Different Strokes takes up residence at The Wortham Center

BAD BEHAVIOR: Daniel Henry as Ted and Anna Lyles as Pedge have very different memories of an encounter from five years ago in 'The Education of Ted Harris.’ The play by Jamie Knox opens Sept. 12 at the Tina McGuire Theatre. The production marks a new partnership between Different Strokes Performing Arts Collective and The Wortham Center for the Performing Arts. Photo by Stephanie Hickling Beckman

It must have been theater karma that brought Stephanie Hickling Beckman (the managing artistic director of Asheville-based Different Strokes Performing Arts Collective) together with Rae Geoffrey (the managing director of the recently relaunched Wortham Center for the Performing Arts).

Last fall, Hickling Beckman was facing a three-year delay opening a new theater in Colourfield Studios on the South Slope, where her company rehearses. For the last four years, the group has performed mostly at The BeBe Theatre, which seats 49. Meanwhile, Geoffrey was planning a flexible, black box theater next to The Wortham Center’s 500-seat performance hall. The new space accommodates 100.

In November, the two women were on a panel at The Wedge in the River Arts District on the state of Asheville’s performing arts. “I was talking about our space problems,” Hickling Beckman says, “and Rae said, ‘Let’s talk.’” Fast forward 10 months, and Different Strokes is the first resident theater company at The Wortham Center (formerly known as The Diana Wortham Theatre). That partnership and the Tina McGuire Theatre debut with the premiere of Different Strokes’ production, The Education of Ted Harris, on Thursday, Sept. 12.

The play, like all Different Strokes offerings, tackles what Beckman calls “hot-button issues in our country and our community” — in this case, the #MeToo movement.

College student Ted Harris is home one weekend and meets his high school-age sister’s girlfriend, 16-year-old Pedge. After they share too many beers one night, he offers to let Pedge crash in a nearby house his family is renovating.

Five years later, they meet again. Ted recalls a romantic encounter. Pedge has a very different memory.

For Asheville playwright Jamie Knox, The Education of Ted Harris probes the gray areas around consent. “It’s one thing when there’s a clear ‘no,’’’ she says, “but what about when there’s not? What if the victim doesn’t quite know if saying ‘no’ is the safest thing to do? We like to see our perpetrators as monsters. What happens when we like them and what does it say about us when we’re rooting for them?”

Knox, with a master’s degree in theater from Texas State University, moved to Asheville in 2016 with her husband to open a yoga studio. As a playwright, she looks for what lies beneath what her characters are saying. “I’ve always been attracted to secrets and lies,” she says, “especially in the tightknit family dynamic. I’m drawn to the secret unraveling and the crumble it causes.”

When Hickling Beckman founded Different Strokes in 2010, she wanted to create more opportunities for actors of color, like herself. “Asheville is not as diverse as people want to think it is,” she says. “As a black actor trying to get cast in Asheville, it was very difficult. ‘We loved your audition, we would really love to cast you, but we can’t match you onstage.’”

To remedy that, Different Strokes has intentionally recruited and cast minority actors. “We do feel accomplished that of the 38 plays we have produced in nine years, 79% of those have featured or starred actors of color,” Hickling Beckman says. But, for The Education of Ted Harris, “Unfortunately, we did not have any local actors of color audition.” Different Strokes recently received a grant from the Honey Bee Foundation to hire actors of color from neighboring cities over the next two years.

Beyond more diverse casting, Different Strokes began looking at other marginalized communities. “We wanted to talk about the issues of the plays and how we can make it better in our community,” Hickling Beckman says. Post-show discussions were integral to the experience: “We can save the world this way,” she says with a smile.

Different Strokes Performing Arts Collective is not the only local group to benefit from The Wortham Center’s Tina McGuire Theatre. The black box stage will be available to other organizations.

It joins another new performance space, The Henry LaBrun Studio, a multipurpose room for 80 that can be configured for classes, workshops, meetings and small-scale arts events.

“The mission of The Wortham Center has always been to provide a home for arts organizations to create and present their work in a state-of-the-art venue with professional systems and staff,” says Geoffrey.

In a recent interview, Jared McEntire, The Wortham Center’s community engagement director, explained how the two spaces differ: “The Tina McGuire is a full-functioning performance space first, with as [many] production facilities as we can pack in a room that size. It’s a multiuse space, second. The LaBrun is an educational, versatile event space first and a performance space second.”

McEntire envisions The Henry LaBrun Studio as a gateway for groups with limited budgets or that are trying a first production. “This space provides an easier entry point from a cost perspective and an operations perspective,” he says.

The Wortham Center will also produce events in both rooms. Dance and yoga classes for all ages begin in The Henry LaBrun Studio in October. The Tina McGuire Theatre showcases the progressive Chapel Hill-based folk group Violet Bell in December and the Australian theater collective The Last Great Hunt — with a multimedia show combining actors, puppets and animation — in January.

WHAT: The Education of Ted Harris presented by Different Strokes Performing Arts Collective
WHERE: Tina McGuire Theatre, Wortham Center for the Performing Arts, 18 Biltmore Ave., dwtheatre.com
WHEN: Sept. 12-28. Thursdays–Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. $18

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About Arnold Wengrow
Arnold Wengrow was the founding artistic director of the Theatre of the University of North Carolina at Asheville in 1970 and retired as professor emeritus of drama in 1998. He is the author of "The Designs of Santo Loquasto," published by the United States Institute for Theatre Technology.

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