With the State Theatre of North Carolina at the center of town and trails and overlooks surrounding it, a village in the mountains produces peace and, for people like the author, connections that last a lifetime.
I was in junior high school in 1962, the year I spent a week at our Methodist summer retreat, Camp Tekoa. I was a scrawny little kid, afraid of bugs and snakes and the unknowns below the pristine surface of the lake. I didn’t know how to row a boat, and I wasn’t a great swimmer, but I’ve always been a survivor at heart and somehow overcame my apprehensions and had a good time.
I even remember climbing atop a bunk in my cabin to place a quarter on an overhead beam. Several years later, I checked the beam above my previous bed for the quarter. No luck. Only a few carved names and dates marked the wood. Apparently, quarters come and go at summer camps, but the weathered siding and wood-burned cabin names remained the same, much like Flat Rock itself.
Ancient pines and hemlock trees interspersed with dogwoods, maples, and oaks. Tangles of vines wound around decaying fences along the roads. In those days, Flat Rock had no sidewalks and very few businesses. I remember a shaded road with only a ribbon of sky snaking between the distant treetops — the gateway to a secret forest once you left the highway. Hard to believe that my camp experience inspired a lifelong association with this place I now call home. Then and now, I find myself almost startled by its sheer beauty.
I now live here full-time, as the resident scene designer at the Flat Rock Playhouse, the State Theatre of North Carolina.
Nothing seems particularly hurried here, and because I lived for a time in New York City, I sometimes have to make myself remember what made me want to move here. Sure, I taught at the universities of Florida and South Carolina, but those Southern cities seemed metropolitan compared to this mountain town. I probably would never have come back after Camp Tekoa had it not been for Flat Rock Playhouse.
Every day, when I park at work, it’s an easy stroll to the heart of the village. Morning finds a blend of residents starting their busy days as well as visitors embracing their opportunity for leisurely discovery. A team of bicyclists races by, heading downhill. We pass each other, strangers smiling and saying hello, as brick sidewalks lead us to shops, restaurants, and businesses just beginning to show signs of activity. Names of local families pass beneath my feet, brick pavers inscribed with Flat Rock founders’ names — many of whom have made Flat Rock their longtime home or second home and have grown this small town into the charming village of today.
I did my first-year apprenticeship at the Playhouse in 1967, returned for a second year, and was hooked. I continued to work here for eight more summers until I finished graduate school and moved to New York. But the enticement of the big city and the stability of university life somehow didn’t measure up to the inner peace found in a place that felt like home. I became the resident scene designer in 1985 and returned each summer while teaching during the winters. Eventually, the sleepy company achieved regional theater status, and the season stretched from early spring through December. In 2000, I made the choice to move to Flat Rock full time. As the theater grew in size and scope, I, too, made a transition.
Walking gives you time to think and contemplate. With my hectic schedule, I’ve learned to value that private time. I stop by the Flat Rock Village Bakery on my way to work, yielding to the temptation of their freshly made cinnamon rolls. My assistant prefers the scones. Couples sit on the deck, sipping coffee or refreshing juices, but my mind on most mornings is already contemplating the daily lunch special at nearby Dean’s Market and Deli. Like those restaurants on soap operas where all the characters constantly encounter each other, Dean’s is equally popular, great for lunch or for finishing a crossword puzzle over coffee.
The local post office is a busy place. Most people in the village have a P.O. box and find a moment to check out the local papers or visit with a friend while picking up mail. While I still don’t know the mail clerk personally, we see each other frequently and always exchange pleasantries. A workman applies a coat of yellow paint to the railing around a new wheelchair ramp at the entrance. People step carefully around him, and a lady politely holds the door for several of us as we file out of the building, letters and parcels in hand. Despite the pressing schedule of a multitasking job, I feel thrust somehow into the quietly measured world of Thorton Wilder’s Our Town.
