Despite all of the discontent of going to school, I guess it did instill a few things in me that I do not regret. My first exposure to the theater was no doubt grade school bus trips our classes would take to the children’s plays at the city’s Little Theatre. I can’t name a single play I saw but there were many. In fact, all I remember is the children’s theater mascot–someone, oddly, dressed in a rabbit costume.
Yet now, in my adult life, I undeniably looked forward to attending the UNCSA production of “Guys and Dolls” recently and was mesmerized by the performance. Surely the shows at the Little Theatre way back then had more than a little something to do with my appreciation of stage productions. And the way theatre life has grown in Winston Salem, maybe a decision to establish a Little Theatre back in 1935 had more that a little something with that as well.
An article in Our State magazine described our current dramatic arts environment perfectly. It really was the initiative of the Little Theatre (now called Twin City Stage) that was origin of it all. A handful of local folks back in those Depression years decided they wanted to establish “a permanent organization to present the best in dramatic art for the citizenry.” Thus, a community theatre was established playing in a variety of venues–whatever could be found–until James G. Hanes, Sr. donated some land and the Arts Council Theatre was built in 1957. They have staged over 400 productions since their beginnings.
If the Little Theatre was “Broadway” then The Theatre Alliance could be considered “off-Broadway.” Fred Gorelick created the Winston-Salem Theatre Alliance in 1983. Gorelick was an acting teacher at the Little Theatre of Winston-Salem and began producing special productions to show off his students’ work. His Theatre “Alliance” gained a following and is known for it’s edgy, beyond the mainstream performances. It secured a permanent home in 2008 on Northwest Blvd.
The theater presence also grew along with the revitalization of Winston’s downtown. In the 1980’s the old Carolina theater, a movie house, was donated to the School of the Arts and renovated to become the Stevens Center, a stellar performing arts theater. More recently, an Arts Council campaign renovated the Milton Rhodes Center for the Arts in 2010 that included the construction of the Hanesbrand Theatre. Thanks to the theatre’s state of the art lighting, audio and projection systems it is not only a performance venue for theater, dance, film and music but can bring amazing HD showings of the Metropolitan Opera and National Theatre productions. (It’s almost like being there, I found after trying it out myself. I had met a couple of visitors from Chapel Hill, NC who told me they make the 80 mile drive and find well worth it to see these performances regularly!)
Additionally, throughout the academic year locals can enjoy top-notch student theater not only at the School of the Arts but other schools as well. Wake Forest University offers a theater major and their Anthony Aston Players student service organization has been providing University Theater productions since 1942.
But in my opinion, the most evident of Winston Salem as a theater town is its being home to the National Black Theatre Festival. Founded in 1989 by Larry Leon Hamlin, the festival brings the best in African-American theater to town every other year (alternating with Atlanta). In addition to attracting around 60,000 people, VisitWinstonSalem points out that “there are over 100 theatrical performances, [and] highlights of the Festival are the Opening Night Gala, the Readers’ Theatre of New Works, the Youth/Celebrity Project, International Colloquia, the International Vendor’s Market, a poetry slam, and various workshops and seminars. More than 50 celebrities can be expected to attend the Festival during its run.” And this August is our year again. I can hardly wait.
Could I ask for more? Well, a few days ago, Bailey Park, a 1.6 acre greenspace in the heart of downtown’s “Innovation Quarter” was opened to the public. The park sports a 30 by 40 foot covered stage. Outdoor theater anyone? My fingers are crossed.