Hendersonville is a magnet for creative people — entrepreneurs, artists, musicians, and theatergoers from around the world who call the city and surrounding county home. These people and their neighbors are exactly who Hendersonville Community Theatre wants to attract with its new programming, both this season and into the future.
The all-volunteer theater, known as Hendersonville Little Theatre for more than 50 years, has a new name and a new mission. “Little” has been swapped with “Community” — an apt description of the many people the theater wants to bring into its fold. From embracing local playwrights to reaching out to younger audiences, this once little theater has big plans.
History in the Round
The first inklings of Hendersonville Little Theatre began in 1966, prompted by a groundswell of interest from local theater supporters. The theater’s first location was a storage building on Haywood Road, owned by noted Henderson County native and entrepreneur Clifton Shipman. He also owned the beloved barn on State Street that the theater used as a performance and rehearsal space for more than 40 years.
During those decades, Hendersonville Little Theatre produced dozens of dramas, comedies, mysteries, and musicals. Despite the barn’s cramped quarters, the theater thrived and drew crowds from Henderson County and beyond. In 2012 it moved to its current location, an old church on Washington Street, which allowed it to expand programming and educational workshops.
Though the theater’s former artistic director Cheryl Anders passed away late last year, her legacy as a director, actor, and longtime supporter continues. Jim Walker now serves as artistic director, and is a driving force behind the theater’s current evolution.
Walker explains that the new name “better stated what we were about in terms of trying to be a part of the community, as opposed to just a group of folks who maybe enjoy doing theater.”
These community efforts include working with high-school students, welcoming volunteers, providing acting classes — and, perhaps most importantly, reaching out to new audiences. The 2016 season is full of experiments, including the in-house GutBusters Comedy Club (which recently threw a New Year’s Eve bash) and a contemporary music series featuring R&B and Motown.
The Main Stage and Second Stage productions are equally unexpected. Though the musical Oliver! anchors the season in late August, unusual gems fill out the rest of the year, including On the Verge, a lighthearted comedy about female explorers, and God of Carnage, a dark comedy about unruly children and their parents.
Last month, the theater produced Ordinary Days by Adam Gwon, the winner of the 2009 New York City Musical Theatre Festival. Starring Justin Slack and Kirby Gibson as conflicted couple Jason and Claire, Tabitha Judy as cynical grad student Deb, and Dwight Chiles as story optimist Warren, it’s an intimate, relatable, slice-of-life look at the relationships of four typical New Yorkers and the way their lives intertwine.
“There are themes and storylines that everyone of all ages can relate to,” says local director Daniel Hensley. “We took a chance on not doing a show that has name recognition. If you say the word Oklahoma, people easily recognize and know a little bit about that show.
“However, we think it’s very important to start showing these brand-new shows that come out — especially since not all of us can make it to New York every fall for the festival. This was the Southeastern premiere of Ordinary Days.”
Making Room for Fresh Voices
This season the theater reached out to its first local playwright for the Second Stage production of Matters of Choice. Written by Hendersonville resident Sue Bargeloh, the three one-act plays examine turning points in the characters’ lives.
The production starts with a lighthearted comedy about three women discovering how to feel attractive as they age. The next play examines the nuances of euthanasia. Despite the somber subject (the story is based on a woman with MS that Bargeloh knew), there are moments of levity throughout the play. Finally, a church committee debates the merits of using funds to save an abused animal.
Together, these one-act plays reveal the complexity of choice and how a community can come together during times of uncertainty and change.
This will be the first time Bargeloh has seen her work performed on stage. She moved to Hendersonville about two years ago from Los Alamos, New Mexico, where she was a training specialist at Los Alamos National Lab. She began writing plays during retirement and has worked with community theaters across the country.
Bargeloh notes that the Hendersonville Community Theatre cherishes its longtime supporters, but that it also wants to draw in new audiences through varied programming. “With new playwrights, the community will need to bring an open mind, because these are raw plays, for the most part.” She points out that many of the plays “aren’t going to be so traditional.”
Walker echoes these sentiments, adding that the theater is moving away from “safe bets” by embracing shows that are a bit of a risk.
“In order to grow, you have to change. In order to change, you have to do some things that are out-of-the-box,” he says. “I think there’s a hunger for certain kinds of things to happen in a theater.”
Hendersonville Community Theatre (229 S. Washington St.) presents Matters of Choice February 12 and 13 at 7:30pm and February 14 at 2pm; and February 19 and 20 at 7:30pm and February 21 at 2pm. The show is pay-what-you-can. See www.hendersonvilletheatre.org for more information. 828-692-1082.