The Hermit of Fort Fisher, Robert Harrill, remains a popular figure 45 years after his death. Big Dawg Productions is putting the story of his life onstage for the fourth time...the show will be presented at Cape Fear Playhouse through September 24 and at Brunswick Little Theater in October. I spoke with Director Steve Vernon about the lasting interest in the Hermit and changes we'll see in this year's production. Listen above and read our extended conversation below.
At the time of this writing, 7 of the 12 performances at the Cape Fear Playhouse are already sold out. Tickets are available online, by telephone at 910-367-5237, and at the door. The Box Office opens 1 hour prior to showtime.
For performances in October at Brunswick Little Theatre, tickets can be purchased online and at the door.
Gina: Steve, are you making a habit of this hermit thing?
Steve: I am...This is actually the fourth time that we've produced the show. In 2013 we produced that Big Dawg. Later that year we took it to Brunswick Little Theater in Southport and then two years after, we took it to Greenfeld Lake Ampitheater.
Gina: And you're doing it again.
Steve: The playwright-David Anthony Wright-he and I have spoken several times and our ultimate goal with this is to turn it into an ongoing outdoor theater production. North Carolina has enjoyed a rich tradition of outdoor theaters. Some productions that run 30-40 years. The amazing thing to me about most of those is that they're in areas that aren't as heavily populated as New Hanover County, yet they still managed to bring people in year after year after year. So the thought is, if we can create enough buzz about the show that we can eventually attract investors both public and private to turn this into an ongoing event. Either Greenfield Lake Ampitheater or another outdoor venue. And contribute not only artistically, but economically to New Hanover County.
Gina: And historically.
Steve: And historically.
Gina: Now, to keep it fresh, are you making any changes?
Steve: Actually, this time around we've had a pretty major change in casting. There are three actors that are returning again, Eben French Maston is returning as Robert Harrill, Charles Calhoun is returning as Deputy Peeler, and Ken Campbell is returning as Stanley Southard, who worked for the state of North Carolina and was instrumental in getting Robert Herrill designated as a tourist attraction. But that leaves 12 new cast members that have been brought in for this production. Nothing at all against the former cast members-they were all tremendous and I loved everything they brought to the show, but I just felt like for Eban to be able to experience something new and not just rehash previous performances, for me as a director to experience something new, for the production to experience something new, it was just important to have different elements that would come in. And they've really created an atmosphere where Eban has had to explore a lot more of the character. And it has nothing to do with one group being more talented than the other, it's just because he has new stimuli, he's had to create new responses.
Gina: I may have heard a rumor that the set might be a little different this year.
Steve: The set has the same basic elements, but we have added a few different things to it. We've added an area that's devoted more to the fantasy element of the script. Memories, hallucinations that Robert Harrell may have experienced, whereas in the past there was a little bit more commingling between the past and the present. Now there's a little bit more separation between the two. But the overall look of the show is fairly similar to what has been in the past.
You know, all of the action takes place at the bunker at Fort Fisher where he lived. It's just said that the characters that interact with him, sometimes they're in the present and the present can be anywhere from 1955 to 1972, or they're from his past, either from his childhood or early adulthood.
Gina: Now this show has been really popular every time that it's been produced.
Steve: It has. There's something about this story that really resonates with people. I think for a lot of locals, some people actually remember meeting Robert Harrell as a child or young adult. There's a fascination with him from people that are new to the area but they've heard their neighbors talk about him or whatever. But yeah, it's each production, this one included, the response has been pretty overwhelming as far as people wanting to see the show.
Gina: I think there's also something really attractive and interesting or curious about someone who leaves the mainstream in that way.
Steve: I agree and I think now more than ever, now that we've become used to hermitizing ourselves from social interaction because of staying home and, you know, a lot of our interactions take place on the internet instead of face to face. I think people still identify with that free spirit of being able to say, I'm going to live life on my terms and I'm not going to be restricted by what society tells me I have to do.
One thing, one thing about Robert Harrill, you know, he got the moniker of the Hermit of Fort Fisher which really surprised him because he did not consider himself a hermit. He was a very sociable person and enjoyed interacting with other human beings. He just didn't want to live like everyone else. But by no means did he have this desire to be left alone in the traditional sense of hermit.
Gina: Right. He talked to people...
Steve: He spoke to people. He enjoyed having visitors. He enjoyed talking to people of all walks of life. You know, he really didn't subscribe to society's prejudices at the time that he was alive, you know, to him really didn't matter what religion you were, really didn't matter your ethnicity or what your social standing was. He treated all people equally until, until he got a sense that you were not a good human being. He enjoyed you.
Gina: And for those who haven't heard about Robert Harrill before, can you give us a brief overview...what led to his rejection of the status quo society and put him in Fort Fischer?
Steve: There's a lot of conjecture, but most people seemed to agree that he just didn't function well with restriction. He wasn't good at holding down jobs. He loved his family but he was not the best provider. He was not what one would call a good spouse or anything like that. And it was because he he constantly felt like there was something else out there that we were all missing out on by not exploring it. And he was kind of distancing himself emotionally from from other people before he distanced himself geographically. He was committed for a short period of time by his family because of his inability to keep a job or lack of interest in keeping a job and other issues. And he actually escaped from a mental institution. He was not like a raging wild man or anything like that. And it was-he had visited the Fort Fisher area with his family, with his wife and children. He had fond memories of the place. And that's where he ended up. My understanding is he tried other areas of the country that just didn't fit him as well as that area seemed to. He didn't really go out there with a plan. He lived in the woods long before he found the bunker that he lived in. There are stories of one of the hurricanes he climbed to the highest ground he could find and latched himself to a tree and that's how he got through it.
But he he just seemed to always have his eye on something that he wasn't quite sure what he was looking at but he knew that he was looking for it. He became very hammered of a gentleman named Dr. Robert Taylor who started a mail order, new age psychology school of thought called Biopsychology.
And this was long before the Internet and actually, it was one of those...like, in the back of a Time-Life magazine a little ad, you know, send $5 and find out everything about the universe kind of thing. And he kept that correspondence with Dr. Taylor for many, many, many years and it obviously had a huge effect on him. There's a lot of the hermit's correspondences and diary entries and things that he wrote that refer back to Dr. Taylor pretty extensively.
Gina: Is that part of the show?
Steve: That is a part of the show. We actually get to see Dr. Taylor as a character that visits Robert in his mind several times. Robert refers to Dr. Taylor's writings to many of his visitors. And he really tried to explain to people what Dr. Taylor meant to him and what his writings meant to him. But I don't know that he was always successful at getting people to understand why it was so important to him.
Transcription assistance from PopUpArchive & Lindsay Wright