On regional stages, there were changes aplenty this year, as artists came and went and innovated when faced with challenges old and new. Here are five signs of life and struggle that dominated 2015, onstage and off.
Local artists made waves in New York.
StreetSigns Center for Literature and Performance took playwright Howard L. Craft’s Freight: The Five Incarnations of Abel Green for an off-off Broadway run in late July after its January premiere in Chapel Hill. The Big Apple noticed: The New York Times called the show “rich and thoughtful” in a critics’ pick. The Village Voice was “surprised and moved,” calling Alphonse Nicholson’s work in the solo show “expertly performed.” It launched the next phase of Nicholson’s career; in the fall, he appeared on CBS’ Blue Bloods and in shows at Actors Theatre of Louisville and City Theatre in Pittsburgh.
Two years after Monica Byrne made a splash at the New York International Fringe Festival with What Every Girl Should Know, Raleigh’s Allan Maule upped the ante in August when his video-gamer drama, EverScape, was tapped as one of the festival’s top five productions by Playbill and won a “Best of Fest” extended run in October. With its New York premiere out of the way, look for a local run in the new year.
Companies sought new venue solutions.
Sustainable, affordable rehearsal space remained the final frontier for regional theater in 2015. The 15-year-old Deep Dish Theater Company had to go dark in November after the transforming University Place declined to renew its lease. Deep Dish had been mentioned as a possible tenant of a proposed arts and innovation center in Carrboro, but town leaders killed the project in February, and plans to renovate a potential space at Northgate Mall also fell through. Deep Dish’s future remains unclear.
Progress remained incremental in the ongoing renovations at Tim Walter’s Durham Fruit Company space at 305 S. Dillard St., which has nevertheless already presented photography and art exhibits as well as live shows from Duke Performances and Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern. The latter also began to manage MULE, a rehearsal space in the Regulator Bookshop’s basement. The Carrack Modern Art and NRACT joined the likes of Burning Coal and Manbites Dog Theater in hosting itinerant independent companies. Meanwhile, Sonorous Road Productions added more studio and performance space to the region; Michelle Murray Wells’ smart new Raleigh venue staged two fall productions, and presents South Stream’s Time Stands Still starting on New Year’s Day.
Local theater faced its racial issues.
Triangle theaters contributed to America’s soul-searching on issues of race this year. In January, the world premiere of Freight: The Five Incarnations of Abel Green took its title character on a 20th-century odyssey through minstrelsy, lynch mobs, religious hucksterism, AIDS and blaxploitation. PlayMakers’ Trouble in Mind called out American theater for perpetuating crowd-pleasing racial fictions while burying truer tales.
In February, Common Ground Theatre hosted the local staged reading of Hands Up: 6 Playwrights, 6 Testaments, a national initiative sponsored by The New Black Fest in Brooklyn, before Justice Theater Project’s new Voices That Challenge told the story of Operation Breadbasket during the civil rights movement.
In September, Black Ops, a new black theater company in Durham, staged Young Jean Lee’s The Shipment. The controversial, confrontational play mocks various representations of African-Americans across 20th-century popular culture. It ignited a controversy when Pamela Vesper, a critic for Triangle Arts and Entertainment and Triangle Review, walked out early and blasted the work as “racist hate speech” in a later-retracted review.
Finally, in December, Destiny Diamond shattered the glass slipper at Raleigh Little Theatre as the first second altoand the first black actorin 32 years to play the title role in the annual production of Cinderella.
Leadership changed at PlayMakers.
Outgoing artistic director Joseph Haj halted a financial and creative downward spiral after the departure of David Hammond from PlayMakers Repertory Company. Haj doubled the number of shows and increased company funding from $1.6 to $2.8 million over nine years. Just as significantly, PlayMakers gradually opened its doors to regional artists. Increasingly, it waded into the public conversation on the controversial issues of our time, from gun control (Mike Daisey’s The Story of the Gun) to racial and ethnic prejudice (When the Bulbul Stopped Singing, this season’s Trouble in Mind and Disgraced).
Then, in February, Haj was tapped to lead the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, one of the country’s major regional venues, precipitating a six-month national search for his successor. At the end of October, PlayMakers revealed its choice, Vivienne Benesch.
Benesch enhanced the academic and artistic reputation of New York’s Chautauqua Theater Company during 11 years as its director, establishing a noted new-plays festival. In the company’s 2014 season, it produced four works by female playwrights, and half of the season was directed by women. In our interview last week, Benesch said she looked forward to taking works outside of Paul Green Theatre (gasp!) and into regional communities, hospitals and prisons.
New groups and artists flourished.
New faces help keep a creative ecosystem vital. This year saw notable first performances from Raleigh’s Sonorous Road Productions and Durham’s Black Ops and Bartlett Theater. But the main story of the year was about two grassroots, artist-driven organizations achieving unprecedented results helping performers develop, produce and present their work in the context of a quickly cohering regional community and a larger international scene.
In its first official year of operation, Saxapahaw’s Culture Mill sparked an ambitious series of initiatives, hosting regional and European choreographers, musicians, technicians and designers, and taking mystified patrons on odysseys of discovery in the Trust the Bus performance series. Culture Mill will start the new year with the inaugural Haw River Tango Marathon, featuring teachers and artists from across the country, Jan. 1–3.
The second curated season from Durham Independent Dance Artists, or DIDA, united local artists, garnered greater media attention and drew larger audiences than local modern dance has seen in years. Sold-out November productions of Knightworks’ Eurydice Descended demonstrated momentum, as DIDA developed plans to add workshops in grant writing and fundraising for choreographers to an intriguing nine-show season.