March 4, 2009 12:00

Little Theatre of Winston-Salem playing the NAME GAME

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What’s in a name? Maybe nothing, maybe everything — and the administration, staff and board of the Little Theatre of Winston-Salem are hoping it’s a little bit of both. For nearly 75 years, the Little Theatre has been the quintessential definition of a community theater for Winston-Salem and the Piedmont Triad — an ingrained part of the social fabric of the region.

In October of 1935, Dorothy Knox presided over a meeting at Salem Academy in which she stated “a need of organized dramatics for Winston-Salem with the aim of building a permanent organization to present the best in dramatic art for the citizenry.”

It’s safe to say that the mission has been fulfilled — perhaps several times over — in the ensuing years. (A previous incarnation of the Little Theatre didn’t survive the early years of the Great Depression.)

The state of North Carolina issued a certification of incorporation to the Little Theatre of Winston-Salem in June 1950. Seven years later, the theater established its home base in what is now the Arts Council Theatre on Coliseum Drive in Winston- Salem.

Late last year, the North Carolina Theatre Conference named the Little Theatre Theatre of the Year — only the latest in a long list of state and national accolades that the organization has been awarded during its history.

Successive generations of families in Winston-Salem and from the area have been a part of the Little Theatre’s family over the decades. People went there with their future spouses, followed by their children a generation later, and their grandchildren a generation after that. It’s no exaggeration to say that people have grown up there. This has been the community’s “little theater” since Franklin Delano Roosevelt was in the White House.

To say that the Little Theatre of Winston- Salem has a history unique to community theater in the region would be something of an understatement, and the decision to change the theater’s name was not taken lightly, according to Carrie Collins, the president of the theater’s board, and Norman Ussery, the theater’s executive director.

The name “didn’t incorporate everything that the theater does in the community,” Collins says. “It didn’t portray the professionalism of the organization. The name ‘Little Theatre’ maybe sounds a little quaint.”

Ussery agrees. “Perhaps it sounds a little too precious. This is a coming of age. We’ve outgrown the name.” As a result, it was decided to change the name of the Little Theatre of Winston-Salem to Twin City Stage. As a nod to the historical significance of the “old name,” the Twin City Stage motto is: “Put a little theatre in your life.” Twin City Stage “sounds a little more prestigious,” says Ussery.

Were there other ideas for the new name? With perfect timing, Ussery deadpans: “’The Big Frickin’ Theatre of Winston-Salem.’”

But, he points out: “We’re not distancing ourselves from being a community theater.

We’re very proud of it. It’s important to retain the history.” Both Collins and Ussery concur that Twin City Stage better exemplifies what the former Little Theatre is all about.

“We didn’t set out to change the name,” says Ussery. “We were looking to educate the community who we are, what we are and what we do… and to find a path to reach the widest possible audience.”

An 18-month marketing study, financed by a grant from the Winston-Salem Foundation, was conducted to ascertain that path. It may seem unthinkable that many long-time and even life-long residents of Winston-Salem and the Piedmont Triad had no idea that the Little Theatre even existed, and many who did perceived it as being a theater that catered exclusively to children.

“We wanted to find a way to ‘un-confuse’ people,” Ussery says. The Little Theatre/Twin City Stage is still headquartered in the Arts Council Theatre, and although there has been occasional talk of relocating over the years, there is where they will stay for now. The decision to change the name of the theater coincided, rather fortuitously, with the renovations to the Arts Council Theatre, which began late last year after the United Way relocated its Family Services to downtown Winston-Salem and its previous offices at the theater demolished. (“We’ve got a lot more parking now,” quips Ussery, “and another women’s bathroom.”) During the demolition, the theater’s staff was relegated to sharing a trailer behind the theater, where classes were also being taught, and in the grand tradition of theatrical showmanship, other venues had to be found for performances. The Mount Tabor High School Auditorium and the Theatre Alliance performance space became temporary venues for the Little Theatre — yet another gesture of artistic cooperation that seems to flourish in the region.

There was a concern that audiences wouldn’t go to the “new,” albeit temporary, venues — but the box-office revenue indicated that the Little Theatre faithful remained just that, much to everyone’s relief What was not a relief was luggingcostumes, props and sets from the Scene Shop, which is located directly behind the Arts Council Theatre, across town for the performances.

