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RESIDENT THEATER GOES TRIAD-WIDE

by Lenise Willis

In many fields and professions, competition is the heart that beats beneath success, whether it’s sports, competing businesses or even rival newspapers. Some may say that theatres have even become enemies, fighting over the diminishing market of playgoers in a dwindling economy.

But a recent collaboration between Greensboro’s Triad Stage, a non-profit professional theater company, and the Arts Council of Winston-Salem & Forsyth County has shed some light on a unique feature in the arts community: support for one another. And not just for other competing art institutions, but in this case, for the Triad and its residents as well.

Thanks to a grant from the arts council, Triad Stage is adding three new productions at Hanesbrands Theatre in Winston-Salem over the next several months. Triad Stage will maintain its regular Greensboro season in addition to an entirely different set of Winston-Salem shows.

The arts council is making approximately $730,000 in grants available to nine theater groups this grant year, including Triad Stage.

“We believe that a rising tide raises all ships,” said Jim Sparrow, arts council president and CEO. “Triad Stage has served as a catalyst in Greensboro, and groups there have moved forward together.”

Sparrow noted that since Triad Stage made its appearance on the Greensboro theater scene 13 years ago, attendance has increased across the board at both professional and amateur productions.

In July, the arts council began looking for additional partners for Hanesbrands Theatre.

Richard Emmett, chief operating officer of the arts council, said Milton Rhodes, former arts council president and CEO, was interested in Triad Stage co-founders Preston Lane and Rich Whittington back when the Hanesbrands Theatre was first being constructed.

“When plans were being made to renovate the old Sawtooth building, Milton Rhodes had reached out to Rich and Preston to see about their interest in bringing some shows to Winston, but at the time they didn’t feel like they were able to consider that. They were focused on making Greensboro work first.”

But after NC Shakespeare Festival experienced financial difficulties and announced this summer that they’d be cancelling their season, including some productions at Hanesbrands Theatre, the council reached out to Triad Stage again.

“This time they said they were in a different spot and would be interested in considering that,” Emmett said.

“It happened really fast, which in some ways it’s better that it happened that way because it didn’t give us time to get scared or worried or back away,” Lane laughed.

“The reason we were interested in them is because they’ve had a successful 12-year run in Greensboro in producing plays, drawing

audiences, raising money and getting recognition regionally and nationally for some of the things they’ve done,” Emmett said.

“Snow Queen, which they’re producing now, is their fifth original production, too, so they’re a company that’s not only producing great works by other playwrights, but creating their own great works that in many instances are centered on the South — that was definitely a draw for us.”

A RISING TIDE FLOATS ALL BOATS

Now that the professional theater company will have stable presence in Winston- Salem, there’s a possibility that the benefits will flow out of the arts community and into other businesses’ pockets.

“It adds yet another great reason to come downtown,” said Jason Thiel, president of Downtown Winston-Salem Partnership. “We have been adding more entertainment options, which complement nearby restaurants and shops. Visitors to downtown who are seeing a theatrical performance are very likely to enjoy a meal or do some shopping. The Hanesbrands Theatre has been a tremendous addition to downtown, and we are very proud of it.”

Richard Geiger, of the Winston-Salem Convention and Visitors Bureau, commented that the addition of another original theater season makes Winston-Salem even more appealing to visitors, an effect that is greatly beneficial to the city’s economy.

“It further reinforces that this is a destination that embraces the arts, especially performing arts,” Geiger said. “There is a dedicated niche traveler that seeks destinations that offer theater and performing arts; therefore the addition of Triad Stage’s outstanding reputation and theatrical offerings expands our already impressive line-up making it more appealing to more visitors.”

As far as how much revenue the new addition is expected to draw in, Geiger said there’s no way to know for sure.

“Unfortunately there is no way to slice and dice the stats that specifically,” he said. “However, based on the most recent visitor-spending data collected by the North Carolina Division of Tourism, Film and Sports Development, visitors to Forsyth County generated more than $711 million in economic impact in 2012, which was a 3.4-percent increase in visitor spending from the previous year.

“It is important to note that the theater patrons are more than likely locally or regionally based,” Geiger added, “so positive economic impact will be felt by the restaurateurs more than the hoteliers.”

A welcome benefit for both Winston-Salem and Greensboro is the increase in work opportunities, now that Triad Stage will be hiring more talent from both cities.

Whittington said new opportunity has allowed them to add about 70 extra employees to their operation, many of whom will be drawn from Winston-Salem talent for the new local shows. The theater strives to shop locally whenever they can and support local talent.

“With this new market, comes the need for more actors, designers and laborers, and hopefully we’ll help people to make a living,” Whittington said.

As far as the artistic side of this collaboration, Lane is most excited about the new creative opportunities.

“We’re going to have two very unique spaces,” Lane says.

“Both of them call for very inventive staging and different ways of storytelling. So I’m exciting about that — and the artistic challenges it brings. Right now, we’re planning both seasons for next year, and it’s been really exciting seeing that much larger canvas.”

TRIAD STAGE: FROM DESERTED STORE TO PROFESSIONAL THEATER

Triad Stage isn’t racing to any finish line, but if they were they’d certainly be in the lead. As of this December the professional theater company is the largest in the Triad to have a solid presence in both Greensboro and Winston-Salem, creating a united movement to strengthen Triad theater as a whole.

