ARTS AND CULTURE; COMMUNITY
By Pamir Kiciman
Theater and the performing arts are alive and well in the greater Triangle. PlayMakers Repertory Company is a professional theater company in residence at UNC-CH, and national touring shows can be seen at Durham Performing Arts Center, one of the top venues in the country.
And yet, according to Melissa S. Craib Dombrowski, “There are precious few opportunities for local non-union performing artists close to home.”
Dombrowski is a board member and the artistic director of Stone Soup Theatre Company (SSTC), defined on its website as “a community-based non-profit theater created to serve local enthusiasts and performing artists in the communities of Durham and Chapel Hill.”
“Local artists have had to travel to Raleigh, Burlington, Greensboro, and Fayetteville in order to make the art they love,” explained Dombrowski in an email to The Local Reporter (TLR).
“We live in a community full of talented artists who have performing degrees but have day jobs, people who’ve worked professionally and are now raising a family, and people who simply love the community one finds when making theater,” she said.
SSTC is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit community theater founded in May 2021. Its current production is Into the Woods, with three more performances at the historic Forest Theatre at 7 p.m. on October 14, 15 and 16.
Into the Woods is directed and choreographed by Dombrowski. “Our plan was to increase the season by one production each year. We are fortunate enough to actually produce three plays in this, our second season,” she wrote. The next two productions are Last Train to Nibroc in January 2023 and Ride the Cyclone in June.
SSTC takes its name from the fable of “Stone Soup.”
“It is about community coming together to create something wonderful when no individual could have done it themselves,” said Dr. Joanna Sisk-Purvis in an email to TLR. She is an original board member of SSTC (together with Zachary Cook) and is the music director of both SSTC and Into the Woods.
“Our vision for SSTC is a company in which everyone is valued equally, and everyone’s unique contributions come together to create a much better show than we could have envisioned alone,” Sisk-Purvis said.
With music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and libretto (script) by James Lapine, Into the Woods is a Tony Award-winning musical that interweaves plots and characters from several Brothers Grimm fairy tales. These include “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Jack and the Beanstalk,” “Rapunzel” and “Cinderella.”
The story of the musical is glued together by the original beginning of the Grimm Brothers’ “Rapunzel,” where a childless baker and his wife attempt to lift a curse put on them by a witch.
The show includes some life lessons while exploring the consequences of the storybook characters’ interactions and the wishes and quests of each one, with elements of dark comedy.
The Forest Theatre is a highly suitable venue for SSTC’s production of the show, surrounded by trees and nature sounds. A decet (group of 10) of skilled musicians plays the score live and the actors are mic’d up. The October 8 performance was well-attended with everyone wrapped up in blankets. Dombrowski’s direction highlights the humor in both the lyrics and the script, and there were many moments of hearty laughter from the responsive audience and appropriate applause after major songs.
The sincerity of the cast and how much fun they were having was visible, which adds to the rapid-fire happenings in the show. Everyone sang with clear voices without being too sugary and with good enunciation; spoken lines were delivered with just the right amount of dramedy; and the acting was solid.
The logistics of staging a major Broadway musical were also handled cleverly since the open-air Forest Theatre provides only a minimal backstage, wings, stage machinery and other technical equipment.
One of SSTC’s values is to make theater and performing arts accessible to everyone. To that end, according to its website, “SSTC will provide blocks of tickets and class scholarships each year for distribution to young people and their families in underserved communities.”
According to a press release, SSTC “will also offer affordable pre-professional theater training and serve as a platform for new and emerging artists to showcase their work.”
In less than two years since its founding, SSTC has already reached this goal by offering, “our first major outreach initiative—the Ken and Gloria Craib Fellowship for Future Leaders,” said Dombrowski.
“This program supports a student interested in theater design, production or management [in] a one-year apprenticeship with the company where they will work on at least 3 different productions and pays for a professional mentor for them in their field,” Dombrowski explained, adding that the teenage lighting designer for Into the Woods, Cana Yao, is the first fellow.
SSTC has a keen interest in developing young talent. “Our first teen show will be this summer [Ride the Cyclone], and we have already had teens in our first two productions, both in the cast and crew,” said Sisk-Purvis.
“As a music educator myself, the arts are often the first thing to be cut from school budgets as ‘extraneous.’ In fact, the arts are absolutely essential in allowing children ways to explore and express their emotions, developing discipline in working towards a common goal, and growing empathy and social skills,” she added.
Funding for the arts has suffered at every level. SSTC believes that “as a combination of all the arts, theater is an incredible medium for drawing together people of diverse backgrounds and beliefs to share a common experience,” according to Sisk-Purvis.
Sisk-Purvis further observed, “Theater requires audiences to stretch their empathy muscles and experience a variety of perspectives. Especially after the isolation of the pandemic, theater can bring us together and help us remember how to be a community.”
SSTC has also adopted The Chicago Theatre Standards, a voluntary set of self-governing guidelines that were created to encourage communication, safety, respect and accountability in all members of a theatrical production.
“Theater is a collaborative art that pushes regular social norms and boundaries when compared to work in other professions. Actors may need to work in one another’s personal space, physically interact with one another in atypical ways, participate in staged combat/violence, or engage in romantic-performative behaviors like kissing,” explained Dombrowski.
Tickets for the remaining dates of Into the Woods are available from this link.
Pamir Kiciman is a writer/poet, artist/artisan, photographer, healer, and meditation teacher. To learn more, visit https://liinks.co/reiki.wordsmith or contact him by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.