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CLAD IN PLAID

by Mark Burger

The cast of Plaid Tidings (from left) Neil Shepherd, Craig Faircloth, Gray Smith and David Joy rehearse on the Theatre Alliance stage in Winston-Salem on Dec. 3. Theatre Alliance celebrates its 25th anniversary with the production of Plaid Tidings, which features the talented quartet, Forever Plaid. The show runs from Dec. 12-21 at the theater located at 1047 Northwest Boulevard. (photos by Keith T. Barber)

CLAD IN PLAID

Theatre Alliance Comes Home For Christmas

Theatre Alliance, celebrating its 25 th anniversary in 2008, is ringing in the holidays with its production of the lighthearted musical romp A Forever Plaid Christmas: Plaid Tidings, which opens Friday in the theater’s new performance space located at 1047 Northwest Blvd., Winston-Salem. After a history of presenting its shows at various venues throughout the city, including Wake Forest University and the last dozen or so years at the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art (SECCA), Theatre Alliance finally has a little home to call its own. The search for a permanent home has been ongoing, off and on, for the past few years. But two factors hastened the quest, according to Jamie Lawson, the artistic director of Theatre Alliance. “The state took SECCA over and that meant content issues, which we’d never had to deal with before,” he explains, “and SECCA was going to be closing for renovations. We weren’t really willing to take a six-month hiatus, so that was a really big catalyst.”

The space that Theatre Alliance now occupies had been vacant for some time and previously housed an auto garage. Between the time it took to gut the garage and construct what is essentially a fullyfunctioning theater space was only a matter of a few months, according to Lawson. Of course, the refurbishing process is not complete, with the smell of fresh paint still in the air and outlines on the floor where things are yet to be built. But it’s a theater… and it’s up and running. Real-estate developer David Shannon, a former Theatre Alliance board member, leased the space to the theater. Although he demurs about putting a dollar amount on the cost of refurbishment, Shannon is pleased to have had a hand in the arrangement. “The theater turned out very, very nicely,” he says. “Audiences seem to enjoy the intimate atmosphere.” The McChesney Scott Dunn Auditorium at SECCA seated nearly 300 while the new performance space seats less than 100, so the atmosphere is definitely more intimate. Theatre Alliance’s performance space is self-contained within the same overall structure that also includes a personal fitness trainer, a yoga studio and office space. Not the usual scenario for a live theater, but not unheard-of either. As anyone who’s met him knows, Lawson doesn’t take himself seriously very much of the time, but despite how rehearsals sometimes appear, he does take the work seriously. And, having been the artistic director of Theatre Alliance for the better part of this decade, he also takes seriously the uncertain, frequently turbulent financial waters often navigated by community theaters — particularly in an equally uncertain and frequently turbulent economy. Since becoming artistic director, Lawson directs the vast majority of mainstage productions, and hasn’t hesitated to appear in them too, if need be. “Many times, rather than pay a director, I’ll suck it up and do it,” Lawson says, and with speed and expediency frequently the essence, being the front man has its advantages. There’s also the variety factor. At Theatre’ Alliance, Lawson has had an opportunity that many directors would envy— the opportunity to do a vast array of genres, from comedy to drama,from shows for the entire family to shows most definitely suited forgrown-up audiences. The theater has had success presenting critically acclaimed, if somewhat controversial, award-winning dramas as Love! Valour! Compassion! and Take Me Out, both of which featured adult situations, language and male nudity; tried-and-true favorites like Robert Harling’s Steel Magnolias, which may be the most popular show Theatre Alliance has ever presented (and it’s done so more than once); and family shows like Forever Plaid and, now (hopefully), Plaid Tidings. And,unlike some theatrical markets, the community theater pool of thePiedmont Triad is, although competitive as befits the nature of thebeast, not so competitive that it doesn’t share common resources, suchas actors and behind-the-scenes talent — willingly and gladly, theshared love of live theater bonding them. Plaid Tidings is a musical, but it’s a complete turnaround from Lawson’s last one, Reefer Madness. “There’s no reefer in this,” he jokes. “We’re leaving it out of this show. And no naked people — we’ll bring them back later.” It’sthat kind of 180-degree finesse that has made Theatre Alliance, if notthe consistent avant-garde theater of Winston-Salem, then certainly itsmost unpredictable and varied. With the new permanent space, thatbecomes even more a factor than ever. With reward comes risk. “I likestirring it up as long as I can pay the bills,” says Lawson with alaugh. “I like having something for everybody. Being diverse… that’simportant.” The October production of Reefer Madness wasTheatre Alliance’s first mainstage production at its new locale. Lawsonadmits it wasn’t the hit he’d hoped it would be. On the other hand, thevery first event presented at the new performance space, Spend the Night with the Queen of Comedy and the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, a showcase of comedy and music with Sarah Barnhardt and David Joy in late September, was a sellout. “Maybeit was the curiosity factor, or maybe they just told all theirfriends,” Lawson jokes, “but that did really well. We did pretty wellwith a screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” Barnhardt will return later this month in Lawson’s original children’s show, A Holiday Pause with Mrs. Claus, so named “because ‘pause’ was the only thing I

could think that rhymedwith ‘Claus,’” Lawson relates with a laugh. The monthly rent isapproximately $2,000, and doesn’t include additional charges fornearby parking. “That’s the scary thing,” Lawson says. “Amonthly rent is one variable we’ve not had to deal with until now.”But, by not having to work around or in tandem with SECCA’s schedule,this has freed up the theater to further its tendencies towarddiversity, both on and off the stage, and plans are already underway tosublet the space for other events, which will help assuage thefinancial burden.