Its beginnings go back to 1999 when the former Montgomery Ward building, built in 1936, was purchased and renovated into a 300-seat theater after sitting vacant for almost 40 years.

“It’s been the most worthwhile journey of my life,” Lane says. “I don’t know what we thought it would look like in Season 13 back when we were sitting around a horrible apartment near Hanes Mall and typed out our business plan on a word processor, but along the way there have definitely been [some hiccups.]” In fact, he says that just last year they were actually thinking about scaling back and downsizing to make up for the extra debt that was incurred after purchasing a 30,000-square-foot facility near the Greensboro Coliseum for their new scene shop.

“No not-for-profit feels they’re on any sort of strong financial footing,” Lane says. “But it’s a good struggle and we believe in it.”

Lane attributes Triad Stage’s success to core values of excellence, artistic risk, imagination, community, learning, inclusion, collaboration and Southern voice, just to name a few.

“We opened in January 2002, just after 9/11, and the entire nature of our country had taken a hit and there were huge shifts in the way we went about spending our entertainment dollars,” Lane explained. “We had also already planned our season and it was too late to change it, and it was not in line with the mood of the country. There were a lot of people that came to our theater and walked out the doors.

“We had a very important decision to make at that time,” Lane continued. “We could either abandon our core values and chase after them and say we’ll do light, fluffy musicals, or we could look around at the people who stayed and say, ‘Let’s listen to them. Let’s figure out what’s working and let’s find more people like them.’” And they did. Thirteen years later, in what they call their “lucky season,” Triad Stage has more than 3,000 season pass holders and more than 400 annual donors. It has even been named one of the best regional theaters in America by New York Drama League.

AT THE FOREFRONT OF ‘TRIADISM

’ When it comes to the Triad, there seems to be an invisible Great Wall dividing Greensboro and Winston-Salem, but the arts council and Triad Stage believe they can send it tumbling down.

“We believe very strongly that the Triad can be just as exciting as the Triangle,” Lane says. “When Rich Whittington and I conceived and founded our theater company 13 years ago, we named it Triad Stage with the idea that it would be the premier professional theater serving the Piedmont Triad.”

The “strategic affiliation,” as it’s termed by Sparrow, will not only fuel Triad Stage’s financial growth, but bring together two neighboring but often competing cities together by encouraging cross-advertising.

“We both know that there’s not a lot of audience space that goes back and forth across the great divide of Kernersville,” Emmett said, laughing.

Both he and Whittington commented on the lack of movement between the two cities and what they hope is the creation of a new, wider theater market by letting the cities’ efforts feed into one another.

Because Triad Stage is producing an original Winston-Salem season, and not simply replaying its Greensboro shows, there’s an opportunity to use their playbill to promote Greensboro plays in Winston-Salem and vice versa, and hopefully motivate potential audiences to travel to each city.

Emmett says the arts council has already had some success promoting shared advertising among local Winston theaters, suggesting the organizations use each other’s playbills to advertise for other shows in the area and share their audiences with one another.

“With all of the theater that’s already going on here, and then adding Triad Stage as an anchor,” Emmett said, “we’re hoping it’ll create a rising tide of awareness and more audience recognition of what else is going on here in Winston-Salem and in theater in general.”

STRENGTHENING TRIAD THEATER

Of course Winston-Salem residents, theater professionals and the city itself are not the only beneficiaries of this new collaboration. Theater students — often humorously stereotyped as waiters looking for work — will have even more opportunities to gain professional experience before and after graduation.

“UNCSA already has an excellent relationship with the No Rules Theatre Co., led by alumnus Joshua Morgan, and we are delighted to welcome yet another professional theatre company, Triad Stage, led by alumnus Preston Lane, to Winston-Salem,” UNC School of the Arts Chancellor James Moeser wrote in an e-mailed response.

“Triad Stage is an excellent program, and it should give our students and graduates more regional theater opportunities,” he added. “This is definitely a plus all around. We look forward to many opportunities for collaboration.”

A BUDDING NEW SEASON

Hanesbrands Theatre has scheduled 13 different productions to be performed by five new groups, along with some that have performed in the venue before, including Theatre Alliance, Stained Glass Playhouse, Paper Lantern Theatre, No Rules Theatre Co. and Kernersville Little Theatre. In all, Hanesbrands Theatre presents 100 performances and 24 weeks of theater.

Triad Stage’s Winston-Salem season at Hanesbrands Theatre includes the timeless Charles Dickens classic A Christmas Carol; Red, a glimpse into the life of artist Mark Rothko set in his studio in the late 1950s; and Brother Wolf, a Preston Lane and Laurelyn Dossett original, which blends folklore, myth, music and mountain religion in an adventurous tale based on the story of Beowulf.

“Brother Wolf represents so much of what we are, and it was important to us to share that with Winston-Salem,” Lane said.

Whittington added that although they will always stick to their core values when selecting shows for their new market, he and Lane still have a lot to learn about their new Winston-Salem audience.

Of course, it is hoped that there will no longer be separate Greensboro and Winston-Salem markets, but rather one supportive and fluid audience. !

WANNA go?

A Christmas Carol performs at the Hanesbrands Theatre, located at 209 Spruce St. in Winston-Salem, this week through Dec. 22. Tickets are $7-$44 depending on date and seating. For tickets, dates and more information on the new Winston-Salem season call Triad Stage at 336.272.0160 or visit triadstage. org, or call Hanesbrands Theatre at 336.747.1414 or visit rhodesartscenter.org.

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