There’s an old saying that goes, “Theater has been failing for thousands of years.” The mid-2000s saw some lean times for the arts, and many theater organizations have struggled to maintain, reinvent and grow new audiences. But 2014 felt like a page had turned for the better on most counts. The arts in general (and theater more specifically) in Asheville and the surrounding region have been experiencing a renaissance. This year brought a large number of quality shows, and attendance appeared to be up in the majority of theaters.
I’ve often said (and stand by the theory) that without a strong theater and arts community here, there would have never been a base for the Beer City culture to take root. I only wish that theater shared the same level of across-the-board support and encouragement. It’s a special thing when a performance, an ensemble or a script can enrapture an audience with a transformative experience, and I’ve picked the five shows that did that for me.
Don’t Dress For Dinner
Don’t Dress For Dinner by N.C. Stage Company was a slice of comedy perfection. The pie-in-the-face farce production was so popular it was held over for an additional week. Charlie Flyn-McIver and Scott Treadway led a stellar cast in a riotous romp. N.C. Stage has earned its status as Asheville’s professional theater. In 2014, it continued its long string of hit shows and hosted a variety of other productions that ranged from A Conversation With Edith Head to the magic and mind reading show Impossibilities. Diversity and quality ruled the year at N.C. Stage.
Promises was one of many original productions to grace the stage at Southern Appalachian Repertory Theatre during its 40th anniversary season. This Appalachian tale was a collaboration with the Screen Artists Co-op. It was masterfully directed by SAC founder Jon Menick and featured a pitch-perfect cast of stage and screen talent. SART has made its mission to seek out and produce new works during its long and illustrious run at the Owen Theater on the campus of Mars Hill College. The company faces a new challenge in 2015, as on-campus construction will cut off access to the facility. SART is going on the road for the year, accepting the challenge of reinvention after four decades of quality theater.
Treasure Island is a classic tale that came to life in a full-force swashbuckling production at Parkway Playhouse in the fading days of summer. The show was a blend of stunts and scenery that made every audience member feel like a giddy 12-year-old kid. Producing Artistic Director Andrew Gall has built a solid theater community in Burnsville during his 10 years there, finding fun, inventive and unique ways to keep the audience excited and engaged. Summer 2014 was one of the playhouse’s most successful, according to Gall. A wide array of shows included the tight harmonies of Forever Plaid and the off-the-wall, all-star smash hit of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Tartuffe sparkled under the summer night sky at the Montford Park Players’ amphitheater. The production was a delightfully devilish teaming between the venerable outdoor Shakespeare company and The Magnetic Theatre. Steven Samuels directed and starred in the show and surrounded himself with some premier talent. The Montford Park Players are a gem in the Asheville arts scene. And Magnetic Theatre is boldly forging a new space in 2015, when the group will continue to push the envelope of original works.
My final pick of the year is Different Strokes’ powerful production of Next Fall. It was, quite simply, one of the most moving experiences I’ve had as an audience member. Scott Keel‘s direction of an ensemble of unmatched professionals left the viewers both moved to tears and profoundly changed by what they’d witnessed. In a stellar season of shows, Different Strokes helped redefine the very purpose of theater in Asheville and set a new standard of quality.
It was tough to narrow this list it to only five shows. Haywood Arts Regional Theatre continued its winning ways with crowd-pleasing productions in Waynesville, as did Flat Rock Playhouse with its strong slate of performances. Even the plucky Hendersonville Little Theatre continued to grow and flourish in 2014. And Asheville Community Theatre hit grand slams with Spamalot and The Addams Family. At every turn, 2014 brought quality theater throughout WNC, with the promise of bigger, brighter and even better offerings in the new year.