Piedmont Players celebrates 50 years

Published 12:00 am Friday, February 24, 2012

By Katie Scarvey
Three cheers for ignorance.
An early historian and participant of Piedmont Players Theatre, Betty Anne Stanback wrote in a history of the group that the organizers of PPT back in 1961 were “blissful” in their ignorance — unaware of what challenges lay ahead.
But enthusiasm, it seems, has the power to trump ignorance. Now 50, Piedmont Players is a community treasure, an organization that has touched the lives of thousands of people — and transformed the lives of many. It’s become one of the finest community theaters anywhere, and it’s helped define Salisbury and Rowan County as a place that does more than just pay lip service to the arts.
Ask the people who have chosen to move into our area, the ones who have really looked into the cultural life here, and almost invariably they’ll mention Piedmont Players.
“When you reach a point like this, you need to look back,” says Hoyt McCachren, one of the early organizers and first board members Piedmont Players.
Of the original board members, three are still around: McCachren, Billy Burke and Petie Palmer. McCachren, a Catawba College theatre arts professor for many years, remembers the first organizational meeting, with about 25 interested people. The idea of starting a theatre, he says, had been bandied about for a number of years before people actually got organized enough to make it happen.
Of course it wasn’t easy.
As Stanback wrote, “the Players’ entire first season was a perpetual crisis.”
Of the very first show, “Bell, Book and Candle” at Knox Junior High, she wrote: “The show was pretty bad — entire pages of dialogue omitted in the production. By mistake. Lines were blown, and a play that had to be as light as a souffle to sustain itself was pretty soggy.”
Ouch. The first director departed, but another soon took his place for the second effort, “A Visit to a Small Planet.” Mercifully, that show (which featured McCachren as the interplanetary visitor) was deemed a success.
In 1964, the Players left Knox Junior High behind and began to perform in Hedrick Little Theater at Catawba College. The organization continued to grow and evolve, and the changes within the Players reflected those of the culture at large.
The 1965-66 season marked the first participation of African Americans in “You Can’t Take it With You.” Who could have predicted then that PPT would eventually stage shows with all-black casts like “Dreamgirls” and “Crowns”?
One of PPT’s defining moments was when a young Reid Leonard came on board as director in 1986.
McCachren echoes the feelings of many in his assessment that Leonard has “done wonders” with Piedmont Players.
With Leonard at the helm, PPT hasn’t shied away from taking on shows that challenge its audiences. Plays like “The Laramie Project,” which is about the aftermath of the death of Matthew Shepard, and “Spinning Into Butter,” which tackles racism in a small Southern town, are not typical community theatre fare.
Leonard has worked hard to see that Piedmont Players does a variety of shows, from intense dramas that take on serious issues to screwball comedies — because after all, one needs to see Gary Thornburg in drag every so often.
Because of the generosity and the hard work of a lot of supporters, PPT was able to move into a swanky place of its own in 1995 and no longer had to vie with the Catawba College theatre program for stage space. The Meroney Theatre, a historic venue that has seen the likes of Sarah Bernhardt and Lillian Russell, seemed the perfect venue.
But it wasn’t cheap.
Although the building was acquired for $100,000 in 1992, it required more than $ 1.5 million in renovations before it opened in 1995, a pretty major achievement for a community theatre in a town the size of Salisbury.
The first show in the Meroney was “Jesus Christ Superstar,” an auspicious beginning for the theater. The show was so popular that PPT did something it hadn’t done in its 35 years of history — it added two performances, rather astounding when you consider the cast numbered more than 60.
PPT’s most recent accomplishment has been the construction of a beautiful new children’s theatre, The Norvell, opening up many educational opportunities.
Education is a big part of Piedmont Players’ mission.
Every year, thousands of local schoolchildren get to see live theater, many for the first time, as PPT opens its doors to them for several productions, including a Shakespeare play.
And then there are the young people who have been lucky enough to be cast in the plays. They get a priceless learning experience that builds esteem in the best possible way, by involving them in a collaborative effort that produces something of true value and frequently leads to lasting friendships.
For some, a passion for the stage will last a lifetime.
Professional actor David zum Brunnen, who lives in the Triangle area, acted in PPT productions as a child, including “The Sound of Music.”
He was also featured in PPT’s “A Christmas Carol,” playing the young Ebenezer while his father, Chester zum Brunnen played Jacob Marley.
From that introduction to Dickens, zum Brunnen has gone on to perform a popular one-man show: Elliot Engel’s “The Night Before Christmas Carol,” in which he portrays Charles Dickens and 17 of his characters. (See zum Brunnen’s reminiscences on 1E about his experience with PPT.)
Justin Dionne also got involved with PPT as a kid — and probably never expected back when he was 13 and doing his first show, the wildly popular “Return to the Hidden Planet,” that theatre would become his passion.
A trumpet player, he auditioned to play in the band, not knowing at the time that he’d actually appear on stage.
“That’s when I got bit,” said Dionne, who went on to study theatre at Catawba College and who now serves as PPT’s marketing director. He’s also directed shows for other local theatre troupes, including the award-winning “Almost Maine.”
The van Wallendael family — Lori, Shawn, Heather and Courtney — have many memories associated with PPT.
The van Wallendaels’ long relationship with PPT began with Shawn auditioning for “Run for your Wife,” a show in the 1990-91 season. He came home with a stunned look on his face, Lori says, and announced he’d gotten the lead.
Things kind of snowballed from there.
Lori remembers rehearsing for “A Streetcar Named Desire” with baby Heather in a porta-crib in the next room listening to her parents squabble as “Steve and Eunice, the upstairs neighbors.”
“Our kids have grown up in the Meroney Theatre,” Lori says.
Daughter Heather has performed in several productions, beginning with “Inherit the Wind”(as the pigtailed girl who shouted “It’s the Devil!” at Steve Pharr), and she’s also taught summer theatre camps and stage managed her parents in “Caught in the Net.”
Lori and Shawn’s daughter Courtney was almost born in the Meroney.
On Feb. 5, 1996, Lori went into labor during a dress rehearsal for “I Hate Hamlet,” for which she was doing costumes.
“We made the front page of the Post for that one and gave Reid Leonard one of his favorite Meroney Theater stories,” Lori says.
“Both of our kids consider Reid and everyone at PPT as part of their ‘theatre family,’” she adds.
Lori notes that work colleagues often ask her how she manages to make time for theatre.
“I always tell them that theatre saves my sanity. I can’t wait to see what the next 50 years have in store for PPT.”