Our summer Apprentice & Intern Company has finally arrived. These 20 students come to work and learn in a professional context, but more than that, they bring new energy to those of us who have been developing shows since the beginning of the new year. Many of our full-time staff apprenticed at the Playhouse and returned to continue building the theater and make Flat Rock their home. Because we’re so invested, traditions are inevitable. The cool mountain nights provide perfect opportunities for fire pits with roasted hot dogs, s’mores, and impromptu sing-alongs. We have a freshman mixer where we play games to get to know the new faces and personalities. It sounds so simple, yet these are the moments when they will begin friendships that will last for the rest of their lives.
The theater community is a village within the village. In 1967, the Playhouse was a simple summer-stock company that produced 11 shows in 12 weeks. The property consisted of a barn-like theater and the historic Lowndes House. Now, with 16 buildings, including a new education center, the season runs from March to December and operates out of three performing venues.
After so many years, some of my best memories are of dinners with my dear friends, Bridget Bartlett, costume designer for 26 years, and her son Dale and his partner, Damian — both of whom are also on the Playhouse staff. Our favorite haunt is Season’s Restaurant, with its changing menu of fresh ingredients and wonderful wine list. Sharing is part of the evening, and we sometimes order a number of appetizers. But we always order one of each dessert. Sampling desserts on the patio after our meal with coffee and brandy in the night breeze caps the evening. The staff knows us as regulars and obliges our request for the last seating and a private table. This special treatment is part of the memory for me. There’s no rushing to get through a meal, so we can get back to rehearsal. There’s no skimping on courses because we make every visit an occasion to remember. But mostly, I cherish the nights listening to stories, pontificating on current events, laughing at our week’s observation of Playhouse events, and sharing the intimacy of those rare but wonderful silences.
Growing into a role
During my first year of apprenticeship, we produced Our Town. My exposure to the play had been strictly as an exercise in high school English class. I was running the light board backstage in the old theater house, when, as the wedding scene was taking place, from the back of the theater came a resonant, musical voice. It was the voice of an old man, W.C. “Mutt” Burton, who was actually the age the character should be. Burton, who died in 1995 at 88, spent 30 years at the Playhouse and was also a noted writer for the Greensboro Daily News and the Greensboro News & Record. In that show during my apprenticeship, he arrived on stage as the minister, secure in his lines, speaking of the cycles and events in people’s lives, and finishing with that one last beautiful line: “Once in a thousand times, it’s interesting.” Suddenly, the entire play made sense. I realized the importance of age-appropriate casting as I watched this man with the gray, thinning hair and wispy, white eyebrows. But more than that, what the play said about life and love and death and our passage through that process touched something deep inside. I’ll never forget the moment, the voice, or the influence of a remarkable man who became instrumental in my decision to become a scene designer.
I typically have a number of projects developing simultaneously these days. While Chicago was on stage this spring, plans for Hairspray, which opens July 20, neared completion before the rehearsal began.
As I stand in the back of the theater watching a matinee, I reflect on all that led me to this point in my career. After a double major in English and education from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a Master of Fine Arts from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro in scene design, I led two university design programs and joined United Scenic Artists, the designers union in New York. I work constantly on the East Coast and seldom take time for a vacation. My home, with my little mutt, Annie, is quiet and comfortable compared to the theater, which is fully equipped with modern technology — computers, moving lights, a huge and complicated sound system, and built-in mechanical slip stages and turntables. It’s all so different from 1967. Finding myself even a small part of this growth has given my career specific purpose and value. I wonder which students or which assistants will ultimately find themselves in my position, hardworking and successful, without much concern for fame.
Weekly, the two-stoplight town is packed with families dropping off and collecting campers from the area’s dozens of summer camps. The local hotels, bed and breakfasts, and lodges harken the charm of that 1962 small town my family first visited but today compete with the finest of lodging, restaurant, and event facilities. By midday every week from spring through fall, the sidewalks are crowded. Cars and busses bring visitors to the Playhouse. The parking lot regularly fills with license plates representing states from all over the country.
