Most theatrical hiccups — wardrobe malfunctions, mis-timed cues, choppy lines — go unnoticed by casual onlookers. But unfortunately, some gaffes are just too conspicuous. Say, stormwater pouring from the ceiling.
Prior to 1956, Flat Rock Playhouse put on shows in a circus tent called the “big top.” When rain picked up, the canvas wore thin. Many nights it drooped and threatened to rip, causing what thespians called “upstage-down-tent syndrome.” When that happened, actors held the ropes taut while Leona Farquhar, wife of Playhouse founder Robroy Farquhar, started sewing weak spots.
Today’s 506-seat mainstage looks more like a barn (at least from the outside) than a circus tent. But longtime Vagabonds and the theater-going faithful can still wax nostalgic at a yearlong exhibit, The 80th Anniversary of the Vagabond Players, running through December at the Henderson County Historic Courthouse Heritage Museum.
The display includes old programs, a vintage Vagabond School of Drama, Inc. sign, and an angel prop — made of plaster and chicken wire — used in the 1970 production of Look Homeward, Angel (it’s a facsimile of the real deal in nearby Oakdale Cemetery). Mockups also highlight architectural changes and give patrons a good feel for what Dennis C. Maulden, the Playhouse’s resident scenic designer, had to work with.
When Maulden came to Flat Rock as an apprentice in the summer of 1967, the theater looked much like it does now. A “Raise the Roof” campaign afforded an al fresco shed structure in 1956, and walls were added later down the line. But even with walls, stuff still went awry.
For one, it wasn’t uncommon for cats and dogs to mosey onto stage. With no air conditioning, it got stuffy and folks propped the doors open. Strays took that as invitation enough to steal some limelight. Bats, too. A few even made a dramatic and timely appearance for Count Dracula, likely swooping in for bugs.
“We had fake plastic bats and real bats flying all around,” says Maulden. “That whole season was a grand mishap.”
No AC also meant awkward matinees. With daylight pouring in, the audience could see actors shuffle around props and switch out sets. At night, they’d sometimes lose power and face the opposite issue. So, helpful patrons would inch their cars up to the Playhouse doors and cut on their headlights. It did the job till curtain call.
Maulden admits that performances weren’t always seamless at the Playhouse. Early on, the cast and crew just made do with what they had. In a production of Camelot, for instance, Maulden powered a turntable — much like King Arthur’s famed table — using a golf-cart motor. Piece-mealing that thing together is one of his favorite memories, even though it started sparking mid-performance.
“During rehearsal, the set guys needed to lift the turntable on a pivot point,” says Maulden. “Actors, singers, and dancers all stopped what they were doing and helped.” There was no talk of pay equity or job descriptions, he says. Folks just gave a helping hand, no questions asked.
That collaborative ethos — what Maulden calls “the spirit of the rock” — was exactly what Robroy had in mind when he brought his traveling troupe, the Vagabond Players, to an 8-acre Flat Rock spread in 1952. He had founded them back during the Depression, in 1937, and settled them in the southern Blue Ridge beginning in 1940; their first summer season played out at a 150-year-old grist mill in Highland Lake. They then operated a playhouse at Lake Summit before headquartering permanently in Flat Rock.
“This visionary had the wherewithal to come to this area and say, ‘We need theater,’” says Dane Whitlock, senior director of marketing and development. Set on making the Playhouse a success, Robroy had actors walk around during intermission to collect donations. Instead of placing the money in an offering plate, however, they would pin up dollars on a mobile clothesline. Meanwhile, Leona sold her famous lemonade at the concession stand.
All their legwork and ingenuity paid off when the North Carolina General Assembly designated the Playhouse as The State Theatre of North Carolina in 1961. Maulden says it’s a mystery why that honor didn’t get bestowed to a Raleigh theater, though it likely boils down to the Playhouse’s reputation as a driver for WNC tourism.
According to Whitlock, the Playhouse now contributes around $14 million to the local economy and entertains more than 90,000 patrons annually. It has AC, a sound system, and walls that won’t quit. The company operates a second theater in downtown Hendersonville and produces music-tribute programs, comedy acts, and a family series in addition to its mainstage productions. All actors are paid professionals, with many leads hired from New York City.
But true Vagabonds will forever remember the big top — especially the stomach-churning sound of its canvas ripping. “Even though things change, we’re still a group of people who embrace our history,” says Maulden. “And we’re still far more than what play is showing this week.”
The 80th Anniversary of the Vagabond Players exhibit runs through the end of the year. The Heritage Museum is open Wednesdays through Saturdays, 10am-5pm, and Sundays, 1-5pm. 1 Historic Courthouse Square (Main Street, Hendersonville). 828-694-1619. www.flatrockplayhouse.org.