Stuart Ross’ 1990 off-Broadway hit Forever Plaid introducedaudiences to a light-hearted spoof of a singing quartet molded in thefashion of popular ’50s acts. These clean-cut hipsters (read: squares)were on their way to see the Beatles perform on “The Ed Sullivan Show”in 1964 when their car collided with a bus full of Catholicschoolgirls. Heaven couldn’t wait, and didn’t. Nevertheless,the plaid-clad foursome is given one last chance to visit Earth and puton their own show, which includes such familiar selections as “ThreeCoins in the Fountain,” “Heart and Soul,” “Chain Gang,” “Shangri-La”and many other golden oldies. This blend of corn, kitsch, comedy and music caught on, and Forever Plaid becamean international hit. A film version is set for release next year, andthe show has been popular at community theaters throughout the nation. IncludingTheatre Alliance. Given the popularity of the show, which he’d appearedin, Lawson felt that the perfect holiday treat to ring in the newperformance space was the follow-up, Plaid Tidings, which seesthe bumbling boys given a second — yes, a second! — one-shot deal tobring their act to Earth… one more time. They’re still dead, but theiract just won’t stay buried. The cast of Plaid Tidings includesGray Smith as Frankie, David Joy as Smudge, Neil Shepherd as Jinx andCraig Faircloth as Sparky (“the comic relief,” according to the actor),who are joined onstage by live musical accompaniment for the durationof the show. Not all of the actors have done Forever Plaid before,but they’re all well acquainted with each other and with TheatreAlliance. The four cast members and Lawson first worked together in aGreensboro production of West Side Story about 10 years ago(they all played Jets) and have remained friends ever since, theirfriendship cemented by further collaborations over the years, both atTheatre Alliance and other companies. Joy, truly aninterviewer’s joy thanks to his unflappable deadpan irreverence, makesno bones about what brings him back to the Theatre Alliance stage. “Thehigh pay,” he says, dismissively gesturing toward his fellow actorsonstage, “and I wanted to work with the vast talent here on stage withme.” “I do not like Mr. Smarty-Pants,” Lawson chimes in. “It’s theself-loathing that brings me back,” Joy says without missing a beat.Joy recently played the title role(s) in the Little Theatre ofWinston-Salem’s production of Jekyll & Hyde: The Musical inApril, “and it was the hardest, worst thing I’d ever done. Not ‘worst’as in bad, but the singing, the movement — playing two characters — thesheer physicality of the experience… I was exhausted. “I wasabsolutely determined to not do anything for a while,” he states,raising his voice in the direction of his director. So, why would heaccept when Lawson asked him to appear in Plaid Tidings, in which his character is onstage the entire time, for both acts? “He has no mercy,” Joy explains. “None at all. He is Der Fuehrer —and I mean that in the nicest possible way.” (Lawson reacts with aglance best described as befuddled, even if the sentiment was intendedin the nicest possible way.) “The bad part —” “The bad part is you keeptalking,” Lawson quips. Joy is undaunted. “The bad part isthat he’s always right,” he says. “No matter what you say or do, nomatter how right you think you are — how absolutely sure you think youmay be — he ends up getting what he wants. He makes us do it, and inthe end we realize he was right all along.” “That’s the nicestthing anybody’s said about me all day — I think,” Lawson says. Shepherdis more tactful: “He gives the actors a lot of freedom. He lets youhave free rein as far as coming up with the characters. He knows whathe wants and he gets what he wants, but he lets you go find it. And heknows what his audience wants to see.” Shepherd’s a Forever Plaid veteranand was happy to put on the plaid again. “The characters you fall inlove with,” he says with affection, “because they’re so idiotic.”

Faircloth is a Plaid first-timer,“and had I done it before I’m quite sure there’s not a snowball’schance in hell I’d be standing here talking to you right now,” hejokes, much to the exaggerated consternation of Lawson nearby. “Thisis a tough show,” he attests, “but Jamie’s fun to work with and easy towork with. When you’re doing something silly and wacky, working with afriend is a lot easier than with a stranger, because they know you andcan simply say: ‘More.’ ‘Less.’ ‘Crazier.’” This being in alight spirit, the singing needn’t be stellar at all times (all thebetter to enhance the comedic aspects), but it does have to beconsistent, and that takes time and practice, along with stamina. “It’slike barbershop quartet on crack — with jazz chords,” observesShepherd, to which Joy laughingly concurs: “The chords make absolutelyno sense whatsoever. No rhyme. No reason.” “Musically, it’sone of the hardest things I’ve ever done,” says Smith, who is Lawson’sco-star off-stage as well. As for the comedy, “it’s probably harderthan drama — to make these characters real. They have to come across tothe audience as real. But we’re having fun. These guys are great.They’re all talented.”

The 25 th season will continue with two more mainstage productions: Thrill Me: The Leopold and Loeb Story inFebruary, a musical thriller based on the real-life “thrill killers”Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, and then the nostalgic musicalextravaganza Back to the ’80s in April — which is definitely in step with the advent of spring. Also scheduled are staged readings of Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman (Jan. 9) and David Lindsey- Abaire’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Rabbit Hole (March 20 … and, more than likely, some other unexpected surprises thrown in there somewhere.

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TheatreAlliance’s production of A Forever Plaid Christmas: Plaid Tidings runsthrough Dec. 21. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Dec. 12 and 17-19; 4 p.m. and 8p.m. Dec. 13 and 20; 2 p.m. Dec. 14 and 21. Tickets are $16 (generaladmission) and $14 (students and senior citizens). Group rates are alsoavailable, and reservations are strongly suggested. For tickets or moreinformation, call 336.723.7777 or see www.wstheatrealliance.org.

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