HICKORY — Sometimes the key to running a successful community theater is finding a brand new play.
Sometimes it’s finding a new star to be a marquee name for an old play.
And sometimes it’s merely finding a new carpet – predominantly purple, to hide patrons’ red wine spills.
Hickory Community Theatre has done all three. The company, which will celebrate its 65th anniversary in May, finds itself in a renaissance: It’s being spruced up physically by a $1.25 million renovation and spiritually by this week’s opening of “Seamstress,” one of six world premieres backed by the American Association of Community Theatre.
Meanwhile, James Best (Sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane on “The Dukes of Hazzard”) is preparing for his HCT debut in “On Golden Pond,” which opens next month with fellow Hollywood veteran Norma Frank in the other leading role.
The upgrades bring new luster to Hickory’s former City Hall, which has served various functions since Calvin Coolidge’s administration. The company has done every show there, except a “Miracle Worker” that left the premises after a boiler explosion in the 1970s.
Philosophically, says managing director John Rambo, these improvements are “about having faith in our future.”
The association took notice, picking HCT as one of six venues – the only one in the South – to host a new play. More than 400 community theaters applied to do a premiere; readers at the association winnowed 300 plays down to 12 finalists, and six companies chose from the list of winners.
Sewing up ‘Seamstress’
“I’m passionate about new plays,” says artistic director Pamela Livingstone. “We do them on a regular basis, often by local playwrights, and ‘Seamstress’ was one of our top two choices in this contest.
“It’s a suspenseful play about a woman who comes to the home of a political candidate to sew a wardrobe for his wife in 1916. She brings in a sense of mystery; the servants gossip about her, and she’s clearly there to do more than sew clothes. The last scene is an ‘Oh my God!’ moment.”
Author Cece Dwyer came up from Florida in November to meet the cast, hear her lines spoken and rewrite scenes that didn’t flow. She was startled, Rambo recalls, by a party thrown for her and big donors: “She said, ‘They’re making such a fuss over me!’ To us, she was a blue unicorn. The donors had never been around an out-of-town playwright.”
Big donors have been on his mind since an upgrade became necessary four years ago. Any home renovator can recognize this snowballing situation: A safety inspection revealed that hemp ropes used to raise and lower backdrops had rotted, because they weren’t waxed and oiled over decades. Nor did a safety curtain, meant to be dropped in case of fire, go all the way to the floor. If repairs exceeded $50,000, the company would be obligated to install an elevator, so the once-grandfathered building could now satisfy the Americans With Disabilities Act.
Facelift for an old friend
Eventually, a band of dreamers compiled a $2.5 million wish list, then cut it in half, to improve safety and comfort. A new lighting grid, sound equipment, seats and carpets have been part of the first phase, along with elegant new tile in redecorated rest rooms.
The elevator comes in summer, followed by a change that will triple the lobby size and create a new concessions area in 2015. Still on the wish list: removing structural supports in the upstairs rehearsal hall, so it can approximate the size and shape of the real stage. (Firefighters once used that space for sleeping.)
“We’re doing this as cash becomes available, not borrowing money,” says Rambo. “The traditional model is to get one giant gift from a rich donor, but we have $1.245 million in pledges from more than 300 donors.” (The largest gift, other than in-kind help from the city, was $75,000 from Corning Incorporated Foundation.)
For now, a dusty second balcony remains untouched. Though a separate “colored” entrance off the street has long been shut, a visit to the unused top floor reveals wooden benches that gave African-American playgoers a bird’s-eye view during segregation. Livingstone says actor Denzel Washington took a bench as a souvenir – his wife, Pauletta, comes from Newton – and HCT hopes someday to restore that floor as a museum.
A ‘Golden’ opportunity
The company has little time for daydreams just now. It has mounting dual seasons on the main stage (named for managing artistic director emeritus Charles Jeffers, who has worked with the group since 1957) and cabaret-style Fireman’s Kitchen in the basement.
“On Golden Pond” follows “Seamstress” in February, and Best should be a draw. He did a one-man show in April to raise money for the renovation, but the Kentucky native has never played a role in his adopted town. After seeing Norma Frank in “Driving Miss Daisy,” he proposed a “Pond” with them in the leads.
“They were both in Los Angeles in the ’50s, sometimes working for the same TV show at different times, but they never met,” says Rambo. (She was billed as Norma Moore and played Anthony Perkins’ wife in the Jimmy Piersall biography, “Fear Strikes Out.”)
“He wanted to be in ‘Golden Pond’ so much that he and Norma worked on their lines way ahead of time. For a man in his 80s, he has a lot of energy.”