But, again and as always, the show must go on — and the Little Theatre/Twin City Stage has had it going on for nearly 75 years.

Hardly a week goes by that the New York Times doesn’t have a story (or stories) about the devastating effect of the economic recession upon theater in general and Broadway in particular. As goes the economy, so go the arts. Many Broadway producers are looking for sure bets, if there is such a thing, by mounting revivals of big-name shows or wooing bigname stars (like Jane Fonda, Will Ferrell, Jeremy Irons and Joan Allen, all of whom are currently treading the boards on the Great White Way). The Jan. 26 cover story in the weekly edition of Variety detailed the woes and worries of contemporary theater, equating it to the period during the Great Depression when the Federal Theatre Project was created as an offshoot of President Roosevelt’s “New Deal.” In a recession such as this, many theaters may not survive, even if they were to receive financial assistance from the government.

No one at the Little Theatre is expecting a government bailout anytime soon, but having weathered a fair share of crises over the years, including those of a financial nature, the staff and administration are experienced in making the most out of potentially catastrophic situations. It’s not uncommon for staff and volunteers to work overtime (on a consistent basis), especially when times are tight.

“When I first came here, I told people that the only thing I’d never done is costumes,” says Ussery, who filled that function for the production of the family musical Seussical — “and I had a great time doing it!” Some of the stories are legendary, and are often told with a weary smile, a rolling of the eyes and sometimes a groan — but they are also told with an unmistakable affection and a palpable pride. Whatever the hurdles, the show always went on. It’s that kind of dedication and, yes, love that has been a big component of the Little Theatre’s enduring success. But, in an economic climate as uncertain as this one, they’re not taking any chances.

“It has not affected attendance adversely,” says Oldis, “but it has affected donations.” As a result, there will be fewer staged readings scheduled, but the Second Stage productions will be larger — and a close eye will be kept on the wants of the audience.

“We’re going to behave,” says Ussery with a smile. “We’ve got to make sure that the season is audience friendly and that we don’t make many risky choices.

We’ve been spending a lot of time doing entertainment research, and the shows we present have to be something we’ve heard of.” A familiar or popular name “cuts through the noise faster,” says Ussery.

Collins has been a member of the board for the last five years, “and I was very impressed by the organization as a whole,” she says. “The Little Theatre gives the community a theatrical organization right here in town.” The only organizations now housed in the Arts Council Theatre are Twin City Stage, the North Carolina Black Repertory Company (which presents the National Black Theatre Festival every other year in Winston-Salem), and the Children’s Theatre of Winston-Salem… which may have also added to the confusion. For although the Little Theatre (or Twin City Stage) offers programs for children, it is an entirely separate entity from the Children’s Theatre. That the two

organizations have co-existed in the same building, and use the same stage, didn’t help to clear the issue any. The new name and logo of Twin City Stage were announced and unveiled at the pre-show reception for I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change in January.

“It’s a season-long transition,” Collins says. “We wanted to get the name out there, get people talking and get people involved. By doing it in the thick of the season, we hope to see [the name change] take root more quickly, so that by the time our 75 th season rolls around, people will know just who we are.” “It’s the same building and the same history,” assesses Oldis. “Now, it’s on to the first page and the first chapter of a new history.”

Of course, there’s also the matter of sending off the 74 th season in style. Next up is the classic Agatha Christie mystery Spider’s Web (which opens March 27), followed by the season capper, Ken Ludwig’s cross-dressing comedy of mistaken identity, Leading Ladies (which opens May 15). The name change “will create discussion, which is good,” observes Ussery. “We’re certainly not trying to hide who we are, and I don’t think anyone’s going to walk away because of it.” There are those, however, who believe that the name Little Theatre of Winston- Salem has been good enough for 74 years and is fine just the way it is. Ussery and Collins encourage the debate.

“I asked one of our volunteers what they thought of the name change, and they told me they didn’t like it” Ussery says. “But, they added, ‘I’m old so I don’t much like change, anyway.’”

If it gets people talking about Twin City Stage, that’s the important thing.

STORY BY MARK BURGER • PHOTOS PROVIDED BY TWIN CITY STAGE

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