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Preston Lane and Triad Stage celebrate 15 successful seasons in Downtown Greensboro

by Lenise Willis

TRIAD STAGE CELEBRATES 15 SUCCESSFUL SEASONS

As a child, running past the rhododendron and pine trees of the Appalachian Mountains, Preston Lane knew he wanted to be a storyteller. But he didn’t yet know what tales he would spin, or how he would do it. The small, quiet boy certainly didn’t know he’d be the co-founder of Triad Stage, a regional professional theatre, nor celebrating its 15th successful season—a feat the company celebrated last Monday night on the set of its final production of the year, Don Juan. “It’s been a really extraordinary journey,” said Preston Lane, co-founder and artistic director of Triad Stage, at the end-ofseason party. “And in that journey, we’ve noticed some changes that need to be made, but they’re being done with hope. We believe the best years of Triad Stage are ahead of us.” Lane has now directed more than 35 productions at his home theatre, including his own adaptations and original works, as well as the last of this season, Don Juan, which will complete its final runs this weekend. But to fully understand Triad Stage’s celebration and how it came to be, it’s important to take a glimpse into one of the men that started it all: Preston Lane himself. After all, like in most art forms, the creator is infinitely intertwined with its product of passion.

The boy that influenced the man

Lane’s artistic influence began long ago when he was a child growing up in Boone, and visiting his mother’s family in the rural mountains of East Tennessee. Here is where he fell in love with mountain myth, folklore and backwoods locals with stories untold. “I think that artists have to be passionately engaged in the world,” Lane said.

Triad Stage took shape at the former Montgomery Ward building beginning in 1999. Preston Lane and business partner Richard Whittington began renovations in 2001 and staged their first production of a Tennessee Williams play in January 2002.

“They have to be constantly with their eyes open. “Those (places) that have had a real sense of home and that I have a real attachment to are the settings of the stories I want to tell. I’m always interested in the people whose stories we might not want to listen to sometimes.” “Frequently I hear some of my board members say they wish I did more plays about rich people, sort of glittering fancy plays, but those stories don’t interest me. Those people get to tell their own stories.” Traces of his childhood racing through the mountains and time spent with mountain locals are evident in his original works of Beautiful Star: An Appalachian Nativity and Tennessee Playboy. Hitting more close to home was one of his latest originals: Common Enemy, a tribute to North Carolina’s love of college basketball.

“I don’t know that I ever started out wanting to be a playwright,” Lane said. “I think I’ve always wanted to be a storyteller, and I thought that originally my way of telling stories was as an actor, and then a director, and then I think that I began to write because I wanted a place that didn’t exist. The stories I wanted to tell—those plays—didn’t exist, or didn’t exist in a way I could tell them at Triad Stage.” But Lane makes a point that though he spent summers in rural Appalachia, he certainly didn’t grow up in the sticks. In fact, growing up in the college town of Boone, he was surrounded by professors and culture. His neighbor was not only a theatre enthusiast, but the head of the speech and communication department at Appalachian State University. “His children and I would often put on plays in the backyard,” Lane said. “I saw a lot of plays at App State growing up,” he continued. “I grew up with a real love of theatre. Beyond when I was six or seven and I wanted to be a dump-truck driver, I don’t think there was anything else I ever wanted to do besides make theatre.” An introvert, Lane grew up spending a lot of his time with books, as well. “It probably wasn’t healthy for me to be a child and be influenced by Tennessee Williams,” he laughed, “but I was influenced by Tennessee Williams early on.”

As Lane grew up and expanded his library, he fell in love with the novels and short stories of Flannery O’Connor, which he discovered in high school. “I don’t know that there’s another writer that’s been more influential on me than Flannery O’Connor,” he said. “(She’s) not a playwright, but I often wish she had been.”

The start of a beautiful partnership

Lane went on to major in theatre at UNC School of the Arts in Winston-Salem, where he first gained his love for the Triad. He has since taught at UNC Greensboro, NC A&T State University, NCSA, Greensboro College, SMU, and the Professional Actors Workshop at the Dallas Theater Center. He is an alumnus of the Drama League of New York’s Director’s Project and has received his MFA from the Yale School of Drama. It was during his graduate studies at Yale when he met the now co-founder and managing director of Triad Stage, Richard Whittington. Two years ahead of Whittington, Lane had been running a small theatre called the Summer Cabaret, which was co-founded by Meryl Streep back in the 70s. In the summer, students were given the opportunity to run the theatre to practice theatre management, directing and acting. Lane ran it for two summers. “I learned an enormous amount about running a theatre and having a communication with an audience,” he said.

It was that summer job that made Lane want to be an artistic director. “I had always wanted to be a freelance director, but I was so fascinated by the long conversation you could have with one particular audience that my thinking completely shifted.” Whittington noticed Lane that first year and asked if he’d consider running the theatre for another year. It was in that conversation that Lane learned what a great business partner Whittington would make. “I felt like this was the managing director I had been looking for,” Lane said. “He values the art of theatre—it isn’t just about what’s going to sell the most tickets, but how you build an audience.” “In that conversation we thought, ‘Why don’t we skip the career ladder—not do what everyone expects us to do? Why don’t we start our own theatre?'” After running the Summer Cabaret together, the two were approached with the opportunity to take over a theatre that had gone out of business in Connecticut, but it didn’t feel right. So they began their nationwide search for a city that didn’t yet have a regional professional theatre, but could support one. “No one had (started a theatre) at the level we were talking about in about 20 years,” Lane said. “I kept suggesting Greensboro; I had fallen in love with Greensboro when I was a student at the School of the Arts.” At the time, Greensboro was also booming from the textile industry. “Greensboro won out,” Lane said. And so the fundraising began.

