Overture: A Little Theater
The year was 1965. Georgia West, a young Winston-Salem wife and mother, sat nervously in the rehearsal hall at the James G. Hanes Community Center, eyeing her fellow auditionees and wondering what was coming next. It was not as if she were a stranger to the stage: She and her friend Mary, who had come with her to the audition, had just performed in the Junior Woman’s Club’s “Follies” fund-raiser and had enjoyed it enormously. The two young friends had come to audition for Dark of the Moon, an Appalachian “play with music” being performed by The Little Theatre of Winston-Salem (now Twin City Stage). The Southern pair thought this was the perfect play for them: The folk tale — a dramatization of the ballad of “Barbara Allen” — was set in the mountains of North Carolina, so they didn’t have to worry about attempting an accent.
Director Doris Pardington had them read from the script and rewarded their efforts with two small speaking roles. This was the beginning for West. While she enjoyed performing and bringing joy to the audience, what attracted her most were the people she met and worked with, both on stage and off. She got to know that lively backstage world, which is almost as entertaining as the show itself.
Fifty years later, she is still volunteering, still proud to be a part of the vibrant theater scene in Winston-Salem, a scene that has exploded with the birth of numerous new theaters in the city, as well as a world-class arts conservatory. But the seeds of this rich heritage were planted years earlier with a group of visionaries who dared to believe, even in the throes of the Great Depression, that their city deserved a little beauty and fun, a little theater.
Act I: Let’s Put on a Show
In 1935, five enterprising young men — John F. Blair, Douglas Angel, Mangum Turner, Jim Shore, and Lindsay Crutchfield — set out to build “a permanent organization to present the best in dramatic art for the citizenry” of Winston-Salem.
It was not an easy task, but the five, joined by dozens of other charter members of the fledgling Twin City Stage, pursued their goal with gusto. They gave their money — subscriptions were $1 per year — and their time. They rehearsed wherever they could — in schools and people’s living rooms — and built sets in members’ basements. Their first major production, in 1936, was Is Life Worth Living?, a comedic spoof of a theater company that takes itself a bit too seriously. This set the tone for the ragtag bunch of theater enthusiasts, who were not too proud to perform wherever they could find a spot to throw up a set — including Salem Academy, R.J. Reynolds Auditorium, and one memorable performance in a barn.
By 1950, the theater was an established entity, producing five plays each year — contemporary classics such as Our Town, The Little Foxes, and The Man Who Came to Dinner — and was ready to join the ranks of theaters like those in Raleigh, Asheville, and Charlotte in hiring a full-time executive director. Their choice was Doris Pardington.
A frequent actor and director for Twin City Stage, Pardington took on her new role enthusiastically, reading plays voraciously to satisfy a discriminating audience and adding children’s workshops to the theater’s offerings.
Called “Mama” by the generations of actors both young and old whom she nurtured, Pardington led the theater for more than two decades, establishing the theater’s first permanent home in a second-floor loft over a shop on Fourth Street — called the Fourth Street Playhouse — and overseeing its move in 1957 to its current home at what is now the Arts Council Theatre.
Twin City Stage was now a major player in the city and across the region, able to attract professional directors from New York and even inspiring a spin-off — Theatre Alliance, established in 1983 in the living room of Fred Gorelick, one of those New York directors who found Winston-Salem so charming that he came back to teach and direct. The Theatre Alliance built a reputation, and a loyal following, with its edgy, raucous performances.
Act II: The Road to Arts and Innovation
In August 1949, May Coan Mountcastle, a Salem College graduate and wife of a local manufacturer, met with 29 other local arts lovers to form an organization to nurture the arts in Winston-Salem and Forsyth County. They pledged their energy and their dollars — $7,200, to be exact — to the cause. The newly formed Arts Council invited Paul Kolb — an out-of-towner who had married a Winston-Salem girl to be their first chair, but Mountcastle was the true leader, described by a reporter as “mediator, troubleshooter, handywoman, cheerleader, quarterback, director of internal affairs, confidante, press agent, and commander in chief.”
This group of trailblazers raised money for their affiliate members and provided galleries, classrooms, and rehearsal space to support the city’s artists. The theater where Georgia West first became a member of Winston-Salem’s community of thespians had been an empty tract of land outside the city limits just a decade earlier. Hosiery king James G. Hanes Sr., who owned the property, donated the land and spearheaded a campaign to raise $700,000 to build a community center to house the Chamber of Commerce, the United Way, and the Arts Council, as well as a state-of-the-art theater and rehearsal space. The center, named for Hanes, was dedicated in 1957.
While Winston-Salem’s Arts Council — the nation’s first — was a model for a national movement of arts councils, the group wasn’t satisfied with just a new performance space. In the 1960s, Philip Hanes and the Arts Council launched an all-out campaign to make Winston-Salem the home of the nation’s first public arts conservatory.
Act III: Juilliard of the South
In 1961, John Ehle, a young writer and professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, wrote an impassioned letter to the administrators of the university, chastising them for failing to understand and educate the “mind of the artist.” The letter made its way to another writer — a poet named Robert Frost — who happened to be visiting the university. Frost took up the cause in his speech the next day, and the idea of incorporating the arts into the UNC curriculum and the creation of an arts conservatory for the state — a Juilliard of the South that would be part of the UNC system — picked up steam.
Then, Gov. Terry Sanford caught the fever. He envisioned a school that would “bring North Carolina in still another way more firmly into the mainstream of American life.” North Carolina’s major cities all made a bid for the school, but nowhere was the fervor more pronounced than in Winston-Salem.
Philip Hanes led this charge. “This is going to be the capstone of Winston-Salem’s cultural life,” Hanes said. He and the members of the Arts Council put their hearts, and fingers, to work, kicking off a whirlwind weekend “Dial for Dollars” campaign that raised nearly $1 million, enough to build two dormitories and renovate the old Gray High School building to house the new school. This was the tipping point, and Winston-Salem became the home of the new North Carolina School of the Arts (today known as the University of North Carolina School of the Arts).
Exit Music: Arts for a New Century
Certainly Winston-Salem’s stage is filled with bold visionaries from the past. But today’s visionaries are equally passionate, and their dedication burns just as brightly.
Erinn Dearth Diaz, who grew up at Twin City Stage where her parents still volunteer, formed the education-focused Spring Theatre. Five young women who have graced the stages of Twin City and Theatre Alliance formed Paper Lantern Theatre Company, which focuses on lesser-known playwrights and new plays by local writers. The three quirky 20-something founders of Spirit Gum Theatre bring their bookish approach to intimate two- and three-person plays in a tiny performance space at downtown’s Community Arts Café.
While the field may seem quite full, Georgia West, who has seen and participated in so much of the city’s theatrical past, welcomes the newcomers. “There’s great variety and not a lot of overlap,” she says. “Besides, you can’t get too much theater!”
Sheri Masters is a Winston-Salem writer and thespian. This story appeared in print as “Winston-Salem’s Best Act.”