Restart for SART?

Something unusual is happening at The Southern Appalachian Repertory Theatre in Mars Hill. On December 1, 2, 4, and 5, SART will present the world premiere of Fresh Preserves. Written by Tom Godleski, with original music performed by Buncombe Turnpike, it is a story about life in our part of the world. Fresh Preserves will be but one in a series of important fundraisers for SART, and it will finally allow the company to produce the winner of last year’s new play contest.

To understand what’s going on here, you’ll need to know a little more about SART, which isn’t like most summer theatres — or many resident-professional theatres in the United States for that matter. SART distinguished itself from the first, in 1975, by opening with a new, commissioned play: Ark of Safety. That was a curious title, given that, generally speaking, leading with a world premiere is anything but safe.

New play production has always been a risky business, and may well be under more pressure today than ever before in our nation’s theatrical history. (For a fuller explanation, see the recently published Outrageous Fortune: The Life and Times of the New American Play by Todd London and Ben Pesner, the result of a ten-year study by the Theatre Development Fund.) But, in addition to standard summer stock fare (revivals of established plays and musicals), a dedication to new plays remains the signature element of SART’s repertoire to such an extent that it has produced an astonishing 56 world premieres across its 36 seasons — an impressive accomplishment in itself. Unfortunately, the last few years of hard economic times have placed SART, like so many nonprofit arts institutions, in a precarious position. With delicious irony, new plays may prove to be the key to SART’s reinvention.

Starting at Mars Hill College

The company began as an outgrowth of the Mars Hill College theatre program, and for a quarter century that seemed an ideal setup. The college provided a facility — Owen Theatre, a pleasant- and functional-enough structure as summer theatres go — as well as staff (primarily faculty and students in addition to outside professionals), and handled everything from bookkeeping to housing and, crucially, fundraising. There were, of course, bad years economically, which the college gladly saw SART through. But that was a trap, too. Sources that might have funded Mars Hill College and supported SART were only able to issue grants to the college when it and the theatre were, technically, one. Not until SART established itself as an independent, tax-exempt entity in 2003 could the theatre dip into the same supportive wells. To this day, the college provides SART with three salaried employees, the theatre, housing, utilities and housekeeping. 

This arrangement was the brainchild of William Gregg, since 2001 the company’s second artistic director. A fast-talking, hard-driven native of the region and the product of a blue collar background, Gregg attended Mars Hill College in the early 1970s, where he was inspired and encouraged to pursue a life in the theatre by professors who became his colleagues during SART’s first season, when Gregg served as stage manager. In the typically varied theatrical career that followed, Gregg returned to SART numerous times, as actor, company manager and director, between stints in New York and significant roles, including production stage manager, director and associate and artistic director, at such distinguished companies as the Guthrie in Minneapolis, the Alabama Shakespeare Festival in Montgomery, Theatre Virginia in Richmond and the New American Theatre in Rockford, Ill.

Gregg has a long history of developing and directing new plays. Although he inherited a deficit upon assuming the leadership of SART, when it had an annual budget of roughly $200,000, he has helped grow the company to a $300,000 operation, which as recently as 2007 ran in the black, with 50 percent of its expenses covered by box office revenue.

Then ticket sales began to fall; anticipated and approved grants, including funds from the North Carolina Arts Council, got cut; and four years’ worth of new play support from the National Endowment for the Arts ended. At the close of its 35th season, SART found itself facing a devastating $100,000 shortfall. Despite an emergency fundraising campaign that raised much of that sum ($25,000 in loans), the just-completed season hasn’t exactly improved the situation. Hopes that a remounting of the previous year’s biggest breadwinner, The Foreigner, would aid the bottom line, proved unfounded. A Little Night Music beat its ticket-sales goal and, due to good reviews and excellent word of mouth, Tuesdays with Morrie sold out its second week. But SART’s first attempt at Shakespeare, As You Like It, was not a success, and with the closest approach to a new play last summer — the third production of Tradin’ Paint, set in the world of NASCAR — “we missed our market,” as Gregg puts it.

“People in this region will come to see these plays,” Gregg says, referring to the well-attended premieres of Heritage Plays, rooted in Western North Carolina, several of which Gregg has written in collaboration with author and journalist Perry Deane Young. A successful tour of Heritage Plays in the fall of 2008 encouraged Gregg to plan the next tour and to commission another new play for the series — a work about North Carolina’s Civil War governor, Zebulon Vance, to be written by Asheville’s much-lauded David Hopes.

Reinventing, reinvesting

“We have to reinvest and reinvent ourselves based on these plays,” Gregg says. He also knows that SART must do a better job of attracting Asheville residents. Though Mars Hill is only 16 miles away, “We seem to be remote to your downtown Asheville denizen.” So Gregg is thinking hard about bringing some of SART’s original works into Asheville proper. He may yet begin with Fresh Preserves.

Winner of SART’s 28th annual playwrights’ conference, now called ScriptFest, Fresh Preserves would have been mounted last season if not for the budget problems that forced the delay of the most recent ScriptFest from October 2009 to January 2010. Though more than 200 scripts are typically submitted to ScriptFest annually, financial concerns demanded a revision of the exhaustive review process this year: only the first 100 scripts postmarked by the Sept. 30 deadline would be considered. And this year’s ScriptFest has been postponed until January 21-23, 2011, which is actually better news than it might have been.

“If we don’t raise money, we’ll have to alter how we produce in the future,” Gregg has stated bluntly. Will ScriptFest have to go? Not this year. Will SART have to produce fewer plays or give fewer performances? Will the nature of the plays programmed need to change or the company’s mission be revised? Gregg can’t say, but these are among the questions SART must answer shortly in order to preserve itself.

But the mounting of Fresh Preserves is encouraging, as have been the funds raised since last summer and the introduction of seven new board members, about whom Gregg is most enthused.

SART may yet have to make significant changes, but its focus remains intact and Gregg, at least, is fiercely determined and, quite possibly, unstoppable.

For more information about SART, or to buy tickets for Fresh Preserves, call 828 680-1384 or visit sartplays.org

— Steven Samuels is the artistic director of the soon-to-open Magnetic Field theatre in the River Arts district.

what: World premiere of Fresh Preserves, written by Tom Godleski, with music by Buncombe Turnpike
where: Southern Appalachian Repertory Theatre, 44 College St., Mars Hill
when: Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday, Dec. 1, 2, and 4 at 7:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 4 and 5 at 2:30 p.m. $15 adults, $10 students. SARTplays.org or 689-1384.

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