing director Melissa Zeph. That year, the Raleigh company produced two conflicting shows including an Our Town after one at RLT. “We learned we needed to begin communicating, because we had no idea that other theaters were doing these shows.”
Such collisions and near misses were more common before Raleigh-based artistic directors began communicating with one another four years ago, discussing prospective seasons before announcing them to the public.
Still, it’s anything but a total loss when two companies present the same play. Multiple productions can add new perspectives. Though that dialogical process usually takes place over years, parallel productions push that conversation into fast-forward.
How differently will two directors, creative teams, and acting companies, with two different budgets, interpret the same text? What might those differences say about their work, and our culture? True students of the theater—and diehard thriller fans—get the chance to find out this week.
Every production that takes on Shakespeare’s Henriad faces the same question. Why does young Prince Hal (who’ll be the future Henry V) keep carousing with beloved scalawag Sir John Falstaff and his crew in some of the scuzziest dives in London Town? The endless brawls, misdemeanors, and occasional excursions into grand theft in their Elizabethan take on thug life are ruining Hal’s reputation at court, as his father, Henry IV, despairs of him ever being able to take the throne.
“In a landscape where a lot of kings are divorced from the realities of a truly base human existence, [Hal] intentionally removes himself from an environment that was coddling and insulating him from the realities of life his subjects face,” says actor Shaun Schneider, who plays the prince in Scrap Paper Shakespeare’s upcoming production of Prince Hal. “Plus, like with any kid, there’s classic teenage rebellion: wanting to go out, get drunk, and party while I can—because once that crown rests on my head, that’s permanent. No more playtime.”
In its first year, this quickly rising company has consistently raised the stakes in productions of As You Like It at Duke Gardens and a notable take on George Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man at the Fruit.
The challenges this time? Condense Shakespeare’s four-play Henriad cycle into a single evening. Then stage it as a three-week bar crawl across the Triangle.
“We had the right people and the right resources, and this felt like a time to push ourselves to do a show that was a little bit bigger and a little more ambitious,” says company founder and director
“There’s so much about Hal’s journey to becoming Henry V that changes the way you look at the plays,” Szuba notes. “I wondered, is it possible to condense it into a speed-run cut?”
As the director worked on her adaptation over the summer, she started looking for bars—Falstaff’s true milieu, after all—to stage it in. “Why should Falstaff be confined to a stage?” she asks. “Why can’t he be there with us and we be a part of that?”
Stage veteran Michael Foley as Falstaff and a cast including Abbe Fralix, Rebecca Ashley Jones, Naima Said, Miranda Curtis, and Jaye Bullock deliver the answers, starting this weekend.
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