A Pyrle in the Rough

The Triad Stage marquee being installed in 2006.

While scouring for a home for their company, Whittington and Lane were sure about one thing: Part of their theatre’s mission was to be a part of the revitalization of Downtown Greensboro.

In September 1999, Triad Stage purchased the former Montgomery Ward building— a 1936 structure that had been sitting vacant for almost 40 years. “We actually had been looking at the building where the children’s museum is at right now,” Lane said. “And the children’s museum was in our building. One day someone bought the old dealership and gave it to the children’s museum because it was a much better home for them. It was not a good home for a theatre—although I would have had my own personal car wash which is kind of exciting,” Lane laughed. The duo began renovating the Ward building in the spring of 2001 and transformed the five-story building into a 300-seat theater, thrust stage, rehearsal hall, special event space, offices and two lobbies—what is now known as the Pyrle Theatre. “There was an enormous amount of work that went into it; it was not an easy renovation,” Lane said. The theatre had its grand opening in January 2002 with its first production: Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly Last Summer, an appropriate choice since it was Williams’ that influenced Lane artistically at such a young age. “It was a little touch and go because we were using the elevator in the theatre as part of the show, but we hadn’t yet gotten our elevator permit,” Lane said. “I think we got it on opening night.”

“There were a lot of people that loved it, and a lot of people wondering what we were thinking,” said Lane, who says a successful theatre can’t chase after everyone.

Triad Stage found its audience that night and it was the start of Lane’s 15-year conversation with them. The theatre has now seen more than 75 productions and special events and sold more than 350,000 tickets. After a decade of success, Triad Stage expanded its programming in 2013 to the Hanesbrands Theatre in Downtown Winston-Salem with the support from The Arts Council of Winston-Salem and Forsyth County. The company has collected several accolades, including being named “One of the Best Regional Theaters in America” by New York’s Drama League and “Professional Theatre of the Year” by the North Carolina Theatre Conference. “I’ve been really fortunate that I’ve had an artistic home with an audience that is willing to take some wild journeys with me,” Lane said, “and that I’m in a place where I like being, where I’m inspired to tell the stories of that region. “It hasn’t been an easy ride, but it’s been a great ride.”

Co-founders Lane and Whittington pictured in 2012

Lane’s 35 children

“Every play I’ve worked on is like a child,” Lane said. “I love them all—some of them I’m slightly frustrated with, and some of them have been disappointments. But I think the great thing is you sort of fall in love with everything you work on.” Though if he had to choose an original to dwell on, Lane says that Common Enemy holds a special place. “It was such a departure from the work I had been doing as a writer. It was a real shift for me artistically.”

Lane’s youngest is the ongoing production of Don Juan, written by Molière and adapted by himself. The comedy features an infamous Sicilian playboy who loves to roam and marry women—for one thing. In Lane’s adaptation, the play takes places in a mom-and-pop Italian restaurant with the wait staff as the impromptu actors. The restaurant—losing customers to Olive Garden—attempt to put on a production of Don Juan after “Triad Stage” fails to show.

Lane announces the lineup for Triad Stage’s current season.

“It wasn’t the adaptation I originally intended to do,” Lane said. “We’re in a process of re-shaping and re-thinking the model in which we operate and as we were doing that we had this really large cast adaptation of Don Juan hanging out at the end of the season and it didn’t fit with our new model.”

Lane said that because they were looking to cut costs this year, they needed to scale back the production. So this past December, he adapted the play to work with a cast of only three (four if you count the cardboard cutout of Chef Boyardee). “We made it a complete celebration of the way we make theatre—by the seat of our pants,” Lane laughed.

“We do a lot to disguise that so that the audience isn’t aware how much everything is stuck together with Scotch tape and a prayer, but there is something insane and inventive and wildly improvisatory about the way we elaborate and make theatre, and so I wanted to celebrate that with this adaptation.” Lane said the production really pays homage to the acting troupes Molière traveled with around France.

Vanderveen Photgraphers
Jamison Stern, Mickey Solis and Dierdre Friel in Triad Stage’s Don Juan.

“I was fortunate enough to grab some key actors that I’ve worked with time and time again in my life,” Lane said. “They are as guilty of the adaptation as I am. They’ve been real co-writers in the rehearsal process.”

The future of Triad Stage

Earlier this year, Triad Stage announced that it would not be hosting a summer season as part of its new model, in order to cut costs.

“We have to re-think how we operate a regional theatre,” Lane said.

“We’re based on the idea of selling season passes. But I would bet you that most of (the younger generation) don’t buy season passes to anything. We have a generation gap—a generation that wants to plan ahead, to put it on the calendar, and we have a younger generation that doesn’t know what it’s going to be doing Friday night until Friday night. And so if you’re economic model is built on the idea that everyone is going to buy 2-3 weeks in advance, your model isn’t going to work very well.” Lane says that also means the theatre then starts thinking of everything in terms of a season—a collection of plays—instead of why they are producing each play, in each moment, for a particular audience. Lane says that Triad Stage will be revamping its model to not only fulfill its season pass holders, but also attract in-the-moment audiences. !

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Dierdre Friel and Mickey Solis in Triad Stage’s Don Juan.

LENISE WILLIS, a graduate from UNC Chapel Hill’s journalism school, has experience in acting and ballet, and has been covering live performances since 2010.

Earlier this year, Triad Stage announced that it would not be hosting a summer season as part of its new model, in order to cut costs. “We have to re-think how we operate a regional theatre,” Lane said. “We’re based on the idea of selling season

WANNA go?

Triad Stage finishes Don Juan at its Pyrle Theatre, 232 S. Elm St., Greensboro, Wednesday through Sunday. Ticket are $10-$50 depending on day and seating. For tickets and more information visit triadstage.org or call 336-272-0160.

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