When I first visited Flat Rock, Carl Sandburg still lived in his house on the mountain, writing and raising goats. During my first year at the Playhouse, he died, and we offered one memorial performance of The World of Carl Sandburg. Now, each week, campers come to the National Historic Site to see the Apprentice Company perform World and Carl Sandburg’s Rootabaga stories, a tradition that recently achieved a kind of boarding-camp cult status. And after the show, there are trails to hike, Sandburg’s house to tour, and goats to visit. If you have the energy, a trip to the top of Big Glassy Mountain provides breathtaking vistas.
As much as camping is a tradition in this area, seeing plays has become one. Nearly 700 pre-K through high school students populate the You Theatre Education Center. This thriving program calls upon Playhouse staff to nurture and teach in ways not typically found in the average regional theater. I can no longer count on two hands the number of kids who have left here and found success in their theater careers, ranging from film and television to Broadway.
But Flat Rock is now more than a small village with a theater. A short walk from work, I pass The Wrinkled Egg, originally Peace’s Grocery (circa 1890), the community’s only general store until the 1980s. In my apprentice days, we would walk to this little, wooden store and kid in moments of stress that we were “going to Peace’s.”
Its new incarnation, fronted by rocking chairs and animal sculptures, provides camp care packages, unique art, and gifts. This white clapboard structure quickly yields to Little Rainbow Row. Named for its bright array of colors, this charming row of cottages is home to a number of locally owned and operated shops.
But the heart of the Village of Flat Rock is the central gathering place. It incorporated in 1995, and the Village Office, opposite the Playhouse campus, is located in the Postmaster Jones Cottage (circa 1845).
Village gatherings frequently result from practical activities. Each Thursday afternoon, a tailgate market offers a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, baked goods, meats from local farmers, seafood from the coast, canned goods, jellies, and preserves. From suntanned kids on the back of a truck, willing to give you a special deal on tomatoes, to a server from my favorite downtown restaurant who happens to work for a food co-op, the market is a place where I always feel welcome and comfortable.
Summers can get hot, but as the sun sets, the air cools and creates the perfect environment for evening concerts. It’s fun to bring a lawn chair and gather behind Little Rainbow Row to listen, socialize, and enjoy picnic dinners from Hubba Hubba Smokehouse or the pizza oven at the Bakery, both serving good food and conversation. Something for all.
Times have changed since I first came to the Rock. What used to be an insular haven by default, free of television and encroaching world events because no one bothered to bring a television to the Playhouse in the summer, can now be so only by choice. For me, after more than a 40-year relationship, the Rock represents a history — a significant part of my personal autobiography. And when friends travel here for a visit, they discover whatever they need to make themselves feel relaxed or entertained. For visitors who want camps and waterfalls, good food and shopping, theater and music, or peaceful walks and meditation, the Village of Flat Rock can provide a step forward or a step backward in time. Either direction’s good for the soul.
The Flat Rock Playhouse
Red, White & Tuna and Tuna Does Vegas
Dates: June 18-July 10
Ticket price: $34
Witness for the Prosecution (downtown production)
Dates: June 29-July 24
Ticket price: $34
Dates: July 20-August 14
Ticket price: $40
The Playhouse is located at 2661 Greenville Highway, Flat Rock, N.C. 28731. The box office number is (828) 693-0731, and box office hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday and Tuesday; 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday; and noon to 5 p.m. on Sunday.
Flat Rock Village Bakery
2710 Greenville Highway
Flat Rock, N.C. 28731
Dean’s Market and Deli
2770 Greenville Highway
Flat Rock, N.C. 28731
Flat Rock Playhouse
2661 Greenville Highway
Flat Rock, N.C. 28731
The Wrinkled Egg
2710 N.C. Highway 225
Flat Rock, N.C. 28731
86 Lilly Pad Lane
Flat Rock, N.C. 28731
Dennis Maulden is the director of educational programs and the resident scene designer at Flat Rock Playhouse, and his involvement in the theater dates to 1967.